conundrums, contradictions and questions

too long

I can’t believe I have let this go for so long… there has been so much going on and it has filled my mind so much that I have not found the words or the time to put it down on ‘paper’.

Last week I stepped out of my life in Hubli – back into my old life of 7 years ago – when I lived in Himachal Pradesh and spent my time teaching English to a ragtag bunch of Himalayan kids.
Going back to Dharamsala and the school in Yol was amazingly fun. I had expected crazy feelings and memories but instead it was just comforting. I saw clearly why the place meant so much to me and why it still feels a little bit like home. There was the weather which was sunny but not too hot, the round smiling faces of the old Tibetan women as they walk round the temple, the kids – wow I don’t even know where to start with this one. Just thinking about them makes me smile, they are beautiful and naughty, raucous and inwardly peaceful all at the same time. They seem confident even though they’ve never met you and don’t really speak your language. And that’s just the young ones. The older ones are more reserved. For example my former nemesis – a boy named Dowa who used to cause havoc in almost every lesson is now a shy young man, who smiles meekly and dips his eyes.

And then there is Anila, my former housemate, a nun of around 50 who is all energy and excited talking, who is confident that all you need in life is to help others and that money really doesn’t matter. And she says that without a hint of naivety or crassness, she really knows what it means to have no money and she doesn’t care.

Life there was beautiful and it still is. It is a place that makes me smile in my memories.


The proof is in the pudding

We reach the hotel by boat, there is no other way into the dense forest with its picturesque huts and hammocks. It is a little bit of India reclaimed. It is lovely in all its touristy veneer. We enter a world where time has stood still and fast-forwarded all in one place: there are tribal dances accompanied by tipsy westerners and followed up by a mixture of bangra and cheesy disco music.
There is a morning hike at 6 am (although once Indian Standard Time has had its fun we actually leave at 7). We return to a breakfast of channa batura and toast with bright pink jam. The food overall is brilliant with vegetables lightly fried and seasoned with a hint of coconut. The deserts for the most part fulfil the Indian necessities of diabetic-coma-inducing levels of sugar and plenty of cardamom. That is until dinner when suddenly we are presented with banana custard. Being the only “Britisher” in a group of Americans this dish held a particular significance which only I grasped.
For the Americans the custard was “pudding” and they recognized the dish for what it was an over-watery, over-sweet concoction that was probably best left on the plate. For me it was a memory in a bowl, granted it had not been appropriately set, it had too much sugar and not enough milk, but nonetheless it was certainly banana custard; that delight at the end of an otherwise disgusting school lunch.
So there I was eating my pudding from my British boarding school in a “tribal” scene that was meant to encapsulate India’s roots. And it struck me that not only was this a memory for me, it was an Indian memory, a taste on the lips that wouldn’t quite go away. British colonialism had placed banana custard in this bizarre setting and it had been modified but never removed. I could go on to extend this metaphor to ridiculous lengths about how engrained colonialism really is in Indian society but I do not want to patronize you. That story has been told and retold, it was just bizarre to really taste it.
It is easy for academics to talk about how British colonialism shaped Indian society, how the caste system was codified and solidified to such an extent that it entraps the Indian national to this day. The only problem with this is that on the lips of outsiders it doesn’t quite ring true, and whatever we/they may say, the caste system is alive and well. Just like the banana custard.

Considering Hubli…

One of my friends in the UK recently explained that I really hadn’t described my life here at all.  I have tried a million times to find the right words for this place and a million times I have failed, so now I’m going to use someone else’s words:

“the entrepreneur’s path crosses any number of provincial towns that have the pollution and noise and traffic of a big city – without any hint of the true city’s sense of history, planning, and grandeur. Half-baked cities, built for half-baked men”

(The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga:2008, p 52-3)

Hubli is the definition of halfway – it’s the size of a city with the philosophy of a small town.   And yet as we joke around about its idiosyncrasies and awkwardnesses,  the phrase “i love hubli” carries more and more weight.

so how did it happen that I landed in this world of dust and violent stares and started to like it?

this may be a town of small mindedness and big rubbish but even as you start to believe that, you start to see the softer edges and the smiling faces.  you can still find the people who, for want of a better phrase, “give a shit”.  somewhere tucked in between the piss-streaked walls and the pan spitting men standing outside bars there are people who want to help.  On the bus back from work I saw an old woman being harangued by the conductor as she did not have the right money.  I could not follow the exchange in its entirety but it was evident that the woman was old and broken.  As I got off the bus I looked back to see that she was ok, and there next to her window was another woman from the bus, passing a couple of coins to her.  I watched in shameful surprise, ashamed at my own failure to act and surprised to see this kind of unconditional kindness.  As the woman passed me I wanted to speak out and the words fell out of my mouth,

“you’re a good person.”

She looked at me in surprise,


“I said, you’re a good person for helping that old woman”

“well that is what life is about, no?  Making other people’s lives little happier”

She said it as though it was the most common thing in the world.  And yes, it should be.  We should hear or feel this sentiment all over the world.  But here I was, standing in Hubli and here she was cutting right through the stares and misunderstandings offering what can only be described as true insight.

I was walking home a few weeks ago and out of nowhere I heard “katie, katie”.  I expected to turn around and see that I was simply mishearing a Kannada word that sounded like my name, but instead hurtling towards me there was  a small boy on a bicycle.  He had met me a week earlier at a science fair and not only knew how to say my name but had remembered it.  He simply wanted to be in my life, and welcome me into his.

Then there was the old man stooped over, leaning heavily on his grandson for support.  I turned towards him, caught his eye and moved my hand over my heart with a mumbled “namaskara”.  This attempt at assimilation was enough and he launched into a conversation, that, with some translation by his grandson, would cover my life here and what I was doing.  Then satisfied with the encounter, he shuffled off again,  a beaming smile crinkling up his face.

So here I am in a hard edged city that hides its gems deep underneath the red dust.  Six months in and I am starting to trip over those gems as the dust blows away.  I am realising that I have made too many assumptions.  Even here, where the sun beats hard on people’s heads and the day is unforgiving, even here there are people who truly care.


so it’s been a while since i’ve written anything here and i’ve been trying to figure out why that is… of course there are the usual excuses such as work and tiredness but really i just haven’t had the words and that has sort of stunned me…

i have always had debates in my head, i have always queried the world and yet here i am in India with nothing to say… i started to realise that the problem was acceptance… i have been here four and a half months, i have the head nod and the “ha…” down, i’m starting to use my broken Kannada a fair bit, and i wore a sari voluntarily to the last ‘function’ i attended… i am becoming part of this life, this strange world of hubli and so the eyes of the outsider are closing…

but maybe only as we accept can we understand… someone asked me the other day to be a “lightning rod” in my environment, to enact change.  It may be that accepting this environment reduces my lightning rod capabilities, however it may also be true that only now can I truly get under Hubli’s skin.

5 months ago I was new to this place, desperate to help and change things for the better.  Now I am still desperate to help, and I am still keen to change but I believe that the changes I want now are more considered, more understanding of the environment itself and hopefully longer lasting.  It is only now, 5 months in, that people have opened up to me, my colleagues ask me for help openly, they tell me that I understand, that they have learnt from me.  It is only now with my broken kannada and my halfhearted attempts at indian dress that this is possible.  I am one of them, at least partly, and thus the lightning rod is rusting away.

One of my true beliefs is that development must be autonomous; consultants will never change the world.  Maybe now I can start to become part of that development or maybe I am still kidding myself…

Love for the scale-up

So I’ve been working with Agastya for 3 months and two things keep popping into my head at random intervals.
Firstly, what is so special about quantity?  what is so brilliant about scaling up? When I first arrived at Agastya I loved the fact that I was stepping into a thought process that I had never previously considered.  A student of development, completely au fait with the MDGs and the arguments concerning enrolment rates as a means of measuring numbers of children being educated, I had failed to consider the quality of the education.  When we talk about education, too often we fail to interrogate the term itself – what is education?  Does sitting in a classroom with 70 other children listening (or not listening) to somebody teaching you how to pass a test really qualify as education?  When we talk about getting all children into school, do we also mean that we need to get all children learning?  And what should they be learning? 
At Agastya these questions were opened up for me.  Just because i’m working in the developing world, does not mean that questions of quality should be ignored.  Here it cannot just be about getting all children into school, we must also consider what ‘school’ is – is it a good place for those children to be? Are constant lessons in obedience (too often with the threat of physical violence) really helpful to a child’s development?  Agastya’s project is to change education practices and bring the classroom alive. It sounds a little pie in the sky until you see it in action, as children who are used to sitting and listening gain the confidence to stand up and speak in their own words.

But we too fall into the numbers trap. We are interested in reaching as many people as possible and the governmental donors who support us are particularly interested in us reaching as many children as possible as quickly as possible. Does this scaling up challenge the quality that we so prize?

I have met amazing people working on small projects for maybe 60 children – does the size of the project really make it any less valuable? We need to think long and hard about our love for the scale-up. Of course in a country like India it’s easy to see that reaching just 60 people is hard to justify when there are nearly a billion that need help in one way or another. But maybe if we all just looked at 60 people we’d do a better job. Maybe we wouldn’t lose sight of quality by falling in love with quantity. In the end the two should go together, but how often does that really happen?





madam… madam

the constant ringing in my ears of one more person asking for my attention.   The word starts to do my head in, I ask people at work to stop using it, to use my name instead.  This never, or very rarely, happens.  The system is ingrained, the hierarchy set in stone.

Why am I madam?

I could continue to let it irritate me, or I could think about what it actually means.  It is a term of respect and even though it may be used in a perfunctory manner, I should be grateful for that respect.  If an Indian arrives in the UK, how much respect do we show them?

Here, I am automatically a “madam”, someone to whom respect is due even though I have done nothing to earn it.  I wonder if it’s a case of too much hierarchy, are people here too often born into submission?  One of my colleagues said something similar the other day, when talking about ensuring horizontal paths of communication within our NGO he mentioned that this would be difficult in a climate where people love hierarchies.  He also made some allusion to the fact that this culture was particularly middle-class.  This shocked me, I don’t think that they love hierarchies I think that it is the way the world has been presented to them. 

Day one at school the first lesson is obedience and from then on you know your place.  I have somehow been granted a position of power within this hierarchy and it would be naive to act as if this doesn’t matter.  Or as if it is something I would rather do without.  We can waltz in and meet government officials, we possibly can change things and this is almost all due to the fact of our unearned respect.  Therefore before we criticise the hierarchy we must recognise our own place in upholding it, and just how much it means to us.