I read yesterday that the World Bank is to lend India $1bn to clean up the Ganges River. The Ganges is one of the world’s most polluted waterways and supports perhaps 400 million people. Despite earlier government promises to make its water drinkable by 1989, it flows with industrial effluence and sewerage. As I wrote previously, a solution to the water crisis is crucial to India’s survival and as Sunita Narain (and others) have argued it needs an Indian solution.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been touched by the magic of this river often over the years. I’ve covered two Kumbh Melas (the enormous religious bathing pilgrimage that takes place four times every twelve years at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna) and visited the extraordinary Varanasi many times. There is something touching, real and honourable about Indian’s reverence and awe at the Ganges; something that speaks about life and its transitory nature. It’s a beautiful thing to see villagers come hundreds of miles just to bathe in the river and feel its coolness at dawn as they submerge themselves. Humbling and puzzling to see the processions of corpse bearers literally running to the cremation grounds on the ghats in Varanasi to burn a body. I shall never forget my first sight of a body (suicides, children and snake bite victims are swallowed by the river whole) bloated, rolling and turning in the gentle waves of my boat one morning at dawn.
After writing about Delhi street food a few days ago, I was pleased to see that Pamela Timms on her blog, Eat and Dust has posted a very informative article about Daulat ki chaat the chilled milk sweet that I mentioned. There’s even a phone number for one of the elusive wallahs. See the whole story here.
I was intrigued to read this morning on the BBC website that National Curry Week ends in couple of days. I had no idea that there was such a thing but as I was talking about Pie and Mash the other day being snubbed in favour of fast food at the Olympics, I thought I should pay attention.
Britain’s first Indian restaurant, The Hindoostani, was opened by a fascinating character called Dean Mahomed in Portman Square in London in 1810. It was essentially a coffee house where one could smoke hookah and enjoy authentic Indian food. Perfect for the Colonial English gentleman missing his exotic spices. The restaurant, certainly ahead of its time, went bankrupt and Mahomed ended up running a rather successful baths in Brighton – but that’s another story.
It does seem a cliche but curry is often called Britian’s national dish and, although I have no issue with that, nearly all of the UK’s ‘Indian’ food is actually a Bangladeshi hybrid of dishes from all over the sub continent. Strangely, I’m going to be teaching in Bangladesh in January (more later) and so I’ll be able to judge just what authentic Bangla food is like as I eat my way around the country…
‘Curry’ is a shorthand for lots of dishes that is relatively meaningless. India itself (not counting Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka) is extraordinarily culturally diverse. Hundreds of ethnic groups divided into thousands of sub-groups have such a multiplicity of recipies and I’m sure it’s possible to never eat the same thing twice if you tried. ‘Curry’ seems to have been coined to catch everything that is cooked in a gravy. Some people seem to contend that it comes from the Tamil ‘kari‘ but there doesn’t seem to be a definite answer. Like so much in India…
By the way, if you are interested in the synthesis of English and ‘Indian’ you could do worse than buy a copy of ‘Hanklin Janklin’ a fascinating study of ‘Hinglish’ words by the late and sadly missed Nigel B Hanklyn a long time Delhi wallah.
Last year I had the good fortune to be on assignment in Delhi photographing some of the lesser known dishes the city has to offer. I am indebted to Hemanshu Kumar who runs the Eating Out in Delhi blog for his extraordinary insights and his re-discoveries of several dishes. I don’t pretend to know very much about Delhi street food – it’s a vast subject – but I do know how wonderful much of it is. Some of that work is below. Not a balti in sight. Happy eating…
“One hot April morning, I chopped off the little finger of my left hand and threw it into the dead river called Yamuna. They call me crazy. But I call it art.”
It seemed quite a brave thing to do to make a point and I’m not going to give him a hard time for being so literal about highlighting the state of Delhi’s famous river.
The Yamuna is one of India’s greatest rivers. Holy to Hindus, The Imperial Gazetteer of India in 1909 mentions the waters of Yamuna distinguishable as “clear blue” as compared to silt-ridden yellow of the Ganges. Unfortunately, the Yamuna that runs through present day Delhi is an open sewer and clinically dead.
I was so intrigued by Delhi’s water situation a couple of years ago and made some work around it that became a film for More4 news. You can see the piece here.
The point was that Delhi’s water wasn’t in this hellish state as the result of appalling poverty – all those pesky poor people washing and cremating themselves in it – rather a complete lack of infrustructure around water management and wholescale pollution by industry. That hasn’t stopped the Delhi authorities evicting thousands of poor Delhi-wallahs that lived on its banks over the last few years.
There are perfectly sensible answers to the state of the Yamuna – Indian answers too. Brilliantly articulated by Sunita Narain, Director for the Centre for Science and Environment, she says: ‘A city will be more efficient if it collects water locally, supplies it locally and disposes waste locally’. There’s an excellent piece by her here.
Anyway, as Delhi looks forward to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, I’m hoping that someone will finally listen to Narain and the other Indian environmentalists, too numerous to mention, whose message about water, the city and sustainability has yet to seep into the murky waters of government. But I’m sure they will be able to smell it…
I have the pleasure to report that on a recent assignment back in Delhi, I again sampled the delights of the Indian Coffee House on Baba Karak Singh Marg that I wrote about some time ago. Despite the threats to it’s existence, it seems in rude and shambolic health and I can attest to the power of it’s rather watery coffee and good conversation. I whipped in for an hour, as usual after shooting something else and the general opinion from the clientelle was, “… Close? Over my dead body…”.
In a packed hour, I met a man called Achilles, was lectured on peace in Nagaland and inevitably answered the question ‘from which country are you from’. I answer as always, ‘not Australia’ (many people take my strangulated East London drawl to be from the Outback for some reason…).
I’ve been associated with Delhi in one way and another almost fourteen years. I’m sometimes based there for months on end and, although it is perhaps one of the most frustrating and brutal cities I can think of, I find endless fascination with it. Like London, Delhi is a palimpsest of perhaps nine, perhaps more cities built, destroyed and rebuilt. It’s usually recorded, with some notable exceptions (and again) as unknowable and unloveable. Choked with people and displaying more violence than India would like to admit, journalists tend to concentrate on its chaos poverty and pollution. I’ve done those pieces myself, most recently a film for More4 News about Water in the city that you can see here. But Delhi is certainly more than that. During that film I was working in Kusumpur Pahari, a thirty year old slum or jhuggi cluster. The slum is entirely illegal but is home to thousands of people. Some have rather nice houses and of course some have tried to beautify them as best they can. Many have little flat roofs where they have gardens made of pot plants. It struck me that this didn’t really fit with the poverty stricken Dickensian idea that we in the West have of helpless slum-dwellers and I started to photograph them. That led me onto an as yet unfinished body of work about imaging Delhi in a different way. I wanted to look at Delhi’s relationship with Gardens and space and so for the last couple of years have been trying to photograph not only the acres and acres of green space in the city but crucially in such a crowded conservative place, people’s relationship to it. A couple of weeks ago I was approached by Fabiano Busdraghi who publishes online the small but beautifully formed Camera Obscura magazine/blog. He asked me if I’d write something and I immediately thought of this project. You can see the piece, The Gardens of Delhi – Public Spaces, Private Lives, here. I hope that you enjoy it.
The text on the Camera Obscura site is pretty explanatory about the project so I won’t bang on about it here. Instead, here are some more images that I like from it.
It’s with great sadness that I read yesterday in The Times of India that the cafe on Baba Karak Singh Marg is going to close. The Delhi Walla blog has the full story with pictures here.
A strange little place, it was always a haven of quiet away from the tourist throngs of Connaught Place and was never, despite being in a couple of guidebooks a place where many travellers went because thankfully, they couldn’t find it. I was introduced to it maybe a decade or more ago and always made a point of hanging around there between assignments or when I felt the need to come into central Delhi. Tucked away on the roof of a rather downbeat shopping complex it was the kind of place that you had to know was there. The roof ‘garden’ was of course covered in dust and smog but it but it had lovely views if rather awful coffee. The regular clientelle was composed of distinguished older Indian gentleman who’d gather to read the papers and argue about the topic of the day. When I turned up I was usually ignored as it was assumed I was lost and my appalling Hindi seemed only to confirm the fact that I was an idiot. It didn’t matter and I loved it. The staff, unfailingly polite, would always deliver a very ‘masala’ masala dosa which required a second cup of coffee to soothe the heat of the chillies. I unfortunately never tried the ‘humbergers’ nor the milk shakes but I am sure that whatever their culinary achievement I would have enjoyed them.
The coffee shop for me was Delhi – a Delhi that for better and worse is disappearing fast. The place evoked a gentler, simpler time and a city where people read large newspapers, where motor cars (…any car so long as it’s a white Ambassador) were a rarity and the bicycle was what people rode to work. I’ve written before about not romanticising India but there seemed something about the place that actually spoke to me of a bygone London: the (then) chic shopping area, the red velour interiors of Connaught Place’s United Coffee House (now revamped) and the Embassy. A time where you could cross the road in Delhi without being killed.
The whole saga reminds me of the slow death of one of my favourite places in London, The New Piccadilly. I could write a whole piece about the ‘Cathedral of Cafes’ as Adrian Maddox would have it but suffice to say, despite all best efforts, the developers got their way and it closed. I can only recommend the Classic Cafes website and its book as a homage to past glories. Suffice to say there are few places now in London where you can drink a cup of tea and just think without listening to ‘muzak‘ and enduring overpriced coffees sold in incomprehensible sizes as ‘grande’ or ‘tall’. Coincidently, I read today in the Daily Telegraph about a Californian software engineer on a mission to visit every Starbucks in the World. Well good luck with that: I’m still holding out for a world that isn’t based on a greedy corporate propoganda that sucks the individuality and taste (both literal and metaphorical) out of every attempt at difference in order to leverage the last drop of profit.
Tea stains, cigarettes, chipped cups, formica, worn seats, warmth on a cold day, company, a sense of history, courtesy, civility, conversation, ideas. But I digress…
Back in Delhi, the The Times reports Head Waiter Gopal Singh as saying, “If this place closes, our families will land on the streets. If it’s true that rent has not been paid for years, we are willing to pay 50% of our salaries if that will help”. Delhi is a brutal city and I don’t doubt for a second that that would happen.
I never photographed the Coffee House in Delhi, it somehow always seemed like a little bit of home and a liberty to start taking pictures. I retired there sometimes after photographing at the Flower Market on Baba Karak Singh for my project on Delhi. It’s an image from that set that I leave you with.
I wish all those at the Coffee House my best and my sincere gratitude (I was that heavily sweating firangi with the cameras…). Shukriya.
Ps… if you want to find rather wonderful places to eat in Delhi you could do worse that seek out Hemanshu Kumar and his fantastic blog, Eating out in Delhi
I read today with disappointment and resignation that Vedanta Industries have won their fight on appeal to establish a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills in India.
I wrote a piece for the Indian magazine Tehelka about this story in 2007 and it can be seen here.
Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse -100 company has fought a long campaign to establish the mine and despite judicial review it seems now that nothing can stop it.
The story typifies the very real problem of India’s industrial development. The Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa are sacred to the Dongria Kondhs, a protected tribal group of ‘original’ Aboriginal peoples. Allegedly, the British geologist who “discovered” these rich deposits nearly a century ago dubbed them “Khondalite” in tribute to the people who guided him there. It seems that this simple act of hospitality will mean the end of another of India’s pre-Aryan traditional cultures. The holy mountain will be raped for its ore and the people who haven’t already fled the company’s previously illegal building programme will be scattered. Those who stay will doubtless be housed in the stalag-like accommodation blocks I saw laying empty and crumbling in Lanjigarh. They will have to sell their land at government determined prices and then work as contract labourers. What has happened to countless other ‘primitive’ and powerless peoples all over India will happen to them. Displaced from their traditional homelands, sacred to their animist beliefs, women and girls often end up working as daily wagers, domestic helps or prostitutes. The women will also have to cope with alcoholism and domestic violence.
The author and social activist Arundhati Roy has described India’s unfettered race to Market Capitalism as nothing less than India ‘eating its own people’ and in this macabre metaphor one can see the reflections of the Enclosures and urbanisation of the rural communities of England in the nineteenth century.
I am no romantic when it come to India. I don’t share a Raj view of the colonial apologists (despite inevitably by dint of being British having reaped the indirect rewards of the subjugation of that country). I don’t yearn for quaint, underdeveloped communities full of poverty and colour. I want to see India progress. But I know the stink of international corporate power when I smell it.
India had no colonies from which to steal resources so it’s stealing them from its own weak and vulnerable. The profits of this mine will not be spread evenly to benefit the Indian economy – it will be hoarded in the off-shore bank accounts of those corrupt politicians and corporate executives who already think that India is theirs by right.
A new Middle Class India has been brought up to believe that a successful society means a consumerist society. Greed and nationalism go hand in hand: it is not the poor of India calling for war with their brothers and sisters in Pakistan.
Traditionally, Indians have protested injustice in a dignified Ghandian way with hunger strikes and marches. While the Western media and much of India has been marvelling at ‘Shining India’ it has failed to notice that a good deal of India is now under Maoist rebel control. In Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand the Indian state is fighting a battle it might not win.
The students at the academy rise at dawn and undergo hours of daily exercise and academic studies for years to learn by heart the dances and the intricate movements of Kathakali. I thought Kathakali reminded me very much of classical Japanese Noh – a mute mixture of precise dance and theatre where slight eye and hand movements indicate an entire language.
The first picture has always reminded me of a pond of small frogs…
Here’s a link to my work on Shadipur Depot, a slum colony of artists and performers in New Delhi that was a previous post on the Travel Photographer.