Monday, 23 November 2009

The Handmade Tale

Photo: Peter Caton

The article I went to India to write has now been published in 'The Guardian'.

You can find the article itself here: The Handmade Tale

And two further case studies here: Finance for the future and here: Ghost in the factory

Thanks to all who made this possible particularly Sue George at The Guardian and Catriona Fox at Find Your Feet.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Another Point Of View

Natalie Scriven, who helps to organise the competition for The Guardian, was travelling with me in India and her own blog about the trip is now going up on the competition site.

I am the shadowy figure referred to throughout only as "the finalist".

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Down By The River

An absurdly early start this morning, as I’ve been told that one of the truly essential things to do when visiting Varanasi is see dawn from a boat on the Ganges, or Ganga as it is known here. The Ganges is a holy river for Hindus, and is used as a sort of shorthand for power and greatness. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says of himself “I am the shark among the fishes, and the Ganges among the rivers.” Nowadays, Hindus come here for two reasons: to wash their sins away, and to die.

Well before sunrise those who come to wash their sins away were gathered along the Ghats, the steps which line the river, leading conveniently down into the water. Above the Ghats, palaces and temples belonging to assorted strands of Indian royalty stand in varying states of disrepair. Of course, those washing themselves are not necessarily here for religious reasons, it is also the only bathing option available to many, although I have to admit I declined to wash in the water myself. Holy or not, the Ganges was the birthplace of cholera and remains pretty unpleasant – at one point we pass two huge pillars, painted pink and decorated with religious icons. At first glance you might miss the fact that these are actually there to pump sewage into the drink.

Those who come to die in this city come eventually to the Manikarnika Ghat. It is perhaps the most famous of the Shamshan Ghats, where bodies are cremated and their ashes are washed away by the river. The shore is piled high with wood to feed the fires which burn constantly, and it costs thousands of rupees for the privilege of being cremated here – a price worth paying for those who believe that dying in Varanasi and being burnt on the river will release their soul from the cycle of transmigration.

Dawn on the Ganges also attracts another group of people: tourists, like myself – and where there are tourists there are business opportunities to be had. I spotted the boat pictured above cruising alongside the boats of wealthy looking foreigners (they kept well clear of me). They were selling DVDs and CDs, and you can see their television set on the right of the picture, where it was nosily playing music videos. It made for an incongruous site – the awed tourists attempting to take in a foreign tradition while the locals drew alongside like pirates to sell them imported digital ephemera. I have no idea how they were powering the screen on their tiny vessel, but by that strange magic of the television set, the fact that it was on meant the tourists found themselves powerless not to watch.

After that early start, it was an abrupt return from my sojourn into tourism and back into meetings with academics from the several Varanasi universities and journalists from a range of local and national press organisations, including the Times of India and the Hindustan Times to try and put the conversations I've had with weavers and traders in a wider context, and hopefully establish whether or not the entire handloom industry has, like those DVDs, been sold down the river.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Come On Pilgrim

The Tibetan temple at Sarnath

A break in my itinerary this morning gave me the chance to make the short journey to Sarnath, which as I've mentioned before is one of Buddhism's four pilgrimage sites, and is dotted with temples built by various Buddhist countries and communities. It's considered a pilgrimage site as it was here that Buddha first taught his outlandish new theories on peace, love and understanding and in doing so made this unassuming deer park the location where Buddhists believe, as one inscription put it, "the doors of enlightenment were opened". Which makes it sound a bit like Stargate.

Buddha's head will eventually be attached to...Buddha's body

It’s really not much like Stargate, but there are some pretty big monuments on display. The above Buddha is obviously still under construction, but when it’s finished I’m told it will be the largest vitarka mudrā Buddha statue in the world, vitarka mudrā being the specific hand gesture iconography which depicts teaching. The nearby Sarnath museum has a plethora of both Buddhist and Hindu artifacts, dating from thousands of years BC, not to mention the Lion Capital of Asoka, from which India takes its national emblem.

A spotted deer (axis axis) poses helpfully

The deer park itself is still intact and remains an idyllic, peaceful setting even if the site where Buddha is supposed to have actually taught is marked by some rather gaudy statues of him and his five students. There is also a small zoo, which contains the aforementioned deer, a crocodile, some rabbits and an openly racist pricing policy which may or may not date back to the time of Buddha himself.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Paneer Burger

Yesterday was inevitably going to be hectic as I tried to meet as many people as I could and keep my horizons as wide as possible, but today I endeavored to narrow my focus a little and spend some more time with the people who are at the heart of this story – the silk weavers and their families. The afternoon was spent talking to this group of village women, whose perspective was just as colourful as their saris. I had spent the morning in one weaver’s home and workshop, chatting to him about life, his hopes for the future and, inevitably, cricket. He told me excitedly about the time he had travelled from his village into Varanasi to join the crowds trying to catch a glimpse of the visiting Indian cricket captain, and basking in today’s glorious sunshine it was easy to see how much he enjoyed watching the young locals thumping the ball around with their home-carved bat. His real passion, however, was for his craft, and it was impossible not to get a sense from him of just how important weaving is as a facet of his identity. My own ambitions to work as a writer are certainly not driven primarily by a desire to be economically rewarded, and similarly his passion for his art transcended any question of working only for survival.

I am reticent to talk too much about him, however, as I sense he will play a major role in the article I eventually write, so I’ll move on to tell you about my lunch at Burger King. This was not the chain Burger King, but a smallish Varanasi restaurant which had bizarrely purloined the name of the giant American franchise. I say bizarrely, because in a country which worships the cow to the extent of letting it rule the roads and even, in one famous Varanasi example, live in a clothes shop, the chances of you getting a Beef Burger are similar to your chances of being served a Labrador Burger at Crufts. So when I saw that this restaurant lived up to it’s name and offered ‘burgers’ amongst the daal and naan, I ordered immediately, as much out of curiosity as desire. What arrived was a ‘paneer burger’, a deep fried slab of goat’s cheese served with onions in what was basically a hot dog bun, and accompanied by quintessentially American ketchup and mustard pots. It wasn’t as bad as that sounds, but something had definitely been lost in cultural translation. McTikka would be just as odd.

Monday, 7 September 2009

And the rain came down

It's the end of my first day of field trips, and I'm absolutely shattered. We've spent today visiting the silk weavers who have been on the sharp end of a whole combination of effects that I am still struggling to understand. My only consolation is that an easy answer wouldn't make for a very interesting article - and one of the few things I can say with any confidence right now is that there isn't one. It hasn't just been weaving I've seen today, however, as we've also witnessed the attempts of rural people to find alternative forms of employment. The marigolds pictured above are always in demand in Varanasi, this holiest of Hindu cities and within striking distance of Sarnath, a Buddhist pilgrimage site as the location where Buddha delivered his first teaching, and with new farming techniques they are able to be grown all year round.

It has rained pretty constantly today, which is good news for the 60% of India's workforce who are employed in the agriculture sector and have been hard hit by the lacklustre monsoon season. While visiting the rural communities today however I was reminded that while so many people make their living off the land, agriculture accounts for just 18% of Indian GDP, down from 30% in 1990 as this Economist article on the monsoon season points out.

The rain was bad news, however, for Peter Caton, the photographer who's accompanying me for this piece. His mind-bogglingly expensive cameras are not a big fan of wet weather, and storm clouds don't make for good lighting, but tomorrow is another day and we can only hope one of them has a silver lining so that the incredibly generous and hard-working weavers I've met today get a portrait that does them justice.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

From London with love

The other day I wrote about a sign on a construction site in Delhi four years ago which stated “Construction in progress. Please be patient with delays for a better tomorrow.” At the time I described the speed of social change as a “slow crawl”, but landing in an unrecognisable international airport in Delhi this morning I was shocked to see how fast the landscape has changed, in this wealthy corner of Delhi at least. Transformed from the dirty floors and rickety baggage carousels of the airport I remember, Indira Gandhi International is now all marble and gleaming glass, and the huddled groups of men, women and children begging and hawking as you pass into the heat of the Indian capital have either disappeared or moved on.

In Delhi, we, that is Catriona from Find Your Feet, Natalie from The Guardian and myself, met Savitri, Find Your Feet’s India country manager, before our onward flight to Varanasi. Varanasi airport belongs to an entirely different era to Delhi’s. While we wait for our baggage, a power cut plunges us into darkness and brings the carousel to a juddering halt. As we leave the airport it is immediately clear that we have travelled further than we thought on our short internal flight. The difference is not just architectural, it is also cultural. The Delhi we glimpsed has become remarkably Anglophone, from signs to magazines, indeed even to the eager market research that we had thrust upon us to review the sparkling new airport. In Varanasi, Hindi, Urdu and local dialects remain dominant. Our hotel menu is an exception to that rule, and offers a glimpse of a culinary view of the British from an Indian point of view. The “Continental menu” includes a dish entitled “From London with love”. It is fish & chips.