High times at the high commission

High times at the High Commission – October

On Saturday evening we attended a reception at the British High Commission to welcome the teams competing in 19th Commonwealth Games in Delhi. We have been looking forward to the event for days.

I have to admit I was slightly nervous at the prospect of taking 28 lively students to what I thought what was likely to be a very formal and slightly stuffy event. I wanted it to go well and there was much that could go wrong. I’d worked out my game plan in advance. It was comprised of four tasks: make sure they looked presentable; get them all on the bus; make sure they all behaved themselves when they got there; and get them all back on the bus and the end of the night.

The dress code was informal or team colours. I consulted with the students and they opted for the former. ‘Informal’ means different things to different people so I left them in no doubt that for me and in this context it meant smart. To reinforce the message I gave out a long list of things they shouldn’t wear: football shirts, boob tubes, shorts, flip flops, the turbans some of them had bought in Jaipur etc. I have to admit that I didn’t feel altogether at ease with some of the choices, but collectively we just about looked the part. Task one completed successfully.

Task two proved more difficult than I imagined. It was late. I called the travel agent to discover that the bus was snarled in traffic but was on its way. When it finally arrived I quickly realised that the driver didn’t know where we were going. More frantic phone calls to the travel agent and we were soon on our way. Task two in the bag.

The British High Commissioner and his charming wife, Lady Stagg, live at 2 Rajaji Marg, in a beautiful white mansion. And boy do they know how to throw a party. The reception as it turns out was in their lush and extensive garden. The food was delicious, the drinks were on the house, and both were served up by impeccably dressed waiters. It was clear from the moment we walked through the gate that we were in for a night to remember.

Students + free bar, are a combination of words that usually end in lurid newspaper headlines. And a few of these were already running through my head: ‘Drunken students in pool party at Higher Commissioner’s residence’, ‘Students tarnish Britain’s image in India’, ‘Sheffield Hallam University students ejected from High Commission’, ‘British academic causes diplomatic incident inDelhi’.

I needn’t have worried. They certainly made use of the bar and as a result by the end of the night they were in high spirits. But on every count they were brilliant. They mixed freely with the athletes and dignitaries, and some of them networked like mad. To top it all, they even danced. In fact they were the first and only people to dance. As dusk fell and a flock of flying foxes wafted across the sky I found myself grinning like an idiot. Everywhere I looked I could see our students with enormous smiles on their faces. It was a magical moment. They were having a ball and I felt like a proud parent. I finally took my dad hat off and joined the party. Task three completed.

One more task and it was game over. Getting them on the bus went like a dream. No doubt helped in part by the fact that we were the last to go, reducing the chances of one or two going astray. By 9.30 it was all present and correct and we were on the road for, well let’s just call it a song laden, journey back to the hostel. It was only 10 pm. For me, mission accomplished, the night was over. They, on the other hand, were off to the Blues Bar, one of their favourite bars, to continue the party. The insisted that I go with them but everything had gone so well up to that point that I didn’t want to risk my luck. Still it was nice to be invited.

October 2 is the anniversary of Ghandi’s assassination. Ghandi Jayanti is a national holiday in India. With the markets, offices and banks closed Delhi was strangely quiet. The perfect day for recovering from a hangover.

All dressed up with somewhere to go.

Out and about

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Monkey business


The solution


Monkey business – By Brian Tweedale

As if they didn’t have enough on their hands with collapsing bridges, unfinished facilities, and relentless media criticism, the CWG organising committee is facing a further challenge: how to protect visitors and athletes from India’s wildlife.

First it was dogs roaming the Games Village, which house the athletes. Then it was dog poo in one of the bedrooms, or to be more precise in the bed. Needless to say this didn’t go down well with the press and a photograph of the offending item featured prominently in many newspapers.

Feral dogs are everywhere in India. At night gangs of them roam the streets doing what gangs do. I guess it’s a bit like Los Angeles, or Salford for that matter. I love dogs. I have two wired haired fox terriers, Vera and Olive, and like Minty the budgie they are an integral part of the family. However, we are not talking pets here. Feral dogs are rough and when I say rough I mean rough: flea ridden, riddled with mange, and unpredictable. They are also a vector for rabies, which kills thousands of Indians every year. Needless to say the locals give them a wide berth.

There has been an explosion in Indian’s dog population in recent years. In part this is related to the decline in the number of vultures. When I first visited India more than 20 years ago, vultures were a common sight. Today they are on the verge of extinction. In an attempt to halt the decline the Government has started to captive breeding programme. The main cause of their decline is poisoning from the antibiotics resident in their staple food stuff, the bodies of cattle and other domestic animals.

Vultures are the ultimate scavengers and as such they perform an essential function in the Indian ecosystem.   For Hindus cattle are sacred animals and when they die they are deposited at carcass dumps for disposal by vultures and other carrion eaters. As vulture numbers have declined dogs have stepped into the gap and their numbers have increased in line with the available food.

Last week it was snakes that were making the headlines. More than 20000 Indians die each year from snake bites, most of the deaths occurring in rural areas. They are a particular problem during the Monsoon, when torrential rains flush the snakes from their burrows and onto the surface, increasing the risk of contact with humans.

Two snakes were recently discovered at the Games Village, which houses the athletes. One was found in the grounds, but more alarmingly, one was discovered in an athlete’s bedroom. On Monday, a King Cobra, India’s deadliest and most feared snake, was found in the RK Khanna Stadium, the venue for the tennis – it was sleeping apparently.

I’m crazy about snakes. During our annual family holiday in Greece, I’m constantly searching from them, and whenever I’m in the car I keep a keen eye out for road-kill, which are scooped up and taken back to the house for identification. The children find it hilarious, particularly when I shout ‘snake, stop!’, and jump out the car with little thought to my own safety only to discover that the victim turns out to be nothing more than an piece of wire or rope. Finding a snake in my bedroom would have had me jumping for joy. The athlete, needless to say, was less impressed and the snake in the bedroom story joined the list of Delhi’s failings.

This week’s animal culprit is monkeys; I’m less keen about monkeys. Monkeys are a frequent sight in many Indian cities. Troops of monkeys often gather at temples where there is a ready supply of food and devotees happy to feed them.   As I know from personal monkeys can be aggressive when they feel threatened. While visiting a temple in Jaipur I made the mistake of pointing my camera at a particularly fine specimen. No sooner had I pressed the button than it went for me, teeth blaring and howling like a banshee experience. Usain Bolt would have been envious of the speed oat which I beat my retreat.

Monkeys may look cute but they can be a menace, launching raids on fruit vendors and snatching bags and other items from unsuspecting passers by. The civic authorities in Delhi employ a standing team of 28 monkey catchers and have enlisted a further ten to help out during the Games.  The key weapon in the fight against anti-social monkeys is another monkey, the Langoor. Langoors are beautiful looking beasts. Long-limbed and exceptionally fast, their mere presence is often enough to act as a deterrent. The monkey catchers keep them on chains and walk them like dogs. I recently saw one at the British Council, and its guardian encouraged it to shake my hand. My children would have been well impressed.

Glasgow is hosting the next games. They’ll no doubt have their own issues, but controlling the local wildlife is unlikely to be one of them.

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September 25 – Heads Roll

Just when things appeared to be settling down, the CWG has again been thrown into chaos with the announcement late on Saturday that Manish Kumar, head of media relations, has been removed from his post. The Indian press have been baying for heads to roll for the past two weeks and it appears that they now have their first significant victim, though he is unlikely to be the last. As head of media relations Kumar is being blamed for his apparent failure to manage the storm of criticism that has been swirling around the CWG for weeks. I met with Manish only last week to discuss the arrangements for the SHU volunteers. He was also introduced to the team. I’ve had a couple of conversations with him on the phone since then and was expecting to meet him again next week when the students start their training. It’s difficult to know how his departure will affect the day to day operations of the media centre, but it can’t but have a destabilising effect. Kumar’s departure is unlikely to satisfy the media’s blood lust. More heads are certain to roll in the coming days and weeks. The only question is where the buck will stop.

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25 September – The dirty business of cleaning up Delhi

Walking around Connaught Place in Central Delhi this morning I was struck by how different it felt. It somehow seemed calmer, less in your face, almost serene. Something had changed but it was difficult to put my finger precisely on what that something might be. The streets looked cleaner, and many of the pedestrian walk-ways looked less like a construction site than of late. But there was something missing. That something was the visible poor. The streets seemed full of young, middle class and Westernised Indians. I could have been walking around Broomhill or Bath.

The Indian authorities are keen to put on a good show for foreign visitors. To this end, they are attempting to cleanse the City of people who might frighten the tourists or provide the Western media with the wrong kind of photo opportunities.

According to the Hindustan Times, in recent days the police, have been rounding up everyone without a valid Delhi address (ie New not Old Delhi) and proof of residency. The main target has been unskilled and partially skilled migrant workers and slum-dwellers who flood into Delhi in the hope of earning enough Rupees to feed their families. Some are being excluded from the City until the Games have finished; others are being packed off to railway stations in the hope they will retreat to the villages from whence they came never to return. According to the paper, migrant workers who couldn’t afford the train ticket were being stamped with the insignia of the Delhi Police to alert the ticketing authorities. The railway authorities were quick to deny the claim.

We are talking about some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the City, many of whom supplement their meagre wages by begging. These are people for whom the phrase ‘living hand to mouth’ could have been coined. Cutting them off from the chance to earn a living, albeit a meagre one often earned in deplorable conditions will make an already hard life that much more precarious.

Cleansing the streets of the wrong kind of Indians may be good PR, but it’s a dirty business.

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24 September

24 September

Up early for what was to prove a long, hectic but productive day. We arrived back from Jaipur to discover that a number of students had had items stolen from their rooms. So after a breakfast of banana pancakes, fruit salad and omelettes, I was off to my 9am meeting with the manager. He was mortified by what had happened and told me he was investigating. We agreed to meet again at 5pm to discuss progress.

It’s proved really hard encouraging the students to shift into work mode. Getting them to contribute to the SHU blog, in particular, has felt like banging my head against the wardrobe only less rewarding. I was starting to think that with one or two exceptions, most of the group had had a successful Protestant work ethic bypass operations.

On reflection it’s hardly surprising. India is so different to their life at home and indeed their world view that it was always going to take them a week or so to surface. The majority are also young and inexperience and it is clear that for all their bravado some are lacking in confidence. All of a sudden they are working on a live project and are being exhorted to produce work without the benefit of essay titles and Google. I suspect the experience has been very exposing for some of the group. For those who have sauntered through their time at SHU or who been parked in the slow lane, its has been something of a rude awakening.

Today, however, after many hours of encouragement (interspersed by moments of putting my ‘dad hat’ on) the penny appears to have dropped. All of a sudden there is an energy about the group that had previously been lacking.. Some are still struggling to get going but nearly everyone I spoke to has been working on something: a piece for the SHU blog, a report for their local newspaper or radio station, research for a possible story. Others are madly emailing and phoning their media contacts to try and sell a possible story..

It’s been exhausting but I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve really got a buzz from the one-to-one sessions, where I’ve effectively been acting as a sub editor, checking grammar, tone and relevance and making suggestions on how their story could be improved. This is quality time and something they (and I) don’t get enough of back at SHU. It’s so important. You get a real sense of where they are coming from, what their strengths, weaknesses and insecurities are. It also provides plenty of scope for practicing my motivational talk shtick.

And it is time well invested. For a brief moment it allows you to break through the staff/student thing that inevitably goes with field trips. It’s like going out with your dad. Whatever you think of him, you wouldn’t necessarily invite him out to the pub with your mates just in case he embarrasses you him. Being a solo academic on a field trip can be a lonely place at times. Mind you, sitting at home while your kids are out partying has its attractions: if nothing else they won’t be competing for the banana pancakes at 7.30 in the morning.

In the midst of all this, I made my 5 O’clock meeting with the senior management of the YMCA. It looks like they may be willing to recompense one student for the cash taken from their room and help with the police reports for the others. It was a very interesting experience but the details will have to wait until another time.

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Brian’s update: back to the buzz

Just returned from a three day trip to Agra and Jaipur. The students really enjoyed it and it gave them a break from Delhi the hostel. For all its charms Delhi is a pretty intense urban experience and some of the students clearly needed some time away.

Surrinder, who I planned the trip with did a fantastic job. The hotel in Jaipur was luxurious compared to the hostel. The food was excellent; the beds were soft and the facilities excellent. As part of the trip we took in the key sites and even had a ride on an elephant, which was the envy of my children. It was great to see everyone relaxing and having fun – a bit like taking my children on a day trip only less bickering.

I had intended to use my last morning in Jaipur to do a bit of shopping and take in a few more sights. I spent it writing a love letter to woman called Celia, who lives in Bedfordshire. I’ve never met the woman but the day before was asked (pleaded would be more accurate) by a guy I met on the street. He had a broken arm and clearly couldn’t write. I doubt if he could write if he was fully fit. What he lacked in writing skills in made up for in a rather florid poetic style. It was hilarious. After two pages of “You maybe far away but you will always be close to my heart” etc I managed to escape. Bang went my plans but it was worth it: everytime I think about it break out into a very big smile.

The journey back was gruelling: seven hours to cover less than 200km. Mind you long, tough bus journeys are an authentic Indian experience. We had to stop the bus on the interstate highway to allow Danny Young to give an interview to BBC radio Sheffield. It was hilarious: Huge lorries streaming past, all taking the opportunity to blast their horns at the sight of western tourist making a phone call. Needless to say Danny couldn’t hear a thing.

The trip also gave us much needed break from the daily drip of negative stories about the preparation for the Games. Each day the papers were full of outraged politicians complaining about corruption, shoddy work and so on. It gets to you after a while.

I really feel for the students. They have invested a lot into this trip. Many have worked for moths to earn the money, others have had to borrow from parents, all will be left with a sizeable debt. The endless headlines about teams pulling out, athletes complaining about security fears, and the constant rumours that the Games were going to be pulled had started to take their toll the party. Coming back after three days away, however, and there are visible signs of progress. We drove past the Aquatics Stadium and it looks fantastic. Meanwhile in central Delhi a lot has been achieved. The news that the British teams had decided to come lifted everyone’s spirits. On the streets there is a real buzz about the place. The number of tourists has increased and there is a real buzz about the place.

Today our invitations to a formal reception held by the British High Commissioner & Lady Stagg arrived. Can’t wait. (Photos of Danny etc to come)

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Crisis In Delhi

Things are going from bad to worse here in Delhi.  Ongoing security concenrns, unfinished stadia, and tomorrow potential traffic chaos as the dedicated lane for Games traffic is meant to kick in. That plus falling ceilings, collapsed bridges and contenstants withdrawing daily, it looks like waht is happening or not  happening outside the sports in becoming the story. Let’s hope India can pull if off and deliver an event worthy of the name. It’s fingers’ crossed. The. students, needless to say are concerned. They’ve worked to get here and are excited by the idea of sstarting work.

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