Au revoir, India

Well, that’s it for now, I have left India for the time being. And how exactly do I feel about that? It is very hard to find the words I need to express just how much my time there has meant to me, how it has changed me, what I have accomplished, and where I’m going now. I had made a good life over there, learnt to live differently, become accustomed to so much that was initially so completely alien and confronting, and already I am missing many things, not least, my friends there. But life rolls on, one door closes and another one opens and all that, and after a great deal of dithering, I find myself back in the UK, in the same small seaside town I lived in thirty-five years ago, for the time being.

The peace and solitude of my long daily walks north along the beach is amazing. It was what I was looking forward to more than anything and I haven’t been disappointed, not at all. This week I have taken a wind and light rain walk, a slate grey sky walk, and a bright sparkly sunshine walk, each one magical in its own way, and shared only with the flocks of sea birds at the waters edge and wheeling in the sky, and the occasional dog walker who expects nothing more than a ‘Good morning’ from me in return for theirs. Fabulous. Delightful though the interest and curiosity of Indians is, one has days over there where one thinks ‘if another person asks me “What is your good name?” or “What is your good country” I’m going to scream!

Burnham on Sea itself has changed little, it’s still very small and red brick and Victorian; but the pavements are level, traffic stops at zebra crossings, and no one beeps their horn. No beggars, but no sev puri stands either. No dust, but a cold sea-weedy wind from the estuary, and drifts of autumn leaves rustling against my feet. And most of the time, all you can hear is the mew of seagulls, and your own thoughts, because you can be very alone here.

In India, you are never really alone, and to an Indian, the concept of being alone is an extraordinary one, often seen as something unpleasant, or viewed as part of a retreat experience. It’s taking me a long time to get used to it again, and I have always enjoyed my own company. After a month, I am still finding my feet, and to be honest, I’m still stumbling around, working on becoming accustomed to another complete change of environment and culture. I feel changed by India in ways I had not previously considered; the faces around me seem drab and colourless, as do their clothes, and while I am certainly enjoying having a glass of wine when I want one, I find myself already planning and scheming to get back to Asia as soon as possible.

However. Being here is a very necessary element in a healing process after some savage blows….and as part of a consolidation of the lessons I have learnt during my time in India. I am not sure where or what my next step will be, and that in itself is less scary than one might think; one of the most important lessons India taught me was acceptance. By this I do not mean just sitting back and taking whatever life throws at you, but learning to be content in the here and now, taking each day as a gift, even if in that space of time I have not achieved anything tangible or concrete, knowing that being and appreciating being is enough.

Thank you, India. You changed me for the better, I think. And now, to get on with the rest of this wonderful life!


Stone Age dwellers in the 21st Century

This morning, as I walked into the community towards the library, (I decided some time ago too refer to the slum as ‘the community’; these are people’s homes, after all), I saw….

Two women creating a foundation of sorts for a new shanty dwelling. With exquisite care, they were making mud patties, creating a platform, smoothing the surface and packing it down hard with their hands.

A pair of small girls under an acacia, one patiently sitting naked in the dirt while the elder knelt behind her, meticulously picking through her hair for nits. Grooming.

A little boy squatting in the dust just off the path voiding his bowels. A woman outside her hut, scrubbing her cooking vessels with sand and soap; another sitting cross-legged in front of a small fire of sticks, cooking flatbread on a flat disc of iron.

I recently had a Western visitor who walked this way with me to visit the library. He had had little or no prior exposure to this level of existence, and was deeply affected as he saw the reality of what is, in so many ways, a way of life almost unchanged since the beginning of time. Save for the metal utensils, the tarpaulins covering the homes instead of thatch or skins, the elements that comprise the rubbish strewn everywhere, (mostly plastic), these people are living a life not dramatically altered since we first hopped down out of the trees, in the middle of a nation that is currently celebrating the success of it’s mission to Mars. My normally loquacious friend was rendered almost speechless, and his reactions, and his comment about it being like the Stone Age, caused me to view afresh many things that I suppose I have become so accustomed to that they barely register any more.

Now monsoon has passed, the community dwellers are gradually effecting repairs to the damage caused by the heavy rains. Cracks between the carefully arranged flat stones in the passages between the more substantial, brick shanties, are being carefully filled with clay and sand. Tiny local mandirs, temples, are being refurbished ahead of the Navratri festival. Washing is strung everywhere possible. If you close your eyes to the plastic debris and the satellite dishes, the scene is Biblical in its antiquity, dusty and unchanging under the heat of the Indian sun. My friends visit gave me a fresh perspective, and reminded me not only why I am here, but, once again, how bloody lucky we Western women are.

Another sight from this mornings commute; an injured, elderly, cow being dragged and shoved from a diesel rickshaw onto a handcart. It had a rope tied around its nose, and was bleeding badly and covered with flies around its rump. I stopped to watch for a while, wondering what was being done, but I suspect there may have been a nefarious purpose as the cluster of men gathered around dispensing advice and pushing and shoving clearly didn’t want me around.

There are two really bad things about India. The rubbish is one; the other, the men. There are a lot of really nice, ‘evolved’ men, but the majority are, I’m sorry, juvenile arseholes. They hang around in their little gangs on the lanes in the community, eying the women passing by, passing comments and sniggering, generally being lecherously unpleasant. Just the other day, an Australian friend was stopped and asked directions by a man who then grabbed at her breasts and ran away, taking advantage of her shock and disbelief to effect his escape before, like the sturdy Aussie lass she is, she punched him.

The same happened last year to my daughter, but more surprisingly, in Goa where they are much more accustomed to Western women but equally, probably more ‘inflamed’ as they see thousands of young female tourists baring pretty much all on the beach. Exactly the same thing – her breasts were groped by a young Indian man in a crowd into which he rapidly disappeared – and I hasten to add that she was very modestly dressed at the time.

Discussing these incidents with an Indian friend, she is furious, horrified, embarrassed. She sees as I do that despite all the hard work we do within the community, nothing will essentially change until the men realise that although they may live in Stone Age conditions,   Stone Age attitudes are no longer, if in fact they ever were, acceptable. The example set by the ‘evolved’ men, especially those working within our projects in the community, must surely eventually filter through to the general population. The women who participate in our projects are attempting to raise their sons to treat women better, often fighting against their immediate male family members and their communities to do so. Boys are being exposed more and more to a different way of regarding women, with respect; and more and more women are gaining an education, avoiding marriage in their early teens, seeing the chance of a brighter future. But it’s bloody hard for the women.

To cite an example, I recently visited and had tea with another friend and her mother, living within the community. Their spotlessly clean two room home is comfortable by local standards; but still early Saxon to those of us accustomed to Western dwellings. No running water, it’s fetched from a standpipe every morning, and she tells me the entire family are having stomach problems because the water is bad, but thats a whole other issue… Her mother is exactly the same age as I, but was married before she was sixteen, is illiterate, and now widowed.

Their main problem at the moment? My friend is educated, has achieved a degree, speaks good English, works full-time. But…she is now in her late twenties, and not married…and in this community, that’s all wrong. She has been in a relationship for almost six years with a colleague, but in all this time has only met his family twice to discuss a possible marriage…as they are from different communities, or castes, and this will be a love marriage.  Her potential future in-laws spent the time letting her know what they expect from a daughter-in-law, which does not include her continuing to work. And her family? My friend recently had a phone call at 2am from the extended family in their home village to let her and her mother know that the entire family were preparing to get on a bus and come to Ahmedabad and ‘beat’ some sense into them both. My friend says simply that “He is my best friend, and if I cannot marry him, I will never marry’. On top of this, every day, on her walk to work, she is ‘Eve-teased’ by the local men hanging out in the lanes as mentioned before. Good God – this is the reality of life for so many women here in India, in 2014.

What can we do? I don’t know. I do know that in my time here I have achieved much, but I shall still leave with a deep-seated frustration, a desire to ‘fix’ things. And I begin to consider potential ways to address the “Man” issue. Persuading more decent, clean, hard-working Western men to come here and do a stint as a volunteer, demonstrating through their actions and conduct that women are not second class citizens, would be a great thing – we seem to have far more women than men prepared to give up their time to work voluntarily here. Other than the son’s of expatriate Gujarati’s, or local volunteers from colleges and universities, the Western males we see tend overall to be young, between school and university, or doing an internship. What we need are builders and mechanics, electricians and diesel fitters, honest, hard working Western men who are able to become positive role models, who are adult and secure enough to shame the fools in the lanes.

I have great respect for a friend of mine, an ex US Marine, who spends half his time here working towards addressing some of these issues through The Bindi Project, and encourage you to discover more about what he is achieving by liking the projects page on Facebook and visiting the projects website, at

There seems to be a complete disconnection between these mens perceptions of how they behave towards women, and how they would feel if their sister, daughter, mother was treated this way. And while they continue to believe that they are demi-gods, they will also continue through example to raise another generation of sons and nephews who believe a woman’s role is solely to serve a man. And as for the rubbish….

Coming back home…..

Returning to India after four months in the West visiting my family felt exactly like that – coming home. Being greeted at the airport by the same wonderful friends who saw me off, breathing in the hot, humid, distinctively aromatic air, hearing the familiar cacophony of beeping horns and barking dogs, and driving home with no seatbelt on through a raging torrent of scooters and rickshaws almost brought tears to my eyes… it may be crazy, it certainly has its ups and downs, but this is my India, and I love her.

I was curious before arrival to see how I would react after being away and on more familiar territory for a few months again, enjoying the best the West has to offer rather than living and working there, eating European bread and cheese and olives, drinking wine and beer, wearing shorts and singlets instead of being fully encased in layers of clothing in the heat, enjoying blissful anonymity amongst the crowd rather than being pointed out and stared at. Passing through the international and domestic terminals in Chhatrapati Shivaji at Mumbai gave me my wake up call ; crowds, delays, bizarre security procedures, grimy seats. My Western teeshirt and jeans made me feel conspicuous instead of comfortable; the backs of my knees were sweaty (only my daughters will completely understand that reference!); I was the only woman in the whimsically named ‘Smoking Lounge’, a horrid little cupboard of a space. Here we go.

Returning to my flat was wonderful. I love travelling; but after four months it was sheer heaven to empty the suitcase, bathe in my own bathroom, water my plants. I found the noise levels extreme for the first few days, another thing I had semi-forgotten, exacerbated by the councils decision to spread tarry gravel over Keshavnagar Road at 3.30am yesterday with assorted trucks, graders and tractors roaring away; the tail end of monsoon brings with it extremely high humidity levels although the actual temperature is ten degrees less than it was pre monsoon when I left, and that has been hard to adjust to; and this year, the flies are having a bumper season with at least ten times as many as there were last year, but overall, yes, glad to be in my own space again.

During my time away, lane markings have appeared on Ashram Road, and zebra crossings have popped up here and there…they make not the slightest difference to either the traffic or pedestrians, but they are there! The building next door to my flat has been repainted white, and it looks clean and fresh…for now, the pigeons and the dust will soon dull it. Monsoon rains have filled the river and it looks good…from a distance. As I walk into the community, the ‘bridge’ across the stream has collapsed, and it’s now a scramble down a bank, a hop from concrete pipe to concrete pipe, and another scramble up the other side. Still holding your breath.  Nothing has changed and yet everything has, because I am seeing it all afresh. 

My first morning back and I head straight for the library at the Community Centre. I can’t wait to see how Pritiben and Aartiben have done creating the new theme…we worked together before I left on the planning process….and its fabulous! They have created a wonderful display, with lots of information, focusing on Gujarat, and I’m delighted! I was greeted so enthusiastically by the kids that I was warmed through to the cockles of my heart, everythings working well, and the sense of accomplishment I feel is worth bottling. A genuine, true blue ‘glory moment’.

Glory moments for me are what our memories are made of, the moments that define our lives, the things we will always remember, big or small, from watching your child take its first few tentative steps to finding the first fruit on a tree you planted, and I have to say, India has given me more than a few….just yesterday, I bumped into a student I worked with last year who has now embarked on a computer course in English, and was speaking confidently in English…and I can pat myself on the back and know I played a small part in his achievement. Being here long term has given me the ability to see the work I have done bear fruit, and it has given me more pleasure than I can describe, certainly much more than working in a call centre ever did. Returning has consolidated my intuition that this has been one of the most important things I have ever done on a personal level, it has undoubtedly changed my life for the better, and I am beginning to believe that it has been of genuine value to others as well.

I’ve talked before about how easy it is here to feel that the problems are just too big, you can’t make the slightest difference, and to become overwhelmed by the sense that nothing you do can possibly be worthwhile. The only way to overcome this is to focus on each small accomplishment, and do whatever you can on a daily basis, often avoiding looking at the ‘big picture’. The great joy for me is that I have been fortunate enough to have been able to spend a comparatively long time here, sufficient to observe measurable, tangible results. I am so lucky, I’ve had the time to see the big picture, and I like what I see. Full glory moment.

Many things are changing in my life at the moment, and much of my effort during my remaining time here will be to consolidate the work I have already done and ensure it continues successfully without my physical presence….but I also know that there is a large part of me that can never leave, that I have a family here, that sharing this period of time with wonderful people like Mahesh, Neeta, Ajay, and many others has left an indelible impression on my heart and soul. I’ve learnt so much about this wonderful place, and about myself as well; I’ve learnt to accept gracefully, and to give humbly; and I have remembered what I always really knew, that without love, we only live half a life, but that love comes in many many guises, we simply need to open our hearts and our eyes to see it all around us. India, thank you for helping me to find myself again, and for reminding me that I was never really lost to begin with – I am so happy to be home.

Volunteering in India – what’s it like?

Let me start by saying that the vast majority of volunteers who come to serve with the NGO I am currently attached to are young, of the same generation as my children. Many are taking a gap year, or doing an internship – some are short term (a month is our minimum requirement, it is unlikely that you will feel you have achieved anything significant in a lesser time frame), some stay for longer; we currently have a young German girl here for a year, and an American nurse for six months. Most are single, some spend their entire time in India with us, others include a period of service in their trip to India. Many are of Gujarati descent, brought up by expatriate parents commonly in the USA or the UK (who sometimes come too) – others arrive from all over the world, having found us on the internet or, often, through a friend who has previously spent time here.

The demographic is easy to understand. Priorities change once you have a family of your own – I could not have done this while married and with young children, didn’t do it before marrying, but am free to do so now, and so I represent the older volunteers rather well. And age is certainly no barrier. The skills that different volunteers bring with them vary widely, from medical professionals to photographers to entrepreneurs; all have something to offer, and often end up working in a project completely unrelated to their ‘normal’ life. Fifty years in the University of Life and a background in sales management had, I felt, left me singularly ill-equipped for the volunteering life – how wrong could I have been! Gandhi put it beautifully – ‘A volunteer can be anybody. There are no age limits to being a volunteer, no preferred categories, no salary specifications, no special degrees or work experience. All that is required is a dedication to the cause, sincerity about the work one is doing and commitment to a regular and sustained effort with the organisation’ 

We are one of only a few NGO’s (Non Government Organisations) who do not charge a fee for your time with us… instead, we provide accommodation and lunch six days a week; and ask only that you contribute your skills and service, your share of the power bill (negligible), and a donation at your discretion upon departure. When I was looking for an organisation to work with, this was a big drawcard for me.  Never viewing this as a ‘holiday with a difference’ or a ‘conscience vacation’, I was searching for an opportunity to share my skills, and hopefully enrich the lives of those less fortunate than myself, on a budget. Here it is.

I chose to rent an apartment rather than stay in the volunteer houses, mainly because I am here for the foreseeable future, but also because I am a filthy smoker! – living separately allows me to indulge my vice, and also gives me some distance; I’m not sure how well I would have coped with dorm style accommodation for this long, and it has the added advantage of providing a space away from ‘work’ not only for myself, but for the other volunteers, who often come here to eat, to recuperate from a tummy bug  (or an emergency appendectomy in 2013!) with a Western bathroom handy, or just for a ‘sleepover’. Which is fine – I enjoy having them!

Most volunteers hit an apparently insurmountable wall at about seven to ten days in; the issues seem so enormously overwhelming, and our contribution so negligible. What can we hope to achieve within four short weeks?  There are so many issues that will make you so angry, so sad, so frustrated. It’s so difficult to understand WHY, especially in India where there is a yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots, the caste system still has massive potency, women’s rights are well behind by Western standards, illegal alcohol is ruining lives in a dry state, children go begging or rag picking instead of attending school… the list is endless and can leave you gasping for air just as you begin to cope with smells and litter, noise and insane traffic, heat and dust, and the insatiable curiosity of most Indians. All we can do is remember the words of Mother Teresa and do our small things with love. The rewards are immense, trust me; and they often come when you least expect them, and in surprising ways.

I taught English when I arrived, mainly to older students who already had a grasp of the language and wanted to improve their grammar and conversational skills. It was fun! We played games and shared stories; learnt about past participles together (probably the first step I took before starting teaching was buying a grammar textbook… I didn’t remember which tense was which either!) I scoured the internet for ideas for classes, bought dictionaries for my students, and drank endless cups of chai at their houses; on one very special and memorable occasion, one lady, Varsha, made and brought idli sambhar for the entire classes lunch! Ritu made me some beautiful local clothes and taught me how to make paratha.  Ajaybhai, Neetaben, and Maheshbhai have become my closest friends, family really, in India, and have helped me so much.

More recently, I’ve spent the last six months renovating and relaunching our small community library. Working closely with the staff, we spent hours developing and implementing a cataloguing system, repainted and refreshed the space, and it has now become a bustling hive of activity used almost continuously not only as a lending library, but a classroom, a meeting space, and a quiet retreat. I’m free to decorate and design classes as I like, we work in a different theme every six weeks, most recently turning the library into the Amazon rainforest involving a huge anaconda and a brilliant week of blow dart competitions using cotton buds, straws, and paint!

Daily life. Noisy, challenging, never ever boring. Temple bells wake me. It’s about a twenty minute walk from my place to the library, but at 8.30am its still relatively cool. Ashram Road, a major thoroughfare, is quiet, and the slum itself is waking up, people cleaning their teeth in the lanes, semi naked small children roaming around, goats everywhere. Cross an evil foul-smelling black stream, reach the refreshingly calm and clean oasis in the heart of the slum that is our Community Centre. Lots of good mornings and Namaste’s on the way. Open the library, sweep it – dust! Its eternal, that dust. In come my first class for the day, happy excited and chattering, and we settle into the days activity – my Gujarati is limited to say the least of it but I always have either a Gujarati speaking volunteer or a staff member to translate when necessary. Its important to know that you will always have this available – language is the biggest issue I have faced personally.

After class, all the children from the mornings tuition sessions are gathered outside to eat, and Im busy processing returns and fresh loans, until we close at 12 and I can either walk back across to the Ashram for lunch, or eat there… which is what I usually do, its so nice and peaceful! Open again at two, a repetition of the mornings activity, and I’m home by six-ish, walking through the vegetable market on my way and collecting dinner materials… so fresh, so cheap.

Saturday is pretty much a day off, although we do have a large gathering of kids from the slum in the Ashram for an afternoon of games and activities each week, and on Sunday I love exploring the lanes and alleys in the old city, nearly always getting lost, but always discovering something new. I often spend Sunday afternoon preparing classes for the week ahead. There are so many options open to you as a volunteer, and your contributions are always welcome and valued. It can be as easy as helping out in a preschool by playing with the kids, or as challenging as building a new preschool in a slum, as two Australian architects are doing at the moment. Want to know more? Let me know!

My new flatmate

He wakes me up at 4am. Before the temple bells. Before the Amul man with the milk-crates. Definitely before I want to wake up. He won’t sit still at prayers, falls down steps all the time, and I can’t take him to a restaurant. He’s not fussy about where he goes to the loo, and he chewed up a broom yesterday. He’s Lucky!

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a friend, and saw the dog that lives around his building had had another litter of puppies. There are hundreds of street dogs here, thin and dusty, scavenging the streets although to be fair, people do feed them. They’re not seen in the same way Australians see dogs though – these are mongrels, semi-wild, co-existing rather than cohabiting. Back to the point – one of the puppies had a badly broken foreleg and was dragging itself around, much smaller and weaker than his litter mates – I felt the leg and it was knitting together so I petted the little fellow, and walked away, desperately resisting the urge to pick him up and take him to the vet as I was scared the mother would reject him even more if he came back smelling different. And he was too young to leave his mother.

After a week of worrying I went back to see how he was doing – I’d asked my friend how he was but he hadn’t seen him at all. There he was, weaker than before. He was so skinny and small… ! Theres a vet on the corner of RTO Circle, catering mainly to the newly affluent Amnavadis with their pedigree dogs, and this one was quite surprised to see a middle-aged white woman with a street puppy wrapped up in her dupatta but tenderly examined the leg, agreed nothing could be done, wormed and vaccinated the puppy and told me to bring him back in a month. 670 rupees later, the multivitamin syrup, calcium suspension, liver tonic and very small brown puppy in my bag clearly represented a commitment; home we went.

I bathed him, fed him, and took him into prayer the next morning, where he was warmly welcomed by the Manav Sadhna family, and named Lucky, because he is… so it looks as if we have a dog, at least for a while!

Since then, he has grown rapidly with access to food he doesn’t have to fight for. The leg, while it still gets tired, and will always be weak, is much better. He is not afraid of fireworks – we have lived through Diwali! It has been interesting to watch the varying reactions of the locals, from wonder and approval to sheer disbelief, and kids in particular struggle to overcome their initial fear and love to cuddle and play with him… this is almost an experiment in changing attitudes towards dogs, although I can completely understand why they would have a reluctance to approach one, given that most of the dogs one see’s here are pretty feral.

Obviously, I can’t keep a dog! So, I called the only available animal shelter in the city, the Asha Foundation, for advice and help, and met up with the lovely Lalu who dedicates his time to rescuing street animals large and small. You can read more about their wonderful work at

Vets from around the world come and volunteer their time with Asha, the current vet-in-residence is from Australia, and they deal with some horrific cases – animal welfare just isn’t high on most peoples list of priorities here and I recognise that and the reasons for it, but it’s painful to see nonetheless. With dogs, many of whom arrive with fearsome injuries from traffic incidents, or cancers, their priority is to heal and then desex before release.. Lucky will not leave here without losing a couple of body parts either.

However, Lalu couldn’t take Lucky as he’s healthy now… oh dear, what am I to do? “Don’t worry Mam, we’ll find a home for him, we’ll get him in the paper.” Instant celebrity as if I needed it!

This story will continue…

Living in India Part 1

So what is it really like for a Westerner, living in India? I conduct the experiment of sitting with a pencil and paper and writing the first words that come into my head. I finally settle on; challenging, noisy, exhilarating, surprising, spiritual, depressing, over-whelming. Let me take them one at a time and try and paint a picture for you……

Challenging. In so many ways, but I’m going to use the traffic as an example. Much has been written about the utter bedlam that is the traffic norm in every Indian city; none of it is exaggerated. Lane dividers are completely ignored unless they are two feet high and made of concrete. Vehicles ranging from motorbikes to camel carts to luxury Audi’s to rickshaws continually jockey for position and beep their horns; driving on the wrong side of the road and shooting around roundabouts the wrong way is commonplace; and weaving between oncoming vehicles to reach a destination on the opposite side of the road is perfectly acceptable. Scooters and bikes commonly carry entire families; women in saree’s perch side saddle on the pillion, long dupatta’s (scarves) flap dangerously close to rear wheels and babies are tucked under one arm asleep while older kids are squished between Mum and Dad. One often sees a three lane highway reduced to one lane because there are cows laying around chewing the cud in the other two, dogs and beggars expertly negotiate their way in and out of it all, and I’m going to mention the horns just one more time. No-one goes anywhere without beeping their horn frequently! The answer – look in every direction, and learn to cross the road like a local by following a local across a few times, remembering that a bus going the same way is the best shield against oncoming traffic. Just enjoy the ride when you are a pillion passenger on a bike or scooter – the driver doesn’t actually want to die any more than you do, and neither does that apparently reckless rickshaw driver. One hopes…

Noisily. I love the way Indian’s live, celebrating everything, enthusiastically, colourfully, explosively. I live between three temples, and if the early bus blowing its horn, or the milkman thumping crates onto the road, haven’t already woken me, the temple bells and bhajans (devotional songs) will. Diwali, the Festival of Lights and Indian new year, has been and gone and made living here insanely close to living in a war zone, with rockets and bangers exploding day and night; the nine day Navratri festival last month entailed garba music (need I add, it was loud?!)  and dancing until the wee small hours at multiple local venues; and a couple of months ago I woke at 3.30am to a river of people and traffic clogging Keshavnagar Road, singing and cheering and playing music and banging drums, and have never really fathomed out what that was all about! At any time of the day, a music cart loaded to the gills with enormous amplifiers may pass, accompanied by people beating drums, dancing and singing, and if its a wedding there may be several going full blast… and never mind that it is 6am on a Sunday morning; thats when the astrologers said it would be auspicious for the wedding to take place! I should add that my flat is exceptionally well positioned to take advantage of the full range of aural experiences available – temple bells and fireworks, vegetable cart vendors yelling their wares, random street parties passing by, always with drums, very long trains crossing the railway bridge, aeroplanes apparently attempting to land on the roof, incessant beeping horns, and buses slowing outside to allow passengers to leap on and off at a reduced speed. They don’t really stop. Worthy of special mention; the power station running a devilish machine that sounded like the end of the world was nigh from 3am to 6am for a few days recently….Keshavnagar Road, total immersion. I love it (most of the time!)

Exhilarating. See the above! Something is always happening here and it frequently involves playing loud music and dancing. Often at short notice, we volunteers find ourselves being whisked off to startlingly wonderful things, like almost front row dead centre seats at the Vibrant Gujarat Inauguration at the start of Navratri involving an exuberant one and a half hour stage performance, and refreshingly short speeches by the politicians; or a celebration of a religious festival at the Community Centre in the slum with skinny girls in sequins swirling out the latest Bollywood moves while the audience screams their appreciation. I look at the girls during these performances and think how precious it must be to feel like a princess wearing those fabulous costumes for a while when they live where they do. What a wonderful memory for them to take into their future. There are also wonderfully calm moments when you hear a gentle bell rhythmically chiming, and know it’s an elephant passing, or look out of the window to see a camel tethered to the gate, or a small procession of Jain monks and nuns heading into the temple next door dressed in homespun and carrying their red begging vessels. You never really know what to expect, which segues neatly into….

Surprising. It doesn’t matter what you have heard or read before arriving, you’ll be surprised. Because no westerner who comes here and lives and works amongst the community fails to be surprised by the warmth, generosity, and curiosity with which India instantly enfolds them. Because the kids in the slum smile so much more than western kids. Because people who have so little can give so generously – as an example, I know a wonderful soul who has a severe disability of his own, but nevertheless delivers lunch and dinner daily, rain, hail, or shine, holiday or no holiday, to elderly people whom he considers   to be worse off than him. Because someone goes to incredible lengths to return an expensive smartphone carelessly left on a vegetable cart. By me. Because when you go to the park in the afternoon with the lame puppy you are looking after and a fellow volunteer, you immediately generate a flash mob of Indians playing with the puppy and asking you ‘what is your native country?’, and they get close, really close! A common theme amongst departing volunteers is their surprise at finding that they have received more than they gave, much of this due to the warmth and love with which the Manav Sadhna family have enfolded them during their stay. Trust me, it’s surprising, but once you learn to accept with gratitude, and without the blinkers of western prejudice and suspicion, extremely uplifting.

Spiritual. India is the home of the worlds most ancient religions; she celebrates the relationship between humans and their various gods daily even in the smallest of things. There are symbols of worship everywhere; from lavish extravaganza’s like the Disney-esque Akshardham temple complex in Delhi to tiny, tiled shrines on corners in the slums. Mosques dot the city as well; It’s not all roses and there have been many instances of clashes between religious groups, but essentially worship of some sort is deeply woven into the fabric of daily life here. Is it escapism? Fatalism? Confronted with the grinding reality of life for many, perhaps for some it is, but lets not forget the comfort faith provides. Colourful idols and visible symbols serve only to give a focus; whats really important is the search for God within, the atman or divine light within us all. Hackneyed phrase but true – India opens doors within your soul you never knew existed, but only if you allow it to.

Depressing. It is, without shadow of doubt, deeply disturbing and depressing to see such blatant poverty. To drive past ranks of shanty huts with women squatting before small fires, naked children playing in the dust and rubbish, to walk home past a small band of grimy children who beg at the corner daily, the seven year old sister carting the toddler on her hip. It is more depressing to witness the yawning chasm between them and India’s wealthy, who are extremely wealthy. There is a great deal in the papers at the moment about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to erect the biggest statue in the world here in Gujarat, of Sardar Patel… its going to cost millions of rupees, every village in India is being asked to donate a used iron farm implement to be melted down and be part of it, and one cannot help but wonder what Mr Patel would have thought of this, or whether he might have considered the money better spent on improving educational facilities, or getting some decent sanitation into said villages. Modi proudly boasts that the statue will be bigger than the Statue of Liberty. Is this some kind of Freudian penis envy? Does the fact that the USA still won’t allow Modi a visa because of his alleged role during the 2002 riots play a part? Could that money be better spent? Probably. Foreign aid only trickles into India now as it’s GDP rises, and yet NGO’s are busier than ever. Perhaps the need for a gigantic statue is less urgent than the need for there to be no need for NGO’s.

Overwhelming. There is, honestly, just so much of everything, surrounding you constantly. People, poverty, problems; noise, colour, traffic; smells, love, curiosity… the list is endless, and yes, at times, life here can be completely overwhelming. When it’s hot, and it gets really, really hot, it’s overwhelming simply wearing the amount of clothing you have to wear. I have occasionally had days when I simply haven’t left the house purely because I don’t want to cope with the assault on my senses, all of them, or be stared at again as the only white face on the street, or struggle with the language barrier and a rickshaw driver. Not often though.  Wise words – treat India like a breaking ocean wave. If you fight it, you’ll get dumped; if you swim with it, you will emerge on the other side with a big smile on your face.

To summarise, living here certainly isn’t for everyone, but for me it is something I am grateful for every day. I did intend this to be a post on the practical realities of life here and have wandered a long way from that intention…..clearly there’s a Part Two in the offing!