India III

Whenever I leave Montreal, as much as I miss my home there while I am away, it is always a relief to get away from the ridiculous political landscape in Quebec, especially now, after that evil douchebag, Pauline Marois, has taken over at the helm. It turns out I left behind one sovereignist movement back home to enter an even more vitriolic one over here. A bit of history: In 1953, 6 years after the English ceded India its independence from The British Empire in 1947 (on condition that they could take several million Indians back to the UK with them in order to establish a curry house on every other street corner), the States Reorganization Committee (SRC) was appointed to prepare for the creation of states on linguistic lines. Despite considerable opposition, the poor Telugu-speaking Telangana region (which Hyderabad is in) was merged with the more prosperous Andhra state to form the state of Andhra Pradesh with the SRC promising safeguards to Telangana in the form of a Gentleman’s Agreement (I’m not kidding!) Not surprisingly, over the past 59 years, Telangana has been complaining long and loud that the Gentleman’s Agreement has not been honored in any form whatsoever. Today, the Telangana United Front (TFU, which rhymes nicely with FLQ) is demanding the creation of a new state of Telangana to be carved out of the existing state of Andhra Pradesh.

Why am I explaining all of this? I had worked all day, Saturday 29 September, and had resolved to go out exploring the next day. Unfortunately, the TFU organized a massive million-strong separatist protest on that Sunday. The UN “strongly urged” staff to remain in the Hyderabad International Convention Center (HICC) or the hotels and not venture out onto the streets as there was a very real risk of violence. This is UN code for “if you ignore this warning and go out and get hurt, you are on your own.” Although I was bitter, it turned out there were, in fact, violent outbursts throughout the city to the extent that, on Monday, both Canada and the UK issued travel advisories warning people not to travel to Hyderabad.

So that sucked and I ended up just working most of the day after all. Adding to my resentment was the fact that on the same Sunday as the protest, it was the grand finale of Ganesh Chaturthi, an annual Hindu festival which is celebrated on the birthday, or re-birth, of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha. Although Indian deities outnumber the 1.3 billion population by a ratio of approximately 2 to 1, Ganesha is one that is almost universally worshipped. I had neglected to mention in my last blog that during my evening wanderings around my neighborhood, I often came across drummers and dancers (all men) writhing in front of giant inflatable purple Ganesha elephant heads mounted on pandals. On the tenth day of this religious festival (i.e. the same day as the Sunday protest, this year) all of these pandals are paraded through the streets and hundreds of elephant heads are summarily drowned in the river Musi – a serpentine toxic soup that slithers through Hyderabad. Apparently this immersion symbolizes a ritual see-off of the Ganesha in his journey towards his abode in ‘Kailash’ while taking away with him the misfortunes of his devotees. Considering how miserable the lives of so many of Ganesha’s devotees are, one wonders why this is not a land of staunch atheists. In any event, I really wanted to see this but, sadly, I was in lockdown.

Nevertheless, I had an awesome experience the night before which compensated to some extent. During my night walk, I stumbled upon one of these drumming/dancing rituals and took a couple of pictures. One of the dancing men in the crowd hauled me in and put me in the centre as the drumming came to an abrupt halt. Terrified I was about to be attacked by the mob for photographing a religious rite, I was told in extremely broken English that after 3 drum beats I was to make a wish – if I danced with them afterwards, the Lord Ganesha would grant it to me. “When?” I asked. In true Indian style, the answer was “one day.” So much for wishing for a gigantic pile of cash to appear before me. The drum beat 3 times and I made my wish (I’ll never tell) and then danced with these guys for the next hour and a half. I spent another hour having my photograph taken with every one of them – lamentably, I only caught a couple on my own camera but I’ll post those I have on Facebook when I get back home.

It was an unforgettable experience. I did ask them where all the women were. They just shook their heads and said “no woman.” Either the women are barred from the lead-up celebrations or they are smart enough to know that an inflatable purple elephant head is not likely to solve anyone’s problems. I am guessing it is probably both.

So, the weekend was a write off and from Monday 1 October – Friday 5 October, I was just swamped with work and spent the vast majority of my time in HICC and my hotel room. However, below are some brief observations in bullets:

  • After watching the fantastic movie, Slumdog Millionaire, last year, I was under the impression that Indians went back and forth between Hindi (or whatever their native language is) and English – an official language of India alongside Hindi. This is most definitely not the case for the average Indian out on the street. In general, only university educated Indians are reasonably fluent in English. Considering only 15% of the Indian population makes it to high school (and just 7%, of the 15% who make it to high school, graduate), the percentage of Indians holding university degrees is tiny. Even at HICC and in the hotels, you spend half of your time playing charades and drawing diagrams to make yourself understood. Curiously, all of the signs in India are in English and very few are subtitled in Hindi. I assume this is a 65-year-old colonial hangover. Either that or Indians are perfectly fluent in English and, as a source of amusement, are just fucking with the foreigners by feigning not to understand the language. Again, it could be a bit of both.
  • Rolling blackouts are constant. Apparently, on average they occur about 4 hours every day throughout Hyderabad. The blackouts were chronic when I first arrived (although both my hotel and HICC have backup generators) and, when I went out walking at night, the surging crowds on the streets appeared wraithlike, silhouetted by car headlights in the swirling dust. However, ever since the conferences started, they appear to have stopped. I assume the City Council has decided to spare the area surrounding the HICC from the rolling blackouts. Presumably, they are doing this so as not to freak out the foreigners too much, preferring instead to torment them by pretending not to understand English.
  • Every singly Indian I have met so far has insisted upon calling me ‘sir’, which I hate. Here is a conversation I had with a tuk-tuk driver late last night as I was returning to my hotel.

Me: Swagath Residency, please.

Tuk-Tuk Driver [sideways head nodding]: Yes sir!

Me: Please don’t call me ‘sir’. It bugs me.

Tuk-Tuk Driver [sideways head nodding]: Yes, sir!

Me [sighing and showing the driver my hotel card]: Do you know how to get     here?

Tuk-Tuk Driver [sideways head nodding]: Yes, sir!

Me: Don’t call me ‘sir’. I insist. Now, let’s go.

Tuk-Tuk Driver [sideways head nodding]: Yes, sir!

Me [10 seconds later]: Um, you’re going in the wrong direction. Even I know that. It’s back that way. Where I came from.

Tuk-Tuk Driver [sideways head nodding and merrily continuing on in the wrong direction]: Yes, sir!

Me: You don’t understand a single, solitary word I’m saying, do you?

Tuk-Tuk Driver [sideways head nodding]: Yes, sir!

Etc., etc.

  • The young men here (some of the older ones too) often walk the streets arm-in-arm or holding hands. And they are NOT gay – homosexuals and transgenders are so low down the pike that the street sweepers belonging to the spat-upon Shudra caste are held in considerably higher esteem. This is what makes the blatant ubiquitous homoeroticism out on the streets so mystifying. I will try and find out more about this and report on it in a later blog.
  • Every morning, the India Times, The Hindu or some other English-language newspaper is slid under my hotel room door and I read it over breakfast and when I come back from HICC. Oddly, what has struck me most is the morbid fascination the press has with reporting on suicides. There must be 3 or 4 short suicide items a day in the papers. This morbid fascination has infected me – mainly because, in almost every single instance, the individuals in question have chosen to hang themselves by ceiling fans (the women typically using chunni – a long, multi-purpose scarf that they all wear over here). What is it with the ceiling fans? So far, I have read of only one exception. Two young lovers were banished from their village after marrying against the wishes of their parents (the girl belonged to a higher caste than the boy). They came to Hyderabad and could not find work. Succumbing to abject poverty, they simultaneously hung themselves from a tree, a 15-page suicide note left below their dangling feet. Written in English. Gaaaaaaa!!!!

Anyway, on that cheery note (this is getting overly long again) I am going to sign off. I did some touring this weekend and I have a bunch more of these observational bullets but that will have to wait for the next blog.

About Requiem for the Damned

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