Thursday, 18 December 2008

Amdarvad - the city that Ahmed flourished

This was my first trip to India (6 Dec 2008). Be prepared for some "culture shocks". Immigration was pretty straight forward but the queue was long. The first thing you might notice is that the immigration staff might be "telling each other off", through head and hand movements accompanied by verbal remarks ... if one or the other is a little slow. You wouldn't see this in Changi - everything is orderly and friendly, remember?

Then waiting for the bags was just as long, with some tempers flaring ... and these are by the returning Indians screwing up the local airport staff ... "I have been standing here for half and hour and the same bags are moving around and around" (probably a slight exaggeration). The few who had "priority" tags on their luggage seemed the most irritated. Next comes customs. There's the green lane and there's the other lane. Makes no difference because they x-ray every single bag, including handbags. They are looking for money ... i.e. tax dollars. And people jump queue, of course. When it was my turn (I think after some 20 minutes in line), the taxman detected some batteries in my backpack - asked me if it was digital camera or camcorder. I said "digital camera". Apparently not satisfied, he sent me to the counter to have my bag opened up. I waited patiently and the second taxman was apparently surprised to see me and asked quizzically why I was there to see him. I said the other guy asked to me to show him my bag. He asked "what's inside"? I said "digital camera" and "notebook". He said "one digital camera"? I said "yes". And he said "one is allowed". This was followed by hand movements and verbals remarks directed at the first taxman.

And so I cleared immigration and customs - after more than one hour. Welcome to Gujarat, India.

The next culture shock is the driving. There is constant honking but that's not such a shock - nor the speed of driving. The shock is when you get to a junction. Nobody stops. Syed Aidid (lecturer from UTM who happened to be also in Ahmedabad) and I agreed that we Malaysian drivers will never get pass a major road junction here. We would be waiting until all the cars have cleared! And in the meantime everyone will be giving us INTENSE direct stares. So that's the next culture shock. When my driver was zipping through an intersection, another car was coming from the other direction. The other driver obviously thought he had the "right of way" (not sure there is such a thing here) so he accelerated and came right into the path of my car - and all the while he was staring intensely at my driver - not sure how to interpret that - was it a dare, wanna see who's chicken kinda thing? Well, my driver was "chicken" (and I was glad for that) 'cos he slowed (almost stopped) to let the other daredevil pass. And all this near midnight. Meanwhile you can't talk to the driver because he doesn't understand English ... or Chinese or Malay.
This was the construction worker at the CEPT. See the stare? Multiply that a few more intensity.

Generally, I find that most people on the streets are happy to have their picture that. In fact, this old gentlemen came shuffling over when I was taking photos at the Jami Mosque and pointed to himself to have his picture taken. The hawkers on the streets are also very delighted when you make them the centre of your attention.

This young lady went out on the boat on the Nal Lake to fetch water and when I saw her coming back I jumped up and went shooting. In fact, she was a little self-conscious but put up a show for me, trying not to smile.

Kids are generally less self-c0nscious. Found these brother and sister (and another little tod) playing with a kite at the CEPT University. Their parents were working on a construction site nearby. Yes, they don't have the luxury of going to daycare or being left with extended family. Kite-flying is a big thing in Ahmedabad come January. Everyone is on the roof top flying kites - so, you don't need a big open space to enjoy kite-flying.

Want some more culture shock? On the day I was to catch my flight back, I went to buy some stuff (including a tiffin) and was in shop looking for a t-shirt for my son. All of a sudden an older guy came in and started having a heated exchange with some younger people in the shop. It was actually "shouting" conversation in the small confines of the shop. I debated whether to walk out or just play cool. By that time, I was already getting a little comfortable with this intense relationships. It seems the older guy was the boss screwing up his young staff (or sons?) - right in front of a potential customer. And the youngsters didn't meekly put their heads down - they shouted back. Well, I stayed and bought a t-shirt. Before that, we had witnessed a neighbourhood conflict on the streets in the old city - and our local guide refreshingly said that conflict is essential. I was also stared at when I took photos of a women construction worker all dressed up in sari. And when Utpal took me and some students to Nal Saravor (Lake Nal) to see the birds, some scruffy looking locals welcomed us with - what else, long deep intense stares. As it turned out, they were the owners who operate boats to ferry eco-tourists to see the birds.

But India is really a fun place. So rich in history, culture, sights, smells, sounds, traditions and ... very friendly people! I am not kidding.

On the first morning, after a hearty breakfast at the hotel, I decided to follow the instructions and walked to CEPT University where our meeting (and APSA 2009) would be held. Unlike Hanoi where you get a continuous annoying stream of trishaw riders bugging and following you, the rickshaw (motorised) drivers here are not so persistent or annoying. I asked how much for the ride and was told 20 rupees for 8 kilometres (or something). So damn cheap. But for only one or two rupees (yes, 1 or 2 rupees), locals will cramp into and share a rickshaw. I have seen a ricksaw with 5 adults and 4 children in it. One of my worries was that the rickshaw driver won't have change for my 500 rupee notes. Anyway, I walked, and walked and walked. I visited the CEPT campus (more of this later) and then started walking back, heading for the old historic part of the city. One thing about Ahmedabad - the tourist info sucks. So I had a very basic map trying to figure out which road to take. Road signs are almost non-existent except at major roads and intersections and mostly not in English.

So, I was at an intersection trying to figure out which way to go and then a car stopped, reversed and the driver asked where I was going, sensing I was "lost". I said the old city - for some history, culture and shopping. Guess what? He asked me to get in the car. Now, he speaks really good English. He's wearing khurta pyjamas (all cotton, white). Medium-sized car. Hhmm, should I? My instincts, from years of travelling, said "OK". So, I got in the car. I can't even remember his name (he didn't have a card with him). He said he had just gone for a haircut and that's why he was in his pyjamas (they call it pyjamas but you can wear it outside the house, very cooling). He suggested dropping me off at a place where I could do a self-walking tour of the old city. That would be great! And then at one roundabout, he pointed to a huge billboard and said "I put that up!". "Oh, you are in advertising", I ventured. "No, that's my social message to the people". So, sitting next to me was the owner of an ice-cream company (Havmor) and he changes the billboard frequently with such messages. When we got to the heritage hotel (The House of MG), he gave instructions to the hotel staff to get me on the self-guide tour. You pay a 100 rupee for the MP3 player and a small map and you take your time enjoying the sights. The major problem is that on the streets, the ambient noise is very loud so it is hard to listen to the narrative, which was actually very good. I never found out, but am not sure if non-hotel guests are allowed to use this service. According to Debashish, a local heritage advocate, when the owner of MG started out on his project to restore the building into a heritage hotel, he faced opposition from his family and people thought he was crazy. Now there's a long queue to eat at his rooftop restaurant serving traditional vegetarian food. Incidentally, the heritage tour ends at another heritage building - by the same owner of course (smart marketing) - called the Mangaldas ni Haveli. This latter is an old family house in the old walled city now converted into a shop (rather pricey clothes) and a rooftop restaurant which is also very popular at night. I had my lunch there on the first day - vegetarian of course. Ah, now you get it. Yes, Gujarat is vegetarian country, but you can still get meat here. There are no bars or pubs, alcohol is banned in public places and you even need a permit to have liquor or beer in your own house.

Back up a little to that bit of about social responsibility. Gujurat is actually full of very very rich people. The history of Ahmedabad itself dates back 600 years and it used to be called the Manchester of the East because of its booming textile industry. So what do you do with all that money. Giving is an embedded culture here, amongst the rich that is. And they gave back by funding many community projects especially education. For instance a huge area around the CEPT University (including the university) was donated in trust by wealthy industrialists for various educational institutions. The original owner of the CEPT property was a Jain so he degree that there shall be no meat on campus (Jains are strict vegetarians). I have been reading Ghandhi's autobiography and he talked about his trials and tribulations, tempted by a cousin to try meat and told that you have to eat meat to be strong like the English. Oh, yah, I think he said that one of the reasons he set up the Ashram in Ahmedabad is because of the culture of giving by the rich - the Ashram runs on donations. For those of you history buffs, this was where Ghandhi started his Salt March which broke the back of the British Empire in India.

The divide between the have and the have nots is huge. Right in the city you will also find slums. Over tea and coffee at the Haveli, I was quite surprised to learn that running water in the city is supplied only for 2 hours or so in the morning and I think an hour in the evening. "What, you have a problem with water supply"? Apparently, the supply is enough but not enough to supply to the slum areas. In the slums, water is supplied through communal taps but the tap heads are always stolen so the water will be continuously flowing. The solution? Restrict water supply to the early mornings. So the city folks have to store water in the mornings and I saw an amazing 40-foot well built into the side of the Haveli. So I guess the slums have been around for centuries? I am told that in one of the cities, they even have a heritage tour of the slums. Huh? Well, they will bring you to visit the houses of the gangsters in the slums. Reminds of Capital Chung Keng Kwee.
The Mangaldas ni Haveli, a restored heritage building. I liked the way they don't brush a new coat of paint over the wooden beams and windows. Gives it a really old-world feeling. Notice the narrow streets and the buildings almost touching each other? Amazingly, there has never been any fires. And these old buildings still stood after the recent earthquake while modern buildings cracked or tumbled down.

The hanvdov, a vegetarian snack. Had this for lunch on my first day.

The Mangaldas Haveli at night with Utpal, Debashish, Syed and Yukio

Shopping - I had to contribute to the local economy, right? Consumption, the root of unsustainability. I was told that the traditional khurta, make of 100% cotton, are very comfortable and cooling. Ghandhi also promoted these traditional clothes to support the local industry. You can get very expensive ones but generally they are very cheap. A whole suit (pyjamas) for ladies can be as little as 200-300 rupees (thats about RM20-30). I see that it is still the clothes of choice for most Indians but popular culture is catching up with the younger, richer people wearing designer jeans and shirts.

Emmh, before I end this long piece, I must mention Salim. He's rickshaw driver - rents the rickshaw for about 300 rupees a day (can't remember). Speaks a bit of English but a survivor. After my heritage walk (where I got lost despite having a map), the hotel staff took me to the roadside where the rickshaws gather to help "negotiate" a trip to the Ghandhi Ashram. The driver wanted 350 rupee for three and half hours including a 2 hour stop at the Ashram and to take me shopping for traditional clothers. I said how much just to go just go the Ashram? 50 rupees. OK, let's go. Smart driver. Along the way he lowered his price to 300 rupees so I said, well, why not. I spent only a little over one hour at the Ashram. He met me when I was about to exit. Have you seen this? Have seen that? Take a picture with Ghandhi. Hey, I know what you are doing, but I am cool. Yes, yes, I have seen all those but yes you can take a picture of me with Ghandhiji.

Me and Ghandhiji. The rickshaw driver-cum-photographer asked me to put my arms around Ghandhi's shoulders. I thought that might be inappropriate, given his esteem status.

Let's go shopping, now. Along the way, he suggested this, and that. I said no, no, no - just take me shopping. And then he said "City Museum" - and I said OK. Turns out it was a building designed by Le Corbusier the famous French Architect who also "originally" designed the new city of Chandigarph. There are quite a number of buildings by such famous architects including Walter Gropius. The CEPT University was designed by an Indian (named Doshi who is now 84 years old and healthy revered in CEPT) who studied under Corbusier. After the museum, he took me to a shop - I said I don't like the clothes. We went to another - and I bought like 5 or 6 sets! All for less than 2000 rupees (less than RM200). When we went to pay, I took out my cloth bag and asked the cashier to put all the clothes in it. "You don't want this PVC bag? Very good quality" the cashier looked at me quite incredulously. My driver stretched out his hand to take the plastic bag. Seems have some value or status with that bag. Then the driver said he will catch with me. It's the same everywhere. These guys get a bit of a kickback from the shop. I don't begrude him that. He earned it. So he tried to drag the time a little and when we got back it was four hours of his service. I asked him at the hotel doorsteps "How much?". He smiled and said "up to you". Smart isn't he? I gave him 350 rupees. "Please, give me 400". I smiled. Very smart guy. He asked whether I was happy with his service. Yes, very happy. "Tomorrow again?", he smile widely. I said tomorrow "whole day meeting", sorry. Before I could get out of the rickshaw, a couple was already booking his next trip. Good luck, Salim.

On the boat at the Nal Lake. The driver came late so we missed the flamingos. It seems that in the early mornings the migratory birds will be close to the shores. We spent about 3 hours on the boat looking for the elusive birds. Wished I had more powerful telelens. Oops, 3 hours is a long time to be sitting on a boat, isn't it?

Lunch after the boat ride, cooked in the open with fire from dried twigs and cowdunk. I can't remember the type of flour, a bit darker than wheat. Water for cooking and drinking supplied by the lake.

1 comment:

PJ said...

I really enjoyed reading about your experience in India. Reminds me of the time i was there last March. India is an amazing country - so rich, culture and history. It is just so sad that for a country who used to be so rich has such a huge disparity in income.

Happy Christmas to the family and Penang. And here is wishing you and family a wonderful 2009!!