Yangon

Sometimes so many things come together that you can hardly believe your luck and you wait for the bubble to burst, for the honeymoon gleam to turn lacklustre. This is why I haven’t published since landing in Yangon. As it is, in spite of the thought of how first impressions can change into something lesser, these words drifted into my mind as I rode a taxi back from downtown to home.

“I’ve found my pocket in the world, it is Yangon. Sliding through the landscape of decomposing and upward buildings, in-between the crumble and the new, where the old shanty fronts of mildew-soaked laundry-hung condominiums look as Barcelona’s Casa Batllo, taking on an unnatural living beauty in the dusky city light, I rode the taxi and thought this is a place to live in and to stay.”

Before leaving India, a wealth of nightmares about the transition had occurred. They were namely to do with travelling with a cat to a foreign land all by myself. I pictured me, alone, independently doing a fine but losing balancing act of too much luggage and not enough hands along with Tiger, locked in a raspberry and cream cat-carrier, getting more and more angry, more and more frustrated, her green-gold eyes widening in abject horror and hatred while needing more and more a toilet to go to and someone to sink her claws into.

Never fear. Never worry. It could not have gone more seamlessly. OK, my Indian-made five hundred rupees (£5) suitcase exploded prompting a mad dash back through customs and the scanners to get it cellophane-wrapped but with that aside and rather like my suitcase the journey did go seamlessly. Thank you Thai Airlines and every person who helped me on that day. I didn’t lift a finger and was grateful beyond measure for the patience of strangers, the power of money as well as the worth of professionalism, understanding and grace under pressure. They even gave me a discount on my excess baggage while a fuming Canadian in the queue next to me did not; he never smiled but rather raged on uncontrollably about the extortionate costs of excess… as if he hadn’t done his research. (I gloat. I had. It came as no surprise.)

As the plane rested on the tarmac at Bangkok airport where I transited and the sun rose above Thailand, I looked out of the window and saw my bicycle in its case and Tiger inside her crate bouncing around upon the back of one of the luggage handlers trucks. It was a surreal sight to see my possessions out of my control, being managed on my behalf at that halfway point on my way to somewhere new. The cabin staff even had a picture text to them from the ground staff to prove to me that Tiger was on the plane and alive.

Fly into Myanmar, look out of the window and see water-soaked flat green brown mustard coloured snaking rivers and fields spotted with golden pagodas. Land in Myanmar when it’s just rained and it’s fresh and cool, a welcome, though temporary, break from the humidity of South India.

Stumble out of customs into the country that shall be my new home.

The next question I had was: what living place have I committed to? And, what will these people be like? Let me set the picture better. Yangon’s renting situation is pretty vile. Six to twelve months’ rent is demanded upfront and these are not reasonably priced rents such as can be found elsewhere in Asia. Oh no. $400 a month can find you a box room without furniture, without light, and placed on the seventh floor with no elevator. Knowing this, and aware I was travelling with a cat who likes her outdoors, I’d set about making the utmost of the Internet. Expat Yangon Connection on googlemail then Facebook with its various Yangon resources proved priceless. One Skype call, a healthy dose of trust and positive thinking later, I decided on what would be my new home while still in Kerala. That my new home had been seen only through the eye of a laptop camera and that the people who would be my welcome party and housemates had been met only likewise somehow gave me no cause for concern. I travelled with an open-heart though, as the car rolled up at my new address, I did think, “Well, here goes.”

The gates are knocked upon and I am met. I got lucky. I was met with hospitality and ease. Now, my lifestyle is how I never imagined it might be. There is a courtyard where I can sit peacefully while listening to the sounds of the market street that we live on. We’ve someone who does the cooking, the cleaning, and the ironing. I have so much time and none of it is dedicated to everyday chores that absorb so much of our lives.

As I read the Guardian’s online pages about the dire straits of the Y Generation, of which I am a part of, I can’t help but appreciate the outcome of a decision made nearly two years ago. Sure, I don’t own a home; I do not have a partner to share costs, burdens, life with; admittedly, my savings have dwindled and by the standards of my some of my peers my earnings are meagre. Although, really, are these the necessary benchmarks by which to measure one’s life or one’s successes? My life feels rich. In the end I felt I was unable to make England work for me, though I worked for it. I don’t know what will come of my time in Myanmar but I can feel myself hedging towards realizing the dreams I used to have: about making plays, about having the time to write, to finish projects as well as plenty of other notions. Some of this has been made possible by my decision to change the way that I made my income.

A long, long, long time ago, one disco-lit night in Brighton, I ran into an acquaintance who I was aware had been enjoying his time in various tropical climes, even though I knew he wasn’t well off. I asked him how he did it and he replied TEFL. A seed was sewn and eventually manifested itself.

From that point in the past we go to sometime in August 2015 when I projected myself outwards and forwards and realized what it is to teach English as a foreign language. It’s to find opportunities present themselves easily and to feel intangible aspects of oneself move towards one’s futures in the way a blind-seer’s fingers caress the air before them to detect what might lie ahead. Off they went, those aspects of myself, to experience, precede and play out all possibilities prior to the final act of a decision and a job offer that would then become set in history as the event that actually happened. All of this – this tampering and toying with possibility – occurs because here’s an industry that is so immense it encapsulates the globe and is burgeoning, swelling with opportunity, giving people chance to dream, to unspool reels of film that project what life could be and the ability to make them a reality; it is a job that affords you – me – anyone – the art of transitioning from a life not-so-adored to a life plenty with opportunity. Sure, great riches may not befall we teachers, at least not the fiscal kind, but other riches, riches hard to measure or to put a stamp upon, do come.

At the time of thinking about where to go next, I was reading a couple of books both loosely related by content. My understanding of their subject matter is Layman’s stuff. I am neither physicist nor philosopher. I am a paddler in the shallow end of deep pools. However, I was fascinated to feel I was experiencing precisely what I was reading about. It seems particles or waves or some such quantum entities have been proven to project forwards into the future and to play out every single possible event, outcome, consequence of a route, unobserved. It is only when an observer is applied that things become set and what might be becomes what happens. Your future is what you make of it, until you arrive and then it’s done and is history, so to speak.

Because of the material I was reading, I felt somewhat akin to the experiments described. I felt a thousand aspects of my future self strobe out into the wondrous blank unknown upon a course of enquiry. Curious intangible parts tested the future, played with it, tried it on for size, for weight, for potential. When I talked to interviewers in China, I experienced what my future there would be. I conjectured while my unwritten (as yet) path loomed forwards to there in a possible future. The same was true of jobs in Europe, in South Korea, in Indonesia and in Myanmar. Each time I responded to a job advertisement or to an interviewer’s questions, I played out un-played by physical-me potential futures. Feelers and whiskers went boldly into the spaces to which I could not physically go to play out myriad variations on my absent behalf as if we do have multiple potential futures and only one certain “future,” (more like present) which is the one that we take or are conscious of observing.

All those months ago, that is what began and I couldn’t find the language to describe the record that I’d started to play, not until its end. In the roulette wheel of life and of selecting where to go to next there was no way of knowing. Intuition was the sole thing, not logic. Then again, when I look back along the line of mirrors set up before one another reflecting themselves ad infinitum as the trail of my past, I see a scattering of clues that set me up to come only ever here. Looking at the raft of decisions and choices that lay before me, it would have been easy to say that I had no idea but our past can write our future. One of my earliest memories is of my gran quoting Rudyard Kipling’s “Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs.” She worked at the Kipling museum in Rottingdean. His Just So Stories are what she told. She imbued me with her wonder of this storyteller, who it transpires was placed in Burma, as it was then. Then, too, my mother told me of her enjoyment of George Orwell, another writer who was stationed here. You might tell me these are tenuous signs that I’ve filled with meaning only upon making my decision; those same writers were stationed in other places, too. I would have found other author’s who relatives admired and responded to no matter which location I chose. Well, I don’t care for that opinion and prefer to feel that it was not only intuition but history, too, that helped me to decide on the fact: Myanmar sung louder than all of the rest.

 

I have slotted in and I couldn’t have dreamed of a smoother transition or a better landing site. Away from the restrictions of Kerala, its impositions and ways, I’ve come to a place where the people have welcomed me, have shown me the way, have been more hospitable than I could have imagined. I thank my new housemates for their generosity of spirit. I am thankful for the things that seem to have lain here in wait – &Proud, Tuesday evenings at Fahrenheit, etc. – as though all knew I was coming and knew how much I wanted to find a landscape of acceptance, variety, creativity, kindness, beauty and wonder. I admit a timid part of me will not be surprised if the bubble does burst. I’ve felt like Alice In Wonderland landing into the mad hatter’s tea party but I think she, Alice, that fictional character, was perplexed whereas I am something that I’ve not got an adjective for. From &Proud Film Festival to Bike World’s Bike Rides, to Yangon Connection to film night’s, to dinner parties, to integration, chatter, networking and all of the rest, it’s been a dizzying, gratifying and satisfying reception. As I sat around a table at the Mexican bar-restaurant in downtown Yangon, I sat amongst strangers – with Australians, Italians, Danes, Dutch, Indians, Brits and Burmese – and had never felt more at home. In landing and arriving, in participating and throwing myself head first – deep breath and plunge – into what is available, I come to understand what it is to be an expatriate in the warm sense of the word and not in its inhospitable state where all the negative – no language, cultural barriers – come to play.

There’s no point to this rambling entry other than to say: I like Yangon very much. The first few weeks have been kind and I have been surprised, astounded, curious to find my possible imagined future turning into my present. I’ve pinched myself, honestly, under the table bedecked with beer bottles and cloaked in friendly chatter. I’ve marvelled at the strangeness of feeling at home in a place that is so very, extraordinarily foreign. All I can say is kindness and people can work wonders. Yes, honeymoons can turn into loveless marriages, divorce and worse. But, I am not married to Myanmar. I am, however, here and excited by being so.

 

 

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Glasshouses.

I started this blog before leaving India. I finish it now I’m in Myanmar and have realized how very weird my experience in Kerala was.

Before I go on, let me say I’ve written this entry as carefully as I can. I have considered whether I’m guilty of passing judgment or of being a hypocrite in writing as I have. In this entry, I hope to reflect upon my experience without prejudice or too much, though I’m sure it will happen, offence. This is not to denigrate those whose lives are included in the piece.

Furthermore, let me praxis this with the insight that this call for moral conduct according to Kerala’s customs (as this piece circles) is not true for every Keralite, by no means. Let me make it very clear, I have met some incredibly open-minded, forthright people who, in spite of pressure from the community surrounding them, are determined to move forwards, to live, to speak, to love, to dress as they want to irrespective of “What the neighbours might say.”

Let me begin properly.

What happens when you put a cluster of Westerners into a small fishbowl town in southern Kerala?

In my experience, what occurs is this: a battling collision of cultures at the heart of the matter of integration to the point that integration appears an impossible ideal. For people of varying sexual persuasions in states of singleness and coupledom, with all variety of life experiences, motivations, philosophies, likes and dislikes are put into an environment where the rules are very subtle and difficult to discern, let alone to live by.

People, those ones who’ve been there a while, tell you the rules and also marvel, “But surely you knew?” when an unwritten law is broken.

It’s not until it happens to you that the veneer of pleasantry peels away and one sees what being a long-term resident is.

Slowly, the host community encroaches. At first, it welcomes, judges, tries to court (sexually and platonically), tries to contain and work out the puzzle and then it – the host – resorts to saying, “You must not do this; instead, you must do this. This is how it is,” even if the alternative is intolerable and ridiculous to the Western guests because, I suppose, to them – the hosts – we transient passers-through must seem absurd.

It happened out of innocence and out of little else to do besides spend time with friends and colleagues. It started in a hotel bar where three of us gathered to enjoy a beer after work, nothing too strange or wayward. On it went. Not that much beer was drunk, a civil amount only. When the barman made it appear that the bar was closing, we exited the hotel, three of us – two girls and one guy. Again, still nothing too strange or perverse or rabble-rousing. When we, British girls who lived at the house, invited our guy colleague (Indian) to come over to enjoy one last beer on the balcony, we did not consider it anything beyond an innocent bit of frivolity.

“Oh but how sweet and innocent is the spending of time with friends!” She cried into the warm night sky. It had been such an extraordinarily long time since being in the company of people whose humour I could appreciate, whose experiences I could identify with and who I would happily settle down with for an evening of mindless chatter. What a pleasure it was, after months of solitary independence and random incidences of spontaneity, to discover myself at ease and doing what was familiar: drinking a beer, chatting nonsense and turning evenings surreal with twisting, turning abstract conversations littered with laughter. What a pleasure to have friend’s houses to visit where conversations unraveled and rolled out; shared experiences were lingered over, places or films in common unified opinion and propelled conversation forwards.

Alas, outside of the house sat a person, a part of the administration, who placed a telephone call to other members of the faculty.

2215, we’d sat down for all of ten-minutes, were quietly chattering on the balcony when a telephone call came through telling our male colleague to leave the “party” and get out of the house immediately before the police found out and came to arrest him. I paraphrase slightly and I borrow a word or two but the content, the gist and potency of that call I do not exaggerate. Police were mentioned. The level of voice was neither civil nor reproachful. We’d been accused and charged without trial.

The following day, at the age that I am, I was asked to account for my “difficult” behaviour – organizing a party. I asked for “difficult” and “party” to be defined. I stood accused, it sounded like this, of hosting an orgy and of purposefully flouting customs and rules I did not know existed. Sure, when we land in Kerala we are advised that if we wish to have a relationship with someone it must be taken to a hotel. In ways, this instruction seems fair since we live in accommodation provided by the school and Kerala is conservative in its nature. I had underestimated how deeply conservative.

To the person pointing the finger it seemed impossible that people of mixed genders can enjoy one another’s company without wanting to turn it into a bout of sexual depravity, at least that is what it sounded like to a person accused and on the back foot. I withheld from mentioning my leanings and history, no need for that. Rather more, I wanted to make the purpose of our gathering clear: fun, not difficulty.

Fun, it transpires, is an innocuous thing that befuddles.

“Why do you do this?”

“For fun,” I say.

“And, why else? Is there no other reason?”

“Fun. For the pure simple joy and majesty of having fun.”

Throughout my time in Kerala, this is what I did: I stapled myself in and tucked away my natural responses because of the need to respect different cultures, beliefs and sensibilities as well as to remain professional. It was against all instinct but I saw that truth is not a thing many people like served up on a public platter. In a town where there are only ever four or five white people, one swiftly becomes known. Strangers reported to me exactly where I lived and how many times they had seen me about. It was not a place to go causing trouble or to step out of line. It’s a place where people know people and gossip travels faster than a Twitter Hash Tag posting.

It’s not just we dirty immoral loose Westerners who experienced this strangeness and restriction. Over the course of time, I came to understand why a Keralite student I befriended, who later left for a more cosmopolitan part of India, said to me, “I’ve become what I was taught to hate: I drink, I party, I smoke, I have a boyfriend and I’m happy. I’m everything Kerala told me was bad.”

You can live in one place for a long time. You can taste the cuisine, the Turmeric and coconut oil; see new ways of dressing; hear a language spoken like fleshy pebbles gargled and it is possible to believe you have a handle upon it then for it to then crack wide open and present a gaping chasm of insight that leaves one reeling as one’s understanding of the place and its people change. Kerala revealed herself. In truth, she had been presenting her underside all along, rearing up from time to time to drag down with her in the undertow those who did not toe the line.

I’ve seen it happen to those around me (neighbours place phonecalls to report an unmarried couple having sexual relations) but it isn’t until it happens to you – there’s a cliché I’ve heard and thought (har har) could never happen to me – that you begin to absolutely understand that cultural differences take a willingness on both sides to be flexible towards and accepting of. When difference is not tolerated, when it is weighed and people accused, it’s dangerous, there’s no doubt. It is not until the beast comes for you, when you really stare down the gaping jaws that are about to swallow you, that you come to a stark unquestionable understanding that societies, civilizations (not very civil) are often mightier than the individuals who make up the sum and you, the individual, had best not forget. Also, one realizes cultural difference is a very real intangible noun that is extraordinarily hard to wrap one’s mind and acceptance around let alone to conform to, abide by and live with.

Cultures clash, battle, do not defeat either but return to the corners of the ring to await another bout.

How people live there I don’t know. Well, there’s a lie: I do know very well. What they do is tuck themselves inside and live as other people tell them to live, quietly. I couldn’t understand it in all my time there, not how people live to satisfy the neighbours and their community but they do.

How I see it is this: people, neighbours and the community see no issue in interfering – heavy-handedly, piously, intrusively and unrelentingly. They see no error in telling people how to live and do their utmost to seeing it done, as if human nature will bend and succumb to other people’s ideas of how one should live. In this place, it breeds paranoia and claustrophobia (for me it did). It breeds bovine herds sitting upon instinct and swallowing what they are told to do; or, they have to pick themselves up after the fallout or find a way to procrastinate and put off the evil deed until absolutely the final possible point or, finally, they leave.

Upon talking with a friend, I learned too that jealousy is at fault. People police people who have what they want: an attractive partner, a nice lifestyle or freedom. Bludgeoning people to a way of subsistence that is more equal to your own unhappy way of life keeps jealous neighbours calm but only propagates further unhappiness.

See, I hadn’t realized how hemmed in I was until I stepped out of line and did something – innocuous, innocent, with no malevolence to it. Then, I learned for certain that you are expected to conform, guest or not, even when it means forsaking your true nature. That is better for everyone but, from experience, I say this is not so.

One of my greatest driving issues has been acceptance. How poignant and ironic to have landed in a place where acceptance is won by compromise and stifling. Through its trials and tribulations, by asserting myself nearly as I am, acceptance came in warm bountiful waves even though I am “unacceptable” by Kerala’s societal standards because of my Western ideals, lifestyle and proclivities. This experience is what tells me that acceptance is possible. Just. Don’t. Tell. Anyone. You’re. Different.

Behind me lies a land of intrusions by strangers who felt they knew best for me, who they did not know; a place of prescribed behaviours and unwritten rules that you can’t read until you break them. It seems that even those who are literate, educated and allegedly wise are naïve. There’s some intolerance and unwillingness; judgment, it feels like, and repression circling from a distance ready to lunge inwards, closer, to shake you and to impress upon you in no uncertain terms that your behaviour, your conduct, your immorality, your habits, your words are unacceptable.

Underneath the green leafy banana trees, in amongst the dust and grit, scramble through the trash discarded until you find the beating heart of a place. Live there long enough and you’ll see the veneer of pleasantry and community, of friendliness and curiousity are a guise hiding some of the worst of human nature: narrow-mindedness and an unwillingness to be receptive to, even supportive of individuality.

To think that neighbours police neighbours; to think that gossip wears communities down, makes couples hide away in far away places, get married to silence the critics; have children for the good of the country, the family and pride – that’s what I realized about living there. There are powerful ideas supposedly for the good of all that do no one any good. Some ideas are dangerous things.

Maybe that is why I stayed so long: to understand what it is that makes people tick, to see their fallibility and faults, their fears and how they behave under pressure. Ultimately, though, as peaceful as it appeared there was something intrinsically uncomfortable in how the place works and I was thankful to leave.

I don’t believe things are inalterable: development is occurring and contributing to a clash between the generations. It’s happening now and that’s how it is. All will change but might change more quickly if only people would accept and marvel in the differences rather than striving for homogeneity and conformism – to whose ideal?

Though this sounds like a barbed and stinging criticism of the place where I lived, it carried me through what I needed carrying through but as I wrote in the opening, landing in Myanmar made me realize how strange my time in Kerala was.

For a bit more of silencing and doing what the neighbours tell you to do, here’s an article that seems to reflect the macrocosmic version of the microcosm I experienced. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/02/pankaj-mishra-arundhati-roy-hindu-nationalists-silence-writers-india?CMP=fb_gu

PAWS

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Wren and Tallulah.

Around mid-November, I stepped out of my house, walked through the gates and looked along the alleyway to the main road. It took a moment to figure out what I was looking at. It turned out those funny unexpected shapes were two puppies, skin and bones, toying with a plastic bag. I scooped them up and brought them home. Crawling with fleas and stomachs swollen with worms, their eyes empty of life, they lethargically lay where I put them. Towels laid down, a bowl of water set and another bowl of food ready for them, I left to go to work. Over the course of the next few weeks, I watched them slowly, slowly get healthier, their fur grow and their bones cease to press through their skin.

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There were times when I thought the little black one, I called him Wren because he was so small and bird-like, wouldn’t make it. It wasn’t until early January that he could use his back legs to walk around without falling. For an age, he moved around like a sea lion while his sister Tallulah lollopped about, happily pouncing upon him.

It’s not easy in Kerala to magic a solution to two homeless puppies. People here don’t see the point in investing time, effort or love into street dogs. Thankfully, through no small stroke of luck, I encountered a charity in Thrissur which goes against the grain. Desperate to find a place for Wren and Tallulah, I didn’t want to return them to the streets. In stepped a charity called PAWS which flies in the face of everything I’ve seen in relation to how people, generally, treat animals here. I want to mention and draw attention to PAWS because it’s a rarity.

After a couple of emails with the founder, Preethi, she agreed to take the puppies. Now, I’ll admit I had my doubts, especially after what I’ve seen here in India, even at the excellent Cochin Animal Hospital the efforts are somewhat slapdash to the European eye. I needn’t have worried. What transpired was a doggy heaven. I had the pleasure of a morning exploring PAWS and meeting Preethi as well as her family who founded and are responsible for this massive undertaking. http://pawsthrissur.com

With mewling puppies stashed in the back of the animal ambulance, as the driver navigated the NH47 from Angamaly to Thrissur, the puppies stopped crying and he said, “they’ve stopped crying because they know they are going to a beautiful home with friends and brothers.”

Rolling up to the painted white gates, the brilliant sunlight beams radiant off banana and coconut trees framed against a blue sky. Running around carefree are dogs, not pedigree but maimed dogs, three legged dogs, old dogs, mangy dogs, dogs with congenital bone diseases, rescue dogs of all varieties enjoying freedom in the safety of this extraordinary place.

On a day that fell in a week that had been quite a week as weeks go (more of this in another entry), this was the breath of fresh air that reminded me how Kerala is a place of extremes: from brutal levels of cruelty to extraordinary heights of selfless compassion. This is why I want to mention PAWS and to draw attention to the great work that is going on there. It’s being driven by only a handful of dedicated individuals who blew me away with their hospitality and vision for what life can be for animals. So, for all my doggy friends out there, for people who have dogs, for people who know people who may be able to assist, re-home, sponsor or whatever, this is for you. Please pass it on or share it not so much to raise awareness about cruelty against animals, I think we all know about this, but to show what individuals can do if they take the time and have the heart.

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Now biding their time at http://pawsthrissur.com/ while I figure out a way to get them to a permanent home.

A Slight Return

Oh Blighty, how have I missed you? Soon, I will find out for I return to sojourn in my old life. In this briefest of stops, I hope to catch up with one or two of you, if you’re reading and if you – absent friend – are not, then you don’t yet know what may or may not pass: as is life.

I’m preparing to take a holiday in my old life and I’m looking forward to it. Although I originally hummed and a harred about whether to buy a ticket, now that I have I’m happy about the impending trip, but not the long haul flight.

When I arrived in India, I dreamed (more of a nightmare) I was in England doing my utmost to return to Asia. Now, those dreams are going to be lived out, somewhat, though it seems dubious that I shall once again find myself standing in the sad old Eastender’s corridors or being forced to work as an assistant director. “But I live in India. There’s no way I’d come back to TV,” I wailed inside my dream to any apparition that appeared as my history combined with my present to play out a fractious combination of two aspects of my life. Neither, too, do I believe there shall be a handy tunnel into which I can dive in order to transfer between the two continents, alas.

I return for the week of Halloween and Bonfire night, my favourite time of year: dark and dank and cold and moody enough to feel like a proper season in itself. It is the week when I came into being and a time when the air can smell of fireworks and catches with frost and the lingering foretelling of Christmas. It has been, in part, the smells and sensations of England I have missed so while November might seem a bad month to visit, for myself it is the most potent. At least, I hope so – or am I in danger of romanticizing England, her seasons and her sensations?

Will it feel smaller than I remember it? Will I hate the aspects I imagine I will hate? What will it do for my mind or for my understanding of how far I’ve come? Will anyone discern the change or is it only deep down private me who can know the extent and the profoundness of the changes that have occurred because of experience? How detectable are shifts in a person? Maybe there are one or two who could tell or perhaps it will reveal itself to be a private evolution only I can know.

I’m sure there shall be some physical changes you might note. I’m a sponge. I absorb people’s gestures and idiosyncrasies. I don’t even mean to do it but I’ve acquired the click of the tongue and sucking of the teeth which indicate ‘no.’ I seem to have appropriated the head wobble to indicate I’m listening and I understand. Largely, I put this down to the fact that my Malayalam extends to ‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘no problem’ and a few other relatively useless words and so the gesture has been applied in all sorts of queer situations to invoke some semblance of a sense of understanding and communication. Also, my hands have become expressive in other ways. They spread their fingers and flutter to draw emphasis to a point or to drive an argument away. I can’t hear myself speak but maybe my inflections have altered. I’ve picked up the throated ‘aa,’ which may or may not signal ‘yes,’ still I’m not sure.

You’ll find my alcohol tolerance has greatly diminished but perhaps you’ll see my lust for certain cuisines has multiplied. Bring on Avocados, mozzarella cheese, toasted pine nuts and vegetarian sushi options. Please bring them on, it’s been too long. Before I left for India, I jested how my diet would constitute beans and rice. How poor my knowledge of Indian cuisine has proven to be: it turns out I eat lentils and chapattis. Rice is by far over-estimated in its ability to be a healthy staple part of any diet. Rice bellies abound in Kerala. They protrude over the tops of lungis but more than that, consumption of white rice leads to many malnourished people (people I know) who have its various forms for breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday of the week. Rice. Overlook it now. However, rice aside, my cheeks have hollowed out. It’s not that I’m gaunt so much, I do my best to eat what I can and what I like, but my body has changed because of being here. I never thought about how high in fat my diet was: cheese is such a pleasure, and wine so easy to consume. Why not over-indulge as and when the mood takes you? A shift in continent and perspective, it seems, likely means a shift in diet and therefore a shift in physicality. Therefore, when you see me, anticipate my eyes to bulge and my dinner plate to be bigger than my belly but I shall try, nonetheless, to consume what I can in the time that I have because how I have missed choice.

This said, irrespective of my desire for variety and having my wants satiated, I’m certain my calculations and sense of what a thing is worth have changed. Why on earth should I willingly pay £2.75 for an all-singing and all-dancing cup of soya hazelnut latte from a certain Bucks of Star when for that same price I could travel to Munnar (return + change) on a bus or to Trivandrum (return) on a train? And how much is Pizza Express these days? I think I shan’t be able to overlook the (really, how much?) cost of a salad because, while I understand exchange rates and the pound being stronger than the Indian Rupee, I feel my idea of value has altered. Why pay so much for so little? Do we do it because it’s all that we can do or do we have too much in the first place and fail to question the value of things? Or, is it that we are simply too familiar with paying through the nose, so to speak? Let’s see.

I wonder what I’ll observe when I see the faces of all those people who make up my slice of England and: will I yearn to return to Incredible India on the day my flight exits the country?

I predict I shan’t take too kindly to the potential grimaces of some unhappy members of UK society who feel it proper to express their grumpiness and intolerance with a dour smile and a mild cuss. I haven’t experienced that English snarl since, well, okay I’ll admit this: I’ve observed it in myself but not since England, not truly. See, when I arrived, the implacable smiles that appeared in the face of adversity or insult infuriated me. “I’m having a problem,” I’d say. “Ah, no problem,” said whosoever I was speaking to. They would deliver a head-wobble and a smiling gesture. No matter how irate I felt inside, and or how hard I endeavoured to express my frustration, all I’d get in return was a calm jovial smile. Well, now I see the benefits of such response.

I seem to go off at a tangent but bear with me, it all adds up. I watched, thanks to the power of BBC Iplayer, Sue Perkin’s documentary on Kolkata. First of all, her pomposity annoyed, though I wondered if it’s because I live in India and so watched with different eyes to that of the British audience the programme was designed for. However, her comment about the traffic rang true. In amongst the pell-mell of car horns, motorbike horns, rickshaw horns, bicycle bells, pedestrian chatter, bullock carts rolling and so on, there comes a fluid weaving of solid objects. In amongst the chaos, order prevails as metal and flesh meld into intersecting courses that, for the majority of the time, do not crash into one another but, rather, allow traffic to flow, to pass and for life to continue. She noted, “Where’s the road rage?” There, you see, is the benefit of the vanilla smile rather than the howling, the wild gesticulating or the red-faced rage that too frequently flare up. Perhaps with all of the space we live with (in the UK) surrounding ourselves and, in deed, with our own precious sense of self, of place and of privilege, we have forgotten that we, our lives, are lived in much the same way as that pell-mell of intersecting traffic. Take away the vehicles and put people – only the passengers and drivers sans car, bus, bike – into the place of the merging lanes, would we holler, rebuke, or swear vengeful acts of violence or would we say, “no matter”?

This nature of response is one of the many things I have come to love. I’m not here to romanticize South India as the perfect place to live, or its culture as the most excellent way of being; certainly, it is no model of perfection but it is a good reflection of how we might choose to modify our responses and remember our humanity when faced with the oncoming rush of interdependent lives intertwining, clashing and departing. I can’t promise that I won’t want to react violently or to swear if someone pushes into me, reaches across too closely or whatever. However, I am aware that there are other choices about how to react to things and, I realize, there are benefits to responding in different ways. Here, culturally, it’s not okay to explode with rage at a traffic intersection when someone drifts across three lanes almost knocking various people off motorcycles, and so on. Culturally, it is acceptable for shop assistants to leave you hanging while they have a quick natter with on their mobile or fall into conversation with the person before them or for something not to be ready at the allotted hour. I wonder if it is this constant mass confluence of lives that encourages all of this apparent (to a foreigner) civility.

I think of the people I’ve seen in the UK tutting and cursing under their breath when things haven’t gone quite their way or quite quickly enough; when they lean across and say, “my car is parked on double-yellows, can you hurry up?” And I think, in ways, as infuriating as it can be, I prefer a place that allows conversation to occur and encourages less fitful vitriolic responses to everyday situations; a place where gentler, cordial responses are the norm rather than hostility arising from, is it a sense of privilege? I feel it in myself: choose to smile, choose to wait patiently and surrender to ‘this is how things are.’ When I do this, I feel much better, less attacked by the violence of anger than when I reach for tried and tested ingrained responses, “I’m a customer, god damn, give me preference and deference!” We are, after all, all in this together. And so it is, with these things in mind, I wonder how will English culture look in comparison to Kerala’s?

Next, of course, there’s the matter of catching up. What will it be like to catch up with friends (assuming they’re available)? What will have endured, what shall have become shy and what will have altered? What can be said, what can’t be expressed? I feel excitement pumping through my veins at the prospect of seeing those I hold dear, who I can mess about with, be silly and not censorious with.

Besides missing profound things like friends, I miss the stupidest things, too. The almost first and foremost is pavements. Ridiculous, I know, but it’s so wonderful to be able to walk around upon a designated pedestrian area without having to watch your back for any sort of vehicle. Here, there is no flat space, paddy fields excluded, that is not driven upon and this can lead to dicey walks into town so to be able to walk on pavements where I have only to worry about fellow pedestrians, well, I look forward to it. To being able to press a button and wait for a green man so that I can cross a road in peace, without dicing various oncoming, erratically driven vehicles.

I have missed wind and drizzle and the cold that catches in the back of your throat and renders hands and eyeballs numb. Maybe it’s because I spent too many years working in TV production, which invariably entails standing around in puddles while wearing damp, allegedly waterproof clothing in the coldest hours, but I have missed England’s climate. This said, though, there’s nothing better than being able to languish in the tropical heat – the all encompassing, wrap itself about you, cling to you and worm its way inside of you heat.

It’s the strangest thing to know I’m coming back. It has made my body do funny things. I have experienced what I can only call body memories awakening. I wasn’t aware they were sleeping. I wasn’t aware I’d packed them away. However, there I was talking with someone about something entirely disconnected to England when I felt something within me stir. I felt my senses raise their head and shake something out. Like a scattering of dust, the memory of cold British air drifted across my skin and I grew excited to know that I should soon get to experience it in reality. I look forward to walking along Brighton seafront and being (I hope) buffeted by adverse wintry conditions. I look forward to swaddling myself in layers. Because, while I have missed people and a sense of connection, stranger still are the things that one cannot anticipate: how the body misses an environment. I want to experience certain smells again. I look forward to sensing another kind of light and another feeling against my skin. Mostly, Kerala is humid; it’s a sweaty hug. The monsoon season can be kind but still I sweat. As delightful as constant heat is, I really have started to look forward to the idea of wearing a hoodie and to having to put on socks and to wearing my favourite biker boots. I look forward to pulling my down jacket around me and feeling the air soak out as it deflates and to hear the crumpling cracking of feathers inside. I look forward to putting on layers (damn, I hope November is cold and fresh and not mild) and walking around feeling encumbered. I look forward to the evenings being drawn in and to that funny sense that comes when Christmas is considered just around the corner. Then again, I look forward to seeing Kerala hang out her paper Christmas stars. So, while perhaps England’s winters are dull and unexciting, depressing and a lackluster time of year, it’s something I have missed, though not that soggy end of the season when finally the darkness and the coldness have worn down any tolerance and it seems Spring will never arrive. I won’t miss that but for one week, I wouldn’t mind a little.

Some of the stupid things I want to do, in no particular order, are: go to the pub I used to work at, sit upon a bar stool and watch bad haircuts and the latest fashions (what is the latest fashion?) pass through; go to some of my favourite eateries to indulge in wickedly satisfactory meals washed down with a biting white wine; eat red licorice – don’t ask me to explain; walk about my old hometown to see what has remained and what has vanished, to see which old faces linger and which have rattled on; to stand in shops I once stood inside of as a child; to eat at least one Sunday lunch – the sort only a mother can make; I want to put my bike back together again and ride it across smooth English asphalt; to eat Avocado and mozzarella and olives; I want to see to the looks on British peoples’ faces; I want to remember what it is to walk around and to not be noticed because of the colour of my skin; to hear pebbles grind under my feet on Brighton beach; to meander around the Laines with, probably, cold hands pushed into inadequate pockets; to be a tourist inside my old life and to know whether that shoe still fits; to come into land at Heathrow and be struck by the enormity and technical wizardry, the ugliness and greyness, the polished finish of the sprawling airport; to hand over my passport to a British immigration officer and to know this isn’t for long; to look at the rupees tucked up next to British notes inside my wallet; to plant my face into my old mattress and be certain I shall not miss the lumpiness of the one that awaits me in India; to feel the M25 and its old familiar lanes roll, crawlingly, underneath the wheels of some car, or to sit upon an English train that will likely smell of fast food and to be grateful for the well-voiced announcements prior to each station; to go into a shop and drift aimlessly without bother, without a sales assistant trailing my every move and unwrapping every product my eye glances over; to take a walk on the Downs and feel the wind gusseting through my muscles and my marrow; to sit with friends and family and to remember the colour of India, to know that I cannot explain any of what has happened, no not at all; to witness my ridiculous quasi-Indian gestures punctuate my sentences and to know that time has passed and I have been away; to see a friend again for the first time, to watch the look upon their face, to feel the awkwardness of conversation, the shyness move in, perhaps, for reserve to temper our initial steps while we remember that we do know each other and still speak the same language; and so on until the end.

Here we are. Not much more to say but a lot to wonder about. I’ll let you know how it goes. If I see you, I’ll tell you or it could be that I shan’t be able to explain so I’ll sit in moderate dumb-founded silence over-whelmed by the shift in geography and situation or, instead, defer to nonsense chatter. After all, it’s not as if people haven’t endured stranger things or longer times away but this is my first time and I’m curious to know what the culture shock may or may not be now I’m doing it in reverse.

Getting The Dogs Out: Assistance Required

The streets are somewhat awash with dogs, dogs with mange, dogs with limps, with ugly bulging eyes, with ribs protruding through thin, sparse fur; there are females and their skinny pups, big swollen-bellied mutts waddling the sides of roads. There are dogs with open sores, dogs with broken legs, dogs licking their wounds, dogs balding, dogs greying, dogs looking for food, dogs sleeping, dead dogs, squashed dogs, chased dogs, dogs chasing cats and amongst all these dogs are people scared of dogs that are, in turn, scared of the fearful.

In my family’s past, if I understand things correctly, my grandmother and grandfather were stationed out in Malta. I remember black and white photographs of a dog I believe they rescued from their time out there. I’m sure I remember stories of visiting the dog in quarantine.

In my time here, I don’t know whether I’ve met people who’ll stick with me but I have met dogs that I want to find a way to stick with. Obviously, as a bit of a globetrotter with no especially fixed abode, this isn’t practical. This is my roundabout way of asking:

Does anyone know how I can help these 3 battle scarred dogs?

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    I call her Hey Lady or Lady for short, and not because she’s a tramp. I met her first, well over a year ago. She was hanging out from the heat inside the building my school is located within. She was shy. I won her over. Not long after, she started to follow me home and there began the story of dog number one. I didn’t see her for a while. When I saw her next time, she’d evidently had puppies. She was milk laden and found it hard to keep up with my bike. We’ve since had her spayed. She’s playful, sweet-natured, in fact all three of them are, and capable of disappearing a whole chicken carcass in flat seconds. She’s a flirt, loves to chase cats, curls up small as anything and does everything we like dogs to do: she rolls over for her belly to be scratched, she woofs softly and she doesn’t know I call her Hey Lady.

IMG_0877   Next came Mutley, a bruiser whose battle scars out-do those of any Hollywood villain. But, he’s smart and good-tempered. He’s learned the art of knocking his head into the back of your knees when you’re walking, not paying him enough attention when he wants it. He’s learned the neat tackling skill of wrapping his paws around your legs if he wants you to stay a bit longer. He’s uber-protective of me and can now, most times, be found outside of the house guarding me and everyone within from butterflies, crows and cats.

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   Last of all, there comes Pablo. He turned up as a ghost in the dark, too shy to come nearer into the light when I’d step out of an evening to feed Lady and Mut. You’d never know he was once shy now. When he wags his tail, he shakes it so hard that he wobbles. He’s the one who, if an accident is to be had, will have it. I don’t know what he gets up to but he’s obviously not Alpha, as his tonsure evinces but he’s exuberant and loves attention.

I don’t know what I can do but I want to do something. Besides, Kerala government is set to start culling stray dogs. Also, I’ve seen how thin the dogs get if they stay away for a while. I have a few months left, which is time enough to get jabs and blood tests done, which should, I’ve worked out, sidestep the expensive matter of quarantine. I don’t know how possible it is to arrange an escape route for these three little hounds, but I can’t leave without at least appealing for some wisdom and ideas.

So, it’s over to you. Any suggestions about what to do, even responses as to whether it’s naïve to think these hounds could find a home would be grand but, better yet, responses about how to locate a home for them would be grander still. I don’t expect a lot of feedback, but what feedback I get to this call out would be all the better if it ends up in these dogs no longer trawling the streets, getting in scraps or relying on the kindness of strange English folk who’ve nothing better to do but enact what her grandparents may or may not have done years before.

One, amongst others.

I haven’t written for quite some time so here’s a little of what’s been happening. My family visited for Christmas and my mother, again, for Easter. Other than that, communication and contact with England, with family and with home have been somewhat electronic, distant and intermittent. England comes occasionally in dreams, by memory and the Internet, which does little to reduce the illusion of there being no distance between my present situation and the one back (can I call it?) home.

In a bullet point kind of way, let’s address some more of what has happened:

I got bitten by a monkey; I’ve been in a vehicle charged at by an elephant; killed countless cockroaches and ants (so I know what I’ll be reincarnated as); taken part in a gay pride march (highlight); improved my grammar (though this entry may be no evidence of that); lived on only a hundred pounds a month; infrequently heard friends’ news and been made aware of time passing by friends who have given birth, bought a first house or a second house; met a life partner; started up their own business and so on. Meanwhile, I’ve undertaken on-line learning; written thousands of words in the hope of making a book of my own for others to read; undertaken projects that I have no idea how long will take to finish; been driven to the brink listening to students and their errors; extended my visa to stay in India; grown to appreciate the importance of the DVD boxset; understood the neuroses that permeate many peoples’ lives; watched my kitten grow into a cat; drunk opium tea; learned what it is to miss people; learned what it is to live in the moment; refined my ability to take pleasure in the small things; been sunburned; realized that many people in Angamaly know where I live; yearned for things that won’t come easily; and, all in all, I have lived and realized that there are degrees of living, from feeling truly alive to existing. Right now, I’d say I fall in the middle: a happy kind of consistency of happiness that has room for other things such as belly-aching laughs; disco dancing like I just don’t care; driving on English roads; and, pedaling towards horizons amongst other things that are subtle and not so subtle.

One year in, and the glaze has come off. Once you’ve lived in a place for long enough, the excitement wanes; the new becomes the regular; the towns you think about visiting become just another town full of crappy shops selling crappy things. India is rough. India is tough. It holds up a mirror and lets you see the best and worst of humanity: boundless generosity of spirit, and our ability for brutality.

Further, sympathy has left me and it has also visited bringing with it a heightened level of awareness; its effects are now felt in extremes since some days it’s lacking and on other days it’s too much. Things I’ve seen haven’t worn down my edges so much as made the edges more defined to the point they’ve become protectors, not a shell as much as resilience, a toughness, and a tucking away of sensibilities because the life I led before this experience rarely exposed me to some of what I’ve since seen and heard and learned; Of course, there are days when skin is raw and things seep in more easily. I understand why friends who work in the emergency services have turned from sweet individuals to cynics carrying bitterness and anger. I write this knowing full well that I’ve seen but a miniscule pinhole glimpse into the darkness and suffering humanity is capable of inducing.

I watch the rubbish on the streets discarded as though it were an installation designed to make the viewer consider the excesses of consumerism. In England, we tuck away our rubbish and send it to landfill because life is easier when you can hide the detritus of your life’s trail behind a wall or below ground. Here, however, it gathers in unsightly mounds that you eventually stop noticing until someone pours diesel upon it and turns the trash into fire and toxic smoke. Blackened remains of cans that won’t burn, and of charred glass bottles remain to remind you of the installation you once saw.

I’ve watched animals with bones propping through a veil of skin lacerated with open sores that they gnaw ever more raw. I’ve stopped a while with some of those animals and seen how they respond to affection. They don’t turn it away and turn into the pet dog you remember from the past: each animal clearly hankering for attention and kindness.

Meanwhile, I’ve turned away outstretched hands asking for money and watched elderly women sitting upon their haunches amidst mounds of rubbish to earn just a few rupees a day. I refused her outstretched hand because there are too many others just like her all asking something of you; some of them with newborn babies resting upon their hips, and some hands were those of children.

I’ve wanted to document this along with the dizzying heights of wonder and generosity that I’ve witnessed because let’s not forget charity and our ability to reach far beyond the limiting parameters of satiating only our own needs.

I’ve met people who combine industry with charity to great effect. I’ve met those who were born into privilege yet live within an area where their immediate neighbours draw water from a well and have no comforts with which to fill their meager houses; people who live in a neighbourhood where the men folk head to distant cities to make a living, leaving the women to raise the children and manage the home. There is no other choice afforded to them. The privileged within this village saw fit to make the most of ethical tourism and formed some of my favourite days in Rajasthan.

I’ve never before glimpsed life within a desert environment neither have I ever been invited into the homes of strangers who simply wanted to connect because there’s little else to do but to communicate, share time and wonder. As my mother and I walked the dusty streets, dotted with buffalo and peacocks, we sensed a curious sisterhood, too: women look out for women and though you don’t speak the same language there’s something profound that extends beyond the limits of language. Gesture and action, similarity and a welcoming community unite strangers irrespective of difference.

(https://www.facebook.com/pages/SunderRang/101722806578052)

I met a man who built his way up from nothing to owning and running one of the largest, I’m not sure how to describe it, factories for producing teeth and dentures. I visited it after a rather random invitation was extended. The owner chooses not to employ machines because there are people who need jobs and so the factory, for want of a better word, employs thousands of women who are involved in every stage of making and painting false teeth, crowns, and so on. I have never seen so many teeth in my entire life. He chooses people over profit yet still turns a tidy profit, too.

I could go on, I’ve seen and met more like this: industry with a social conscience.

On the other hand, I’ve learned what people will do for money; I’ve learned how (un)easy it is to turn a blind eye, to bring down the fence and say ‘that person’s problem isn’t my own.’ I imagine when you’re surrounded by such density of poverty and people (never a shortage of people) and poorly equipped resources that it’s only natural that the need for survival raises its head and draws a line in the sand. You understand the Darwinian theory of evolution is very much in play to this day and on into the future until everyone is afforded proper quality of life.

Kerala has taught me what people will do for money and how strong the desire for a “better” more affluent life is; they dream of discovering bounty in foreign lands. In return, I think I’ve managed not to teach anyone that money isn’t everything; that happiness and connection to your community is what counts – this comes from someone who is presently entirely disconnected from her own community.

Cast adrift in a foreign land, just the smallest nudge from that place called ‘home’, that place where people reside who know you inside out, comes to mean the hugest amount. It’s disproportionate how big and gratifying small gestures can feel, as if the distance between us multiplies the size of its meaning and impact. What has struck me further is how much I’ve heard from people I’d never of expected to hear from, and how little I have heard from those I would have expected to.

One year has taught me what it means to be part of a community and that culture can be an extraordinary subtle divider of people because no matter how hard you try to reach across its invisible walls there are things you cannot do, things you can’t take back or undo and beliefs that won’t settle comfortably with your host’s culture – and conversely, too, of this I’m sure.

Anyway, doesn’t time fly? And, doesn’t it drag? It does when you play the ‘what is everyone else doing right now?’ game. Cumbersome unwieldy thoughts have lumbered about my interior making themselves known from time to time for I’ve been living in a place where there is very little to do and thinking is necessary to help pass the time. Thoughts have gone somewhat like this, “you can’t be yourself here,” “you’re in danger of forgetting who you are” and “it’s time to move on,” and “hey, wouldn’t it be great to be amongst your own kind where no-one asks, “Why do you dress like that, talk like that, think like that, behave like that?” At the end of this year, there are positives and negatives.

The truth is: unless you are capable of entertaining yourself, of extracting joy from simple things, of burying your head in books, of exploring, and adapting fleeting gestures of kindness into a sense of friendship or of managing sublimation then don’t go to a place as different as this for longer than a vacation unless you come with an entourage, or a support network or you are secure in the knowledge that your open likes, dislikes, and proclivities will satisfy the culture into which you move. This is by no means to undo all who I have met, and the little community within which I’m presently living and working that has made me feel nothing but welcome (although occasionally as though I were a curiousity shop into which they could wander, pick up things, turn them over, examine and then leave without paying).

In the next bit I shall dwell on the negative aspects of my experience not because I wish to be the harbinger of doom but because there’s a lot to take from understanding matters such as what it’s like to be a minority and what it’s like to live within a developing country. These are things, I think, that the glancing visitor to this country doesn’t always get to behold.

Being white. What is it like to be a minority? Answers on a postcard to… For the minority is what I am in this place of societal rule, familial duty, tradition, church and levels of education that appear to reduce far too many folk to accepting things as they are told they are and to not finding out for themselves. To be a minority here is thankfully no test of endurance against hatred or violence. I’m white. Living with this skin that I can’t escape isn’t always a comfortable experience, though. Anonymity is forsaken. I walk everywhere: no sanctuary of a private vehicle and so I receive a lot of looks, a lot of fingers pointing, regular feelings of being a specimen within a museum, and a lot of comments. I imagine that not all of them are the friendliest. Let’s face it, the British occupied this continent until the late 1940’s and people remember, and people dislike this historical fact. I can’t say I’m a fan of it, either.

Did I come here for people’s gaze and entertainment? A fair few men openly stare at any body part they wish and only get embarrassed when I finally draw their roving eye to my own angry eye. Some remove their gaze, only to return it again when possible; meanwhile, others continue looking as though I were a waxwork unaware of their close, from the corner of their eye scrutiny. Such men say they wouldn’t do it, ask it or think it of an Indian woman because an Indian woman doesn’t behave like a Westerner (I beg to differ: people act as people want, desires aren’t to be suppressed but society here is a significant presence that many kowtow to because it’s better to be a part of society than an outsider or worse). It would seem that because of my white skin and the power of stereotype, I stand tarred with the same brush used to paint those images of Western slags they’ve seen or read or heard about through popular myth and idle hear-say. I carry all the associations other people have of my culture like an invisible backpack.

CONCERNED STUDENT: Anna, is it true that everyone in the West comes from a broken home?

ANNA: Why do you ask?

CONCERNED STUDENT: Because that’s what I’ve seen in the movies.

ANNA: Have you ever thought that films are stories constructed to make you empathise with the hero and it is in the very nature of a story to present a broken hero who is compelled to fix their world and him or herself? (Pause) And, no, of course not every family is broken. We do have different views and experiences of what families are, though, and we’re more explicit about our emotional needs. And, by the way, how is the divorce rate in India?

CONCERNED STUDENT: Oh, it’s getting worse and worse by the day.

Being a minority has its advantages but the disadvantages are wearing niggles that test your humour and your patience. The word ‘sype’ or ‘madama’ (written as pronounced; the first refers to white person/man, the latter to white female) makes my blood boil. I’m sick of being seen for the colour of my skin and my difference; in England, it’s easy to hide in plain sight. Here, being seen is inescapable and it rouses such feelings of frustration: being a novelty and a rare sighting to steal a photograph of robs you of something indefinable and undoes the thought I carry with me that ‘we are all equal’ because if we were all equal you’d hope that would mean we’d see no difference and require no photographs. But that’s the truth again: we are novelties unto one another, until the novelty wears off.

Now this is not to bang on, but being white seems to ensure the price will go up on products no matter what. Always check the MRP (although it’s not so bad in Kerala while in Rajasthan it was a joke). Being white ensures you’ll be ushered through to the A/C family room even if you prefer to sit in room temperature for your dining experience rather than glacial conditions. Being white ensures people draw conclusions about you without prior hypothesis or experiment.

As with the colour of your skin, you can’t escape your culture; it will follow you, whether you like it or not. Admittedly, there is wonder in beholding the naïve, baseless notions some people seem to have of the world exterior to Kerala/ India but these are somewhat disheartening to experience, too. There is a narrow field of vision that develops when you don’t dare lift your head above the parapet of your surroundings and enquire about what’s occurring at a distance. I suspect we’re all guilty of this in our own ways. Ignorance is bliss, after all and at least the apparently dim-witted questions are all in a bid to gain a better understanding.

Life in a developed country is complex in many ways, and easier in others. Here in Kerala, the simple purchase of wine, should you have the desire, is an arduous tortuous matter of timing unless you wish to go to a bar and pay three times the price. Rarely, and at any time of day, does the Bevco not have two long snaking lines of men in dotis, ugly patterned shirts and ballooning rice-swollen bellies so whilst my occasional want to enjoy a drink has not diminished, I’m yet to discover the art of doing so gracefully, without grit, and causing a scene (“see the madama in the line!” which invariably rouses various interactions, some of which I understand and some of which make me howl, I’ve no idea what you’re saying. Leave me be).

Life in a developing country reveals to you how sugar-coated life in developed countries can be, unless you fall foul of not making enough money or work in professions that bring you into a rich mix of England’s diversity. How many times in England can you look death in the eyes, or observe the poverty and mutilations that befall people? Whilst here, you can see it everywhere you go. True enough, in Kerala the caste system is not so obvious; it’s been tucked away from sight, by degrees, but travel to the North and there you’ll find it.

In Jaipur, the array of animals wandering the streets intensifies and broadens. Add pigs to the mix of cattle grazing the rubbish dumps then listen to a guide tell you how pigs are only eaten by the untouchables. Yes, even now the untouchables are considered just that and are condemned to the sidelines of society. I can’t sit in judgment, not me from my culture, because this is India’s culture; you’re born into your caste and remain there either ossifying your family bloodlines amongst the squalor or, if born to an elite caste, languishing and propagating your seed to far beyond India’s limits. As I said previously, India wakes you up to the brutalities that civilization imposes.

And so, it has been a year since I left the UK and all that I know. The sense of boredom, of repetition and isolation have set in, left a mark, the mark has faded, and the feelings of ennui have dissipated, become replaced by a sense of now and a sense of things coming, of tides changing and, in part, a final sense that England isn’t a magnet drawing me back but that there are a myriad other horizons, languages, cultures and people to experience. However, England remains within my consciousness not least because it’s been a place where I have been fully myself and imagine that I shall be again.

It has been a year and I’m looking to the future and thinking about where I’ll go to next. I’ve learned what I want, and what I need: if I count on the notion that you don’t always get what you want but you often get what you need then I’m hopeful that my destination will give me more of what I need and some of what I want.

When will it be time to move on? Soon, I’m certain of it; and I’ll be certain to make sure that I can be in a place where society has ideas on how men and women should live that I’m more comfortable with. I look forward very much to living in a place where there’s a diversity of cultures, persuasions, perspectives and ideals that I can identify with because I don’t identify with amounts of what permeates this the little corner of a very big country.

This is the culmination of a year of change – personal, mostly – and of learning, and of growing, and of coming to understand my place in this world and how I interact (and often fail to interact) with it. I look forward to the rest, to meeting like-minded folk with whom I can share things because, while I’ve met some truly wonderful people who I hope to stay in touch with, to meet people who live in proximity and who are inclined to do some of the things I like doing would be uplifting and nourishing. All of this said and done, uncharacteristically, I’m staying put in order to see some projects through to the end. And when this is done, I’ll move on.

Until then, one’s life is where one is, but it doesn’t mean that which is out of sight is any less important; in many ways, this is very far from the truth as being departed makes you appreciate precisely what you had/ have/ hope one day to return to. In all my toying with the ideas of “if I were in England now, what would I do?” I’ve imagined other people’s lives are better or fuller than my own. We imagine other people feel more connected, happier, more satiated, wealthier, less frustrated, less forgotten, more accepted, more belonging, better off than us. We look at our own situation perhaps because of a sense of alienation, an exhausting sense of running against a perennial incoming tide that will not relent for a moment; however, it is too easy to look at other people and think, ‘you know exactly where your life is going and for that I’m jealous.’ These are not reasons why I haven’t stayed in touch more effectively but I sometimes wonder are these one or two of the reasons why we don’t stay in touch as frequently as we promised or is it because that old adage, “out of sight, out of mind” is true? In ways, I won’t believe it for a second because I can feel the cluster of my friends about me even though we are upon different continents.

Time passes and we don’t always see what we’re missing because we’re so very attuned to observing only what is before our eyes. How many of us are forgotten? How many of us are remembered? The more time that passes, the more I understand the impossibility of sharing our experiences with one another; and that’s precisely it, isn’t it? We can only ever share with our friends what we have shared in actuality and everything else, your reading of this, is a fairytale. You know the story. You’ve tasted my experiences and perhaps lived vicariously (please, do) through what I’ve written but you can’t know. I hope, though, that you can understand somewhat so that when we do see one another again the fissures brought on by not seeing one another are not irreparable. Until then.

Faces of Jaipur

Jaipur is a tumbling terra cotta pink city that bewilders as it beats you around the head with heat, traffic, dust and vendors. In case you’ve forgotten how to shop, the men outside the various stores will remind you how to do it: “hello, madam, step inside. Come look, we have gold, saris, buckets, padlocks, rice, tea, spices, underwear, cruddy t-shirts, pots, religious paraphernalia, etc.” They would, if you let them, walk you into the store; they’ll un-package everything for you; they’ll make up your mind for you; they’ll re-design the interior of your wardrobe and your home and even take the cash from your purse if only you’d let them! But, when you’re stuck at work, and think ‘there must be a life better than this,’ take comfort in the knowledge that the majority of people, the people of Jaipur for instance, are likewise embedded, shackled to a shop no bigger than a garage , attempting to extract a living whilst life, it seems, is slowly extracted. Amongst the smiles, and the colour, the cheery barbed banter designed to lure you interior, there’s a vacancy behind the eyes that smacks the artlessness of sitting in a storefront hour after hour. Come, take a walk around the Bazaars of Jaipur.

People, People, People.

Conjure the word ‘Malayalis’ and come into the world of Kerala. Come to the land of Pineapple fields where Malayalis meander, bedecked in saris, lungis and more. Come to the land of the coconut tree, where there are many colours of banana, red and yellow and green. Come to the place propped between derelict and developing, come into the tropics and witness what I see.

People here are shifting sands; they are not bedrock. Although all seems perfectly stable, balanced, plain and upon an even keel, when I press re-wind and consider the people I’ve encountered, as well as the stories I have heard of people, it’s a bewildering array of curious. There’s such a high turnover: I thought this was true when I worked in television, guest actors and supporting artists came and went at such a rate, but slowly I realized many return and that’s just how it is: we’re on a contra-looping double-Helix that loops in upon itself so that we can look across and find our paths are crossing and will cross again, maybe years, or weeks, or only days later.

Here, the carousel of people is extraordinary and it spins fast, that much is for certain. There have been nutters (the slowburn variety whom take time to reveal their madness, and there have been tales of the darker variety – stories of men whom rob and blackmail). There have been slovenly slobs whose approach to life has amazed; there has been great kindness; there have been those who bounce into a room carrying effusive up-lifting vibrations that draw people together; there have been the British; there have been the contained, head down types who get the job done, no matter, no fuss; there have been the eccentrics; the neurotics; the earnest workers; the staff, who grow in my estimation as my time here lengthens; the dilettantes; the types whom one does not warm to immediately and then discovers a gem of a human-being; there have been immense displays of humanity, and generosity; then, there have been those whose curiousity seems distasteful and intrusive yet is never designed to upset, rather it is done out of a want to know more, and arisen from a lack of awareness; there have been the sweetest, most diligent students who lack confidence yet are excellent; then, there are those who are confidence incarnadine yet lack ability so deep it’s beyond measure; there are those whom are earnest, and those who are switched off (in Malayalam ‘kiri poi’ – the bird has left the nest); there are those whom ensure Anna gets invited to the place that serves chilled beer and the Laid-Back One whom assists in the expulsion of bats; there is the utterly even keel, patient and moustachioed master of the school; next, the Trojan doctor whose clarity of thought led to the creation of the place known as CILA, one of a kind in India – an absolute unique that has a reputation growing and spreading throughout this large, large country. There is her partner, whose predicament, wisdom and experience keeps us all on track. Then there was He Of The Unwashed T-shirt whose virtual girlfriend, locked away in some far off-land, made us pause in wonder as we observed a relationship sustained across time zones and conducted solely within the unreal world. There were those who formed my welcome party into this crazy land; and, the fellow students I did my TESOL course with, now scattered upon the breeze in far distant places. And, this is just a bit of it: the merry go round of people who stop in, and move on, perhaps a little bit changed, perhaps a shade closer to the next chapter in their life.

India is rich with people, colourful, curious people whose culture is so very different from my own yet at the heart of it we are people and we are inclined to interact, to seek to share, to attempt to understand and to make moments meaningful. I’ll not forget the afternoon in Fort Cochin, with a bottle of Kingfisher tucked under my arm, meandering about with a savvy, unique Delhi-ite as she proclaimed “this is just what I’ve always wanted to do: to drink beer in the streets.” Bang goes my reputation!

There are glorious clusters of students whom linger for months, whom sparkle, challenge me about the meaning of random words they’ve picked up from somewhere (potty, meaning barking mad). They entertain then move on. There are those whom return, those whom are quiet, those who seem perplexed by this English woman before them, teasing them, cajoling them to try a bit harder, to explain what they mean and to not invent Indian-Englishisms. Most of the time, there is laughter.

There is the youth in their eyes, and the innocence and wonder, which makes me question how they must look at me: how did I look at my teachers when I was of university age? Probably through a misty arrogant fug, which I’m certain these students don’t suffer.

And there are the insights: each conversation a spyglass into another way of life. There are days when I think: ‘of course, no wonder I garner such attention: my way of life, my way of being is so different to yours.’ We are aliens to one another and this is an extended voyage of discovery; every person contains just a little piece of treasure that shines, and we share that treasure then return it. From the smiles you get from the quiet reserved students, to the moments when the ice breaks and trust is earned and I know, suddenly, that we can go anywhere.

The list is spectacular filled with a diverse array of people I have seen and shall continue to see. Then, too, many whom I may never see again: here we are in these fleeting moments, a transient whirlpool where lives mix together and then move onto the next maelstrom.

Every time I get a new class, I feel they’re never as good or as favourable as the one that came before yet when it comes time for them to leave, I’m certain they’re irreplaceable and no other class will ever do. It’s always a wall of new faces, of new names (Athira, Josna, Dani, Sonia, Rintu, Jerin, Alias, the Minus and the Shalus – characters whom stop me in my tracks and make me think “I am glad I had the chance to know you.”) whose names are not often names I am familiar with. New names. New faces. Always, there is such an incredible amount of new faces. Onwards I march towards this bank of strangers knowing that we’ll find a way, the ice will break and smiles then laughter, then confidences, even, might unfurl in the time that lies before us.

There are those whose faltering English, whose constant errors test my patience and my humour, but humour does prevail and they do get better and that is wonderful; from the stuttering, faltering, backward-inside-out sentences that are produced, without prepositions, without defining vital clauses, articles or subjects… slowly they learn to fly, then gone are the bad habits and they can communicate sensibly and eloquently and that is when the truth comes out with greater clarity: in each student a unique individual whom I like and can communicate with.

Each and every (nearly) one whom comes my way carries their own certain charm – certainly some more than others, of course. The privilege is that over time I get to witness the unfolding of these people, and for someone who loves to observe people, this job is a marvel. So much so that it doesn’t seem like a job at all – although bring me a faltering newbie and I’m certain I’ll feel as if I very much have a job on my hands.

This is why, when I’m slow to respond to an email, it’s because I’ve been absorbed by more people than I have ever known.

Meanwhile, a funny little pod of people pools together, a cluster of odds and ends, waifs and strays. This is my Kerala surrogate family. You’ll see us meandering the vaults of Lulu Mall or Reliance Fresh upon occasion. A funny bunch of Keralites and Westerners, a range of ages, a range of humours, ages, builds and fashions; all in the trenches together, all huddled in this funny place finding ways to get along, to enjoy one another, to make each other laugh. Here is a pack to rely upon, to call upon, to look out for and more; indeed, we are a curious symbiotic mix of many different creatures who have melded into a funny mixture that works without ego or ulterior motive.

We’re a spectacular sight to see all gathered together along the back row of the cinema, as we recline into the deep luxury seats and partake of buckets of popcorn and gorge our eyes upon whatever cinematic marvel is projected into the darkness. This family has helped me to celebrate my birthday; I truly never thought I’d be a person who went to see a Brad Pitt film as part of a birthday celebration. I’m a wonder to myself: always the element of surprise. It was good to look across, in the pitch of the auditorium, at this kind bunch of folks whom are my nexus here.

There have been so many colourful people that I have felt that I ought to share, to introduce some of the characters and yet I have felt somewhat compromised because, of course, my experience of them is an interpretation and my writing about them would, I think, be an infringement. There have been no names, save the list in brackets, but I don’t think that counts.

I wish you could see what I can: how out of the banks of strangers, how when faced with a wall of difference and unknownness, slowly individualism burns through, and relationships are forged because, perhaps, we individuals are designed to collide, stick, combust and alter then move on. I’ve learned now to not see foreign faces; these faces are my familiars, and I see the beauty, the shapes, the history and the culture of this remarkable place and these wonderful people; what was strange and unfamiliar is now my everyday but there is something about here that might forever be extraordinary.

Tiger: The Luckiest Kitten In India

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The world’s a funny kind of shape, so tremendously over-sized and made of shapes and colours I don’t know, and sounds that are too big. I’m at the side of the road, and I can hardly stand, I’m all of a wobble on my little baby legs. Green-bottles ride my back, a stray dog wipes its saliva in my fur and I don’t know where I go from here.  [Tiger]

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the ways its animals are treated.” [Mahatma Ghandi]

 ‘Turned upside down’ is perhaps the phrase that comes closest to describing the days that have ensued since beginning my latest chapter, known as: Life With Tiger. I am somewhat responsible for this predicament, by this I mean I feel I might have issued the invitation for such a thing to happen for I am reminded that, in my last entry, I mentioned that I wouldn’t mind some distraction. Well, here it is and my distraction is cat-shaped.

I was lost in a haze of thought on my walk home from school – for some reason I’d discarded my bicycle for the day. As I rounded the final bend on my homeward stretch, sixty metres or so before the railway tracks, where traffic, heavy-set lorries, scooters, and rickshaws either wait at the lowered railway barriers or thunder up and down at speed, I looked across the road towards a familiar stray dog, which broke me from my reverie. As the dog stepped away from what it was sniffing at, I saw a tiny furry black ball of something with an outstretched paw and an enormous sense of bewilderment. Without a thought, I crossed the road to take a look and found a tiny kitten little bigger than my balled fist, with eyes that looked like they’d only just started seeing; I got the sense I was an abstract shape, yet kitten’s look wore an expression of abject fear and confusion deep within its black-blue eyes. Twenty green-bottle flies mingled within its fur and the mark of the dog’s saliva patterned its coat. She could hardly manage a step without falling back onto her backside into the damp sandy grit. I waved away the flies and scooped up kitty with the words ‘hello, Tiger.’

My lifting created a sound of caterwauling. Pin-sharp claws projected into my two hands, as I buried her to my chest and looked around. There were no signs of other cats or of anyone who might have lost their kitten. (Lost. *Harumph* I’ve heard tales of bags of kittens being carried out to roadsides and left for dead.)

Therein it came to be that I landed myself a kitten. I’d had a funny feeling that some such thing might occur whilst here, although I don’t know why I had that feeling, perhaps it’s because of the inordinate number of strays that meander the streets, or because I read too much of Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ as a kid and always sided with George, her dog and her pockets full of rescued animals.

In the minutes after the scoop, there followed a frenzied low-level panic as I wondered what on earth to do with this creature that was in my hands. If I did nothing, it would certainly die. I thought about how I could hand her into a place that assists strays… for many reasons, this was not an option. So I scooted home clutching the miniature pulsing ball of life.

I ransacked the house and found an old box, which I filled with a bed-sheet and put her into it. Tiger looked at me with the biggest eyes and I think I mirrored her expression: what to do next?

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I dashed into the night, made my way into town and searched the shops high and low for things that might help me make kitty feel safe whilst giving her just the medicine, nutrients and so on that she needed. It turns out that Angamaly is not the easiest place to locate feline medicine, or kitten replacement milk formula, or bottles for feeding or, or, or… I couldn’t just ‘pop’ to the nice veterinary surgery in the redbrick Victorian building in West Sussex, you know: the one with luxury cars parked on the forecourt, and a fireplace in the reception area, and the warm smell of pets and people who love their pets. I should dearly have loved to have been able to walk Tiger into that building. Alas such a place full of people who love animals and work with them with kindness does not exist here. What I would have given for a UK pet store where useful things can be bought for a variety of pets – not just dogs.

I couldn’t find a pet shop that sold anything useful. The first store I came to sold only fish or dog food and the second one that I came to was stocked high with dog food, and dog accoutrements, it even sold cat food but whilst it advertised kitten milk that is the extent of its relationship with such supplements.

Thank Heaven’s for Google, for kittencare.com and the hundred other blogs and sites that I have been able to search to knock together what I hoped would be a temporary formula. It turns out that this formula was set to become her staple diet: a little infant multivitamin powder, a little protein supplement, egg yolks, powdered milk, then super soaked and mushed up Whisker’s dry food which makes a just about feasible gravy base to hold all the pieces together. I started feeding her with a teaspoon since that was all that I had. I trembled with the knowledge that responsibility of getting her through the next weeks of her life was very much in only my hands and the drips of formula simply did not seem enough to sustain her or hope, for that matter.

The following morning I learned of “ink droppers” or pipettes as we know them. The 2 rupees that the dropper cost must be the best 2 rupees that I’ve spent to date. It’s still going strong, helping me to fill Tiger’s swelling belly.

I said that things turned upside down, and they did. Our feeding pattern wasn’t good – I’d got the formula wrong and she cried all hours of the day to be fed. There was little sleep, and I roused myself from deep REM, body comatose, unable to function blissful slumber to roll out of bed and feed her at ungodly hours – the sort of hours where you don’t know where either the sun or the moon have gone to.

I can see why mothers of newborns “let themselves go.” I don’t know how I fitted in feeding myself or getting ready of a morning, or doing the necessary things I had to do of an evening. I’m still catching up and my routine is still out of whack. I know that I went to school with clothes spotted with formula, and my fingers scratched where Tiger reached for the dropper. From the very first day, I engaged in sprinting out of the school as soon as the clock struck 1230 to cycle home at full pelt to feed my cat. Now, I return to the school for the afternoon’s classes slightly tainted by the heat of the midday sun but vow to continue – although if Tiger could learn to mix her own formula, as well as whip open the packets of cat food then tidy up so the ants don’t move in (well, they have moved in; they’re in the walls, they’re everywhere. I hate ants and admire them in equal measure.) then I’d be very happy to relinquish the lunchtime dash. However, as accomplished as this just-about four-week-old kitten appears to be (she takes herself to the litter tray, although I sometimes think it’s more to landscape the litter into hills and valleys than to do any business) I do not foresee such miracles happening.

After the public Facebook announcement of my new addition, the packages began to arrive at work: over a course of three days, I received two parcels full of kitten food and toys, and then a third box loaded with cat litter all of which Tiger has received with gratitude and vigour. Each parcel garnered attention and coos of ‘luckiest kitten.’

Later, I explained to my colleagues that I was looking into a pet passport, which magicked further responses of “lucky kitten, she gets to go to England just like that.” I don’t think there’s anything like “just like that” when it comes to pet passports – I’ve been doing my research, and we shall see. It may well be that I have a travel companion for the next while, which I quite like the idea of although the practicality of lugging a cat to various countries seems, well, impractical. However.

As it is, my colleagues have stated again and again, “this must be the luckiest cat in India. She gets thrown out, she meets you, you do all of this for her and she gets to travel.” This is followed with, “you know, we don’t do this for our pets. Cats go outside and feed themselves.” I stand proud in my commitment to this stray, and balk when I hear someone say, “You know, where I live, some people, they eat black cats. They are considered an omen.” Comments like this confirm that I must do my utmost to nurture Tiger to good health and then take this Tiger out of India to a more genteel place where animals, and their welfare are somewhat more highly regarded.

Later, came the trip to the vets. I fashioned a box into a suitable holding device (trust me, animal carrying crates are nowhere to be found, although praise be that Amazon.in launched its animal products section within what must have been but days or even hours of Tiger’s arrival). I stashed the box into my backpack and ensured there were as many breath-holes as could be.

Tiger and I went out into the mid-morning sun and, within minutes, a smell of sh*t launched itself from the ventilated box. Sh*t-smeared and cowering, Tiger did her utmost to scrabble free as I did my utmost to calm her and steer our way through the throngs of people who cued at the train station whilst I extricated the tissues that had been defecated upon and thrust them into a waste-bin.

Thankfully Kerala has plenty of smells and noise of its own so Tiger’s wails and the mustard-brown smears that stained my hands, as well as the smell, went unnoticed.

An hour on a hot train with little breeze and a dependent fragile life crammed into one’s Berghaus does not fill one with joy. My bag miaowed and people looked. Eventually, after crawling through the landscape, and staring out of the open door marvelling at how very much abroad in a tropical land I am, the train drew into Ernakulam Junction and I descended into the throng.

A man greeted me as I stepped from the station with the word, “taxi?” I knew it would be expensive but I said, “yes. Cochin Animal Hospital,” which brought about its own miniature farcical episode. I showed the man the address on the website which I had pulled up on my phone and he looked none the wiser. Then, to make matters just that bit better, my phone ran out of credit and so another man, who was overseeing the taxi rank, used his own phone to call the hospital and ask of its location. Therein, we had it and we were on our way. The driver held the door open for me, and we slipped into the backwards-in-time vehicle.

Tiger and I road the Ambassador out of Ernakulam Junction into the city. I’ve admired these cars since I arrived. They’re incredible; something about their design sings “Old India.” This one did not let me down with its black and gold swirling velour seat covers that matched the faux marble plastic effect upon the doors. We swung and lurched through the traffic. From the car window, I saw buildings and restaurants that made me realise there are developed places to go poke about at, to go dine at and so I made a mental note to return. Meanwhile, Tiger fought her way to freedom and squawked loud enough to make the driver turn around and see her. He smiled and continued driving, whilst we two carried on sweating and staring out of the window.

Cochin Animal Hospital has a very nice website and looks like it might meet Western standards of polish and finish. The very reason I’d travelled this far is because the more local veterinary surgery within Angamaly is government run. I was told it would deal principally with buffalo, cows and goats and would likely not have much fare with cats, so I chose to not even bother with it. Well, I’m glad I did and I dread to imagine what government places must be like.

The place is a stockpile of animal related trades all sitting upon one another within proximity – practically within the shop window. A boss-eyed fat panting pug that seemed none-the-wiser of its manicure sat upon the front desk while a North Indian woman, who looked Chinese, chipped away at its claws and the two female owners looked on.

The receptionist didn’t so much as greet me, rather it was more of an entwining of realities without greeting; to elaborate: the man leaning against the counter, whom I took to be the receptionist, looked at me quizzically when I asked if I could see a vet and for a moment I wondered if I was in the wrong place or making an outrageous request. Then a lady, who turned out to be the receptionist, entered. A micro-interaction between then two led to a nod, a push of the registration paper and a quiet request to fill in the form with details that pertain to my life. My address is that of the school I teach at, I’m darned if I’ll ever remember my mobile number and I truly did not know how to describe Tiger’s birth-date. It wasn’t so much a registration form as a haphazard smattering of borrowed details. Regarding the birth-date, I hazarded late September but suspect early October.

We were led past the technicolour pet shop resplendent with leashes, animal bowls, packets of food, grooming implements and so on then through a swing door where two dogs sat yapping in semi-darkness. Panels of frosted glass, pale blue walls, steel medical tables and half open doors along with free-standing non-functioning fans and bits of hang-dog medical equipment filled the arena. One dog simpered whilst it watched its mate having its coat trimmed. I’ve seen happier dog grooming parlours and never one that fronted as a vets, a kennels, and a pet shop, too.

Cochin Animal Hospital describes itself as offering animal boarding. My experience to date suggests that India doesn’t ‘do’ cats as pets, and I made a mental note not to put Tiger there for safe keeping when my parents come to visit in December and we wheel about Kerala, staying hither and thither. There may well be a cat in tow: Tiger – the luckiest kitten in India!

I pealed my sh*t-stained wobbly sweaty kitten from my chest, where she now clung, and placed her upon the medical table so the vet could take a look. He sort of exhaled and took a step back, crossed his arms and said, “what seems to the problem?” Pardon me for being on the back foot but I’m used to vets that pick the animals up, probe their stomachs with prying fingers, push open their jaws to check the pinkness of the gums and peer into eyeballs. I explained I’d picked her up from the side of the road. He looked at me wryly and with the expression of “sucker.” I continued that I had no idea how old she was and wanted him to check her state of health, to perhaps administer whatever (naïve of me) vaccinations might put her on the road to health, advise me about the correct course of inoculations and to finally discuss the possibility of pet passports. Arun, the vet, leaned away once more and asked me again what we should do. I uttered that I’d come this distance for him to tell me what needed doing. Then, I asked about worming, he shook his head and said, “wait, she’s only four weeks old if that.” He said she’s malnourished, and the fur on the underside of her belly is thin so he said we’re to build her up and see where she is in a month’s time. And that concludes the vet’s assessment of India’s luckiest kitten.

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We wandered out of the surgery and I was handed a plethora of liquids: Immuno+, vitamin supplements and some worming liquid that, when I got it home, transpires it’s for livestock, with no mention of kittens. It gives the measures for buffalo and goats but definitely not for little kittens. (I have Drontal on order from Amazon, thank you Amazon for ‘being there.’)

We will go back in four weeks’ time, but the nuisance is earning rupees and not pounds – the bankcard for my account here won’t work on-line and my rupees won’t transfer (for what they’re worth) to my UK bank account. Combine these factors with Kerala’s immediate dearth of kitten supplies and I can see why people send their cats outside to do battle with the nature that is abundant for it’s plenty more cost effective! However, having come face to face with a Indian Cobra (an incident that plugged my route back to the school after a lunchtime feeding and made me late) I’m somewhat dubious about setting Tiger free to wreak what carnage she might upon our surroundings. Besides, if they really do eat black cats then… this cat is going only one way, and that is out of here.

Off to face the wild blue yonder.
Off to face the wild blue yonder.

Daily Life and The Macabre

I almost trod upon a snake as I walked home in the dark this evening. My most basic subconscious senses must’ve detected the slightest flicker of movement from within the inky black. I looked down and saw in the half-light a thin pale crescent that was its open mouth but an inch from me. It was in a shimmer-shape, wet and iridescent under the torchlight. It didn’t move as we eyed one another, myself with the advantage of holding my 9 L.E.D.s blazing towards its tiny skull and pinprick eyes. With its blotchy piped markings under the reflected light it took on an eerie aspect as I made out the length of it, curled within the long wet grass before I clicked off my torch and walked away.

I have been asked what my daily life is like… well, I no longer start when I walk into a room and sense a piece of the scenery moving because I know it’s a lizard of sorts. We have a couple of resident reptiles, more than a couple, in fact, that leave their lizard droppings glued to parts of the house, on the insides of cupboards, half-way up walls and I no longer wonder how to remove the thing that scuttles when I open my food cabinet. As with the ants, there’s no way of removing such facts of life and they make preparing one’s meal more entertaining: I love a little lizard hanging upside down above where I’m slicing and dicing; I love looking at how it defies gravity and wondering if it will fall or run away or jump.

The other day, I walked out onto the landing and saw something that looked like an inkblot, come chunk of dark tar-like mud, the slight colour of liquorice about it. Nothing about its appearance made sense; in Kerala, the colour of mud is terracotta so I leaned a little closer with my inquisitiveness and saw that it was, in deed, a bat. A tiny bat balled up amongst its wings and, rather than run for my camera in order to Instagram the oddness of my life, I very matter of factly set about figuring out how to remove it, at which point Flemyn, whom I share the house with, started to flap in its direction so that it crawled about with its long boney-wing fingers then took off over the edge of the landing. Of course it took off. Of course there was a bat flapping about the house where I live. Only after I scooped it up with a piece of kitchen towel (brilliant invention) did another person I live with say, “oh you know they carry rabies; be careful.”

So what is living here like on a day-to-day basis?

Infuriating.

Variable.

Easy.

Surreal.

Straightforward.

Disparagingly convoluted. Perhaps these are two words that ought not to sit together – of this matter, I’m almost certain. However, somehow their combination rather describes India: so much bluff and bluster, paper-signing, ID-requiring processes that ultimately, after the pomp and ceremony, fade making the effort seem ridiculous.

What is life like?

I’ve had my bank account for four, or even maybe six weeks now. I still can’t access it on-line. Someone somewhere has the appropriate information to make it available to me but they have not, as yet, seen fit to share the information no matter how often I’ve requested it. So my bank account remains just a token entity with an extraordinary balance of 1000 rupees (I hope), and it is just a thing that I have and cannot use. So be it.

Then, for example, there was the effort of attempting to renew my SIM card. 4 weeks. 9 visits to the shop, 2 occasions of submitting my ID, 8 occasions of being assured “tomorrow, tomorrow, it will activate,” 1 visit by myself accompanied a Malayali work colleague and 1 final visit to return the SIM and get my money back.

Once more, what is daily life like?

Most days, though, go like this: I wake up and do a pitiful ten minutes yoga, which brings me out, consistently, into a thick sweat which is not because of the effort I’ve exerted but simply because the sun has risen in the tropics. Breakfast is simple. Then, I cycle to the school. Admittedly there are things that occur: occasions that demand a change of routine or some such, but after years of working in television there are very few last minute changes to plan that one cannot accommodate with equanimity.

Of a morning, as I cross the rail-tracks, invariably a TATA taxi crammed full of schoolchildren stands before the lowered rail crossing. The school children wear sky blue uniforms, the girls wear pinafores and the boys have sky-blue shorts; both wear beige colour shirts and the girls, without exception, wear their long shiny black hair in matching pig-tail plaits held up with red ribbon. I see lots of tiny faces peer from the back of the TATA taxi (it looks like a mobility scooter) and tiny hands extend from the open window and the words ‘tata’ emerge and float in my direction. Alas, such a warm innocent greeting normally coincides with me mounting my bicycle after carrying it over the railway crossing, pushing off on the pedals while simultaneously navigating through the throng of randomly parked scooters, cycles and lorries that are arranged in such a way that takes incredible attention to weave through the spare inches of space. And so, those tiny sky-blue uniformed school children don’t always get the happy wave they deserve in response to their cheerful twitterings.

Ensconced in the school, my days are made up of the beautiful ‘inputs’ from the students for which I must start a page all of their own and I shall entitle it ‘the unique things that students say’, such as:

“If I take a coconut to Canada, will it grow into a tree?”

“… Right, let’s think about this: coconut trees are abundant in Kerala, which is in the Tropics. Where’s Canada?”

“The Northern Hemisphere.”

“And what’s the weather like there?”

*

“Miss, what’s the word in English for when the husband comes to meet his bride’s family?”

“Uhm… it’s called ‘meeting the folks’ but it’s not as formal as you think, and let’s look at the cultural differences here because, basically, we don’t actually have an official word for that… In fact, many people put off meeting the parents for a very long time…”

“So you don’t advertise for husbands or wives?”

‘Not as such; in fact, if you put it so blatantly you’d be labelled a weirdo and no-one would, most likely, approach you besides other nut jobs.”

*

I present my students with a map of the world and I ask them to point to the country that they wish to move to. (Please bear in mind that each one of them is studying in preparation for an exam known as IELTS. With the proper grade, they can apply for jobs and visas for a new life.) Their faces go blank, so I point to New Zealand and they look amazed. I point to Canada and its location would appear to be news to them. I point to Australia… once again its geographical location, and even size surprises them. Do you see a pattern emerging?

What is their motivation for travel? Money.

Does it matter which country they go to? For most of them, it doesn’t.

Lunch comes and then it’s time for more speaking classes since I’ve started teaching Speaking for Exams, which means I get to subject my poor students to vocal warm-ups to help them improve their articulation of English word sounds since Malayali’s use their palate in a very different way to we speakers of English. These classes let me bear witness once more to the extraordinary inventions and perspectives of these bewildering students of varying abilities.

To round off the day, at just the point that I’m slightly fried from attempting to keep rooms of students stimulated, engaged and learning (to be honest, they are the most attentive, diligent and hard-working students I could hope to have the pleasure of working with) then it’s time for marking… essay upon essay gives further insight into the collective psyche of the students; in fact, these insights are a blog all of their own, much like the conversations I have with them. Like Facebook, the extracts from the essays are a slick glossary of tit-bit views into how they’ve been educated, what is the temperature of the state of Kerala with regards to topical (rarely contentious) matters such as “should youth be allowed to date before marriage or are such relationships the preserve of adulthood?”

Then there are the Indian-English collocations that they invent in order to complete their essays and attempt to make their points understood.

“Together we will raise up the nation.”

“Mother and father must come together to raise up their child.”

“Lack of censorship can bruise the heart of the nation.”

“Madonna takes drugs. She’s a poor role model.” (They think nothing of broad sweeping incriminating and not necessarily accurate statements.)

“Broken families lead to mental stress and drug addiction.” (Yes, in one fall swoop from divorce to a Heroin addiction because that’s how straightforward yet extreme India is.)

“Womens place is at home, she must raise the children and the father must earn the money. Without a father, children will get a poor development and commit crimes, even murder.” (Again, whilst I paraphrase, these wonderful statements colour their essays so frequently it’s a delight to mark such scribbles.)

Finally, once my eyes are rolling down my face after the concerted effort of wading through a myriad of essays, and with my ears ringing from the Malayali-English variations that I have heard throughout the day, I escape the school’s a/c and dive into the thick exterior atmosphere, bust a sweat and shake some moves upon my bike, perhaps a ride into town in an attempt to find a kilo of decent apples or tomatoes (always task to find ones without mould, bruises, traces of maggot) or a meander to the supermarket (it’s not that super and occasionally it prompts me to press rewind to a few months previous when I stood in the well-ordered beautifully lit extraordinarily colourful pop-art-esque aisles of Sainsburys, the land of bounty) where the store assistants follow me about, enquire after my name and delight in my single word smatterings of Malayalam, which grows day-by-day but rarely with anything useful.

Or, I roll home and read or write lesson plans as the sun sets with her spectacular palette.

I’ve made a list of the books I’ve read since being here:

Cloud Atlas

The Road Less Travelled (Revelatory)

The Goldfinch (wonderful)

A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Freud

The Communist Manifesto

The Einstein Theory of Relativity

Ghostwritten

Gave up on The Luminaries though shall no doubt return

Narcopolis

God Of Small Things (desperately appropriate, read it in the midst of monsoon season)

Number9Dream

The Heart of Darkness

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Wonderful, touching, disturbing, hilarious)

The Circle

The Sea Gull

Breathing Corpses

Hamlet

I have not read this many books within such a short space of time in all the years that have preceded this. And, I’m building up speed, too; consuming them at a voracious rate for the simple reason that I have time and no distractions. I come home and, unless I lesson plan or cook tomorrow’s dinner, then I sit out on the balcony and read. I watch the various birds flock about their night-duty, admire the silent fruit bats, watch the sky turn peach, or orange or yellow or the rich colour of lead, if there is a storm brewing, and then I come inside, to write, to read, to…

When I say life is simple, I mean it. Although, it’s not simple: knowing what you’re missing isn’t simple, and I don’t mean this in reference to one of those heinous and destructive “OMG my life isn’t where his, hers, theirs is” but rather I mean it in a fashion that sets my life now so completely out of line with all that I’ve left behind.

Before I left the UK I felt spread far too thin; now, I reside at the centre of myself. The thing that I live at the centre of is, for the most part, undiluted, entirely concentrated and contained – perhaps because I don’t wish to be so knocked off balance or spread so thin ever again. There is a density that comes with living in this manner. There are no distractions, no places to hide even when one wants to hide, to escape, or to avoid.

Of course, I miss the distractions even as much as I am grateful for the reprieve from them. What I wouldn’t give to hang out with friends… to laugh, to talk freely and openly and to not, in ways, deceive by omitting. There are fleeting friendships (so many people move on, return to where they came from or move to their next phase) that distract and entertain, sure. However, most of all, life is clockwork smooth sailing without friends or family calling me away and in seeing this I realise there are things that I took for granted: distractions being one of them.

For it is rural here. It would not be remiss of you to stand, look out at what I see and think yourself somewhere back in time.

In so many ways, there are zero cultural crossovers. Oh sure, there’s dross like cinema and mobile phones. Everyone has a Facebook account and a smartphone of sorts. But the crossover of cultures… of lifestyles…? Not in this neck of the woods, not so much by any degree.

People meander, tugging their cows and goats after them. Women hack down foliage in their gardens not with Black and Decker strimmers but with scythes. Children ride over-size bicycles to school. People wash their clothes not in washing machines but in the local ponds, a few steps down to algae green water where men swim as women stand up to their waists, pummelling cloth, beating clothes with stones then stringing worn cotton clothing upon sun-baked walls to dry. Chickens meander freely. I watch a mongoose square up to a feral cat and observe both party decide that they are an equal match and so flop onto their sides in mutually agreed surrender.

Even the drinking is done differently. You can queue at the local government place and observe men buy four bottles of Brandy, plant them into their pockets then order two bottles of Toddy before dispatching themselves to the nearest vehicle. I’m sure they’ll be back again in a matter of days. I am yet to discern the culture where-by friends gather at the local bar after a hard day’s work and let off steam before returning to their family.

Where does the letting-off of steam occur? Behind closed doors, with families or on the telephone.

And for me, no drink, no way near as plentiful as it had been and now I see how intrinsic it can be to our existence; a useless, damaging crutch that we construe as fun but taints, disorganises and renders our days much shorter of productive hours. It’s refreshing not having it so easily to hand.

Sundays are church days. Take a walk into town at nine a.m. on a Sunday morning and you’ll pass four or five churches all of which team with a congregation too large to fit into the building and so men and women, dressed in the many colours of their Sunday finest, stand holding candles and delivering their hymns, and confessing their sins to the sky – whether they mean them or not, be it the watered down sin acceptable enough to be heard by the father or be it the sin that they dare not admit, even in anonymity.

Generations of family live under one roof. A daughter drops her newborn child into the arms of her mother-in-law then despatches herself once more to a career or, else, she continues with the housework while Grandma raises the baby. I’ve met people whose children learned that the person they thought was their aunt was actually their biological mother at the age of five or six, which would, of course, remind you or I of a soap opera story-line, a duf-duffer, a clanger of a cliff-hanger to make sure we return to viewing but, no, these things are daily life. Welcome to the grind of India’s family network.

So when a friend, a well-meaning friend, says “get out more, meet some people your own age” I have to roll my eyes in disbelief, hold my breath and my tongue then gently say “I’m sorry, you don’t understand. But, for sure, you’re right and I must.”

It doesn’t work like that.

Then again, those Indian friends that I have met and made here, those I met eight weeks ago, five months ago are now in new countries or states of establishing new lives. Some extend invitations, some of which I shall accept. There are, also, certain bit part characters who form the wallpaper and make-up of my everyday; principally these people are work colleagues and students. Then there are the others: those people whom decorate and are familiar points of contact around and about town. For an example of this… I crossed the train tracks this evening on-foot, when normally I am upon my bicycle. Around the same time most evenings, a group of rail workers load stuffed hessian sacks off the back of rickshaws or from the overloaded boot of Ambassador cars; they roll the hefty sacks, with the help of meat hook tools that pierce the hessian and give sufficient grip to haul the load, from the floor to the top of their cloth-wrapped heads. Well, as I walked past one such worker (whom I recognise because of the enormous girth of his belly and great height that stand in juxtaposition to one another) I heard him comment “cycle ila” or some such thing, which I took to mean “she’s without her bicycle today.”

As you walk through the fabric of your life it seems, as you know, that we pick out faces and then people and in turn they pick us out, too, and we become the moving wallpaper of one another’s existence that occasionally interrupts or converges. That’s what life here is like, but mostly I’m passing through and observing with a foreigner’s eye and I remain at an alien’s distance to the world about me. In turn, I am observed. Though I don’t hear it directly from the horses’ mouthes, I understand that people have noted the white woman with a boys’ haircut, and they wonder about me, where I live, what I’m doing here.

And, I’ve adapted but as I look to the future I begin to recognise what it means to be “westernised” to want saturation and distraction and stimulus from a myriad of sources.

For there are days when my mind turns to home and I wonder what my friends are doing… what are you doing, and why are you doing it, and do you even think of me, and why would you, and do I think of you, wonder what you’re doing or is it easier not to imagine? There are days it’s easier not to imagine.

For there are moments when I look at myself in the midst of rural, ancient, rickety, conservative, low-key, sleepy Kerala and I wonder what on earth is this choice that I have made; what a funny choice it is for here I am, very much only me, here in India, a million miles from where I started upon this planet and with no-one holding me here, only myself. Then I think, there’s no way I’d go back to where I was, what I was doing and I realise that actually it’s impossible to go back to that place: miraculous to see how far we can come in such a brief space of time, and how can one communicate these subtle seismic shifts? Can’t. Simple.

Through the looking glass of Facebook, one observes snippets, publishable snatches of lives passing and I think oh yes, we’re all passing the minutes of our lives, some of us documenting those minutes, some of us sharing those minutes, hours, days of our lives with other people – be those other people strangers, families, friends or lovers.

In December 2013, I decided to give up trying and to start doing. The phrase ‘just do it’ has always irked me because it has never seemed simple to ‘just do’ – what with the need for cash, consistent income to pay rent, afford sustenance etc. Perhaps I’m not enough of a risk-take to ‘just do’ and that’s fine: I hate the idea of surfing friend’s sofas and being absolutely penniless. Besides, in order to just do something perhaps one must know what it is that one wants to do.

For years I kidded myself that I knew just what I wanted to do; and, perhaps, in deed, I do know what it is that I want to do deep down and maybe, who knows, I will come back to film, that I will eventually write something worth other people reading or whatever, who knows? But all I knew at the end of last year was that I wanted to stop trying, to stop being that hamster in the endless wheel of trying to get somewhere and never getting somewhere pleasing. So, I gave up trying, and recently I have come to realise that one needs more focus than simply bumbling along ‘just doing’. One requires a game plan more than simple impulse and intuition.

One must design one’s life or live in the jungle, one hundred years behind the rest of the developed world, forever. Because, as nice as it is to have the Jane Austen lifestyle of reading and listening to music and darning one’s socks, one must be progressive, one must have some artfully arranged goal to strive towards, be it ephemeral, be it metaphysical or concrete (house, life-partner, etc); be it achievable, be it outlandishly (seemingly) impossible. So, in the grand scheme of my resolution to stop trying and start doing I’ve realised I must find another collocation, of sorts. I don’t know what it is, yet; that much I don’t know, but I’ve started to realise that we must always be conscious of our choices and intended outcomes.

Then again, there are days in this maze, this haze, this puzzle called life, when I wonder why not surrender to the river, and let it see where it takes me, because, ultimately, I occasionally understand how powerless I am in comparison to how it rages down stream, out to sea and once more into the endless cycle.

The Macabre

I mean this most sincerely, genuinely and I am not writing this to lure you in. I am often not one to heed warnings let alone issue them but for those of you of squeamish nature please don’t read any further.

It occurred to me the other day, as I made a list, that I have seen many things, those things behind the smiles, behind the greenery and dazzle of God’s Own Kerala that are dark, macabre, up-setting and cruel. Here follows some of the details.

Where do fruitbats go to die? I would never have asked this question if I had never looked up to enquire about the thing that dangled from the wires overhead. When I saw the first one, I thought I was imagining things. It looked like a part of an umbrella with fabric, wrapped about the wires. But, look closer and you see the fabric is a cocoon of wings wrapped like an artistically rendered upside down Halloween Cornetto cone. Extending from the depths of the wings comes a ratty thin protuberance that one realises is a head dangling. At the top, a neat knot of threading wirey ‘fingers,’ for want of a better word, clamp about the wires. I was not certain of what I was seeing until I saw the second, only this afternoon. The wires hung nearer to the ground and the sight of it was almost identical to the one before only this one’s face could be clearly seen. I didn’t make out the eyes, only the mouth – wide-open, bearing small white teeth. Wide-open like it was, I don’t know, screaming in agony or hollering across a crowded room, kind of a little like it was laughing, too.

I can’t imagine that every fruit bat dies this way and wonder whether it’s electrocution by accident, suicide, old age, needed a rest after flapping all night… I don’t know. But they are eerie macabre and made me think about the other things that I’ve seen here, that we don’t witness so much back in the sanitized, non-tropical UK.

There are other things, too, of course. The dog that has an eye that looks set about to pop out of its head; twice the size of the other, vaguely like a cataract but more swollen and pink, it looks up at me and I think if only had a car, if only I knew of a vet. Then again, there are so many animals here that make me think that.

There was the day I cycled passed a lorry and made the mistake of attempting to make sense of the curious pink lump that sat upon more bright pink lumps. A curl of black, polished and hard, a horn, down to a skull stripped of flesh with eyeballs remaining, dry and glassy.

Stand at the river edge and you may see offal floating upon the surface, white and dancing upon the slick dark aqua surface, mirror of the cloudscape above.

Walk through the market and dozens of squawking off-white chickens dance and fumble with one another within a wire cage only three feet wide by three feet long, just tall enough for the chickens to walk without a stoop.

I told you not to read this, oh you of squeamish nature, but that is what it is here: nothing hidden, all approximately out in the open. Which makes me think more and more about what exists beneath the surface, behind the smiles, behind the doors, behind the front of our these daily lives we lead.