Posts Tagged ‘culture’

A belated celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday
—though in my defence nobody seems to know the date anyway—
in which I realise too late that Shakespeare and travel writing have little in common…

And I’ll be sworn ’tis true: travellers ne’er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn ’em.
—Antonio, The Tempest

‘Say it, Othello.’ Picture the scene: a shabby-chic rooftop café somewhere, all nursing warm beers. The Moor is holding forth over a small pot of hummus: ‘battles, sieges, fortunes… hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach…’

It seems all your companions are equally well travelled. To your left, two women are comparing souvenirs. The Queen of the Fairies, waving a bottle of Hoegaarden, is showing off her latest: ‘a lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king’.

She is interrupted by a bearded lady, who proudly displays a severed thumb. ‘Yes, all the way from Syria… In a sieve I thither sailed, like a rat without a tail—it’s the only way to really see the place…’

You try a #humblebrag of your own. ‘This one time in Hampi, I swallowed a bug the size of a cat.’

cannibal_shoulder_heads

Men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders, woodcut map Tabula Asiae VIII by Sebastian Münster, Basel (1540)

Othello stares at you, and continues with his story:

          of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

Shakespeare has a way with the world. As a cold, bored schoolchild, I was tickled by this playful geography—though today, as a sometime travel writer, it seems dangerous to admit.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, arguably the first great age of globalization, travel literature was almost as popular as it is now—and the playwright devoured it. His plays meander all over the map, from the castles of Denmark and Scotland to Vienna, Ephesus, and Fair Verona. Today, inevitably, a whole host of tourist companies have cashed in to offer Shakespeare tours.

But this geography is both evocative and slippery. After all, Shax didn’t actually travel outside England himself. Nobody is even really sure why his theatre was called The Globe. Sometimes his locations seem thin and almost interchangeable: deserts, wilds, blasted heaths and vasty deeps. The Tempest is set on a mysterious cloud-laced island—the Mediterranean? Bermuda? Ireland?—on the brink of dissolving into thin air. Ben Jonson, more of a details man, noted tartly that Shakespeare had located a ‘shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea near by some 100 miles’.

Then there are Shakespeare’s funny foreigners themselves, from Amazons to Othello’s Anthropophagi. He is hardly a documentary realist, or a cuddly liberal cosmopolitan: his world is stuffed with pirates, savages, witches, fairies, dukes, changelings, embittered Jews, perfidious Frenchmen, and rumours of mountain folk ‘Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em / Wallets of flesh’. (He appears to draw the line at unicorns.) Nor is his history any more accurate: his Cleopatra pauses to play billiards.

Shakespeare’s travelling wisdom: who doesn’t learn languages the Caliban way? 'You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’

Shakespeare’s travelling wisdom: who doesn’t learn languages the Caliban way? ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’

What is the hold of Shakespeare’s sense of place, then? Should we worry, with Jonson, about his relaxed attitude to authenticity? Certainly this isn’t travel literature as we know it—though great travel writers from Marco Polo to Bruce Chatwin have also been accused of telling porkies.

There is certainly something thrilling about the potential for wonder in the Shakespearean world. There can be no such words as HERE THERE BE DRAGONS in the age of Google Maps. Tall tales must be that bit shorter.

But only lazy writing is really about dragons in the first place. Shakespeare’s plays are not about the destination—but neither are they about ‘the journey’, as the cliché goes. Sure, his characters are stormed, shipwrecked, and jump off cliffs. Unlike most pre-millennial travel literature, though, only rarely do we see them actually en voyage. Instead we see people, in all their infinite variety, grappling with the cultural vertigo that comes from strange places, metamorphosis, and the inevitable comparisons with home.

It’s a curiously fitting vision for the twenty-first century. We, at least of we of the wealthy tourist class, are all castaways, constantly remaking ourselves (and swapping gender roles?). But it’s also an age when travel is banal, and Puck’s words are (almost) true:

OBERON: We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon…
PUCK: I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

So I guess the lesson I took from all those schooldays with Shax was really quite simple. No matter where you are, go forth and chat with all the perfidious Frenchmen and bearded ladies you can find.*

* Author’s note: I wrote this a while before Eurovision, but… I rest my case.

conchita wurst

Conchita Wurst

Special K

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Delhi life
Tags: , , , , , ,

I suppose it was inevitable. Japanese imperialism may have stalled just east of India, but its most (in)famous invention has screechily colonised much of Asia and primetime TV worldwide. (Incidentally, my grandfather was very vaguely involved in the former, with a quiet dignity that seems characteristic of the family. He received a war pension for injuries sustained in Burma—turns out he tipsily fell out of a house-on-stilts and broke his nose. Other lion-hearted ancestors include miscellaneous frauds and drunkards; several Bengalis who greeted the opportunity to become imperial minions with unseemly boot-kissing eagerness; and one shipwrecked whaler who allegedly ate a cabin boy.) The surprise is that karaoke took so long to get here.

Baffling video for Simon & Garfunkel

The popular Japanese drug hit D-Town in January 2007 and its abuse has increased exponentially since. It caters especially to the increasing numbers of East Asians in the city—so we found ourselves in a very nice Korean restaurant, furtively edging towards the microphone across puddles of seafood broth. The karaoke menu was a vast weighty tome, 95% full of either Korean or Wingdings. This was a professional operation.

As enema-loving Karaoke Sauron Simon Cowell has realised, we all secretly believe we have innate musical talent. In my case I appear to be pathologically unable to keep this delusion secret.

Rarely am I accused of an excess of gravitas or reserve at the best of times—and then I was introduced to soju, a Korean liquor that tastes deceptively innocuous but in fact is ‘composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave and four parts clarified Satan‘. These, it turns out, are the ingredients of a karaoke monster.

Keep your friends close and your microphone-enemies even closer. Note the fetching monsoon Jewfro.

I’ll gloss over the events of the next painful hours of despotic mic-hogging, yowling, rapping (oh god), eyes-closed Cher renditions, and spatters of grisly-looking kimchi. Suffice to say my voice was even better with the chorus of mucus a summer cold had brought. The other customers were evacuated, white-faced. Every video was accompanied by an entirely inappropriate video—Queen with a Lord of the Rings tribute, ‘Mrs Robinson’ with what looked like a ham sandwich commercial. Some oaf put on Jingle Bells. Every now and then a Korean-language song came on and we’d bawl ‘Wonderwall’ over the top with all the cultural sensitivity of the Beijing Olympics—the staff were near tears, and on reflection we were quite possibly massacring the Korean national anthem.

Weirdly, though, the clientele was heavily expat, with a smattering of overseas-stricken locals. Indians love singing and Delhi loves camp—you’d think Bollykaraoke start-ups would be on every street corner. But maybe its pure unadulterated uncool is the reason it hasn’t really taken off yet. Being a Bourgeois Young Dilliwallah is all about performance—looking sophisticated, fashionable, and composed. Most B.Y.Ds drink photogenically, not with the liver-nuking bingey zeal of Westerners; they go to chic all-you-can-eat brunches and sushi places and nibble cucumber rolls; to huge spasming beats they dance sleekly with sky-high stilettos and without sweatiness. Everything is self-conscious, earnest.

Karaoke, on the other hand, is ritual public humiliation—and you walk into it voluntarily, tongue ostentatiously in cheek. Like kitsch (or blogging…), it attempts to tread the fine exhibitionist line between irony and cretinous narcissism. Are your buddies laughing with you or at you?

With that unnerving thought, I’m off to hyperventilate into a paper bag.

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.

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.