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Girls not on top for India

There’s been a lot of talk lately about India and it’s worrying sex ratio with men significantly outnumbering women and reportedly the chance that there could be 20% more men to women in the next two decades. That is a pretty scary figure and yet more proof that India, while racing ahead in many other aspects, remains sadly lagging behind when it comes to the way men and women are viewed. That was apparent to me not only as a woman travelling alone in India but from meeting other women there and it isn’t limited to disturbing sex-selective abortions but is there, spread in everyday life like an invisible yet smelly film over everything.

Of course I’ll be the first to acknowledge that men and women are viewed differently in all countries and we are not living in a rosy utopia of equality in the UK. But what struck me when I told Indian women that I was travelling alone was their sheer incredulity that I had embarked upon this journey. More than one girl said, “Here in India we don’t do that kind of thing.” Well I’m Indian too. “No, you’re not”, they’d say back to me. The girls I spoke to were slightly admiring yet mainly determined that they would not undertake such a journey alone. And these were not wide-eyed village girls but cafe latte-sipping, working urbanites.

This isn’t an uncommon fear – travelling alone is daunting for anyone and certainly wasn’t always a cup of tea for me – but it was the resigned acknowledgement that that was the way things were that I remembered. It was the accepted ‘Things will not change when it comes to deciding what women can and can’t do’.

Yes Western women are just as shackled to these ideas, being dragged along by their high heeled shoes in an imbalanced, hysterical, beauty-clutching, marriage-obsessed world. But the more ingrained nature of family values on the young people of India leaves a certain mark which is less in British society. The closeness of families in India leaves less room for traditional ideals to slip through and get forgotten or neglected – the ideas stick and breathe in the everyday air and become a part of their fibres.

This can be a good or bad thing but it is just part of our being more (when I say ‘our’, I speak as an Indian living in Britain, also living in these tight-knit ideas) because family has always been a more inherent part of Indian culture. And it is a good AND a bad thing because it keeps us close but also keeps those old ideas stagnant, stale and ever-present, withstanding the passing mini whirlwinds of modern technology, career and education. There is nowhere for these old-fashioned, gender-skewed ideas to go so they remain and get passed on through generations.

So unless there is a throwing down of the old concepts and a dusting off of these moth-eaten rugs we will remain entrenched in what we can and can’t do. Being entrenched in that, along with all else that comes with being a woman these days, can keep those invisible barriers creeping up towards you until they are pressed up against your nose and you are gladly sitting on the other side.

 

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Posted by on April 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Back and bestomached

Oh irony, why must you always come and trump me with your skulky, stealthy three steps ahead of me. I am back and have suffered from severe stomach upset, I hate the phrase ‘delhi belly’, despite using it earlier, and I laughed at those who claimed it was inevitable to get it from India and yet here I am clutching my belly and whimpering into my kurta top. Yes, I am officially trumped, smart-arsed, whipped, befooled, you name it, my stomach couldn’t handle it. Actually I blame it on the flight food, who serves a chicken drumstick with nan bread on a long haul flight anyway?

Aside from jennifer’s issues, I feel alright being back in England, although that could be mainly because I haven’t actually left my house in the last week and therefore have remained in a protected cocoon ignoring the disasterous state of affairs in Britain and my neighbourhood (I noticed a new traffic light cross section on  the road down from mine, how can things change so drastically and catastrophically in three months). Home comforts have been nice, particularly as my last few days in India were mainly spent on night buses, one of which was a particular sadist’s delight as it was the most freezing bus I had ever been on in my life – the window wouldn’t close properly but I swear they had the AC on for some unbeknown ridiculous reason – while I wiped icicles off my nose, I also contended with an iron bar above my bunk which screwed unloose everytime we went over a bump – and seeing as there was nothing but bumps for 17 hours, I spent the entire journey in catatonic state of frozenness, bumping up and down and periodically being pummelled by an iron bar. Guantanamo Bay please don’t take note.

My trip on the whole however was really something I am proud of, that I achieved this on my own – something I had dreamt of doing for so long – and while it certainly wasn’t easy, it was one of the most rewarding, most meaningful things I’ve ever done. When my stomach returns to a normal state of equilibrium, I will continue in the same vein of adventure and leave my front door soon to buy some milk.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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I can’t wait to tell people about this blog post after I’ve written it

When I heard somebody on the bus the other day say: “I went to Wimbledon this year. Just to say I’ve done it, you know,” I couldn’t help but cringe a bit inside. It’s an old but sad notion that we do things not for the pleasure of doing them but to have something to brag about afterwards.

But we do that don’t we, it’s like those people we see out at parties who are posing for photos, grinning and sticking fingers up and I can literally see the thought bubble appear above their heads – “This photo will look great as my profile picture on Facebook” – Therefore the continuing pleasure of this night (which is often an even greater pleasure than the night itself) will be showing and telling people about it.

I know I’m in no position to preach – I probably do take too much relish in telling people I’ve taken part in a skydive (ooh get me). After a night out, part of my hungover hunched-over self is enjoying the drama of  sordid tales of lost phones, encounters with strangers called Jethro and dancing down the streets without shoes on to the tunes of a Ukrainian-born reggae band. (I definitely haven’t had a night out like that but it sounds great doesn’t it)

What really got me thinking recently was that, however well-meaning it may be, how can we seperate the experience from the narrative? Or the real question, I suppose, how can we avoid the pitfalls in ascribing our self-worth to the tales we come up with?

This particularly came to mind when I was reading about people’s travels. More and more people are paying insane amounts of money to volunteer abroad. But the people they are helping would probably kill to have that amount of money they paid to be there helping them. I know essentially these volunteers are paying for the security net of support when they’re out there etc but the whole idea is just so flawed to me. Essentially because it makes it more like a well-meaning holiday, rather than an act of making a genuine difference.

I’m careful how I phrase this because I know lots of people who do this are very hard-working, generous volunteers who simply don’t know how else to go abroad and help people the way they want to, without paying an organisation to help them.

What happened to exchanges – let’s bring those back. Seeing as there are thousands of Africans, Indians and other nationalities who would give their right arm to come to England, and British people who have had enough of the cynicism and weather and want to make a difference abroad. It makes the most sense to me, rather than the equivalent of an entire village’s annual income being spent on one person’s trip to Rwanda to help build a mud well.

Which brings me to my main point – the reasons we want to do what we do. Do we genuinely want to help people or do we want to have another experience to add to our growing and impressive list? I watched a brilliant film called Machan last weekend about a group of Sri Lankan men so desperate to come to live in Europe that they invent a handball team, not even knowing what the word handball means. Lots of westerners dream of going to Sri Lanka, it is a land full of beauty, Sri Lankans dream of coming to Europe, it is a land full of money.

I suppose we are lucky that we are allowed the indulgence of travelling to make ourselves feel good when many people we’ll meet in those countries want to travel to lead a solid life – the lives that we are leading here already and probably taking for granted.

This whole idea is probably not far away from the ‘Is there a selfless good deed?’ question. There is no easy answer and there is probably no shame in admitting that both factors – helping people and having a great experience – play a role in volunteering abroad. I think what we can reject though is the easy compartmentalisation of ideas. I have volunteered abroad therefore I am good. You are working in England therefore you are bad. I have met children in India therefore I am a better person. It’s far too messy for that and anyone who thinks spending 10 months in Bhutan makes them a better person than their peers is a lost individual.

This has all made me rethink my plans for when I go to India (yes, after all that ranting, I am actually volunteering abroad myself). I haven’t paid anyone to do this and am not even sure what I’m doing yet. But whatever it is, I will not be fitting it into any agenda of mine and I think the further removed it is, the more distanced I am from my own smug self and it’s ideas of what I want, the more I will actually be able to learn and find out more – which I will not be then posting on Facebook as a status update.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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