Archive for May, 2012

Four weeks to go, so it’s time to take stock. German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans lists ‘the mix of damp carpet and apricot-scented potpourri, Marmite and repressed but omnipresent sexuality’—but what am I going back to Blighty for?

1. Cheese

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.   —G.K. Chesterton

O cheese! thou pungent lunar material, crowning jewel of Oxford meal! Occasionally I lapse into a heat-coma and dream of it, those beautiful European words melting into one another like the Shipping Forecast: Mozzarella. Gruyère. Yarg. Gorgonzola. Jarlsberg. Wensleydale, rising slowly. Manchego, moderate or fair. Parmigiano Reggiano, becoming cyclonic. (Pace Chesterton, though, the phrase ‘quite the cheese’ actually comes from the Hindi ciz, or thing.)

The great characteristic of cheese that Chesterton praises as ‘the very soul of song’ is its variety. Alas no, not in India. A country of cow-lovers obsessed with dairy products, and yet all we have is this strange rubbery stuff, like tofu in a cuboid condom. (Paneer doesn’t count.) Look at it. LOOK AT IT. Ugh. The brand name ‘Britannia’ is an anti-colonial insult too far. Unfortunately, the fact I’ve started whingeing about cheese confirms that I am now officially an Expat Douchebag.

2. Queues

An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.   —George Mikes

Nothing, nothing, raises the hackles of a Britisher more than the social evil that is queue jumping. We know intrinsically that the inability of foreigners to queue—this goes for you too, Europeans—is the sign of deep, warped immorality and lack of self-control. The queue is civilisation. Remember that at the Olympics: every time you queue-jump, you confirm to the tutting Britisher behind: fine, your country might win more medals than us, but corruption, the Grexit, and STDs are endemic there too because you’re freeloading, sociopathic scum.

Being British, for a long time I was unable to do more than glare, mutter, and paranoiacally dance around trying to block jumpers like a Morris-dancing schizophrenic. But airport queue jumpers be warned: I have been pushed to the very brink, and may actually shake off my English inhibitions and punch you in the gob.

3. The lack of weather

To a foreigner the most striking thing about the English weather is that there isn’t very much of it.    —Bill Bryson

Yes, our rain is feeble and our summer hilariously cool, but this is not a bad thing, Mr Bryson. Having a lot of weather is quite horrible, I’m starting to suspect. Here all people can look forward to as a break from the 45°C heat is dust, smog, or the monsoon, which from past experience is a disgusting time of trenchfoot, Chikungunya, and exuberant geysers of sewage. Plus I lived through a 5.2-magnitude earthquake!—though admittedly I didn’t notice because we live on a giant flight path. A tepid sun, some good wholesome drizzle, and the common cold sound blimming fantastic right about now.

And for all those Johnny Foreigners who mock the British tendency to discuss the weather at extreme length: go and read Watching the English. It’s our beautifully honed way of creating consensus to ease social interaction. Indian men: this is far more successful than the opening conversational gambit ‘So, are you married?’

4. Diversity

‘Elizabeth Chatterjee’? Is that the name you just use for when you’re in India?   —Idiot, studying my business card

Britain is a fizzing blend of people, cuisines, and cultures, but here people automatically assume that Indian = brown. Albion has more than its fair share of xenophobic cretins, but the Indian obsessions with skin colour, good breeding, Islamophobia, and women’s behaviour still rankle. Racism towards migrants from Nepal, sub-Saharan Africa, and India’s own Northeast is overt [h/t Sneha].

No matter how long I live here, I’ll never fit in. As a a burqa-wearing Hyderabadi shouted, ‘Go back to where you came from!’ People will always look at me with $$$ or lechery or loathing in their eyes. And when I say I’m doing a PhD—an entire blood-sweat-tears umpteen-year festival of geekery—on Indian politics, they’ll still say things like, ‘There’s this thing called the caste system, you probably haven’t heard of it…’

5. Health and safety

A ridiculous place. Located three quarters of a mile from the surface of the sun, people audibly crackling as they walk past you on the street… It’s not supposed to be inhabited, and when they’re not doing that, frying themselves outside, they all fling themselves into the sea, which is inhabited almost exclusively by things designed to kill you: sharks, jellyfish, swimming knives, they’re all in there.   —Dylan Moran on Australia

Pottering around India, I feel much like lovely Mr Moran. I’ve encountered a crocodile, cobras (twice), a convicted stalker, and facially-tattooed headhunters with a nice line in skull trophies, homemade guns, and opium. In Delhi people are regularly attacked by monkeys; in Sikkim they warned us about black bears; in the east it’s wild elephants, bull sharks, and occasional tigers. Even everyday life is dangerous: I’m recovering from falling into a pothole, praying the wound doesn’t go gangrenous like last time (shudder); a friend walked straight into an open sewer on her first day; and Jeremy Clarkson says 190,000 people a year die on Indian roads, more than Oxford’s entire population. Terrifying. In Britain, by contrast, the most dangerous thing is the lesser spotted office stapler.

Indian health & safety priorities are a little different from the motherland’s

When India does do health and safety, it revolves obsessively yet ineffectually around terrorism. For the lonely fieldworker the ubiquitous security caress is a rare moment of human intimacy. But it’s slow and awkward and unaccountable too—I still don’t understand why the Taj Mahal guards confiscated Feckless Brother’s playing cards, of all weapons of mass destruction. I prefer the motherland’s own slow, awkward, unaccountable procedures, which at least are colour-coded—though why you guys have allowed them to instal missiles on your houses I have no idea.


And it’s still only 9.30am! Argh. Britishers, note how the coldest time of night here is substantially hotter than your goshdarned ‘heatwave’. If I see one more status update about sunburn…

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire
to take their clothes off and perspire.
It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is far too sultry
and one must avoid its ultraviolet ray…
At twelve noon the natives swoon,
and no further work is done—
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
        —Noel Coward, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ (1931)

Delhi, a city always threatening to topple headfirst into the hideous, has started to boil. The temperature has replaced bowel movements as the expat topic of choice, the weather forecast shows a line of tiny, unblinking 40°C+ Saurons, and I simmer at inanimate objects in perpetual lethargic rage. The rulers have always fled: the Mughals to Kashmir, the British to Shimla, contemporary elites to the more glamorous American and European cities. Stuck in our foolishly un-air-conditioned flat, we have tacitly agreed not to judge each other’s increasingly skimpy outfits and middle-of-the-night pyjamaed showers. One lucky flatmate’s bedroom has a neurotic AC unit that burps lukewarm air, and during the days I sneak in to press myself against it, dreaming of Pimms on laughably cool ‘summer’ lawns.

This is a long way of saying: it’s homicidally hot, and my scalded synapses are stuck on permanent complaint mode. If you thought the gastrointestinal updates were tedious, look away now (there are sweat patches). The only thing preventing me from flying back to Blighty is the fact I belong to a department of international development, where all the other kids on fieldwork get typhus and dodge grenades and are periodically falsely imprisoned in Côte d’Ivoire. They can’t even get internet, not even the ghetto sites like Bing. ‘Uh, it was getting a bit warm’ would reinforce my status as the playground dweeb. So I’ll stick it out—but shaddap about how amazingly hot the UK is!

It is the custom of ‘Society’ to abuse its servants,—a façon de parler, such as leads their lords and masters to talk of the weather, and, when rurally inclined, of the crops,—leads matronly ladies, and ladies just entering on their probation in that honoured and honourable state, to talk of servants, and, as we are told, wax eloquent over the greatest plague in life while taking a quiet cup of tea.
—Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)

Preliminaries out of the way, let me get onto the second-favourite topic of everyday expat whining: domestic staff. Chez nous the day begins at an arbitrary time somewhere in the very loose vicinity of 7am, when the doorbell rings. Lounging on the doorstep is Kamala, the most formidable and indomitable housekeeper since, well, my badass Oxford ‘scout’ Sue. Both sneakily chain-smoke, both are utterly unfazed by the motley collection of half-naked refugees who sporadically grace our floors (currently Feckless Brother and an Australian)—and both would pulverise Dominique Strauss-Kahn. This morning, the new Australian came downstairs to where the rest of us were foetally huddling, ‘scoutxiled’, and pointed up at the ceiling—’Did she…? Over all my things…? Without even knocking?!’ We nodded forlornly, as upstairs Kamala’s phone blasted out Bollywood tunes.

In the UK I’m an anachronistic weirdo—and quite possibly immoral—for having someone come to take out my bin. Here, it’s common for middle-class families to have several servants: a maid, a cook, a driver, a nanny. The monthly salary of a 24/6 Calcutta driver, for example, is only about £130; a maid will be cheaper. Trained staff fetch higher prices: expats trade staff for their skills in French cuisine or English, and a couple of weeks ago I witnessed a Delhi-born friend ‘breaking in’ a new driver like a horse, with good-humoured curses as he stalled and overrevved and tried to put on his own music over hers. As we stepped out of the hot car, she glanced worriedly back at him settling for a nap inside. ‘I’m not sure he’ll think to open a window. I hope we don’t come back to find him baked alive.’

Kamala is wonderfully no-nonsense: when I was still in denial that I’d killed the second of my plants, she hacked every root and shoot out, and then polished and watered the pot. Despite working in an anglophone flat for two years, she has resolutely refused to learn any English word except ‘Morning’, a greeting which she imbues with such withering diphthongic sarcasm that it sounds like a genealogical insult. I find her Hindi utterly indecipherable (she’s Nepali, like many of Delhi’s domestic workers, and hates the city); she finds mine utterly hilarious and often tells me so. Our interactions are a clash of civilisations in miniature, and we end up head-bobbling at each other—me in confusion, her exasperation. The worst of these involved a sanitary towel. Unfortunately, she pronounced it so that it sounded exactly like the Hindi word for ‘tree’. I was bemused until she did a Michael-Jackson-style crotch grab.

We aren’t good people to work for, I don’t think. Most Indians I’ve met treat their staff with great patience, and understand things like when to give festival presents and what recipes to demand and that occasional random days off will be taken. My one Indian housemate doesn’t seem to believe in any of this, and the rest of us are clueless. I’m torn between resentment of a work ethic that involves one day’s work being skipped every fortnight, relief that I don’t have to cook or do the laundry, sympathy for the low wages and dull work, and grudging respect for the fact there isn’t a cowed or obsequious bone in Kamala’s body. So we’ll muddle through for one more month, and when I leave she’ll inherit whichever of my abandoned possessions take her fancy—kurtas, electricity magazines, phone charger, Hindi Harry Potter. And one day I hope she gets, like me, to escape back home away from this infernal city.

The shrine itself (no turning your back)

Paddling in the murky pond of Delhi, every now and then I accidentally swallow some culture. (Don’t worry—I take prophylactic measures—just yesterday I found myself hurling spheres of fluorescent urethane in ‘India’s most advanced cosmic bowling centre’ with a bitterness I usually reserve for courgettes, iceskating, and the Daily Telegraph.)

First stop was Nizamuddin dargah, the shrine of the great Indian Sufi saint Shaykh Nizam-ud-Din Auliya. Back in March, Hannah and I brushed close to one of its more urine-soaked corners when we hopped on our delightful 25-hour train to Calcutta. This time I was back for real, albeit with a headscarf and a kindly friend to guide me through the alleys of staring eyes and pirate DVDs on the path to spirituality.

Sufism is a mystical, ascetic brand of Islam, which over the centuries fused bits and bobs of magic and other devotional traditions with Quranic meditation—to the extent that ‘un-Islamic’ Sufi shrines are frequent targets for suicide bombings in Pakistan today. People of all religions visit to pray for favours. As a young William Dalrymple’s (Sikh) landlady told him:

Crowd control

‘Well, if you’re not going to wear a turban then you should at least go to Nizamuddin,’ said Mrs Puri. ‘The saint there is very good at solving all sorts of calamities. Mark my words. Your baldness will be reversed in a jiffy.’

Nizamuddin preached the power of music to bring believers closer to God, and it it is for these hymns of devotion and remembrance, the sacred qawwalis, that small intrepid packs (hordelets?) of tourists join the praying crowds on Thursday evenings. Two harmonium players struck up a dirge, two tabla players drummed, and another two joined in as they began to sing, a high throaty tremble. It was gritty rather than melodious, but oddly gripping—especially because the musicians were like One Direction inverted in a funhouse mirror, a motley collection of snouty, battered men with gnarled mouths dripping lurid red paan-juice onto the tiles. 

The music began to build with a clatter of tabla and a collective howl. This evening, alas, devotees didn’t fall into a trance and whirl like the famous Sufi dervishes. Fat drops of rain began to pelt the musicians. A rather impressive stripey roof whirred down—but alas, there was a tear just above Toothless Wailer and the wads of devotional rupees were getting wet, so God was packed up with the harmonium case for another day.

Today was another cultural mouthful, this time in the cotton-wool-safe farmhouse of modest patron ‘Zorba the Buddha’. Surrounded by burbling brooks and art-loving beetles, I took big gulps of not one but four major styles of Indian classical dance.

First was Kathak, a lovely North Indian style which seems to involve a lot of elegant pirouetting. It is apparently often associated with the Mughal courts, but in fact is much older (she says sagely).

Next was Bharatanatyam, a flouncy genitalia-obsessed Tamil style I’d once somehow heard a talk on, set to fluttering beats and syncopated religious chants rather than music. It was (is?) traditionally performed by devadasis, girls who were ‘married’ off to deities—and frequently acted as high-end temple prostitutes. Third was Odissi, a 2,000-year-old style from Orissa in eastern India. This was also associated with devadasis, as well as gotipuas—young dancing boys who dressed as girls. It started out sedately, before building to a frantic climax of vermillion-coated stomps.

The final demonstration was of Mohiniattam, a frankly deranged style from Kerala of swooping arm movements and ridiculous facial expressions. With the gurning, fake prayer hands, and ooh-it’s-Shiva miming, it was how I imagine Richard Dawkins would do Hinduism. Finally, they all came back for a mash-up dance-off battle to a big cheesy Heal the World-style tune—a micro-repeat of the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony. Because Delhi loves being reminded of how well all that went.

© British citizens (I assume)

What a lovely time we all had. It makes me worry slightly about how successful the ‘…IS GREAT britain‘ advertising posters scattered around the city are in comparison, especially because when I ask people what they think of ‘contemporary Britain’, they seem to pick out two slightly disheartening things: our uselessness in cricket, and mildly-offensive-yet-inexplicably-popular-here ’70s sitcom Mind Your Language. I have faith that Wallace & Gromit, a sinister robot hand, and a small Tellytubby hill are going to turn all that around.

Lobby art by Krishen Khanna, ITC Maurya

My life here—as you may have gathered—is a bit odd. Back in Blightistan, I’m more slumdog than millionaire. I won’t lie: my potential career options (international development? academia?) have been strongly influenced by the fact that being badly dressed is part of the uniform—fermented tweed, sola topi, bits of owl. So imagine my horror last week when I suddenly found myself interning as an almost-Footballers’ Wife.

Ninety percent of the time Housemate I is plugged Matrix-like into Sex and the City, but is secretly a social ninja. On Wednesday night she’d snared us tickets to a ‘fashion show cum IPL afterparty’. I refused, started to warm to the idea, found our companion would be a Russian model, and refused again.

Still, somehow we found ourselves lurching towards the Stalinistically-named luxury hotel ITC Maurya. To preserve the social order the tickets turned out to require that we (a) travelled in couples and (b) gave up all our personal details and Facebook access to pseudo-whiskey brand Signature. I quickly married a nice young Mussoorie lad called Harsh, and honey-trapped him into handing over his details.

Alas, we were distracted from the freebies by some bored bristly-faced blokes. ‘That’s ※☭☮♙✯!’ exclaimed someone. We dutifully shambled up for a photo with some famous Delhi Daredevils, surrounded by hopefully blinking girls—as a group, Indian Premier League players are the second highest-paid athletes in the world, richer even than the average Premiership footballer. This culminated in one particularly resourceful friend stalkerishly cornering a Bollywood actress in the ladies’.

The Show began. A couple of oiled shirtless chaps with pectorals like unripe yellow Alphonsos shuffled down the runway looking a bit sheepish. Every now and then a girlmodel stalked through wearing an expensive skirt made of teatowels and glared at the crowd. All proceeds to charity.

I hiccuped happily.

Next came an hideously inappropriate cheerleading troupe called ‘White Mischief’, and the IPL players perked up. They gambolled like lambs before wolves, lambs with heavy tangerine makeup and dubiously imported accents. One by one the cricketers were called up to cavort awkwardly with the cheerleaders—including Britain’s very own Kevin Pietersen, ending his stint as reportedly the IPL’s most expensive player at £1 million for six weeks, despite the great Indian pun ‘white men can’t stump’. (Later I felt obliged to have my photo taken with him, though unfortunately neither of us was cavorting.)

By this point we had well and truly sampled the delights of Signature and India’s vineyards. The dancing began. Alas, only for us, though I attempted to lure some bystanders into the Charleston and burbled about intercultural harmony.

We concluded with quite possibly the worst idea since my earlier ill-advised ‘interview’ in the Claridges bar (but that’s another story). An evil ringleader decided to elude our muscular but slow-motion security guard and dive into the VIP section, and we all followed for precisely 24 seconds of glorious We Are The Beautiful People dancing, before being gently ushered back into the prole pen. Finally, we danced with a bona fide dwarf. After a bit of dwarf grinding, Housemate I’s potential squeeze shamefacedly revealed himself to be entirely sober, and drove us safely home.

Just another night in D-Town.

Apologies for the long delay, dearest Readers—I’ve been busy hobnobbing with some of India’s finest energy geeks and politicos. I’ve yet to fully digest the unevenly electrifying boluses they’ve slipped me, but here are some musings on what’s going well and what’s not.

1. Wooing the elites

‘Will they actually talk to you?’ innocent civilians often ask. Simply gaining access to the elites is the most obvious research hurdle—although it is eminently doable.

As a former Oxford Union president once Facebook-boasted with characteristic douchebaggy flair:

It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know.

The researcher of elites, one guide advises, needs many of the characteristics of the social climber: ‘everyone who might possibly know someone, must be contacted and asked if they will give introductions, vouch for one, and otherwise help one’s enterprise.’ (Non-corporate) Brits would undoubtedly cringe at my naked opportunism—I do cringe inwardly, alas, and often wimp out of asking directly—but people in India are fortunately more sympathetic, and friends, acquaintances, and interviewees have often been very helpful. Let’s face it: all elites of all societies operate on this principle, this one just more unabashedly than most.

The barriers to elite access have probably been overrated, too—at least for someone in my position. As wonderfully-named pair Gewirtz & Ozga argue, access is more likely to be granted if the researcher seems ‘perfectly harmless’. As a young, female foreigner, in my interviewees’ eyes I’m about as harmless as a sickly baby koala, and can get away with asking ‘naive’ awkward questions while they play teacher. (Senior politicians and civil servants in Britain would be far more suspicious and hostile, I’m sure.) The exception is business elites, who find me about as appealing as gonorrhoea on toast.

Physical access has been the most demeaning part of the whole process—although only for international conversations. Arriving 15 minutes early at the Australian High Commission, I was told I couldn’t wait outside but had to keep moving. So I sullenly read a book, taking a few steps every couple of minutes as the guards eyed me. At the American embassy the suspicion was probably my own fault: I was inadvertently carrying a highly questionable electronics-filled package. Visions of Gitmo flashed past my eyes.

2. The lost art of conversation 

The single most important technique for successful elite interviews, it is widely agreed, is extensive, customised preparation. True, except several interviewees have asked for almost spontaneous meetings—two hours’ notice on a Saturday for one particularly interesting bureaucrat. A far bigger problem, though, has been what Susan Ostrander called elites’ endearing

tendencies to converse easily, freely, and at great length but not necessarily with the kind of substantive content the research requires.

Try as I might, I just can’t get some of them to shut up and answer my questions, rather than trotting off down entertaining tangents, even when I’ve already outlined my terribly optimistic ‘agenda’ for the meeting. With an embittered sigh, one expert simply advises that it is courting frustration and failure to go in expecting clear answers to particular questions; digressions and overall impressions may be as useful, and are much more likely to be obtained. The most interesting details have emerged so far when interviewees are most relaxed and conversation is flowing freely (so turning on a recorder is also unthinkable). Sigh. Tips on a postcard, please.

3. Are they lying?

Everyone expects those with power to lie. But do they lie more than other people? How does any ethnographer know their informant is ‘telling the truth’? Actually, my experience seems more like that of Julian Brash as he investigated New York City’s business elites and municipal authorities. He began expecting to have to probe the linkages between capitalism and the bureaucracy indirectly and subtly, but was surprised to find many interviewees were open about it. Here too, as Brash suggests,

the powerful operate in a world that is almost completely self-justified, thus rendering obscuration and dishonesty unnecessary.

I am but a gnat on the Indian elites’ windscreen, and most are convinced they’re (trying to) do the right thing.

4. Are elites people too?

Before we hit the field, each research project goes up before NHS death panel-like bureaucrats who assess whether it will die/be cruelly amputated/allowed to struggle onwards towards the light. This committee also rigorously probes the project’s morality (although admittedly they do seem unhealthily fond of making mice innards luminous). This makes sense: anthropologists—who in any case tend to be ethically sensitive types, innately prone to outbreaks of fruitarianism and adopting street puppies—have traditionally worked with vulnerable subjects, seen as requiring protection and empowerment.

But what about when the asymmetry of status, voice, and power between subjects and researcher is reversed? Elites clearly don’t need humble research-lepers to empower them. What are the ethics of interviewing someone who can shield themselves from exposure or criticism, and quite possibly have you deported on a whim? Where is the line between self-censorship and deception? Some argue even obtaining informed consent from such interviewees ‘seems an impossible ideal…an implicit double standard’.

Inevitably, there are researchers who have (arguably) taken this too far (David Mosse’s controversial ‘breach of trust’ in belatedly deciding to write an ethnography, Cultivating development, of his own DFID colleagues; Jennifer L. Pierce’s getting hired as a paralegal at law firms to carry out covert participant observation). In fact, I’ve found most interviewees supportive of critical, political research. As Gewirtz & Ozga found, the powerful understand the purpose of academic research more than most others; indeed, already two have urged me to write a book on specific aspects of Indian energy policy. Elites may be more beautiful and damned than the rest of us, but they also appreciate most the analysis of how power works.