FEMINISM! Part 1: The conundrums of the word.

I’ve been trying to remember if I would always have considered myself a feminist. Well, yes, I have always “believed” in equality and that’s what feminism is; a “belief” in gender equality, an understanding that women are entitled to the same rights, opportunities and treatment as men. But would I have always used the word itself?

Anyone who has spent any time with me recently can’t have failed to have noticed that my thoughts are becoming gradually more and more consumed with issues surrounding women’s rights. If it was a subject that had interested me before, then life in India has certainly helped in turning it into an obsession. As the thoughts and questions in my mind entangle themselves in one another, I have slowly become engulfed in a vast sense of injustice that does not belong to me. Patriarchy is engrained so deeply into India’s veins that it has driven me to moments of sadness and rage. I’m sure many of us have come across stories in the media about some of the issues facing women in not only South Asia, but across the globe; female foetocide and infanticide, access to education, dowry, child marriage, arranged marriage, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, harrassement, rape and victim blaming to name but a few… It’s all old news now. But living in India has made some of these issues feel less a far away nightmare and more an actual reality. However, in colliding first hand with some of the manifestations of patriarchy and sexism, I have also begun to recoginse that prevalent Western attitudes claiming to be so superior and so far removed from their distant, “backward” counterparts, often need not look so far from home to find what they believe is so abhorrent. The common misconception stands that feminism achieved all its hopes and dreams the day women won the right to vote… You women got what you wanted, so stop banging on about it now. Whether you care to accept it or not, gender inequality, violence and discrimination against women are daily realities in all the far flung corners of the globe. These are not problems that have been left behind in the dark realms of history; they never left our sides. Would I consider myself a feminist now? Definitely.

However, I fully accept that the term feminist has become problematic and many of those who share in my belief that rights and respect really should be universally applied, still have trouble associating with the word. Sadly, the concept of feminism seems to be often misconstrued with the image of the angry bra-burning woman who thinks “all men are bastards” and she in fact deserves some kind of special treatment because she was born as a member of the more righteous sex. I wonder if some would even go as far to consider feminism to be a kind of misogyny in reverse. It’s no wonder then that even women who have worked hard to achieve far greater success than the average man will in a life time still shy away from using the word and that most men will switch off at the slightest mention of it.

I, too, sometimes have my doubts.

I’m going to assume, if you’re joining me on team equality, that you recognise, apart from the obvious biological differences, that gender is largely a social construct. What it means to be male or female are often qualities lacking in any substantial justification, but that are continually and subtly reinforced by the media and by society’s expectations and therefore the majority of gender discrimination, bias and stereotype is wholely unjustified. Do you believe women should be allowed to vote? Go to school? Go to university? Have a job? Leave the house? If not then, ok, you’re not a feminist, but you’ve probably not got many friends either. Feminism, or at least the concept behind the word, seems like it should be a fairly normal state of mind. So why should we need to ask, “are you a feminist?” almost as if it were a dirty word. In a rather contradictory manner to my claim of feminist status, I find it frustrating that the word feminist is necessary at all. To illustrate; the term racist is applied to people who are clearly still living on the wrong side of history and whose thoughts and behaviour are thus deemed unacceptable. There is no word to define those who are not racist and nor does there need to be; racism is the expection to the rule and the rule deserves no greater praise than it being considered normality. So why should the opposite of sexism – feminism – seem to be a club with an exclusive entry policy?

Perhaps one of the most obvious problems that comes attached to ‘feminism’ is the linguistic one; you simply can’t escape from the links to other words such as ‘feminine’ and ‘female’. This is a word that appears to be all about women and all about ‘women’s problems’. It disassociates men from any need for involvement and often gets equated with being sexist in itself. But any official definition of the word can confirm that, despite its linguistic flaws, this is a word, a concept that involves both genders. Feminism is: “advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” Period. Nothing about man-hating, nothing about superiority. Men can and should be feminists too. But in reality most men are not going to want to stand up and pronounce themselves to be a word that sounds so very much like ‘feminine’. The social pressure standing behind the conception of the ideal masculine man has done its work to ensure that that’s not a desirable image. Maybe if I had a time machine I would go back to the late 19th century and rewrite the word as something that implies both genders. Maybe I’d only need to change one vowel… Are you a femanist?! But we all know it’d never catch on now and that’s why I’ve decided to speak out alongside the others who are working hard to try and reclaim it as a positive concept. Feminist is the word we have and we should just learn to stop equating with the the girl who wants to murder her ex and ‘become a lesbian’ because she got dumped. Because as much as I normally dislike labels and as much as I wish it weren’t necessary at all, it is. Feminism is not a joke, it’s serious. It’s about respect, it’s about dignity, it’s about taking women seriously and it’s about standing up for the little girl whose parents won’t let her go to school, because who needs school when your only purpose in life is to cook for your husband and have his sons. . .

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Diwali in Jaipur, plastic feet and camels in Pushkar.

There was no way you could miss the fact that Diwali was approaching. In the week leading up to the main event, the explosions became more and more frequent: the distant whistles and the low, dull booms that echoed from miles away; the thunderous blasts that shook the air just outside my bedroom window and never failed to make me jump; sudden cracking like gunfire as a child set off early morning rockets in a nearby street. I’ve seen fireworks before, but never anything quite like this. The soundtrack to the past week or so was akin to what I imagine a war zone might sounds like. It was chaotic, constant, unpredictable. But unlike real conflict, the sounds of the increasingly incessant booming bred excitement rather than terror. It was a beautiful war zone made of noise and fire and glitter.

Diwali lights in Raja Park

Diwali lights in Raja Park

There’s always that one house in the lead up to Christmas that really goes to town on the decoration; twinkling fairy lights left, right and centre, maybe even a plastic deer on the roof. During Diwali a significant proportion of family homes in Jaipur are aiming for a similar effect, yet they manage to pull it off with a bit more class. And it’s not just houses, but shops and streets too. Everything becomes magical. The Festival of Lights does not fail to live up to its name. The atmosphere around the city during this period is alive and buzzing as men and women flock to the shops to buy new clothes and sweets and treats for loved ones. Diwali seemed perhaps as if it would be the only available opportunity for me to wear a sari and so I decided to join the crowds and do some shopping of my own. I am now the proud owner of six meters of beautiful blue silk with golden embroidery and a blouse made to measure. Before the main event, however, the preceding days were comprised of several other pleasant little anecdotes which have left me feeling extremely fortunate to be where I am and doing what I’m doing. . .

I’ve been intermittently attempting to teach English to some of the women and children living at the nearby Shakti Stambh, a women’s shelter for victims of domestic abuse. Arriving on the Thursday before Diwali, however, it soon became evident that my usual improvised teaching session was not going to occur as per usual on that day. Both familiar and unfamiliar women were milling around the building in an array of beautifully flamboyant saris. Despite unwittingly walking into a party that I hadn’t been invited to, everyone in the nearby vicinity warmly welcomed me and my friends inside. This lucky accident turned out to be a rather poignant and inspirational moment for me. The more time I spend in India, the more gender based conundrums turn over in my mind. Sometimes the situation for certain women in this country can feel terribly bleak, and yet here I was in a room full of aging but progressive women, liberal and forward thinking, fighting for women’s rights and dignity and health and independence and making a difference to peoples’ lives. A truly uplifting and hopeful moment in amongst tales of domestic abuse and discrimination. In addition to pleasant conversation, we were plied with sweets and treats and homemade ‘Happy Diwali’ cards, one of which is cut in the shape of a duck and I’m planning on treasuring forever.

That weekend, I was a witness to another uplifting moment. Our fortnightly school trip felt like something more than a waste of time, as we were taken to Jaipur Foot, which, despite the dubious name, is what I can only describe as an impressive charitable endeavour making a genuinely tangible difference in the lives of people with all doors closed to them. Some 10 million people in India suffer from mobility disabilities and a large proportion of these people will be among the country’s poorest, leaving them unable to access adequate health care or support. I have noticed that there is a certain stigma that comes attached to disability, and people are often neglected as outcasts of society, without the ability to work and earn to support themselves or a family, without dignity. It is a sight that has become sadly all too familiar. But here I was, suddenly in the presence of the people who were simply doing what they believe needs to be done. Anyone missing part or all of a leg can come to Jaipur Foot and have an artificial limb made and fitted for them completely free of charge in a process that takes only one to three days. Anyone, regardless of race, religion, class or caste, can come to Jaipur Foot and walk away with their dignity restored. To date the dedicated team of staff have made plastic feet and limbs for 1.3 million people who have flocked to the centre from not only all over India, but from even further afield too.

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Diwali lights in the old city

 

 

 

 

 

The night before Diwali a group of us ventured out into the kaleidoscope streets of the Old City. I’d previously thought that Raja Park, the busy residential and shopping area near my home, had gone to great efforts to achieve maximum sparkle effect, but I would definitely award the busy streets and bazaars of the Old City first prize in the glitter contest. It was beautiful and the atmosphere was infectious. I could happily have pushed my way through the crowds indefinitely, just taking in the sounds and sights, half walking – half dancing like an excited child on Christmas Eve. Growing up I had a lively imagination and I felt a certain resistance towards letting go of the childhood excitement that surrounds the magic of family festivals. But inevitably, you cannot cling on to broken dreams forever. Childhood fantasies fade and suddenly you’re an adult equipped with reason, rationality and cynicism. Perhaps this was why Diwali for me was so exciting; it was completely new. It came with it no memories of how things used to be before logic set in and spoiled everything and neither were there myths waiting to be dispelled. It felt like going back in time to when magic came with no ifs or buts. I could enjoy it simply as it was was: a city full of light and colour and excitement and noise and life.

I’d mentioned the sound of the fireworks, but the actual sighting of them had been somewhat sporadic during the week. The spectacle we were to witness on Sunday night for the grand show was like nothing I’d ever seen and it far surpassed my expectations. Of course I’ve seen firework displays before, but never a firework display that lasted for a solid 8 hours without cease. Here, there was no structure, there were no rules. We all were together in our dazzling new outfits standing on a rooftop overlooking what felt like the whole city and the sky was ablaze. Flashes of colour engulfed us from all sides, from right over our heads to far in the distance, continuously appearing from unpredictable locations over the endless sprawl of rooftops. And the noise was just incredible. Walking home in the early hours, my friends and I had to periodically stop in the road and wait for families up late to stop setting off fire crackers in the middle of the streets. It was joy and madness all mixed up together. Health and Safety would have curled up and wept.

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In order to brighten the post Diwali blues, we organised a trip the following weekend to visit the world’s largest camel festival that takes place every year in Pushkar, a Rajasthani town a few hours away from Jaipur, situated on the arid edges of the Thar Desert. I love Pushkar. It’s clearly a popular hangout spot with western hippy travellers, especially during the camel fair, when people from around India and the world flock to the town. But in amongst the commercialism, it all just felt so typically Rajasthani. A maze of winding narrow alleyways, bustling, colourful bazaars waiting to entice you with all their beads and fabric, beautiful old architecture, women draped in jewellery and bells and printed fabric and men in colourful turbans and majestic moustaches. And despite the crowds, it had a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere, ranking it near the top of my favourite Indian destinations. Although Jaipur still beats all major cities in terms of cleanliness. Some other interesting things to note about Pushkar, apart from the fact that men had flocked there from the far corners of the desert with their hundreds and hundreds of camels to trade, include that the world was supposedly created there. Brahma, the Creator God, dropped a petal from his lotus flower and in that spot Pushkar’s holy lake sprung into being and from there the world spread. As such, Pushkar constitutes an incredibly holy pilgrimage site for Hindus who come to bathe in the beautiful ghats of the sacred lake to wash away a lifetime of sins and even to cure skin ailments. They also come to visit the world’s only temple dedicated to Lord Brahma.

Pushkar Ghats. (Image stolen from Google because photography is banned…)

Due to the town’s sacred status, meat, drugs and alcohol are all banned within the walls of the city. Yet no one seems to be making any effort to enforce the ban as restaurants blatantly advertise the availability of cocktails, ‘magic’ chocolate balls and ‘special’ lassi. In fact, the town even has a reputation for its drugs scene and the town’s large Israeli population ensure that there is a constant supply of hummus and marijuana. Whilst enjoying mojitos and almost decent Italian food for a friend’s birthday dinner, the waiter proceeded to bring us romantically inclined notes scribbled on scraps of paper and some ‘special’ lassi on the house. Maybe that is normal practice if you go out for dinner without boys, I don’t know… In addition to spending a lot of time lounging in trendy hippy cafe dens and eating falafel – thank you Israelis – we also spent a lot of time looking at camels, rode on some camels, saw some nicely decorated camels, saw some more camels, felt slightly concerned by the strange sea of camels whining like Chewbacca in the distance… but also climbed a mountain to overlook the town bathed in early morning mist, got enticed into participating in some puja rituals by the ghats, visited some temples and did some shopping around the bazaars. The latter things didn’t involve any camels. Pushkar is definitely worth a visit around festival time if you do like camels, but I think the town has much charm of its own to offer even if you don’t and I am already keen to return, bringing many of you I know with me!

Beautiful Pushkar

Beautiful Pushkar

On the road again; buses, mountains and divided peoples.

Himalayan foothills

Himalayan foothills

A week is never really enough time to enjoy vast swathes of India at a leisurely pace, but if you are prepared to endure arduously long bus journeys and to go without a good night’s sleep, there are still experiences to be had. In my mere week long half term break, I managed to cram in stops in the northern states of Uttarakhand and Punjab. And I think it’s fair to say it was eventful.

I’m lucky enough to have travelled with fellow students who have relatives living in these states, which entitled me to a week of free accommodation and overwhelming hospitality. (Excluding the slightly less hospitable nights spent in cars and buses). Whilst my four companions and I patiently waited at Jaipur Junction Station for the Ranikhet express to arrive and take us to Kathgodam, the end of the line in Uttarakhand, we discovered that three of our tickets had not managed to make it off the waiting list. I love the Indian railway. Mostly. However, if you are not the kind of person who plans your journeys months in advance, actually making it onto the train can sometimes prove problematic. We had only been foresightful by a measly three weeks – not enough time to contend with the rest of Indian’s burgeoning population. However, three of us not being technically allowed to board the train didn’t seem to be enough for us to rethink our carefully scheduled plans, so we boarded anyway, armed with distant friends-in-high-places’ telephone numbers and a conviction that everything would be alright.

We squashed together in one berth and got to know the surrounding families, who soon came to learn about our situation. A generous Gujarati family insisted on sharing their food with us and my hand was beautifully hennaed by a woman I never knew the name of. They even went so far as to offer sharing their space with us, if no other bunks could be found on the train. Shamefully supporting India’s internal corruption, a bribe was paid to pacify the ticket inspector and to support the vague hope that we would somehow be permitted to remain on the train until its final stop. Alas, in spite of this futile gesture and in spite of the generous offers we’d received, we were made to leave the train at Old Delhi Station. The journey thus far had not quite gone as planned and Jaipur to Delhi had taken twice as much time as it realistically should have done. However, I had been once again provided with the opportunity to indulge in one of my most beloved past-times: leaning out of the speeding train to watch the world whiz past. So for now I could remain content.

I’m not a particular fan of Delhi at the best of times, but Old Delhi Station in the middle of the night is not a destination I would recommend to anyone. Unless, of course, you want rabies or dengue fever or an argument with incoherent drunkards. We waited maybe an hour and a half amongst the filth and the chaos for a car to arrive and take us the rest of the way. While a private car may sound like luxury in comparison to India’s generally overcrowded public transport system, never before have I experienced a road that is made more of pot holes than of actual road. We managed to snatch perhaps a few hours of sleep in amongst our comical lurching and bouncing. I’ve no idea how. But by morning, as we started to wind our way up into the foothills of the Himalayas, all the drama of the previous evening seemed long ago. Everything was worth it now. Worth it twice over. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that first sight of those snow capped peaks suddenly coming into view, stretched out on horizon as if a child had painted a jagged white line on the sky. At the end of a long 20 hour journey, we had finally made it to paradise. I could sit here all day and make pretentious statements about how beautiful everything was, but really you should just go and stay in Mukteshwar and see it for yourself. A view of India’s highest Himalayan peak, sunsets to rival all others, bottomless valleys, bonfires. What more could you want?

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After two days of pleasant walking in the hills, admiring the views and scenic boat trips, we had to head westward. With our group disbanding, three of us took an overnight bus from Nainital to Uttarakhand’s capital of Dehradun. However we merely passed through the city in an Autorickshaw, briefly admiring how clean it all seemed, before taking another bus to Mussoorie. I noted that goats are also permitted to board buses in Dehradun. I remain unconvinced as to whether the route to our day trip location was more stunning or terrifying. As the speeding bus lurched round hair pin bends on sheer cliff edges, I could only close my eyes and pretend that I wasn’t really 6,000 feet about sea level and that the mountains were made of bubble wrap. Clearly, however, I am still alive and made it safely to Mussoorie. The town itself was shrouded in cloud and did not offer the magnificent mountain views we had previously experienced, but nevertheless we indulged in Tibetan momos and visited the beautiful Kempty Falls, the first fresh water I’ve encountered in India clean enough for paddling! Back in Dehradun for the night I became the recipient of yet more Indian hospitality. Mukteshwar had already offered us beautiful meals, accommodation and conversation, but again I was being presented with not only the cooking of someone else’s distant relatives, but gifts and an invitation to return, a scenario that would continue to repeat itself in Punjab.

A goat on board a bus . . .

A goat on board a bus . . .

Kempty Falls

Kempty Falls

We were late leaving on our early morning start to catch the bus to Phagwara, Punjab. As we approached the bus station we watched with dismay as our bus drove away in the opposite direction, without us on board. But don’t let insignificant formalities such as bus stops get you down whilst in India. With some yelling from the car window and the help of an anonymous motorcyclist, we managed to pull the bus over to the side of the busy main road and clamber on board, awkwardly dragging our luggage the length of the aisle to the back of the bus, all eyes silently fixed on the disruptive latecomers. Aboard a cheap, non A/C bus, the route to Phagwara was long and uncomfortable, but we passed through the states of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana from Uttarakhand on our way to Punjab, watching the landscape change from dramatic mountain backdrops to endless fields. Punjab is not exactly what I expected it to be. I had in mind the dust similar to that here in Rajasthan, but it is green and fertile. Sometimes referred to as ‘India’s bread basket’, it is the country’s largest producer of wheat and, in fact, one of the most fertile regions on earth. Finally leaving our seats, we were taken straight from the bus to a nearby Punjabi village where we were set to meet yet more relatives. In an extensive joint family set up we were introduced to aunts and cousins and in another overwhelming display of hospitality showered with chai and gullab jamuns and deep fried treats. My friend and I were apparently the first white girls to have visited the village since Indian independence. While we get ‘noticed’ at the best of times, clearly some people seemed surprised to see us there. . .

The following day we headed onward to Amritsar, home of the famous Golden Temple. Simply put, it’s beautiful. The temple itself is impressively situated in the centre of a large pool, it’s reflection shimmering on the water’s surface. Just sitting by the water’s edge to admire the design is a rather peaceful activity. However, actually getting inside to see the golden interior was one of life’s more stressful occasions. A special day in the Sikh calender meant that more than usual people had flocked to this holy site. It took perhaps two hours to cross the actual threshold, and the whole while I desperately hoped that someone would give the crowd a lesson in British queuing. Never ever complain about having to wait in a queue again. A nice, polite, formal queue, in which everyone respects your personal space and you have full use of your arms. This seemed more like a mad crowd of desperate souls trying to escape from a burning building, rather than enter a holy temple. It’s a good job inside was beautiful too, otherwise I would have regretted not jumping over the fence and into the water to escape from the riot outside it.

The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple

From the Golden Temple we rushed yet further westward to make the evening’s Indian-Pakistani Wagah Border closing ceremony. Both sides pull this insane stunt every single day around sunset. If you ever happen to be in Punjab, do not miss the opportunity to see it. Cars are not permitted within 500 meters of the border and so as the spectacle was beginning to commence, swarms of other latecomers were rushing alongside us towards their country’s boundary, bypassing the men selling drinks, snacks and Indian flags and hoping to get a seat. The excitement was infectious and we were running. As we got closer we could hear Jai Ho blaring from loudspeakers and the sound of the cheering crowd drifted high into the air. Courtesy of our UK and American passports, we managed to largely avoid the crowds, heading to the back entrance to be seated in our own separate foreigners section. On both sides of the countries’ dividing gate, the seating area looks like a sports stadium. And it was packed. It felt like arriving at some sort of concert rather than a border. Can you imagine if people made such a fuss driving from, say, France to Italy? I don’t think you’d even notice that you were in a different country, if you missed the welcome sign. We watched in amusement as the Indian guards marched and strutted like peacocks in a face off with the equally as flamboyant Pakistani representatives and joined in with the calls of “HINDUSTAN, ZINDABAD!” [long live India]. There was some rather impressive kicking skills on behalf of the guards and I would recommend you check out the YouTube video for a taste of the experience. Seeing is believing, after all.

Impressive flexibility of an Indian guard

Impressive flexibility of an Indian guard

However, while this whole spectacle appears a thoroughly entertaining affair when taken at face value and I would happily recommend viewing, there is something more disconcerting which lies beneath the surface of this bizarre performance. The Wagah border gate is the only accessible crossing point on the 1,800 mile long dividing line between India and Pakistan. That’s 1,800 miles of barbed wire and gunmen. The partition of India and Pakistan left behind a bloody legacy in the aftermath of India’s rushed independence, with estimates of up to a million deaths in the violent mass transition of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fleeing from one newly formed country to the other. The border, heralded today as one of the world’s most dangerous, was originally an imaginary line drawn onto a map by the incompetent British lawyer Cyril Radcliff. Upon its construction, this long and threatening wall sliced through fields and villages. People lost their homes and livelihoods and were torn from their once peaceful communities. And long since the tragedy of partition, India and Pakistan continue to be known for their difficult relationship.

Many put the rivalry down to religion; India and Pakistan cannot get along because India is a Hindu country and Pakistan a Muslim one. Yet India’s Muslim population stands at approximately 176 million people, only just falling short of the entire population of Pakistan. If 176 million Muslims can live peacefully within India, I fail to understand how religion can really still be a substantial explanation for the divide – both physical and psychological – of these two countries. Why and how can there be so much separateness and even hatred between these people that once lived side by side, that there requires every single evening a grand showdown to assert the superiority of either side, I fail to fully comprehend. Indians and Pakistanis once had nothing with which to divide themselves; their nationalities were given to them in 1947 in the wake of independence from Britain and even today on either side of the Punjabi border, people speak the same language, wear the same clothes, eat the same food and share other such similar practices. There is no obvious visible difference. While patriotism can perhaps be a positive concept in small, healthy doses, the extent to which it can be felt at the Wagah border I find a little unsettling. As I see it, patriotism stems from pride in your place of birth; an uncontrollable chance phenomena which should really be inconsequential, and yet it often fuels the sad and mindless division between people around the world who could otherwise be neighbours.

I seem to have gone on rather a tangent from the original details of my holiday, but I am approaching the end of the trip now, regardless. A final day away from Jaipur was spent exploring the main clothes and fabric bazaar of Phagwara. While India is full of beautiful colours, patterns and sparkly trinkets ready and waiting to entice you into shops, shopping itself is still a skill I’m somewhat lacking in. I’m not exactly an expert back home either, but the traditional Indian format of choosing what to purchase is even more daunting for the difficult and indecisive customer such as myself. Generally, clothes are not made available for rummaging through at a leisurely pace, but are folded up, stacked away on shelves behind a counter and presented to you item by item by the shopkeeper. Here generally ensues the guilty feeling as the piles of clothes start to form untidy mountains along the counter and I shake my head at each new garment revealed to me. Yet the shopkeeper persists with frustration to make a mess of his previously immaculate shop as I struggle with the inability to precisely explain what it is I’m looking for as I invariably have little idea. On the few occasions that I overcome the guilt and decide to embrace the experience, bargaining is a must. And if you are a foreigner, you need to bargain hard. The understandable, yet nevertheless frustrating consequence that comes with being of an obviously different nationality in this country, is that you are eternally presumed to be the ignorant and wealthy tourist, the outsider, the easy target to be tricked out of large sums of money. While normally I can quickly win people over by conversing in their mother tongue, it is having to constantly replay the same motions over again which can get boring. Look, I live just round the corner, I know you’re trying to rip me off, and no I don’t need a taxi, I know where I am.

To get back to Jaipur, we had to take an early morning train from Phagwara to Delhi and then endure another long bus journey the rest of the way. On finally tracking down a bus heading in the right direction we discovered that the battered old thing had little luggage storage space save for the rack on it’s roof, accessible only by vertical ladder. In our company were two large suitcases which we were not going to be allowed to bring on board the vehicle. The only option appeared to be the ladder. But how to you climb a ladder with a heavy suitcase in tow without any assistance from the bus staff? It turned out the answer was simple. Send the white girls up onto the roof and immediately a crowd of men will appear from nowhere insisting you get down immediately and they will do it instead. I wasn’t quite sure whether the gesture translated more as “girls, please, you are not capable of doing a man’s job” or “stop, you will probably fall and die and we do not want the hassle of a foreigner’s death on our hands,” but I imagine somewhere in there was the assumption that we would injure ourselves. Once on the move, I overcame my disgruntled feelings at the assumption of our female inability, pleased to have been finally sold a ticket and to be heading back home to resume my life in Rajasthan, where all is pleasant apart from the lingering cravings for real cheese and baked beans.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxLSZoFK8EM – ‘Jai Ho’ (theme tune to our dramatic entry at Wagah Border)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ0ue-XGl9c – The Border Closing Ceremony.

In which Cressida contemplates gender, cinema and the right to love.

I have recently made my debut appearance on the Bollywood scene. But don’t let me fool you! I just went to the cinema. Film is such an integral part of life here in India, its stars heralded as gods, and so the real-deal Bollywood cinema experience is one that I had been eagerly anticipating. Cinema has this incredible capacity to capture and inspire the attention of hearts and minds across the globe, and in doing so often explores moral questions, raises a voice on controversial topics, challenges social norms and informs about global injustices. Of course, film can also mean pure mindless entertainment, but nevertheless I have massive respect for a large number of film makers and their art form. The film I recently witnessed, however, definitely falls into the latter category.

On arriving at the Raj Mandir Cinema with a group of friends after class, we knew nothing about the latest blockbuster release we were about to dedicate the next three hours of our lives to. “Phata Poster Nikla Hero” had everything mindless entertainment could possibly need. Larger than life fight scenes in which everyone can miraculously fly; mistaken identity; family tragedy; slapstick comedy; a blossoming romance between the too-beautiful-for-real-life glossy superstars; gangsters and corrupt police officers; kidnap; glitzy, raunchy, flesh revealing, big budget dance numbers; a preposterous amount of cocaine which actually turns out to be the inexplicably evil mob boss’ chemicals utilised in a plan to blow up Mumbai; and even a classic “LUKE… I AM YOUR FATHER!” -esque finale. After the first ten minutes I was beginning to dread the next 2 hours and 50 minutes remaining trapped in my seat. However, the film managed to pull off being so ridiculously ridiculous that it was brilliant. In the pure, mindless entertainment sense of the word.

However, the detailed content of the film is secondary to the points I wanted to consider. Living in India as a woman, it seems impossible not to notice that certain cultural and social norms are dictated or influenced by gender. Whilst India – from what I can make out – seems to be currently caught in the midst of a cultural civil war; tradition versus change, the older generation versus the youth, village life versus city life, it appears that- still- there is a lot of stigma that comes with being born without a Y chromosome. Of course, it is difficult to directly appreciate what goes on behind closed doors and most of my knowledge comes from second hand information. However, Indian media is one format, fully visible to me, that subtly reeks of patriarchy.

An interesting spectacle to witness, as a bikini clad babe sauntered out of the sea in a preceding film trailer, was the 90% male audience jumping from their seats to cheer and wolf whistle. It earned raised eyebrows on my behalf. Sure, most of us like to look at attractive women from time to time. But there was something about this reaction that seemed excessive. And it got me thinking. Why do men’s attitudes towards women often seem so different here compared to back at home? Why are we constantly informed that sexual harassment is a prevailing problem here? Why is so much that is portrayed in the media so different from the reality of life?

Bollywood blockbusters love their sexy dance numbers. While the on-screen kiss is still a rarity, directors don’t shy away from plenty of skimpy shiny outfits, gyrating, hip swaying, booty shaking and suggestive physical contact. Sex sells. Everybody knows that. And sure, this is by no means unique to Indian media. It’s not that I necessarily oppose sex appeal, it’s just that this disparity between the acceptable behaviour of real and fictional women screams so loudly that you can’t help but turn your head.

In Indian movies, the girls wear short shirts, fall in love and live happily ever after. And yet I was surprised to discover that a country which is often so strongly associated with its own film industry, is so far removed from the romantic ideals it flaunts all over its cinema screens. On the streets, I have seen bare leg exposed by a local but once, as a girl quickly darted to the shop in her pajamas. The reality of Indian life is conservative, to say the least. Girls are taught to hide their shame beneath dupattas and not to go out alone after dark. Dating is still a taboo subject and public displays of affection are actually illegal, punishable with up to three months in prison, a fine, or both. Can you imagine? The country that produced the Karma Sutra now sends you to prison for a sneaky peck on the lips!

While young lovers can be spotted seeking refuge holding hands in secluded basement cafes, this is perhaps a daring move for India’s hip young things, even in the urban centres. And in the villages, it’s a different story yet again. You may have read in the news recently about a young couple in rural Haryana who fell in love without permission. As a result they were brutally murdered by the girl’s family in the name of “honour”. While I can feel quite uneasy about travelling to a different continent and making judgements on cultural differences, sometimes some things just feel so totally inexplicable. Last time I checked, murder was murder, no matter what other name you try and disguise it behind. We could put it all down to my own social conditioning, but falling in love feels like it should be the most natural, basic, human thing that anyone can aspire to. And yet, no. Not always. Not in rural Haryana. A woman’s husband should be chosen for her by her father.

Female foeticide has been a widespread problem in India. Despite the payment of a marriage dowry having been prohibited by law in 1961, this did not prevent women from being considered an economic inconvenience. Or at least, it did not stop boys from being considered of greater value. Sex determination, too, has since been outlawed, but whether or not this stops baby girls being aborted because of their sex, the damage has already been done. In some parts of the country the gender ratio stands at 900 girls for every 1000 boys. That’s a 10% population imbalance. And when you consider that percentage in relation to India’s population, that’s a huge number of boys who will never find a wife.

So, despite romantic love-at-first-sight stories in which happy couples serenade one another by moonlight and embrace in the rain being regularly glorified in the movies, in reality, relationships still cause controversy, And even if you do risk it, you’ll probably struggle to find intimate moments alone. And once making it through to the other side of adolescence, there’s still a significant number who will continue to walk the lonely path of single life for the years to come. In a country that puts such an important cultural emphasis on marriage, you can see how this could cause some concern. Not that I want to justify sexual harassment in any shape or form, but perhaps these conservative attitudes towards relationships colliding in sharp contradiction with the images played out on the cinema screens is one potential factor leading to why we hear so much about sexual harassment in India. I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with the concept of sexual frustration…

But perhaps this is just a minor insignificant detail caught in the web of patriarchal attitudes. As a female, I’m not supposed to be out alone after dark. This is inappropriate behaviour on my behalf, leaving me vulnerable to all sorts of unwanted predators. If I choose to pursue this particular inappropriate behaviour and some ill deed were to occur to me, then of course it would be my own fault for not adhering to the warnings I constantly receive. As to how much of an actual threat exists, I remain unconvinced, but such warnings are enough to instill a kind of lingering paranoia. Perhaps it really would be my fault if something bad were to happen to me. I have been warned, after all. And it seems to me that exactly this mindset is what keeps so many women in India invisible, hidden away safely behind locked doors.

Some of the reasons that have been quoted for which girls are apparently blamed for being victims of sexual abuse include; going out at night, dressing provocatively, having boyfriends, going to bars and working alongside men. In the aftermath of the now infamous December gang rape case in Delhi, even Chief of Police Neeraj Kumar was reported as having said – “Women should not go out late at night.” Despite the mass protests, changes to the law regarding crimes against women and more incidents of sexual violence being reported since this horrific event, it appears that certain patriarchal attitudes still prevail. The culture of victim blaming is enough to prevent women from exercising their full independence, engendering a fear that keeps girls off the streets, limits their movements and keeps the macho man in his number one position.

And this brings me back to the infuriating Bollywood contradiction. If any of India’s young ladies aspire to imitate the image of this attractive, independent, powerful, free-to-love-whom-she-chooses star of the silver screen, they may find themselves viewed as ‘dishonourable’ and unwittingly extend an open invitation for sexual harassment. When such women are viewed on the screen, its an opportunity for voyeurism and when off screen, it’s cultural treason. Perhaps this is just men looking for excuses when society’s circumstances deny them the opportunity of fulfilling relationships. More likely, however, it is an exertion of power and control, ensuring that women are made to feel safe only under the authority of their fathers or their husbands.

Slowly woman are starting to speak up for themselves and are shifting the emphasis from ‘don’t get raped’ to ‘don’t rape’, but there is still much work to be done. India has a vast population with a vast array of attitudes and opinions and I by absolutely no means want to demonise the the majority of Indian men; most of whom I have personally encountered have been wonderful. However, if I were ever to consider moving permanently to this country, it would be at a time in which women could act as do the idolised stars of their films without fear of repercussions.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCrNoy5OeOI : ‘Phata Poster Nikla Hero’ Film trailer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBw5Gdmb1Pg : ‘Dhating Naach’ – A dance sequence from the film.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-24170866 : ‘Honour killings’ in Haryana State.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18280997 : ‘The Love Commandos’ – An organisation fighting for the right to love in India.

In which Cressida resumes a life more settled…

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As I write, the rain is pattering down heavily onto the stone patio outside my bedroom door and bright flashes periodically fill my windows. I find that there’s something comforting about the sound of rain; it’s always the same wherever you go in the world. The only down side here is that the storm comes hand in hand with the power cut. So while the air may be refreshingly cool and wet outside – despite Monsoon season having officially ended – inside the fan is no longer rotating and my electrical anti-mosquito device is no longer glowing: a sweaty-itchy combination.

Ahaa, but the power is back! Leaving me to reflect on my last two weeks of existence in relative comfort…

My new room

My new room

After checking out of the Connaught Hotel in Delhi (only worth the unnecessary expense for the biggest buffet breakfast I’ve ever seen) on my final morning of no obligations, I set off on my way to Gurgaon for the American Institute of Indian Studies orientation day. Gurgoan is a modern beast of a city; an economic and industrial hub of shiny glass fronted sky scrapers and Chevrolets on the southern outskirts of Delhi. Despite the fact it looks like it popped up over night from nowhere, this is again India in one of its many different forms. In my three weeks of travelling, I had somehow managed to not spend a solitary moment outside of a hotel room. However, to get to Gurgaon I had to take the Delhi Metro. Alone.

As a general rule, I oppose male-female segregation. However, I must shamefully confess my utter relief at the sight of the “Ladies Only” carriage. If you are familiar with the city of London, then just take a moment to picture Waterloo station at rush hour on a Monday morning. And now times the number of people by about five. You may now have some vague comprehension regarding the chaos caused beneath the streets of Delhi as so many bodies simultaneously attempt to fit inside an undersized metal box. It took me three trains before I managed to get close enough to the doors to get on board, all the while my movements seemingly out of my control as I was swept along in the crowd. You could probably even have a go at floating if you really wanted to. However, you must pray you never drop anything whilst trying to get through the doors. Not like that poor girl did. Indian culture does not quite observe the same British high standards of queuing etiquette. It is every man and woman for themselves. Whilst I may have made the Delhi metro sound like a nightmarish experience, take a ride on Sunday evening and you will see that it is in fact clean, modern, spacious, punctual and comes with an ingenious non paper wasting ticketing system and open plan carriages to rival the new trains running on the Hammersmith and City Line.

As a side note: During my google based quest to find out the busiest London underground station, I discovered that the most popular tourist commute on the tube is the 20 second journey between Covent Garden and Leicester square on the Piccadilly Line. Possibly one of life’s more expensive 20 seconds at a cost of £4.30, which makes me feel a little better in the knowledge that I have been consistently ripped off by autorickshawalas by several pennies. (Get Oyster cards people!)

Before heading to Jaipur the following morning, the AIIS students were offered the opportunity of taking a fun little outing back into Delhi to visit one of its many craft markets. Having said my fairly emotional goodbyes to my family that morning and not expecting to see them again until Christmas Eve, it was understandably surprising to bump into them again at that particular market later that afternoon. In a city of 16.75 million people, I personally think it was a rather impressive coincidence.

The next few days flew by in a haze of forms and bureaucracy. But finally came the end to hotel rooms and train bunk beds, as I settled into life with my new host family in the relatively peaceful neighbourhood of Adarsh Nagar. The Bhatias are wonderful. Apul, his wife Esha and his mother Saroj are kind, generous, welcoming and most importantly put up with my painfully slow attempts at making Hindi conversation. There are, however, some noticeable differences that come with living in an Indian middle class family home. Apart from hand washing my clothes in a bucket in the bathroom, I have had to do absolutely no cooking or cleaning since my arrival. On attempting to wash up my plates after dinner one evening I was informed; “no, no, no! Leave that! The maid will do it!” Having a maid is a social norm for Indian homes of a certain stature, so I just have to accept that she comes into my bedroom every few mornings to sweep the floor. Not only do I appear to be excused from all minor household chores, but I also get breakfast, lunch and dinner cooked for me every day. Invariably three feasts. Every day. I feel that getting used to this pampering could be dangerously easy…

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After vaguely deciphering my coordinates, I made my first solo venture into Raja Park, perhaps best described as the equivalent of the local high street. Up until that point, I had not spent an awful lot of time wandering the streets alone, so it was interesting to discover that company very quickly found me. Before too long I had somehow managed to get an invitation to a wedding. Slightly more disconcerting, however, was the man who followed me home insisting he take me for a ride on the back of his motorbike…
This and the constant blatant staring at the white girl aside, I love Raja Park. It’s got that right mix of chaos and familiarity; dust, dirt, cows, colour, always crowded with pedestrians and motorbikes and crammed with local shops selling everything from saris and furniture to pet fish. Most of the students at the Institute live in the nearby surrounding areas, so it seems to have become the destination for after school hang-outs. Notably Barista, India’s hip Western cafe chain, where you can indulge in decent coffee, air conditioning, free wifi and the pounding beats of bad techno remixes and bad rap.

Inside an autorickshaw

Inside an autorickshaw

After two weeks of being back in school, the days already seem to be merging together and I can’t tell whether time is moving fast or not. Amongst this blur of classes, homework and autorickshaw commutes there have been a few stand out moments. I was fortunate enough to arrive in Jaipur in time for the birthday celebrations of Lord Ganesh, the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune, but who you may be more familiar with as “the one that looks like an elephant”. In the days leading up to the festivities the main roads of Jaipur were lined with hoardes of Ganesh statues being decorated and sold, some of which were absolutely monumental and I wonder as to how anyone manages to get them home. But then people somehow managed to build Stonehenge, so I guess where there’s a will, there’s a way. The day prior to the main procession, half of J.L.N Marg, one of Jaipur’s busiest roads, had been closed off to make space for a whole array of street vendors. With the road pedestrianised and therefore the risk of death substantially reduced, I took the opportunity to take a look inside the Birla Mandir, previously known by me as “The Big White Temple”. I didn’t have the 4 rupees on me for the shoe-safe-house, so I hid my sandals in a bush and darted across the scorching hot concrete to make it inside. I love temples; human beings can really create some beautiful things when they want to. This one had the interesting combination of Hindu imagery played out in stained glass windows, blue-skinned Shiva replacing angels and crucifixes. After school the following day, I sought out the starting location of the parade to discover nine or ten elaborately decorated elephants patiently waiting around the corner of a narrow road. Swarms of people were carrying on their daily lives around them, whilst others posed for photographs or, like me, just stood watching. You couldn’t help but think, one sudden movement and they could kill a man. Or several, if they wanted to. But for such huge creatures they are so placid. Much to my amusement the elephants were passing 10 rupees note tips from the hands of the people below up to their riders with their trunks. Elephants are just the best. Really. Once things got moving, the elephants were proceeded by a shocking-pink clad brass band, stilt walkers, circus tricks and endless rows of floats carrying performers, dancers and people dressed as a whole array of gods. India really knows how to throw a party.

Aside from this, I continue to try and get my bearings in my new home city. The neighbourhoods around my home and my school are a maze of streets seemingly nearly identical, but slowly I seem to be figuring things out. At the weekend, my host family and I decided to take a trip to the cinema to see Satyagraha, the latest Amitabh Bachchan blockbuster. Sadly it turned out the times in the paper were incorrect and the film hadn’t actually been released at that cinema yet. But we still got to have a fun night time drive around Jaipur’s West Side, where the swanky high rise hotels and restaurants make it feel like a very different city to my end of town. Silver linings and all that. However, I do suspect the roadside mocha as the potential cause of what may have been dysentery… There was a rooftop party with great views looking out over the city the same weekend though, so I find these things seem to balance out in the end.

From the few glimpses I have managed to get so far in my short time here, Jaipur seems to me a really interesting place to be living and I am eagerly awaiting more chances to explore. In the typical Indian fashion, the city presents itself as a collision of the old and the new, of splendour and poverty, of tradition and development. A constant kaleidoscope of sights to both amuse and bemuse, Jaipur envelops you in a blaze of heat and colour, but is slowly starting to feel like home.

The official filing system in the official visa registration office. I want to know what happens when someone need to find something...

The official filing system in the official visa registration office. I want to know what happens when someone needs to find something…

In which the Bennetts attempt to see the entirety of India in three weeks…

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Three thousands miles in three weeks with a family of five. Arguably an ambitious endeavour, and nearly as challenging for me to try and sum it all up in one neat little blog entry. Since arriving in Kerala, southern India, in mid August and making it across the length of the country up to the foothills of the Himalayas, I’ve probably witnessed more things than anyone really deserves to witness in three weeks. You’ve all heard it before, but India really is an onslaught to the senses; a country of magical encounters and infuriating contradictions. Thanks to the remarkable Indian railway, we’ve been lucky enough to sample the diverse sights of Alappuzha, Thekkady, Mumbai, Agra, Jaipur, Delhi, Shimla and Nainital.

So, first stop: the lush tropics of the South. Kerala is beautiful. And while it may have initially seemed hot and hectic, it turned out to be a peaceful haven in comparison to some of the Northern states. We stayed our first four nights on the outskirts of coastal town Alappuzha, in a house that backed onto paddy fields and fronted a river. If you like water, I would definitely recommend Alappuzha as a good port of call. Kerala, despite it’s relatively small size, is the most densely populated state in India, and you can really tell. Even when exploring the backwaters by boat, there is just no end to the people. Communities exist in really incredible places; single rows of houses stretching on along narrow strips of land bordered by water on either side. Front garden and back garden both a river! It’s a palm tree engulfed, serene world of water. Aside from glimpsing these lives only accessible by water, a real highlight of our little backwater trip was climbing ashore for a real South Indian thali, complete with banana leaf plate and no cutlery. I think everyone should start using banana leaf plates. Aesthetically pleasing AND saves on the washing up.

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The town center was perhaps not quite as serene, but a fascinating first glimpse of urban Indian life nonetheless. Nearly everything that happens on the roads in India I’m pretty sure would be illegal in the UK. U-turn in the middle of a crossroads in front of all the moving traffic straight back into the oncoming cars (none of which give way to anyone)? A family of six on the back of a motorbike, no helmets, a baby dangling off the end? Sharing the driver’s seat in a tuk-tuk? This is apparently all fine. I can’t quite decide what the best thing about Alappuzha was, but the short list probably runs as follows: the beach; ordering juice and getting a whole pineapple put in a blender; vegetable curry for approximately 17p in a restaurant; eating deep fried bananas on the street with chili sauce followed by the locals’ reaction as we went back for more chili sauce; no tourist touts.

So, moving on from our coastal location we ventured inland to Thekkady. The best bit about Thekkady was the drive there, watching the backwaters and palm trees change into mountains and tea plantations, spice gardens and a whole array of mad tropical fruit trees. In fact, the road wound up to such a beautiful height that my ears did that popping thing. Kerala’s main attraction has to be its landscape. I think it beats riding on the elephant. I will gloss over our somewhat mistaken trip to Periyar wildlife reserve in hope of spotting wild tigers. All we saw was other tourists in oversized orange life jackets.

From Kerala we boarded the first major train in our extensive schedule; the whopping 26 hour journey from Ernakulam Junction to Panvel, just outside Mumbai. There is nothing quite like leaning out the open door of moving train. That rush of life you feel when watching the world whizz past below your feet, the wind in your face, combined with the very real risk of death. But definitely worth said risk. My favourite bit of travelling is the actual travelling. At high speeds you get to see so much in one moment. In Kerala there were houses, people, cows all dotted alongside the track amongst the trees. (The cows are not unique to Kerala though; there are cows EVERYWHERE in India. They have no objection to chilling on train tracks or in the middle of a busy main road. I can never quite figure out if anyone owns them or not…) Occasionally a break in the dense undergrowth would reveal a sparkling river going right out to sea. Sadly it got dark and I had to leave my doorway to return to my little train bunk bed and sleep through Goa. Peeking through the curtains in the early morning revealed yet more spectacular scenery; mist hanging over mountains, waterfalls cascading, rivers slicing through valleys, monsoon showers followed by sunshine leaving bright orange sparking puddles in the red earth. If you ever get the opportunity to ride on the Konkan railway, take it. It’s an incredible feat of engineering that the British dared not challenge. Only completed 20 years ago, the track cuts through mountains in tunnels that must go on for a good 15 minutes and giant bridges give you a birds-eye view of the dense forest below. If you have any vague interest in trains, Chris Tarrant actually has a rather insightful documentary about it! Later on things got more populated again with multi-coloured houses and women in bright saris decorating the landscape. Whenever the train stopped people would jump down onto the tracks and walk about. It’s all quite an entertaining sight for the westerner who grew up in the land of health and safety, but sadly, a tragic number of people do die on the railway each year in India.

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Once arriving into Panvel we had to take the commuter train into Victoria Station, Mumbai. I belief the official term for Mumbai’s commuter trains is ‘super mega dense crush trains’. Running at 17 times over the stated capacity, people have little choice about whether or not they want to lean out of the train doors. People’s entire bodies are on the outside of the train, with only one hand and one foothold to cling on with. Luckily we got on early and managed to bag a seat. At a later point in our journey we also witnessed a train so packed that people were resorting to climbing on the roof. And this was a LOT of people. Babies being passed up along with the suitcases.

The commuter train was perhaps a good indicator of Mumbai’s population density. The city is packed. It’s incredible how many human bodies you can fit into one living space if you really want to try hard. I simultaneously loved and hated the place, wanting to stay for longer and also keen to get out. It’s intense, insane, filthy, and yet there’s also something kinda great about it. But whatever good things there may be about Mumbai, it doesn’t change the fact that there was so much rubbish floating on top of the water that I thought it was solid ground. Mumbai gave us our first real taste of begging streets kids, slums, homelessness, poverty and all right outside the glass fronted designer boutiques and luxury 5 star hotels. It’s appalling and quite incomprehensible that such extremes can exist in exactly the same place. But that’s India. On arriving at our hotel we discovered that our booking apparently didn’t exist and we were transferred to the aptly named ‘Hotel Volga’ (or ‘Vulgar’). As a general rule, I’m not overly fussy about the standards of where I have to sleep, but I think most people would expect intact bedroom walls as a basic hotel requirement. Our bedroom wall, however, had a hole in it. A Large hole, allowing half the protruding air conditioner to be shared with the room next door. Sadly our side was not the side with the controls and I spent a rather chilly night asleep under a towel listening to not only every word of the adjacent phone conversation but also the muffled tones of whoever was on the other end of the line. But we put these moments down to life experience and move happily onwards.

Our first tourist sightseeing destination was the Gateway of India, although apparently the Bennetts were more interesting than this historic sight as we were flocked by Indians wanting to photograph their encounter with a white person. This rather strange scenario continued to happen regularly throughout the rest of our journey and continued to be one which I was never quite sure how to respond to. But it did make me appreciate cosmopolitan London just that little bit more. Aside from all this, Mumbai’s street food makes it worth the trip. Wada paw, bhajis, pani puris, sweet hot milky chai, and other things that I never managed to figure out the names of. It’s a culinary adventure! I’ve heard Mumbai described as ‘London on acid’ and it seemed rather fitting; another pleasantly surprising perk were the old school London double decker buses darting about in font of the elaborately grand Victoria Station. It could definitely give St Pancras a run for its money. Some other notable Mumbai features include the incessant traffic horns. All over India drivers seem to honk their horn merely as a friendly greeting to the neighbouring car. However, as the Mumbai traffic is dense, to say the least, this friendly greeting racks up some serious decibels. And not only do one’s ears get put to good use in this city, but the smells certainly don’t leave the nose bored. Some scents are great, don’t get me wrong, others… really not so great.

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Next stop, Agra and the Taj Mahal. But of course, let us not forget the rest of North India’s outstanding Mughal architecture. The North is hot. Like, really hot. And combined with the heat came the sudden hectic surge of the tourist industry that we had not previously encountered to such an extent in the South. Suddenly we were swamped – and sometimes persistently followed – by people who wanted to be our tour guide or for us to buy something, or look at their shop, or give them money, or take their rickshaw. Most things in life, I find, are manageable with patience, but sometimes the best option is just to shelter in a nice cool cafe with a mango lassi. Agra Fort was wonderfully impressive and from it’s windows we got our first view of the Taj in the distance. We got up early the next morning for the real deal Taj Mahal sunrise experience. However, all the other white tourists in India seemed to have had the same bright idea. I doubt the Taj ever has a quiet day, but it’s worth all the commercialism to see it up close; it’s pretty damn gorgeous.

After Agra came Jaipur and then Delhi to complete the Golden Triangle tour. These three are the cities with the history, with the architecture, with the bazaars, with yet more cows (but also goats, donkeys, pigs…), with the colours, the smells, the mess, the dust. At times fantastic and at times overwhelming. A stand out moment of these few days was making the challenging midday heat climb up the mountain path to one of the cliff top palaces overlooking the city of Jaipur. The view was quite incredible from the top, giving a pretty good impression of how sprawling my new home town is. Another highlight was chancing upon a street procession involving elaborately decorated elephants, horses, camels, people, floats and a brass band. There wasn’t a clear explanation as to why said procession was taking place, nor did there appear to be any need to stop or redirect the traffic, but it was a thoroughly entertaining spectacle nonetheless. A moment later we were stuck by a monsoon downpour and the roads transformed from dusty to flooded in a matter of minutes, leaving the entire procession attempting to shelter under doorways. Delhi is as hip and happening as India gets, streets glaring with seedy neon lights advertising the bars and clubs. However, the legal drinking age in the capital is a ridiculous 25 years of age, so that experience is one I am yet to indulge in. Delhi, like Mumbai, is a city in which the wealth divide between rich and poor is particularly abhorrent. Connaught Place: the Harrods of India. Apparently. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anyone smoking opium outside Harrods. And I won’t go into details about the rows and rows and rows and rows of men, women, children and babies sleeping along some of Delhi’s grandest streets.

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Before I return to possibly my favourite location in India – the train – just a couple of gender based observations particularly evident in the larger cities. Male-female couples never hold hands in public. Open displays of affection; definitely not a thing. Yet you will regularly see men holding hands, so I guess bromance is fine. Also, where are all the women?! Sure there are some walking about on the streets, but in relation to the number of men happy to be seen in public, it makes the already skewed gender balance look only about 25% female. Plus I’ve seen very few women employed in non-professional occupations. Restaurant, shop and hotel staff nearly always seem to be men.

But enough of that, on to Shimla! If you tried out the Konkan railway and enjoyed it, then your next port of call should definitely be the narrow gauge toy train from Kalka to Shimla. The journey winding up into the foothills of the himalayas is really something I don’t think I can describe adequately. But needless to say, yet more stunning mountain views. Shimla itself is wonderful, its highest point extending to around 2200 meters – nearly 900 meters higher than Ben Nevis. Not only are you king of the mountain top in Shimla, but you get to enjoy clean, peaceful, traffic free, rubbish free, hassle free picturesque streets. Towering above the town is a massive orange hybrid man-monkey statue. And I mean seriously massive. The tree tops come up to its knee caps or something. If you dare make the steep climb to see it up close you will arrive at a lovely little Ganesh temple, suitably surrounded by hoards of monkeys. The monkeys were all very endearing until a massive one decided, unprovoked, to leap onto my back, which has since somewhat tarnished their reputation for me. Thankfully I don’t appear to have rabies, but he did leave a monkey hand shaped bruise on my arm. The only other minor glitch in Shimla was an unfortunate case of Delhi Belly. I stopped vomiting just about in time for the next train and made it in one piece to Nainital. We had to complete the journey by bus and despite the fact I wasn’t aboard my beloved train, the last stretch of the journey was possibly even more stunning than the ride up to Shimla. Nainital was again another another peaceful mountain retreat, complete with a boating lake and cable cars. Sadly the views of the higher snow capped Himalayan peaks were obscured by cloud and rain, so instead I took refuge with Shah Rukh Khan’s Bollywood classic Kuch Kuch Hota Hai from the dry safety of my hotel room duvet. If you’re going to spend any long amount of time in India, you just have to embrace Bollywood. I don’t think you have a choice. Once the skies cleared we spent some time exploring the narrow streets of the town’s bazaars and I could go on about how lovely it all was, but I think I have possibly written more than anyone would really want to read in one go, so I shall leave tales of settling into my new home in Jaipur and starting school for a later date…

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