Tag Archives: India

A year of life after Delhi

mehndi

This morning, as I was waiting for my extremely pretentious puehr-tea-with-dried-chrysanthemums to brew, I noticed my diary from last year sitting on a shelf, covered, as expected, with a light dusting of Gobi desert. It was strange flipping through 2012 again, with notes-to-self including “Republic Day – no Hindi class”, “Train to Orissa 6:30am” and “Chai in Chanakyapuri… Visit astrologer??” March 26th said “Close bank account”; a note which jolted me right back into the Saket branch of HDFC, where I had an awkward farewell with Harshvardhan Singh, who broke my heart by saying “I am destroying your cheque book in front of you, madam” and ripping the thing to shreds. Sigh.

Can you believe, dear readers, that it’s been a year since I left Delhi?

I think about India a lot, and I miss it. The chai and the autorickshaws, the choley kulcha stall at Delhi University. Mother Dairy butterscotch ice cream cones and Café Coffee Day. The smells of Old Delhi, Paharganj, INA market. The cows. The monkeys. The green parrots. Speaking in Hindi. Ajay Devgn’s moustache.

I will never forget my India, ever. Ever.

I promise.

But now, dear readers, it’s time to proclaim to the world that I think my heart belongs to China. To Inner Mongolia, especially. And to Baotou – Centre of the Universe. The city where women wear silver leggings and thigh-high faux-leather stilettoes to go to the supermarket, and where taxi drivers have cigarettes in one hand and iPhones in the other, and where eating frog hotpot is totally normal. It is completely mad here, beyond all comprehension, and for some reason that seems to suit me and I love it. And I’ve signed a contract to stay another year.

My students, some old, some new (including a boy called Squall and a girl called Eric), are hardworking and hilarious. I’m giving lectures on European History and Culture (or, more accurately, what I’ve taught myself about European history and culture via the BBC primary schools’ website), encouraging more Chinglish metaphors in my writing classes, and still attempting to learn Chinese.

The gym didn’t quite agree with me, though. A tragic loss, I know, but now I have a lot more free time to shovel Mr Cake red bean doughnuts into my face.

And what about my Chinese future husband? Well, it turns out he can cook and do kung fu, possibly even at the same time. Who wouldn’t want to marry a guy like that?!

This time last year my hands were doodled with mehndi from Green Park market and my suitcase – full of sparkly sandals, salwaar kameez and statues of Saraswati – was wrapped, Indian-style, in cling film. This year I still wear the jasmine perfume I bought from an old man in Varanasi, and the green parrot earrings from Dilli Haat. And now a fake jade necklace from Beijing. I listen to Bollywood and Fenghuang Chuanqi in roughly equal measures. And, yes, I drink pretentious puehr-tea-with-dried-chrysanthemums, but I also drink adharak wali chai. And sometimes when I try to speak Chinese, Hindi comes out instead.

This year pink cherry blossoms are slowly appearing on the Baotou trees, and I’m sentimental, as usual, but very happy.

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Caffeine dreams

As most of you know, I spent much of my time in India cultivating a dangerous chai habit. Every time I passed a local chaiwallah in Delhi I couldn’t resist buying a tiny cup of sweet, milky amazingness. It got me through the painful Hindi grammar lessons at DU, warmed me up on chilly winter mornings and gave me a little kick on hot, summery afternoons. These cups of desi tea were the sugary punctuation marks that organised my day.

But I have a confession to make. As much as I love a scalding-hot cup of full-fat cardamom chai, my first love – hot beverage-wise – has always been coffee.

When I was twelve, my friend and I used to go to a cafe after school and force ourselves to drink extra-chocolatey mochas. We hated coffee but were determined to acquire the taste so that we’d be able to sit sipping cappuccinos like sophisticated European grown-ups. The training worked, and before long I was on the hard stuff – strong, black, no sugar. And I never looked back.

In fact I admit that I may have turned into a bit of a coffee snob. Sure, there’s a time and a place for St*rbucks, but everyone knows you don’t get a decent caffeine hit from a Grande Extra-Hot Super-Skinny mug of milk.

Not that I only drink coffee for the caffeine. Making proper coffee is a morning ritual (as well as lunchtime, mid-afternoon and evening); the smell, the water just off the boil – and of course, if there’s time, it’s best enjoyed while still wearing pyjamas. But yes, I suppose the caffeine does count.

Drinking decent coffee is a particular necessity for teachers, obviously. I mean, how else could I survive a Monday morning class at 8am with twenty five students obsessed with Gangnam Style dancing? It takes energy. And when it’s still dark and minus fifteen degrees, I don’t have a lot of that.

So it’s a pity I’m living in another country of tea drinkers. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese tea (and here we’ve also got Mongolian milk tea, but best not to get me started on that), it’s just that it’s a bit too… healthy. Flowery. Leafy. A cup of water and leaves is not going to help me teach “Encounters with Westerners” classes to a lecture theatre full of giggling Chinese twentysomethings.

They also drink cups of plain hot water here. I mean, come on.

Anyway, for almost three months I had no choice but to resort to Nescafe. It works, and doesn’t taste all that bad, really, but oh, how I pined for my French press, my Italian moka pot, my Turkish cezve...

And then a miracle happened. Lisa took me shopping the other week so I could stock up on a few essentials (Christmas lights, alphabet fridge magnets and satsumas) and in the market I spotted a glass cafetiere. At first, in shock, I was sure I was dreaming, or suffering from some sort of Nescafe-induced hallucination, but no. It was real. Made in China, of course, but still with all-important proper-coffee-producing capabilities. I may have shrieked with joy.

Oh, and it was £3, I might add. I was smugness personified.

One week, and the scouring of the “Imported Goods” aisles of three Baotou supermarkets later, I acquired some ground coffee. And my life in China hasn’t been the same since. I can even take my freshly-brewed caffeinated amazingness to work in a thermos, to slurp with satisfaction as my students sit at their desks, bundled up in puffa jackets, writing topic sentences, discussing intercultural communication, Gangnam dancing…

It was all just blissful until English Bloke decided to calculate my daily caffeine intake. Because now I feel a bit like a drug addict. But never mind – unlike all the Indian chai, at least this habit won’t require a root canal treatment.

Don’t know when I’ll be back again…

I’m leaving! On a jet plane! Tomorrow!

***

Six months ago it was winter and I was in Delhi, wearing fuzzy boots and a yak wool shawl, sitting on a floor cushion in Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas Village. Brandi was working there at the time, and so I was in the habit of going along regularly to drink honey and ginger tea and distract her.

That day my main purpose of going to sit in Kunzum was to agonise over the job I’d been offered in Inner Mongolia. The job I’d applied for a week earlier on a complete whim. The job I’d applied for kind of as a joke, because “Inner Mongolia” sounded like the most obscure place on the planet, and  therefore I obviously needed to go there.

That day Kunzum was doing a project-type-thing with postcards, where someone would write something on one, and it would be sent to another someone, somewhere else. Loads of people had emailed in their mailing addresses so they could receive a mysterious anonymous postcard, but not that many people had actually come to the cafe to write one. So Brandi gave me a postcard and a pen and told me to get started. And this is what I wrote.

***

Six months – and a lot of agonising – later, my bags are packed (well, sort of) and I’m ready to go and start living another one of my whims. On Friday I’ll be in Beijing, and next Monday I’ll be in Baotou, my new home by the Gobi desert. I just hope that China’s infamous Great Firewall doesn’t completely block WordPress, because I imagine this next year will come with a lot of writing opportunities. Stay tuned!

FILMI FIX! (Ajay Devgn Special!)

Ooh, look! The moustachioed superstar of my dreams (literally), who may or may not have had or be having an affair with Kangana Ranaut (although, really, there must be better women to have affairs with?) is finally getting a full Filmi Fix dedication on my blog. Which, my dear readers, is a bigger deal than an Oscar or even a Stardust Award.

First, there was the original Bollywood dream, where Ajay and Katrina Kaif and I were sitting on a sofa wearing matching pyjamas. The two of them kept saying that they hoped I wasn’t just hanging out with them because they were famous, and I kept replying, “No! Of course not! You’re both such nice, genuine, real people!” (But, at the same time I couldn’t help thinking, “Ugh! Why does Katrina Kaif have to be here? She’s far more attractive than me!”)

Then there was the dream where Ajay and I were fighting aliens with laser guns, and he, at the same time (he’s so good at multi-tasking) was begging me not to leave India. His moustache was trembling with the impending heartbreak, and I woke up seriously considering a career in Bollywood.

THEN there was the dream (it was last night, actually) where Ajay and Shah Rukh Khan and I were shooting a big action blockbuster at the Lal Qila in Delhi. There were lots of guns and exploding cars and the director was very impressed with my performance as the lead female.

I swear I’m not making any of this up. This really is real stuff that my subconscious has created, for whatever bizarre reason.

Anyway, enough about my subconscious. Let’s watch some Ajay Devgn videos.

Ah, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Possibly the best thing to ever come out of Bollywood. And doesn’t dear Ajay look youthful with that late-nineties hairdo and baby-soft moustache-less face?! WHAT was Aishwarya thinking, going off to Budapest (I mean ‘Italy’) to find Salman Khan when she had the handsomest husband ever? I suppose the whole love triangle thing did give her plenty of opportunities to do that classic ‘woe is me’ expression she’s so good at. And she chose right in the end.

Okay, admittedly this song is awful and makes my ears hurt but it’s another chance to swoon over Ajay’s nineties hairdo.

Apparently my friend Joanna was an extra in this film (Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai). This makes me very jealous. I did go and see this at the cinema though, and this song is really nice. I remember thinking that if I were a man I would have this exact same moustache.

Finally, a bit of comedy. I mean action. When I saw this one (Singham) at the cinema I couldn’t stop laughing at this video. Partly because it’s just like the opening track in Dabangg. And partly because of the litres of baby oil dripping off Ajay. Why couldn’t I have been an extra in this?!

Just another day in Glasgow

“The problem wi’ Glasgow is all them bloody foreigners!” the old woman said between drags of cigarette and swigs of instant coffee. “They come over fi’ Poland an’ that an’ take all the bloody jobs! An’ –” she coughed “– that’s why everyone’s unemployed!” She slammed her coffee mug down, flicked the cigarette and adjusted her nightie. Seeing my expression, her face softened a bit. “Don’t worry, he’ll be out in a minute. He’s gettin’ dressed up an’ doin’ his hair. Thinks he’s goin’ on a date or somethin’.”

Finally, after what seemed like hours, my interviewee appeared in the doorway of the kitchen – hair gelled to perfection – and said we could go into the living room to complete the survey. I mumbled a goodbye to the grandmother, who grunted and lit up another cigarette.

It was just another day in my weird job, really.

Following Delhi’s slightly embarrassing attempt to host the Commonwealth Games back in 2010 (I’m pretty sure that big stadium by Connaught Place still isn’t finished), it’s now Glasgow’s turn to shoulder the burden. I remember watching the CWG closing ceremony in a sports bar in Mumbai (I’d purposely run away from the capital for the duration of the games), and being very amused by the abundance of tartan, kilts and bagpipes (not to mention a makeshift Loch Ness monster) being flung around the stadium in an attempt to ‘celebrate’ the passing of the [whatever the CWG equivalent of the Olympic torch is] onto another (un)fortunate city. Lucky Glasgow!

So in preparation for this ‘fabulous’ event, about half the city is being demolished and rebuilt, with lots of fancy new buldings, fancy new roads and, perhaps most usefully – a fancy new velodrome. (I’m sure there isn’t a Scot alive who wouldn’t want to roll out of bed, hop on his bike and cycle round and round some smooth, vertical walls at a trillion miles and hour!) Anyway, the point is, the good people at Glasgow University, and a few other organisations, want to find out how (or if) all this urban renewal stuff is actually going to benefit the health and wellbeing of the people who live in the city’s East End – where the Games are going to be.

Now, in the same way that Azadpur isn’t quite up to Vasant Vihar standards, the East End isn’t the swankiest part of Glasgow, and so there’s loads of regeneration going on there anyway. But the arrival of the Commonwealth Games will just give the whole process a little kick up the proverbial rear end.

As yet, there hasn’t been much research into how all this will affect the residents. And so that’s where I come in! Well, me and quite a lot of other people. We’re working all summer on a survey about the impact of urban regeneration and the Commonwealth Games on the people who live in the east of Glasgow, which means we go out onto the streets, meet the locals, sit in their kitchens and, through an interview/questionnaire-type-thing, collect information (or ‘data’ to use the fancy term) about their lives, their homes, their feelings… and it’s proving to be really interesting.

It’s fascinating to catch glimpses of all the different lives being lived in this city, in my country. To be invited into friendly homes to drink tea and laugh and listen to people I’d never otherwise meet. To give them a chance to voice their opinions and to feel like, maybe, from writing down these opinions I could help change the city for the better (although, perhaps not including rants about “bloody foreigners”…).

In the past couple of weeks I’ve met young people and old people; people just engaged at forty-five and people married for sixty years; sporty people, lazy people; workers, mothers, unemployed, retired, Scottish, foreign, happy, sad… And I think, by the time this job is over, I’ll have learned a lot from all of them.

To end on a slightly ridiculous note, here’s an article about one of the more inventive ways the city of Glasgow is preparing itself for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.  I can only imagine the results if the same thing had been in done in Delhi…

Chai O’clock in Edinburgh

Although it’s not difficult to find Indian food in here in Edinburgh, getting something that’s both authentic and affordable is a completely different story. Last month I went out for a tasty meal at a local Indian restaurant but was horrified at the prices: £2.15 for ONE tandoori roti? A fiver for a side portion of dal? It was absolute madness. But to be fair, the restaurant was one of the city’s posher ones; the kind with that velvety wallpaper and fancy lampshades, and waiters in waistcoats.

There are cheaper places, though, like 10 to 10 in Delhi, with its embroidered floor cushions, Rajasthani wall hangings and pictures of Aishwarya Rai (before she got too fat, obviously). It’s a nice, cozy place, and the food, chai and lassis are great, but with menus stapled into empty Bollywood DVD cases and ‘Teach Yourself Hindi’ books on the shelves, it’s just a bit too wannabe-desi for its own good. Plus it’s always filled with the kind of people who start every sentence with, ‘When I was backpacking in India…’ Groan.

A tad OTT, maybe

Even the Mosque Kitchen, which used to be one of my absolute favourite places in Edinburgh, has gone downhill in taste and uphill in price. They have an indoor space now, with an espresso machine, and it’s just not the same as when you used to sit outside in the freezing cold at long, folding tables, trying to stop the hungry pigeons flapping off with your naan.

But just when I was starting to lose hope of ever finding a decent place to soothe my India woes, I discovered Bollywood: The Coffee Box, in the vaguely trendy suburb of Bruntsfield. Jai Hind!

Best box in town

It’s probably the closest you’ll get to Indian street eating without forking out for a plane ticket and visa, and right now, in the middle of the Scottish heatwave, there’s nothing better than enjoying your samosas in the sunshine. Nutan (who’s the friendliest woman ever, and is from Delhi!) has turned one of Edinburgh’s defunct blue Police boxes into a tiny kitchen, where she prepares fresh veg and non-veg dishes, snacks like pakoda, and all kinds of coffee. She makes chai too, of course, and we chat in a mixture of Hindi and English as she adds millions of spices to a pot of milk and stirs a pan of sizzling tomatoes with the other hand. The Coffee Box has been going for six months, she says, and has become really popular, even being featured on the local BBC news.

I stay and drink my spicy chai with Nutan, and we talk about Delhi summers, Indian families and learning Hindi. And it reminds me of the culture of street food in India. Over there people don’t grab their takeaway cups and paper-wrapped snacks and eat them as they tear down the street, the way they do here. Food and chai, even water, should be respected, given time, savoured slowly. I learned in Delhi that even the busiest people in the biggest rush still manage to find five minutes to stop and eat or drink a cup of tea. I like that. “Come back soon!” says Nutan, and bursts out laughing.

She makes a mean cup of chai

FILMI FIX!

Way back in October 2009, I’d just arrived in India for the first time and was trying to get to grips with various complicated aspects of the culture, like threading a drawstring through a new pair of salwaar and taking a shower with a plastic bucket. As I was also very new to all things Bollywood, another confusing thing about India was the whole business of films having music videos randomly slotted between scenes. This strange idea took a bit of getting used to, but fortunately I was able to tune into channels like UTV Bindass, Zoom and 9XM and quite happily educate myself in the realms of sequin-encrusted filmi musical interludes.

Paisa’ (‘Money’) was THE song to have stuck in your head that month. I didn’t see the film it came from (De Dana Dan) until later as I’d gone to Australia by the time it was released, but I remember either hearing or watching that music video at least once a day the whole time I was in India. And it was weirdly addictive.

But what made something that was basically a blatant rip-off of that song by Usher so good? Was it the blinged-up Katrina Kaif in her desi diva outfit? Or Akshay, the action hero in Aviators? Perhaps it was the abundance of 1000 rupee notes flying around the under-dressed backing dancers while Katrina, in English, declared the hard truth, that “my love is priceless, baby – no money can buy me”. Who knows?

I spent those early days in Delhi zooming around Paharganj in an autorickshaw with a group of recently-befriended Dilliwallahs who wore a strict uniform of faux-designer sunglasses, Reebok trainers and jeans from Palika Bazaar. We’d crank up the volume (the auto had a CD player and speakers, obviously) and sing along to our favourite song while passers-by watched in awe and/or bewilderment. Apart from a few staples like ‘namaste’ and  ‘dhanyavad’, I didn’t know any Hindi at that point, but I still managed to join in with the chorus. I’ll always remember speeding around Connaught Place, wailing, “main baarish kar doon paise ki, jo tu ho jaaye meri…”, which translates, I now know, to something like, “I’ll shower you with money if you’ll be mine.” It goes without saying that doing the corresponding hands/thumbs/elbows dance move was also essential.

I must have looked very stupid indeed. But I was happy, so I didn’t care.