gabrielinsussex

Apologies for resurfacing after all this time, but I’d like to announce that I’ve been unable to resist the appeal of blogging, and will henceforth be keeping a university-type blog which you’re all more than welcome to look at or subscribe to!

http://www.gabrielquotes.org.uk/

That’s all!

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Ruling Britannia for Dummies

My sadly finally final melange of photos can be found here.

An exciting selection of videos and movie-clips is linked to lower down the page. Enjoy!

Writing from the chilly and expensive village of Long Ditton, Elmbridge District, an area with absolutely  no incense markets and slums and very few ornate Hindu temples, I can now safely reveal the following:

Corruption in the body Webber

The Maharajah’s Palace in Mysore, one of the largest in India, was built by a British architect and is utterly over-the-top. Photography was strictly prohibited inside, and we had to check our cameras in before entering, when we were searched for them. However, they failed to apprehend mum’s Nikon, which she’d accidentally forgotten to hand in. Nerved by the throngs of Indian tourists blatantly disregarding the rules and merrily snapping away, she accidentally got the camera out to accidentally take a photo with it.

The barefoot policeman with copious ear hair who immediately swooped down on us wasn’t in the least convinced by her excuse that she’d just been getting out a bottle of water, anyway banned!, and pocketed the camera. He commented that the room was under the gaze of 15 CCTV eyes, and lamented in almost plausible anguish, “It’s now a police case. Two days, then pay 1000 Rupees and collect from central police station. It’s a police case now… What can I do?” He then gave dad a meaningful look, said, “I think sir understands,” led him into an alcove presumably proof against prying Anti-Corruption Sleuths, and suggested that 400 Rupees would help him to find a solution. Dad haggled him down to 300, at which point they rejoined us, the policeman shook my hand and said that I reminded him of his son, then strolled off past the packs of locals using their own cameras.

(Mum had various proposals for combatting this £4.20 injustice. These included demanding to speak to the British Consul-General in Bangalore. The others were equally profound.)

Sari safari

In very much the middle of nowhere, the Kabini River Resort – owned by Coffeeday, the subcontinent’s answer to Starbucks, an enormous chain owned by a man who, by complete coincidence I’m sure, is the son-in-law of India’s Foreign Minister – provided us with a boat excursion and two Jeep safaris. Over the course of these, we caught sight of such exciting animals as wild jungle fowl, wild peacocks, Bambi deer, sambar deer, mongeese (I may have just invented that plural?), gaur cattle, common langurs, macacque monkeys, a brain-fever bird, an owl and the tail end of a leopard (no pun intended). We also saw a crocodile from some distance, and I was very disappointed by the lack of ticking emanating from its stomach.

A Really Useful Engine?

Mysore Rail Musuem is extremely under-visited. It’s strangely located in a tiny little side-street and hidden by roadworks. Inside, signs told stories of the various trains in the first Thomas the Tank Engine person: “I was born in England. My job was to make railway inspectors comfortable.” We were the only visitors, and indeed the place seemed not to do a roaring trade. Three or four underoccupied women staff sat down outside for a mid-morning picnic while we watched! And on our way out, we had to crawl under the long arm of a digger which had started demolishing the entrance path…

In stark contrast to this was our visit to a bustling hillside temple which seemed about as far from tranquil worship as Oxford Circus. It was surrounded by the usual array of stalls selling sparkly bangles, plasticky racing cars and other religious tat. There was a long queue (in which the woman behind mum kept trying to push past) at the end of which police armed with bayonets added a touch of spirituality to the proceedings by bawling out orders to devotees and rushing them round a particular prayer route. One policeman singled us out as the only tourists and directed us towards “special entrance,” subsequently demanding a cash payment for this service. We declined.

Nearby was an enormous statue of Nandi, a holy bull, carved out of a single piece of rock. Children attempted slapping 1 Rupee coins onto its bare sides; those whose donations stuck were guaranteed good luck. Several families asked us to appear in their photos, as did a group of about 8 male middle-aged journalists from Maharashtra.

The Video Lounge

You will be able find all my clips, multimedias, movies and vids by clicking on the links below.

Difficulties in adjusting to English life

  1. I can no longer make rude remarks to tradespeople without fear of a punch in the throat
  2. I constantly think in terms of Rupees
  3. I don’t constantly have 5-10 people desperately vying for my attention
  4. I’ve forgotten how to use pedestrian crossings
  5. I keep putting pointless spaces into words like “brow sing” and “enter prise”
  6. I’ve developed an Indian head-wobble
  7. I get stared at for saying things like, “What is your good name?” and, “What is your native place?”
  8. British airport security staff don’t confiscate camera-batteries before letting you onto a ‘plane, and I can’t imagine why not

  9. I’ve forgotten what a million is
  10. Giving out shiny British pennies to kids now carries certain risks under the Child Protection Act
  11. English beggars are so badly dressed; most of them don’t even wear gold earrings!
  12. The UK’s May 5th referendum will doubtless be a free and fair vote. How deathly dull.
  13. I can’t wear a dhoti without being stopped and searched
  14. I no longer have a sign to hang out side my bed room door reading, “Please collect my laundry.”
  15. I now know that seatbelts are only for wusses*
  16. Photographing amusing and un grammatical signs in shops can potentially earn one a smack in the jaw
  17. The Royal wedding wasn’t an arranged marriage and is thus deeply uninteresting
  18. No books in Waterstones have titles quite as amusing as Call Centres for Dummies
  19. ‘Bring back the Empire’ jokes just attract the attention fo the BNP
  20. Surrey Police are irritatingly impervious to ‘donations’
  21. It’s difficult to resist summoning people over with a peremptory, “Va!”
  22. Lying down for a nap in the middle of a busy road is frowned upon
  23. I never have quite the same sense of wonder when coming across Pringles in a Long Ditton shop as in Kanyakumari
  24. I can’t stop myself from gesturing whenever I speak
  25. A guaranteed stable electricity supply takes some of the sparkle out of life. No pun intended.

*I accept no responsibility… (cont. page 94)

The End

So that’s it. I’m home. My tour of duty is complete. I’ve taken in the Empire, and am now back on British soil once again. This is presumably going to be the final blog entry, since gabrielinsussex from September would be substantially less exciting than my Indian adventure, so I’d like to thank everyone for their nice comments over the last few months, and can think of no better way to sign off than by quoting the Indian national anthem in its original Hindi.

Or not.

(Almost) The Last Post

By the time you read this, I shall be winging it back to the Land of Hope and Glory, where the Surbiton branch of Guru Express will doubtless be less attractive, and my bedroom will doubtless be more dusty. However, my last few days here have yielded some entertaining exploits, so read on…

Railing against oppression

My first experience on the Indian railway system was a fairly bog-standard four-hour journey between Cochin and Coimbatore. I was confronted by a bewildering variety of classes (“Sitting on luggage A/C,” “Sitting on luggage non-A/C,” “Disabled sitting on luggage A/C…”), food shops, luggage and languages. When the train eventually drew up, 20 minutes late, we made our way to our “berths,” proper fold-down beds with sheets and pillows, in the 2nd class A/C carriage: apparently 1st class A/C is only for unfriendly people.

Various food and drink vendors constantly sauntered through, chanting out, “Biriyani meals,” “Samosas, vadai,” or, “Tea and cool driiiiiiinks!” Occasionally two men peddling identical wares passed each other in opposite directions and carried on! Rail staff dressed in smart, colonial navy blazers and starched white trousers occasionally perched on our seats to do a spot of paper-work, presumably believing us to be liberal-minded folk who wouldn’t report them for taking the slight liberty. And how right they were! The family behind us, meanwhile, all gathered round one bunk to watch a DVD. One of them had a Colonel Bogey ringtone. Just over four hours later, we arrived, after six stops at stations where fresh armies of vada-vendors leapt aboard, and workers cleaned the train’s windows. The wonderfully 1920s Pantry Car was also restocked!

Being shunted about

The next morning, we had to wake up at 6am to catch the UNESCO World Heritage Site Toy Train up into the hills to Coonor. It’s a steam engine pushing about five coaches in front of it. We’d reserved seats in the front one of these, though it turned out that I was in a separate compartment to m’parents. Soon enough, a man asked me to swap so he could sit with his family. In my new seat, it was hinted by another separated father that “it would be comfortable” if I swapped seats with him: I was now three compartments away from where I started. Next, some other miscellaneous person turned up and said that there was an empty seat in another compartment so I could sit “with my colleagues,” (or ‘parents’ as I call them!)

We ended up sharing our compartment with an extended Indian family. In first class, we were seated five to a bench; God knows what second class was like! There was a mother and father, two grannies dressed, bespectacled and generally looking identical, and two very sweet little girls hungrily eating idli with their fingers while I picked through the unpleasantness of my hotel packed breakfast. They slightly spoiled the poetry of the scene by throwing their rubbish out of the window and then washing their hands from a bottle of water.

We juddered and steamed our way along the rack-and-pinion rails for four hours in total, sometimes slower than walking pace and sometimes slipping a few feet downhill! Every now and then we made a stop at tiny mountain stations with names as colonial as Runneymede and Hill Grove; at Hill Grove, as soon as we ‘detrained’, hundreds of monkeys came bounding along the track to receive food from the passengers. Some actually drank decorously from paper teacups while others thought it would be fun to try and board the train.

Occasionally we travelled through short tunnels, always with lights on, though they were insufficient to prevent the absurd juvenile screaming which was perpetrated by many of the holidaygoing Indians!

The sun not quite set on the British Empire

So I confess that while here I’ve been making my fair share of ’empire’ jokes. But none of them quite prepared me for the colonial delights of Coonor and Ooty, hill stations built by British officers with names like Lushington and Sullivan as cool hunting retreats. Since these people are mainly no longer with us, they’re very popular holiday destinations with Indians, and my family became a very popular attraction…

One afternoon, we were sitting having a nice read and relax in a beautiful botanical garden. Then a young doctor from Hyderabad, plus his newlywed, stopped by to introduce themselves. He said, “My wife wondered what your mother is doing, and I said she is having a sunbath.”

Our next disturbance came from a group of teenage boys who wanted us to join in their group photo. One asked where we came from, was told England, then earnestly enquired, “Which district?” Doubt if he’s ever heard of Elmbridge…

Presently, another group of teenage boys arrived; these ones took it in turns to be photographed sitting between me and mum on the bench. They also took it in turns to wear the group’s only pair of sunglasses! All this happened in front of a world-map formed of flowers, though sadly omitting the British Isles entirely; there’s gratitude for you!

We decided to go for a pedalo on the lake; the staff faffed about for about 10 minutes before allocating us two 2-seater boats. One of them decided to join me, for no obvious reason, but really seemed to enjoy himself, despite his English being more or less limited to, “fish,” and, “very exercise.”

Later, we excited even more comment in the town. A crowd was gathered to watch three government ministers arrive for an election meeting, but the Webbers proved a diverting spectacle. One little girl bought mum an ice-cram; we started handing round English pennies, and were literally mobbed by grasping, outstretched hands of all ages desperate for a souvineer! One middle-aged man in the crowd confided to me that he’d met Jesus. Oh dear.

I want a Waldorf salad!

In our hotel, the Taj Gateway no less, breakfast was a complete shambles. It took them over half an hour to produce a bowl of muesli, and when we complained, the manager and the Head Waiter dragged out the poor chef, who “want to apologise,” though he gave no indication of this, no indication of speaking English and no indication of having a clue what was going on. He did look quite scared, though.

On the way back to our room, we walked along the, “Corridor of Excellence; owner: HR Manager,” which contained staff news and awards. The winner of the ‘Best Groomed Female’ prize had her portrait and profile photographs displayed on a noticeboard.

A couple of the nearby viewpoints (Dolphin’s Nose, so-called because it resembles a dolphin’s nose, and Lady Canning’s Seat, so-called because it resembles Lady Canning’s seat… I guess…) featured very small businesses offering photograph opportunities with faded, tacky toy tigers, only 1o Rupees.

Ooty/Ootacamund/Udhagamandalam/delete as applicable

The ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ that is Ooty is very, very Raj, from its St Stephen’s Church, the yard of which is full of graves with names sounding suspiciously English, plus one plot marked with a ‘RESERVED’ sign, which seems to me to be in rather bad taste.

The town’s botanical gardens were bigger than those in Coonoor, gloriously sunny, and full of Indians wrapped up in knitwear because hill towns are traditionally cold. A succession of people stopped by to have their picture taken with us; just after we’d finished with an elderly couple from Chennai, four teenage girles came along. Mum gave them each a penny, which prompted a chorus of shrill and hugely excited, “Oh, thank you so much! I love English auntie so much!” before they ran back to their group to spread the word. Soon, we were swamped by their entire extended family of maybe 20 people, all trying to arrange photos, take coins (adults and children!), introduce themselves and hand us babies (?!) completely muffled up in fur baby-suits.

People of integrity

This week has seen corruption coming very much to the forefront of Indian news, with a social activist called Anna Hazare having gone on a hunger-strike-unto-death until the government gave in to his demands for a bill to be drafted stamping out some of the country’s desperately dishonest officials.

However, I have my own stories of corruption to share. One of the most rampant is from when we were driving across the Tamilnadu state border for the last time (boohoo!) and entering Karnataka. We were required by law to pay a 500 Rupee charge for no other reason than to make money for the Karnatakan government. However, the friendly police officer who waved us over demanded that we pay 700 Rupees, though the receipt only showed 500. Strange, that…

Coming up: or, Spotting a Leopard

Once I’m back in the Surbiton saddle, or “no longer out of station” as the local people here would say, there’ll be some mega-uploading of large video files to be done, plus a post regarding our three jungle safaris, a leopard, a crocodile, a mongoose, a brain-fever bird and no doubt our overnight stint waiting around in Bangalore airport. Speak soon!

Something fishy in the synagogue

As promised, below you will find today’s edition of that splendid old subcontinental newspaper, The New Gabrielinindian Express. Meanwhile, my latest glissando of photos can be found here.

HISTORY—Kerala and her Jews: kippah and dhoti IN!

About 30km beyond the city of Cochin lies a village called Chennamangalam. And in the dark dark village there’s a dark dark shul, which lies at the end of endless narrow twists and turns, most of which contained patches of scrubby grass proudly marked out as belonging to the Kerala Forest Department. The synagogue is 800 years old, and is attached to a Jewish cemetery containing India’s oldest tombstone.

We roused the Custodian from his tea-break, but it’s not clear what he was taking a break from, since the interior didn’t look as if it had seen either a cleaner or a visitor for years. Dusty boxes and miscellaneous planes of wood were strewn everywhere, but there was also a very visible ark and a series of exhibition panels.

Once we’d finished there, we walked along to the cemetery. The route took us down a narrow path between a prayer-calling mosque and its madrassah (a local layabout who’d attached himself to us helpfully explained, “This is Muslim synagogue,”) from which we acquired quite a following of the area’s children, including three giggling, veiled schoolgirls who provided the perfect atmosphere for visiting an ancient Jewish graveyard! Our self-appointed guide indicated one particularly ornate plot and solemnly informed us, “King of the Jews lives here.” Mum tried to ‘pay’ him 10 Rupees to buzz off, but he wanted more, preferably enough to buy a cup of tea. So chutzpah clearly lives on in the neighbourhood.

The next day, we visited Cochin’s Jew Town, full of hard-selling shopkeepers with intriguingly irritating phrases such as, “Please, I only want the pleasure of your eyes,” and, “Ah, you want see my paradise?” Several people had so little sense of irony as to stop us in the street and try to shepherd us towards shops labelled, “Hassle free.”

The ticket-seller at the Pardesi Synaogue, Yaheh, is a very sour (but very Jewish-looking) woman, apparently the last local Jew of child-bearing age; she refuses to marry her cousin and “spends her days refusing requests to have her picture taken.” You can see her in my photo to the right! Inside the ornate shul was an completely false exhibition attempting to prove that the White Jews of Kerala arrived before the Black Jews, and that the synagogue is the oldest in the Commonwealth despite being over 30 years younger than that in Chennamangalam. An official-looking man (uniquely?) attired in a kippah and a dhoti strode to the centre of the room, called out, “OK, listen,” and then commenced a highly informative spiel with the words, “This place is called Cochin Synagogue.”

Our next stop was another abandoned synagogue in a different part of town: actually, not quite abandoned; a local Jew ran an aquarium and gardening business from the premises. The shop’s back room had angling supplies stacked along one wall, and a magnificent 13th-century ark standing against another!

POLITICS—Fat and Communist: an inhuman interest story

Kerala is perhaps the only place in the world to be governed by democratically-elected Communists. The Left Democratic Front is now contesting local elections, rather noisily as it happens, with Jeeps blaring out revolutionary slogans around town, canvassing barges in the backwaters, even a few floating posters. All their candidates seem to be very podgy, though, in a distinctly un-Communist way.

One time, we sat down for a drink in a nice cafe, and our tranquility was shattered by a passing Communist Party canvassing expedition: two rickshaws laden with speakers and red flags rolled past, spouting political ditties in Malayalam, followed by a Popemobile-like red vehicle on which reposed the chubby, waving figure of the Communist candidate. One vegetable market in town seemed to be extremely unionised, and displayed pleasant painted portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and other savoury characters.

We also went to explore a shopping mall built in 2006, with glittering exterior, but utterly empty of shops! Called the Revenue Tower, it had been opened by a local politician with the splendid name of Dominic Presentation (his election poster is pictured to the right). My dad wondered how he came across this title, and a little Internet research soon provided an answer: he was born to Felix and Rosemary Presentation!

SPORT—Cricket World Cup: now it’s all overs

The semi-final between India and Pakistan was very much viewed as “the real final” by locals, who intended to destroy Kashmiri shops and Indian cricket-players’ houses in the event that they were humiliated. As it happens, they weren’t, and the Pakistani team must be kicking themselves, deprived of the 25 acres of land their government had promised each of them in the event of a victory! Throughout the game, Bennett the Driver was constantly answering telephone queries from driver buddies who were staying in accommodation without television! He spent the evening watching the match through the window of a TV shop; the owner really wanted to close up, but was afraid of being smashed into if he so irritated the fifty spectators gathered on the street outside!

The actual final was a little more low-key while it went on, though the subsequent media coverage was huge. The Indian players received magnificent rewards. They now all own a Honda car and a lifetime free 1st-class-air-conditioned rail ticket. Most of their home states awarded them around 140,000 quid of taxpayers’ money, though one meanie state government decided to merely “felicitate” the players. Children all over the place, meanwhile, were playing cricket on every spare scrap of land. On an old parade ground in front of India’s oldest church, in Cochin, three simultaneous games were going on, with the fielders generally covering all of them! (I don’t really know what this means, but my dad said it so it must be true.)

CULTURE—Kathakali dance leaves one feeling green

One evening we went to watch a performance of traditional Keralan Kathakali dance, a form of ballet with much play made of facial expression and hand-gestures. The story was quite vague, but involved a god’s son slashing the breasts of a demoness; most of the amusement came from watching the intensive make-up process for the production. One of the two dancers did his own face; another lay down asleep for around forty minutes while a minion applied green paint to him.

BUSINESS—Sales talk: how to make customers jeer at you

Rickshaw drivers touting for business are always quite irritating. If one wants a rickshaw, there’s never a shortage. It doesn’t need to be advertised. However, one guy had the particularly interesting tactic of simply calling out, “50 Rupees!” without the slightest idea where we wanted to go. I was all in favour of insisting he drive us to Delhi for that price, but in the end we only went to the local boat-jetty.

One time, mum was desperate for the toilet, but we failed to find any loos or cafes by simply walking the streets. Eventually we entered a modern-looking business. The man behind the counter claimed that there were no toilets. We pointed out that it was a hotel and cunningly saw through his tissue of convincing lies. He called his manager over, and they conversed, then refused us access to a toilet outright. They claimed it was against the rules, and even refused bribe money. Mum asked where she could find a loo; they vaguely suggested that she try the High Court building. Very helpful people.

Later, we got into another rickshaw, the driver of which asked if we would do him a “favour” and allow ourselves to be led into a shop where he has an arrangement which involves them giving him one litre of petrol for every gullible tourist he drags in off the streets.

We also visited the lobby of the Koder Hotel, an old converted Jewish house. A party of Russian tourists was just arriving (if only it had been a Party of Russians the local Commies would have been so pleased!) One old man carelessly strode straight into the indoor swimming pool, fully dressed and carrying his luggage. Didn’t think that sort of thing happened in real life!

We also stopped in one cafe which had a glowing review from some cricket player pinned on the wall. This included the splendid phrase, “I came here with my daughter and two son in law who are both geeks,” the last word having been corrected by hand with the insertion of a letter ‘r’!

LIFESTYLE—Houseboats are the new Northern Line

So yes, OK, we had a luxury houseboat for a night. And yes, OK, it included two bedrooms, air-conditioning, two sun-decks, a dining-room, a TV and DVD player, several pirated Superman movies, showers, a captain, an engineer and a chef named Radish. Fine. But most entertaining were the comments other guests had left in the log-book. One person managed to fit about nine complaints into the tiny space, one of which was, “There should be more English music available on-board.” Now that’s what I call tolerance!

One antique shop we came across had the unusual distinction of tempting us in, partly because not one person stood on the street bawling at us, but mainly because of the ludicrous size of its wares. It sported a 106ft longboat designed to be rowed by over 65 people, plus full-size temple statues of gods and a wooden temple chariot in full working condition. Most of these were only available to Indians because exporting such valuable monstrosities is banned.

In Cochin, which is a fairly old-fashioned, colonial-type place, we were strolling one night when we came upon a Jeep labelled Mad Dogs Trust, a gathering of perfectly sane-looking dogs, a basket of tidbits and a grey-haired Englishwoman, wearing wellingtons, holding a lamp in one hand and a stick in the other, who gravely wished us good evening. How very 1940s!

TRAVEL—Which came first: tree or bathroom?

One of our hotels (or ‘homestays’ as they prefer to be known, still less unbearably twee than the chain of “non-hotel hotels” I’ve had the misfortune to catch sight of) was owned by a professional Indian photographer in absence, and managed by a Finnish woman who retired to the place along with her English husband. Not only did our room include its own private swimming pool, and for that matter we were the only people staying in the establishment, but our bathroom was completely unique in my experience in that it had a tree growing through it.

COMMENT—Honour killings: a moral conundrum

I was somewhat surprised to read in the ‘New Indian Express’ that the national parliament is “considering” a bill which would “bring honour killing onto a par with murder.” The problem is that one particular state opposes the measure, although the others all “support stern measures against honour killing.” Lovely. Meanwhile, I was completely bemused to read a passage in another article detailing how young women were being “eveteased by goons,” and no less astonished to discover that a convicted murder was appealing against his sentence of life imprisonment plus a fine of 1000 Rupees (about 15 quid). So harsh!

Apparently, police also confiscated millions of Rupees from a man who had withdrawn them from his own bank account, on the pretext that he “could not explain the reason.” In fact, he did explain that it was for his daughter’s wedding party, and showed them a copy of an invitation, but for some reason which wasn’t quite clear they still refused to believe this. For some reason which is even less clear, they also seized his car.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom in the pages of India’s print media. The Lonely Hearts column is an opportunity for a few laughs. The adverts are categorised by race, and most list the qualifications and salary of their subject. A few also indicate bizarrely specific requirements, such as, “Only lady doctors need reply.”

EDITORIAL—Tour of duty nearly over

All newspapers hate to report bad news, but it’s my sad duty to reveal that this time next week, I shall be sitting in Surbiton, outraged that taxi-drivers refuse to haggle and peeved (a word I picked up from my favourite local rag!) that a good meal costs more than 90p. Before that, however, I’ll have to detail the story of my exciting foray onto historic Indian railways, and also recount a particularly entertaining Fawlty Towers moment at a Taj hotel. Tata for now!

All the news that’s fit to print?

I’ve realised that over the last couple of months, I’ve been very vain. This blog has been all me-me-me. And it would just be outrageously narcissistic of me to deny that there are fascinating things going on right across the world. So, today, in a special limited-edition blog posting, I’ve decided to share some of the highlights I’ve collected from a truly wonderful newspaper called the New Indian Express.

  • Headline: Malaysia restaurant owner in big trouble
  • Headline: 8 of wedding party hurt in mishap (their car collided with a lorry)
  • Headline: Complaint filed against Stalin for bribing voters (as should be obvious, this refers to Mr M K Stalin, Deputy Chief Minister of Tamilnadu)
  • Three persons were nabbed by the police on Monday … a lion’s share of the stolen idols have been recovered … The accused, Satan Manoj (alias ‘Manoj’)…
  • A particularly gripping story about how a flight from Cochin to Sri Lanka was delayed by 20 minutes!
  • A loose picture with the caption, A prisoner kisses his pet parrot as part of the Correctional Bird Program.
  • …and sleuths from the Anti-corruption and Vigilance Wing formed a plan to nab the Joint Director of Agriculture.
  • The body of a woman was recovered from a freezer in a grocery store on Tuesday. The police are likely to question the shop’s owner.
  • …However, the prawn farmer was not in his house when the raid was conducted. He is said to be absconding.

And finally, the most Watergate-like of the articles:

And now for the competition…

This week’s competition is, quite simply, to establish who has the most boring story to share, in the same vein as ‘flight delayed 20 minutes’!

Coming up in the New Gabrielinindian Express

COEXISTENCE IN KERALA: the dramatic story of how I ended up touring a Jewish cemetery accompanied by three giggling, veiled Muslim schoolgirls.

WINCREDIBLE !NDIA [yes, I’m afraid that was an actual headline…]: cricket fervour and its associated acts of crass racist vandalism.

AND MORE! Tune in soon.

The Old Boys’ Network

My latest murmuration of photos can be viewed here. If you have any difficulties, try again while logged out of Facebook.

The temple city of Madurai is popularly known as the Athens of the East.

Miscellaneous and completely untruthful guidebook wot my dad has

So the time has come. I’ve left my hovel and started on the multi-star hotel circuit. The March edition of the Madurai Messenger has gone to print, and for those of you who don’t have access to the Tamilnadu public library system, the online edition can be read here. My article about cricket seems to have been erroneously placed in the ‘Sports’ section, for which I can only apologise.

In which I am accused of being Tony Blair

Being one of the very few white people in Madurai for two months makes one rather a part of the local landscape, and plenty of people began to recognise me. And a particularly large number came out of the woodwork on my last weekend in the city, when I was with my parents. One lady who sold silk scarves in the market knew me of old (I was there, for instance, at that truly baffling moment when she set fire to one of her cloths with a match, blew it out, rubbed some of the ash on my finger, made me smell it, and then opined, “See? Very good quality!”) and proudly hailed me as ‘brother’, called my parents ‘mama’ and ‘papa’, gave us a discount, threw in a free magnificent home-made puppet and said that we were always welcome to return, “You have daughter here.”

I was also greeted by the ‘Elizabeth Taylor is the Queen’ man more than once – and declined his invitation to dinner – plus a tailor called Mr Ganesh who was still pathetically convinced that I wanted to visit his shop. After all these introductions, my mum commented, “It’s like being Tony Blair’s mum, everyone recognises you!” Well nobody’s yet tried to ship me off to the Hague…

Visiting the old school, what?

Back to the  Akshaya Viyalaya Matriculation School in Dindigul, after an absence of two months. The security guard and a cleaner waved as we drove in. Ma’am (the Principal still known only as “Ma’am”!) came to the door of her office to greet us and was soon talking philosophy with my parents (“I cannot understand how one person can destroy another… even the animals do not do that,”) – though not before dispatching her servant Kennedy up the road to buy a celebratory bottle of Fanta.

We wandered into the main building to visit the kids at lunch; I received many “Hi, Gabriel!”-s and was able to recall a half-way decent number of names. At this point, Ma’am summoned her car and we drove over to the school’s other branch, Kennedy riding in convoy with our driver to give him directions. On arrival, we were greeted by one of the Assistant Heads who I tend to think of as Mr Toad (currently serving out his notice, having been sacked!) and then Madam Loretta of “I would climb up the hill and say that Ma’am is my angel” fame  materialised and, rather breaking with centuries of Indian cultural practice, hugged me, kissed me, complained that my hair was too long and observed that I was getting thin. She’d make a good Jewish mother!

Ma’am asked if our lunch was ready; Loretta replied, “I am always ready, just so long as I have my Ma’am by my side,” turning to my parents, she explained, “Ma’am is my Archangel Gabriel.” We went over to her office – full of home-made mortar-board caps and embroidered gowns for the forthcoming kindergarten graduation ceremony! – where she served us fruit salad with ice-cream. Ma’am’s attempt at refusal was met with a firm, “No fasting here!” while Kennedy’s protestations were drowned out by Loretta jumping up and down and saying, “Eat!”

At this point, she revealed that she was fasting for Lent, only taking water and home-made juice during the day, “so that the Lord Jesus will see my sacrifice – but I always keep smiling, keep cheerful.” She mentioned that two of her students scored over 90% in their Hindi public exam, entitling them “to be honoured” at a function in a nearby city. She enthusiastically attributed this to Ma’am’s leadership, though Ma’am thought otherwise: “Loretta is a gift to the institution. When she is with kindergarten, she behaves like a kindergarten child [yes this was a compliment!] – when she is with 5th Standard, she is like 5th Standard.”

At this point, a line of particularly tiny children was led in, and – in the guise of ‘Queen of Italy’, ‘Prince of Russia’, ‘Queen of Israel’ etc. – proceeded to welcome us, very sweetly, in the eight different languages they represented. Next, we were led into Toad’s sanctum to watch two superbly intricate dance sequences, after all the performers filed by and introduced themselves immaculately, according to a formula, eg. “Hello. My name is … , I am studying in 6th Standard, B Section. My father name is … , my mother/brother/sister name is … ” Toad got rather impatient during all this and started cutting the poor children off mid-flow. Loretta, meanwhile, refused to sit on the vacant chair, instead perching on a box next to Ma’am, because, “I must sit near you!” Then it was time to make our final goodbyes, Loretta kissed us all on both cheeks and we set off on the six-hour drive to Munnar.

The mother and toddler group

Our route to Munnar took us through a wildlife reserve, and  Bennett the driver got out to talk to the police manning the entry checkpoint. The police demanded a bribe, but when Bennett directed them “to ask client,” they seemed to back down, strangely enough. We chanced upon a whole herd of elephants, maybe 15 in all, crossing a road together. They were of all different sizes, the youngest one being about the size of a child’s bicycle, aged 1 month. Soon after, we came upon a huge assemblage of monkeys, so friendly that we had to close our windows!, almost all of which were carrying tiny babies; it must have been a mother-and-toddler group. They also seemed to understand the concept of posing, which was convenient!

Finished.

So that’s it for this week. Say pleasant things in the ‘comments’ box, and I guess there’ll be more to report soon!

Another Sonia Gandhi post

My latest coven of photos can be viewed here. If you have any difficulties, try again while logged out of Facebook.

M’colleague Elisabeth said to me the other day, “What is it with you and Sonia Gandhi?” And it’s true: the woman is cropping up everywhere – rickshaw drivers babble about her, volunteers wearing headscarves look suspiciously like her…

One afternoon this week, I found myself writing a letter to Sonia Gandhi’s son, in which I applied to stand in the next parliamentary election as a Congress Party candidate. I was doing this not on my own behalf, you may be surprised to hear, but for the younger brother of one of the gap-year company staff, whose initial attempt was so abysmal that I felt it was best to start again from scratch (“I am helping join 500 youngsters onto Congress … I advertise compete on flexible printed boards,” were chief amongst his/my qualifications).

I look forward to seeing the effect which my forgery has upon Indian and world history in the coming decades.

Death on the roads

One morning, on the way to breakfast, there was a musical parade coming down the road, with drumming and dancing and flowers and fancy costumes. The group I was with all stopped to take photos. One of the men at the front of the festivities beckoned us over into the middle of the road, and jovially shook our hands, “Hello, how are you? What is your native place?”

It was at this point that we noticed the uncovered dead body which the funeral procession was carrying aloft. And narrowly avoided a similar fate, given the cars and rickshaws swarming all around us on the busy main road.

The Swansea of the East

I’m not quite sure how or why the British volunteers referring to the fishing village of Rameswaram as ‘Swansea’ but the name decidedly stuck. It’s a tiny place on a little peninsular sticking out towards Sri Lanka. Informed that we would be visiting a nearby island “in a van” we were all expecting some form of state-of-the-art amphibious transport.

On the discovery that “island” in fact meant “even more tiny narrow peninsulary thing” we were only slightly disappointed, because it was a truly incredible, bumpy bouncy bus-ride along an unbelievably narrow, sandy causeway; at the end of the road, the Bay of Bengal converged with the Indian Ocean, and there were some pretty incredible zig-zag waves. Meanwhile, a middle-aged Indian woman in an immaculate sari stood passively surveying the swimming volunteers, expressionlessly examining bikinis and generally being rather creepy.

That’s some cheek!

The weirdest thing I have ever seen was the festival going on in Rameswaram on Saturday. It started off with just a very noisy, crowded procession: nothing unusual there. Men were dancing in the street to the accompaniment of drum music; OK so far.

Some people (of both genders) were wandering around with 2m metal spears through their faces, pierced through both cheeks. They were also dancing, with some zeal. A few select men were suspended upside down from carnival floats by ropes attached to fishing hooks hooked through the skin of their backs, also with rods in their faces.

Some people just wandering the streets had gaping holes in each cheek, clear evidence of their activities earlier in the day. I don’t know how they drank without liquid running out the sides of their faces, but I guess it’s none of my business really.

Despite all this, us visitors were still the focus of attention, everybody preferring to take photographs of us than the ludicrous display going on in the streets! (In fact, later in the day, three little boys, perhaps 10 or 11, jumped onto our tour bus to take a picture of all the white visitors, and when we began to question what they were doing, one of them, with admirable presence of mind, called out, “I am Government of India!”)

Portrait photograph above by Carina Ringive

Nearly finished!

I’m now most of the way through my last week in Madurai, and will be leaving on Monday to swan about more of South India, pith helmet in hand (or ‘on head’ really…). First stop will be re-visiting Akshaya School from the very start of my trip, and I dare say there’ll be plenty of interest happening there. I’ve already received this email from the Principal, written in beautiful 18th-century language combined with txt abbrvtns.

Dear Gabriel,

I am indeed rejoiced to hear from u.We miss u very much.But I  am nevertheless glad that u r making your visit along with ur great parents. All r eagerly waiting to meet u all.Please remember me to dad &mum.Thank u for the condolences on  my bereavement. [Her uncle “expired” since I left two months ago.]