Sunday, November 21, 2010

Social networking: are you addicted?

Before going to see The Social Network, I was expecting it to be a film that somehow or other promoted Facebook. But the impact it had on me was quite the opposite.
Apart from falling in love with the underdog, Eduardo Saverin, I came away from the cinema convinced that I currently spent far too long on Facebook; that it was often a complete waste of time, which I could have been using to read a book/do callanetics/write a novel/attend a yoga class/whatever; moreover, far from being enjoyable, my time on Facebook was more often that not, an unsatisfying unpleasant experience.
Yet, it dawned on me that despite being unpleasant, it was also addictive, in the same way that coffee, nicotine, alpha male non-committal boyfriends, Twitter, and chocolate, can be addictive.
Whenever we get an addiction, it always seems to be for something that is a bit good for us, but also quite bad for us. When was the last time anyone got addicted to going to church, doing a tax return or eating apples, for example?
So, ironically the film, whether intentional or not, highlighted to me the potential pitfalls of Facebook, which I had till then, barely contemplated.
At the beginning of the film, (which is of course semi fiction), the lead character, Mark Zuckerberg, ends up getting dumped and then sidelined at college because he puts up pictures of girls and asks men to rate who is the prettiest. That concept ends up being the precursor to what we know as Facebook.
I too am finding that the bitchiness of the real world merges with Facebook nowadays. You have men trying to make ex girlfriends jealous by flirting with other girls online; you have something which I can only describe as ‘Facebook rage’ when someone posts a comment on their status that outrages others, and a huge argument ensues; you have people defriending you and you defriending others; you have ex’s new girlfriends spying on you and more.
In The Daily Telegraph recently, there was a story about how social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are to blame for pupils’ poor grades. The story by Andy Bloxham can be seen here.
He refers to research that claims that children who spend too much of their time online are “finding it harder to concentrate in class, are permanently distracted and have shorter attention spans.”
The research also states that these children fail to complete their homework on time or to the standard required because they are in such a hurry to finish it at night and then go back online.
Many are even carrying smart phones to school, thus remaining connected to social networking sites during lessons.
I am extremely glad that Facebook was not around when I went to school. Back then we didn’t even have mobiles. I would get home from school and sit in my bedroom doing homework for four hours every night, with the only major distraction being the cat. I can’t imagine how distracting social networking sites and mobiles must be for school children today.
But it seems many adults too live in the virtual world, not the real world. There are people, I have discovered, who seem to be on Facebook day and night, constantly updating their status and commenting immediately on yours, the minute you post a comment up.
Immediately after watching the said film, I posted on my status that I had come to conclusion that much of what I did on Facebook was a complete waste of time. A friend responded that it depended on what I meant by “waste of time” as the only social interaction he ever had nowadays was on Facebook, as none of his friends met up for drinks anymore – those days were over, he wrote. The only fun he had with his friends was on Facebook, which was better than no contact, he stated.
I can say with conviction that any time I spend with friends in person far surpasses chats (or spats) on my status.
I have been examining people on Facebook recently and I have discovered there are two types of people: those who are on it all the time and those who are never on it. I am convinced that those never on it are having a far better social life than we realise. Just because they are not posting up pictures of themselves at parties looking like they are having the time of their lives, does not mean they are not at parties doing exactly that. When was the last time you took a camera to a party? I always forget mine, and if I remember it, am enjoying myself too much or have had too much white wine to remember to use it…It does seem as though many people deliberately take pictures with the sole purpose of being able to put them on Facebook to show others they are living an amazing life.  But in reality, are they? Or is it all a charade?
As for Facebook rage, well this is similar to swimming pool lane rage when swimmers crash into each other or have blazing rows in the middle of British swimming pools, because one is too slow or fast.
Similarly, you can start to see really nasty sides of some so-called friends on Facebook – sides you never knew they had: snide comments, acid remarks and so on.
It might be that one person is making their opinion heard about a news item, or a book they’ve read and whatever they have said outrages another of their so-called friends so much, that a huge online row ensures…Hardly fun each time each person longs on to read abuse about them in their news feed.
I had an incident where I posted an innocuous opinion on someone else’s wall, really directed at that person, who was a friend and I knew would get it, only to get a friend of that person who I had never met, who held a different view on the subject to me, write acid remarks back.
We all have those friends in our list that write something crazy or controversial on our wall. And what I have found is the worst offenders are people who I’m not even friends with at all. But beware if you defriend someone. I recently took someone off, on this occasion, because we were not in touch, never emailing or phoning and I did not see why that person needed to be on my Facebook friends' list. The minute, literally the minute, I removed him/her, he/she send me a message asking why I had removed him/her as a friend. I have no idea how he/she knew, but presume he/she spotted his/her total number of friends had gone down. How do you reply to a question asking why you defriended someone? Are people not being too hypersensitive?
The other day my Dad asked me if he could remove me as a Facebook friend. I wasn’t the slightest bit bothered.
The reason he gave was that he had no interest in what I was doing and it annoyed him that I kept constantly coming up in his news feeds. Fair enough. I was the only one of his friends posting anything, so whenever he logged on, he was faced with a series of trivial posts about me or my cats.
If you are a boss, and an employee removes you, then fair play too. Why would anyone want their boss as Facebook friend? LinkedIn yes, Facebook, No. The point is you are not removing these people in real life, only on Facebook, so it means nothing.
Random characters also track you down from your past. Sometimes this is good, but sometimes not. An ex boyfriend from years ago, whom I have no interest in whatsoever, tracked me down on Facebook and asked me to meet him in London.
I was complaining about this to my Mum and she said if Facebook didn’t exist he would never have been able to find me. "Forget it. Don’t meet him," she advised. And I didn’t.
There are other curiosities too: I have some married male friends that do not state there are married on their status, in fact they don’t even state they are in a relationship, which I find odd. But equally I have married male friends who state they are married and yet are having affairs. There are also many men who have serious relationships with women, but still keep their relationship status up as single. Why is that?
Of course, Facebook has many advantages, not least helping people throw parties, without having to send formal invites; sharing good news with friends such as marriage, a new child, or a promotion; reconnecting with old friends you want to reconnect with; keeping up with the news and movements of friends in an increasingly busy world where people often live geographically apart. But for some people, it sucks up too much of their time at work and home. If it’s affecting your work, you can only hope your work firewalls it. 
There is now a reocognised illness called Facebook Addiction Disorder. Those afflicted are so obsessed with their virtual activities that they are willing to forego their meals, sleep, responsibilities, work, friends and other leisure activities to be on the site. Many stay up all night to be on it and are connected 24 hours. 
Below is an article about symptoms of Facebook addiction.
Having read that and a bit worried I might be on it too much, I have recently decided to detox and limit my time on Facebook to once a week.
Last night I made the decision and logged out.
Straight away I came out in a cold sweat. How was I going to remember anyone’s birthday? I can’t remember anyone’s except my own. What if it was someone’s birthday before this Saturday? My cold turkey began...but I resisted. Tomorrow I am buying a birthday book. 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Huge Spending Cuts: the right way forward for Britain

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, recently unveiled a series of hefty cuts to public services and the welfare system in the UK. The news has dominated headlines here ever since.

The reason for the need for cuts is that the UK’s deficit is apparently at a record high (£180bn, same as that of Greece), something that everyone is blaming on the overspending of the former Labour Government.

For me, it has been amusing and bemusing watching this news (and sensational headlines) about the new “austerity drive", having just returned to live in England from Mumbai.

We were told by Cameron that the welfare budget was to be cut by £18bn. The total benefits being handed out to a single family are now being capped at £26,000 per year (a salary an Indian could only dream of and one that most Brits have to work five days a week to get.) Here in England, the people who receive these benefits don’t need to work and have all this money all handed to them in a cheque. Often they are perfectly healthy and able to work, but they simply don’t need to, since the Govenment benefits are on offer. We are hearing on the news now that there are families in London that have been getting £400 a week in housing benefit alone, living in homes in central London, that no ordinary working person could ever afford. Some families in London get £50,000 a year in housing benefit, more than double the average salary in the UK. And that is just their housing benefit! They cash in other benefits on top.

I don’t think India has a welfare budget, like the UK does. In the UK anyone that doesn’t feel like working, doesn’t have to, and can get £65 a week in Jobseeker’s Allowance from the Government just to stay at home and watch daytime TV.

Another change Cameron wants to bring out is to raise the age at which men and women can claim a state pension to 66 here. Again, I am not aware of a state pension in India, and the country seems to be ticking along quite nicely. Why? Because people there rely on their families, not the state. The French meanwhile, are torching cars over their state pension age going up to 62!

If an Indian were watching the British headlines, that I am watching, they would be simply aghast at the amount of "freebies" (or benefits) a Briton can get. We have Jobseeker's Allowance, Housing Benefit, a Carer’s Benefit (if you care for someone); free access to hospitals, medicines, treatments ; free schools; a cash allowance just for having a child; cash for fuel for pensioners; free bus passes; free school meals, all kinds of subsidies for the unemployed…the list goes on. Our income taxes are paying for all this. And now we are being told that as we are in too much debt, they all have to get cut.

While I agree some benefits are essential (free health and education, free fuel for pensioners, incapacity benefit for the genuinely sick or injured etc), some are not and too much of some is very much a very bad thing – as it creates a layer of society that simply never works and lives off the state. Plus it encourages fraud. There are thousands of people that obtain incapacity benefit through fraud - cases of people being caught out are forever being reported in national newspapers.

What no one has thought of is what about getting all these people to work! A motivation for that would be having no money. But by giving them so many benefits, right now that incentive is withdrawn from them.

Perhaps if these people went out and worked, they would not need to rely on the state. They could pay their own rent. Then the money we are ploughing into benefits could be used on defence and anti-terrorism instead.

Can you imagine if India had all these benefits? It would go bankrupt overnight. There would certainly be no maids or road labourers. No, they would all stay at home living off state benefits instead as there would be no incentive to work. No other country would have been able to find 1,000 labourers in a day to work on the Commonwealth Games stadiums for a pittance, as the Indian Government did shortly before the Games opened....

Other cuts Cameron has announced include:

The Foreign Office withdrawing its funding of the BBC World Service. This needs to be funded by the BBC now instead. Sounds like a good idea to me, since the BBC is funded by compulsory TV licenses that anyone with a TV has to pay for anyway. Not quite sure why the Foreign Office was ever funding it.

The Transport Budget needs to be cut by £1.1 bn meaning that commuters (read: hard-working people paying off mortgages) will be forced to shell out even more on rail fares, that are already exorbitant. I am totally against this, as apart from anything, it is hardly going to promote greener living, and will hit those on low incomes as well as on high incomes. This is a matter which England would do well to learn from India on. I am not sure if rail travel is subsidised there, but it is amazingly cheap, meaning that anyone in India can afford it. And accessible transport is a vital ingredient in anyone’s quality of life. I remember how in May all the maids and watchmen would flock to their villages on trains. In England such distances by rail are far too expensive for anyone other than a fat-cat investment banker.

The Arts Budget is going to be cut by 30 per cent too, which I am also against as the Arts (theatre, films, museums, creative writing, fine art etc) are the heart and soul of Britain, something the British are proud of and a major reason why tourists visit. Many of Britain’s theatres, museums and films are currently subsidised by the Government. One could argue though that these organisations could be more efficiently run if their belts were tightened and could look to be patronised by private business instead.

University fees look set to double by 2012 and will no longer be capped for British students at £3, 290, which I am also against. It would be better if the Government forced universities to forge better ties with industry and make their courses more vocational, in my view, than simply withdrawing subsidies.

The Schools and Health budget remain unaffected, which is good and The Queen is being forced to cut her spending by £6 million.

Bizarrely, despite all these cuts, Britain, in a huge philanthropic gesture, is going to increase its overseas aid by 40 per cent, we are told. This has raised a few eyebrows.

In Mumbai, on the contrary, I saw barely any public services. The police and fire services aside (the former, which you may have to bribe, I am told), I can think of few public services, apart from road building that existed in India. To my knowledge, healthcare and education is not free for most people. (I think there are a few government-sponsored vernacular schools, but these tend to cater to the children of slumdwellers and the homeless, most of whom aspire to sending their kids somewhere better anyway. I am not aware of any free healthcare at all, as we have in the UK.) I don't remember going to any government-sponsored art galleries either, although Mani Bhavan, the highly inspirational Gandhi museum in Mumbai may have been free. Do you have to pay to go to the Jehangir Gallery? I can’t remember but I certainly don't remember seeing anyone collect the rubbish or sweep the streets. Oh, the army and defence - yes, there is a lot of money invested in that in India, for which we can be thankful. The army is very good (and the men super hot.) Airport security in India is unrivalled. But apart from defence, I am not especially aware of what public taxes in India are spent on. I don't think many Indians are either which is why there seems to be a national subversive attempt to not pay any taxes, or pay as little as possible. "All politicians are corrupt," is a comment often made in India. I do not agree with this as I have no evidence either way. Indeed the MP expenses scandal in the UK has exposed the "white-collar" corruption that exists in Britain.

And this is not the point. The point is that despite there being barely any public services in India, (and a hell of a lot of tax avoidance, which is not possible in the UK - the Inland Revenue catches everyone), Indian people do pretty well. Indians survive despite having none of the benefits on offer in the UK. One reason for this is that Indians depend much more on the family and themselves than the state. In my previous blog, Expat on the Edge, I touched on some of this:

Now, I am not for one minute advocating England axes everything and we end up like India where public services are woefully lacking; but there needs to be a happy medium between the two extremes. The worst part about Britain wasting so much money on benefits, is that there are plenty of jobs in the UK! Plenty of them. And imagine if half the money we currently ploughed into benefits was instead ploughed into more job creation and investment in British business!

At least in India there is a sense of and pride in working and saving. The ideology in India is that if you want something, you have to work for it and save to get it rather work out how to scam a benefit out of the government for it, or put it on a credit card. Perhaps a study should be done on the impact living in a society like India has on the individual and his attitude towards work, earning a living, his family, and his dependence on the state. It could reveal some interesting findings that Britain could learn from. Being born into a welfare state could  perhaps not be particulalry good for the average individual.

I wonder if as we barge forward into the 21st Century, with all the globalisation and competitiveness that comes with that, whether the welfare state, such as the one Britain currently has, can afford to continue, or whether nations like Britain will have to change and learn from countries like India.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The reaction to the Commonwealth Games: a microcosm of general attitudes towards India?

The British media ignored the shambles and fiasco of the Commonwealth Games 2010 in Delhi until two weeks before they were due to start, while the Indian media had been dutifully reporting on the impending disaster for months.
Then  when the British media did start reporting on it, it became headline news for a solid 10 days. It was, in journalistic terms, a fantastic news story, and sometimes so comic, you wondered if the Indian officials behind the games, shouldn't just ditch it all in, and take a job at Mumbai's Comedy Store instead. Their mishaps, faux pas, errors, mismanagement, alleged corruption and bad luck seemed to almost be deliberate to keep the western media salivating for days. The CWG Committee was generating more column inches than any PR team could have dreamt of.  Unfortunately though, it was not good PR for India, that had until then been the flavour of the month in the West owing to pity generated by the Mumbai attacks and adoration generated by Slumdog Millionaire. I wondered if the British media reluctance to report on the shambles in the first instance was an over-fawning upon India, because of a desire, prevalent in some western media,  to "talk India up" and ignore its problems. Even David Cameron had ignored the CWG problems, apparent to everyone else, when he made his first charm offensive visit to India before the Games.

It was ironic that the Western media ignored the fiasco subject for months (that is June/July/August), when the Indian media was pulling the CWG commitee up for its alleged corruption, misuse of funds, and the sorry state of construction every day.
But as the Opening Ceremony got close, the western media could ignore it no more. Then suddently the stories flowed in, as though part of a cleverly drawn up media camnpaign, albeit offering negative coverage every day. Whether it was the faux pas at the inaugural show by Kalmadi saying Princess Diana had attended, or his next mistake stating the USA was a member of the Commonwealth, or  reports that poisonous snakes were on their way, that dengue had arrived, and stray dogs were sleeping in the athletes' bedrooms, or that  British swimmers had all came down with Delhi Belly, or that the athletes' village was described as "unfit for human habitatiion," all journalists, regadless of nationality, had a field day.

What then happened in the British media and on social networking sites like Facebook was a bizarre reaaction to the series of events that almost revealed  people's suppressed attitudes towards the whole of India, like a old wound bursting open again.
On the one hand, there was the nationalist young Indian, furious at the negative coverage India was getting, venting anger about the Commonwealth's very existence, railing againt the British Raj and India's colonionial histrory, suggesting the Commonwealth was meaningless, offensive and should be scrapped.
This was an exchange on one Facebook page.

A: The CWG, is it a national shame or regional or even local?
B: Its a national shame....corruption at its peak.'It's not only a national shame, but the officials have nowhere to hide their face because this time everything is transparent about how the tax payers'' money is fooled around with.
C: Mumbai would have handled it better, or the Games should have been organised outside of Delhi's built-up areas. But hey we have more brutal things, such as grinding poverty, to be nationally ashamed of. The CMG are not even of Olympics standards, plus it's a legacy of colonisation.
D: I agree there are other issues but imagine those 'goras' lecturing us. Also,corruption exists even in the Western countries but only its not visible. What I want to say is, no action shall be taken against the culprits ar usual. But how long can we sit speechless or let out our anger through some social networking site! It won't work. Sometimes I wonder whether this democracy gifted to us by The British is a gift in disguise.
E: See after all it was much ado about nothing. yes they were some small matters of toilets leaking, etc. Indian media exaggerates, dont take them seriously folks...  look at the latest news: Canada coming, Wales coming, Scotland coming, England coming... they were the ones who had delayed their arrival in Delhi. People down under have always been a spoil sport. Let them not come. It's the white folk who create problems. African nations never said they were delaying their departure, did they?

Then you had, some of  the right-wing western media reporting in an almost xenophobic fashion and with relish, the disaster, day by day, as it unfolded, almost looking for more stories than there already were (was child labour being used to sweep the floors,  for example, was a question lingering on their minds.)
As with Slumdog Millionaire, the problem with this kind of reporting is, one minute the media is all over a social issue, the next it is not. So while child labour may be a problem somwhere in India, it probably wasn't much of a problem at the CWG (correct me if I am wrong); yet real child labour, where it exists in India, no doubt, continues ignored.
Then you had the athletes saying how great India was and they coudn't wait to eat Tandooori Chicken, dismissing all the negative stories.
Then followed the story of the thousands of used condoms blocking the drains at the Games Village - filling Indian minds with more negative stereoptypes that all Westerners are loose.
There was something quite surreal and shocking too about watching these athletes in the skimpiest of outfits wander around with Indian workmen and peasants nearby...Then there were the less nationalist but nonetheless patriotic Indians, who still didn't get what all the noise was about.

"Great Opening Ceremony and "Great Ending" they tweeted.  Nothing on what happened inbetween bothered them.
It went off well so all the CWG bashing needs to stop!say lets give the CMG a nice burial in Delhi and bury the colonial past with it , one tweeted.

As the lack of sale of tickets became apparent, I asked some Indian friends on my Facebook page, why they weren't going to it. The empty stadiums were making headline news in the UK again and this was something (unlike corruption and roofs caving in ) that they could do something about quickly - and resolve. If I was Indian and in India I would have got a bunch of friends together and gone there. Watching athletes perform to empty stadiums on TV was painful.
The response?

A: Do you really expect Indians to bother seeing Netball between Papua New Guinea and Bermuda when India-Aus are involved in a Cricket Test match? Heck - even if the cricket was not on - who would really want to go?who cares ??"
B: All i know is I am not travelling to delhi for next 2 weeks !
C: There is a general security paranoia - media hype! I'm not that into the idea anyhow. It's hardly exciting.
D: The tickets are too expensive.

Why were tickets too expensive? Was their price not researched? Why did loads of suited corporates from private companies not attend, as they do attend other sporting events like Wimbledon and Henley Regatta? Where were the tickets on sale? What will happen to all these stadiums now? Why were they built with such massive capacities, if there was no strategy to sell tickets or evidence100,000 tickets would be sold.
Even Delhi's beggars said the CWG were bad for business (read here and tourism went down rather than up
Yet the West was accused of India bashing by some.
Pix of some of the rooms in the Athletes'Village were circulated on the Internet. Some showed immaculate sparkling rooms, others showed dog footprints and dirty sinks, depending on who was circulating them, and what their view was.
At the end of it, there was a general sense among some Indians that the Games had not ben as disastrous as the media had made out.
"We pulled it off, it's not like it didn't happen at all," they said. It was likened to an Indian wedding, where everything falls into place at the end.
Some Indians decided the Games had been "an unqualified success"
But did everything fall into place?
Should Indians care more about the image of India in the world and the bad PR they got from this? Or not? Was it the "perfect Indian wedding?"
It seems to me that provided the Indian economy is growing at 7 per cent, many young Indians don't care what image the CWG gave out. I noticed in India a trait not to focus on the negative and to remain positive, to partake in self praise far more often than self criticism, to be happy with whatever the outcome was, provided it wasn't too dire (eg noone died), and to focus on the end result more than the process getting there; unlike in the West which is more obsessed with having everything going to plan, meeting deadlines and achieving perfection, as well as having a penchant for self-criticism, above self praise. On the one hand, the Indian attitude is dangerous as it can lead to a satisfaction with something substandard (eg a product or service esp in the context of outsourcing); on the other hand it is a more stress-free way to live.
Even during the terror attacks, I remember life in Bandra went on pretty much as before. The shop keeper in the corner shop carried on stacking shelves. What is it his problem if there is an attack in Churchgate?
Or maybe I am reading too much into this, and the CWG did not interest India because the word Commonwealth now repulses modern metro ambitious proud Indians.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

London and Mumbai: overrated, overpriced and dirty...

Everyone at the coach stop was a senior citizen, except me. Most were dressed like hicks. We were all embarking on a massive trip to London. For me it was my first trip to the big smoke, since returning from India. The queue of Somerset locals reminded me of the scene of strugglers queuing up to travel to Mumbai from places like Bihar.
Of course, "I" knew what London was "like", so had spent an entire day emptying my wardrobe looking for smart clothes, in an attempt not to look like a local yokel in the glitzy capital. I had several parties and dinner parties lined up and wanted to look 'the part.' After all, if there was one thing Mumbai had taught me, it was the importance of dressing smartly, dressing to the occasion, and well, in short, looking rich and glamorous. Those are the rules by which the Mumbai social set lives. Disobey them at your peril and expect to  lose your confidence and feel like a wallflower at any social gathering. (I  learnt this the hard way. It took me 2 years to learn that ripped jeans and T shirts do not go down well at page 3 parties in the city that never sleeps, but sequined black dresses and heels do. This is why the latter was my attire at my grand Mumbai leaving party:) I learnt the hard way that it was better not to show up at parties in Mumbai, than dress inappropriately. Of course, I also learnt that some of the most well-dressed people at these affairs, were financially bankrupt, immoral, having illicit affairs, unemployed, boring, rude you name it - but well-dressed they were.)

So, the coach left  and we glided through the rolling hills of Somerset, with fields of sheep on either side.

 I was still in my ''I love England mindset'' and so stared at the scenery and mulled on how happy I was to be in Somerset and how I wasn't missing the noisy honking chaos of Mumbai. The passenger in the seat next to me was rather fat squashing me somewhat. I also began to feel travel sick. Without wishing to offend her, I explained I may move seats as I felt ill, as we seemed to be sat above the wheel. A few minutes later, quite randomly, she asked: "Are you pregnant?" This was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, if ever there was one. "No!"I said. "Oh, I just thought you might be, given you said you felt sick," she said.

I soon moved (or should I say shifted?) to another seat. My sickness wore off and I spent the journey texting those friends, who I would be meeting, after spending such a long time in India.

After some time, the lush green trees suddenly looked dead, the houses were no longer picture postcard aesthetically-pleasing dreamlike cottages, with thatched roofs and fields for gardens, but rather ugly detached "London suburb" homes, with tiny gardens..and ugly cars .Some had no curtains; some had dark drapes across the windows as though disguising drug-growing dens inside; yobs suddenly appeared on the pavements (men with woollen hats stretching down over their foreheads, and in tracksuits, loitering on bikes - a species not found in Somerset); there was litter scattered across the pavement; bins were overflowing; the scene was no grey, rather than green; graffiti scarred the buildings; there was a sense of poverty. It was ugly. The accommodation looked substandard. Council flats appeared. People suddenly looked badly dressed. I looked in horror out of the coach window. Is this the country I had been so proud of in India and constantly compared to Mumbai? Is this the best England can manage to produce with its capital city?  It was nothing like San Francisco.

The coach stopped at the London coach station. I had thought of having lunch there, but soon changed my mind as I went down the stairs into the shopping centre and saw a bunch of waifs and strays roaming around a cheap supermarket. I didn't like the look of the people and decided to head straight to Harrods. But I needed to use the Ladies' toilet. Cost of using the public toilet? 50 pence (Rs35)!! I was shocked. Although overpriced, I figured it would be safe and clean as the undesirables would never spend that much. I was right.

Next I stepped onto the tube. Unimpressive. Litter was scattered on the platform. To a newcomer (like me), the London Underground came across as old-fashioned, like something from the past century, and uncomfortable.  The routes and lines still didn't allow you  to make the journeys you wanted directly, instead forcing you to make changes. You walked so much between tube lines, you might as well have walked the whole distance. The yellow and green lines were still slow and useless. The brown line was still the best. On the tube, I looked around and there was an Asian man in a suit sat down,  a group of Italians talking loudly and what seemed to be a bunch of foreigners everywhere. When foreigners come to England, is this what they see? Do they know there is a whole world of England out there, beyond this, beyond London? Probably not, because you get sucked in.

People sat or stood on the tube in absolute silence. I chuckled at the thought of how noisy the same train would be in Mumbai. In London everyone looked miserable, everyone was ignoring each other, and everyone seemed to hate their lives. No wonder. I got entranced in staring at people, imagining their lives but avoiding eye contact. Everyone was also badly dressed. One man got on, with skinny jeans, trainers, a green urban jacket and ipod earphones in his ears. He had deliberately dressed like a yob, to fit in. No one looked like this in Somerset.

We reached Knightsbrige and I walked straight to Harrods. A doorman said, "Hello, Ma'am," as I walked inside. "This is more like it," I mused. "I feel more at home." I was glad I had dressed to impress. India had taught me the Art of that. I looked ''the part"" and the Harrods staff recognised that. But straight away though I was told to leave my suitcase in Left Luggage at Harrods, and that I could not bring it into the store. The cost? 3 (Rs215). I had now  spent 3.50 (Rs250) before even doing anything. My plan was to have lunch inside Harrods. After all, you only live once. But a coffee was 4 (Rs300) and a panini ₤15 (Rs 1,000). I figured that although I looked the part, I wasn't quite ready to be the part, and slipped outside to have lunch at a nearby trendy sandwich bar. The cappuccinos and sandwiches appeared to be the same prices, as they had been when I left for India. The varieties hadn't changed either. Weird. I sat outside, managing a sandwich, cappuccino and chocolate bar,  for ₤5 (Rs 350) but did not feel comfortable. Immediately two waifs and strays appeared and hovered near a dustbin, opposite my table. I wondered if they were planning on mugging me. I ate my sandwich, clutching my bag between my knees. I never had to do this in Somerset, I thought.

I swiftly returned to Harrods, one of the few places, I felt comfortable in London. The staff were all dressed smartly and looked clean and immaculate, as they do at five stars in Mumbai. They all called me Maám . I felt at home. It was a Mumbai five star experience on offer here in London. I bought something expensive in the cosmetics section. The lady offered me a Harrods loyalty card. Of course, why not? I looked the part. I wandered around the Food Hall for hours, marvelling at what was on display, things I had never seen in India. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I used the luxury toilets, and of course, there were fine perfumes to sample, and a foreign-looking lady inside who washed your hands for you, or got your a paper towel. This was just like the Taj in Colaba! I sprayed Guilty by Gucci on. The five stars in Mumbai had been fabulous and it was great to be able to experience that here, again, I mused. I visited the memorial to Diana and Dodi by the Egyptian escalator. There was a Dubai-esque feel to the place. Grotty London was a world away. In the same way that when in five stars in Mumbai, grotty Mumbai is a world away.

It dawned on me that the two cities had a lot in common: they were both where locals and foreigners flocked to make money, pursue careers or get fame. But neither city was attractive, both were grotty, and neither represented the soul of the country at large. I understood now why some of my Indian friends preferred to live in Chandigarh, Ahmedabad or Pune, rather than Mumbai. And in the same way overpopulation of Mumbai, was ruining it, so is the overpopulation of London ruining it.  In Mumbai there had been open areas of rubbish, where people simply dumped rubbish, which stray animals then fed from. Dustbins barely existed. In London, they did, but litter was strewn across pavements. There were no stray dogs in London, but plenty of stray pigoens picking at litter and feral-looking people. The buildings in the suburbs of Mumbai, such as in Bandra and Andheri, were far from aesthetically-pleasing and often substandard quality inside with monsoon leaks, revolting furniture, no water and peeling paint.
Similarly houses in London were nowhere near the same quality as those new homes you find outside the capital. Yet you pay through the nose to live in both cities.
Of course, south Mumbai has many visual architectural exceptions, as do touristy parts of central London. But the suburbs in both cities visually, at least, leave a lot to be desired. In Mumbai you have unalluring slums. In London you have unattractive council estates. 
Both cities have their selling points - such as nightlife, men, food and culture. That was what I planned to check out in London next. But already I could understand why Londoners raved about Mumbai so much. There wasn't much difference between the two cities, unlike comparing say either to Somerset. Even the laissez-faire attitude, found in Mumbai, was there in London. 
"You write in your blog that London is grotty, and we Londoners will just laugh. We know it's like that and we like it," my London friend said.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Britain Glorious Britain

(....were it not for the whining Brits)

Cardinal Walter Kaspar may have remarked that Heathrow made him think of England as a Third World Country, ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain. "England today is a secularised and pluralist country. When you land at Heathrow airport, you sometimes think you've landed in a Third World country," he was quoted as saying to a German magazine before the Pope’s grand arrival. Then mysteriously following the controversy in Britain that followed his insult, the senior papal advisor pulled out of the Pope’s trip, citing illness. (!)

Well, I could not disagree with what he said more.

A typical English high street
England is certainly First World.  When I landed at Heathrow, after three years in India, I marvelled at the modernity, cleanliness and organisation of the airport. Everything looked new and everything worked. I felt immensely relieved to be holding a British passport and able to walk through immigration without a queue, heightened by the fact I had had a priority pass, having (accidentally) flown business class. Hundreds of foreigners meanwhile queued at the long line of immigration officer desks. I had always been one of that lot whenever I had landed in India or the USA. But not so anymore! Yippee.

 I was glad I had not lost my British citizenship from living in India (imagine if that had happened?!) Now I was so excited to be home, even if the sky was grey. My parents were waiting at the arrivals section for me, having driven up from Somerset to greet me. As always when they met me off flights from India, my mum was carrying a thick coat, and this time, a pair of shoes. “Mum, we have shoes in India. We are not all ascetics. Did you think I was going to land barefoot?” I asked sarcastically. We put my stuff in the car and I entertained them all the way home about my nightmares leaving, how I had to give away most of my stuff, and discard it at the airport, the cats, the 11th hour upgrade to business class, and so on.

As usual my parents didn’t really have many or any questions about India, but that was to be expected: they rarely had questions about anywhere I travelled (as a general rule British people are spectacularly uninterested in wherever you travel and it’s a social taboo to bore them with the details, and certainly not to even start on photos). 

So, I gazed at the uncrowded roads, that only had cars speeding down on (not rickshaws, mopeds, motorbikes and cabs crashing into one another), the clean perfectly drawn white lines on the edges of each grey tarmac lane, the lack of people wandering or sitting on the streets - and it didn’t bore me. For once, I liked England; for once I liked the peacefulness and organised state of things.

Another typical scene
A typical empty street (outside London)

 The chaos of India had entranced me at first. I think most tourists are bewitched upon seeing flower and fish sellers sat on the pavement, child beggars tearing at their trousers and homeless people living in tents on the pavement. Forget the fact it is an indication of poverty, tourists find it fascinating and even take pictures of it on digital cameras. These are the scenes, often described as “colourful” by novice writers. I too was seduced it all at first, but it eventually, that lost its appeal after three years. Until then England had lost its appeal and I had found India fascinating. Now I found England fascinating. Maybe I was looking at England through an Indian person's eyes. I found the English pavement and tarmac interesting; the way people crossed the road in England interesting; the plethora of dyed hair on women intrigued me; so did puffin crossings. You see, maybe that is what being an expat does - it makes you appreciate your own country more. After some time in India, despite initially seeking adventure, excitement  and chaos, I started to want quietness and normality. India had, at the end, started to feel like a dream. Back sat in my bedroom in Somerset felt like reality again. Or maybe comparing my 250 square foot flat in Mumbai to Somerset was not a correct comparison. A studio flat in Brixton may have been a better one. Maybe then my Indian eyes would have preferred Bandra.
For now, having lived in India for 3 years, I was really appreciating  the peace and organisation of England (for the first time!) I no longer needed to go to bhangra nights and study Hindi, to get a virtual link to the country I had fallen in love with as a 19-year-old backpacker. I was finally able to feel English and be English. I could now imagine going to Henley Regatta once more, or playing tennis, picking blackberries, or eating strawberries and cream.
India had cured me. Of something.
(Herein lies a reason why India is considered spiritual. It teaches us foreigners lessons, lessons we didn’t even know we needed to learn.)
The good old English pub and familiar Tudor buildings

I no longer hated typical English pubs. How long would this fascination with my birth place last, I wondered.

I could sense my Dad was nervous as to how long I might stay in his house, where he had a computer that was ‘his’, an armchair in the sitting room that was ‘his’ and a life, set up with hobbies and classes at specific times, in a set routine, that was ‘his.’
The next few days were very busy as my parents were celebrating their Ruby wedding anniversary soon after I arrived – one of the reasons I had flown back at that time. I had always thought that it was only in India that people could afford caterers. To me, the general rule had always been that whatever there was a servant or labourer for in India, in England it was done DIY. No one has a cook, driver or a maid in England, for example (save the Queen). And generally at dinner parties and house parties, we cater ourselves.
But my Mum  proved me wrong on the occasion of her 40th wedding anniversary and hired a catering company, at massive cost (which I later discovered, was at my expense too.). So, in the week leading up to the big 100-guest event, we had a large marquee van arrive to put up the marquee, caterers, florists, you name it. It was like a scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral.
I was especially pleased when I noticed that the men putting up the marquee were all young and good-looking. I remembered that rule, which is in The Rules, which states you should always look your best, even at Tesco. So, I took off my pyjamas and put on some make-up and made them cups of tea every hour.

The marquee
The marquee

 Then next came the wine delivery van. I have never ever unloaded and carried so many boxes of wine in my life. The van man sad he had never had such a large order before either.  Boxes and boxes of 12 bottle crates of red and white wine filled up our kitchen. Lifting them compensated for me not doing arm weights in the gym for two weeks.
My Dad suddenly panicked we did not have enough fridges to cool the white wine in. (We have three American sized fridges and one wine fridge.)

My Dad then investigated hiring a fridge. Cost: 500 pounds per day.

“In India they just put them in wheelie bins of ice,” I said helpfully.

I informed him he had over-ordered on the wine, as our house looked like a wine warehouse. He nodded, but it was too late. I remembered that golden rule for a successful party: get the guests drunk. So, I guessed, we always had that option to fall back on.

A few days before the Big Day, I decided that since so many good-looking marquee men were around, since I was in my 30s and unmarried, and since my Mum had been harassing me to do it for ages, it was time to get my hair highlighted. This was something I had resisted my whole life, proud of having “natural blond hair like the woman in the Timotei Ad.”

But now all my friends who had highlighted or dyed blond hair (equals most of my friends) were married. I was not.  There was a missing link, a disconnect. Perhaps, I figured, older and wiser, perhaps it was time I did dye it. After all my eyebrows and arm hair were blond, so it would look pretty natural anyway wouldn’t it? My mum agreed to pay the 100 pounds cost as she had been asking me to do it for 10 years, and I had till now, refused.

The catering company came on the party day and overtook our kitchen. I was busy helping with the seating plan (doing emergency changes as the disorganised people dropped out last minute) and it was all ‘go’.

My Dad then kindly informed me this was my “surrogate wedding.” By that he meant that since I had not got married, my mum and he had decided to splash the money they had been saving for my wedding, on their ruby wedding party – and that they did. We had champagne and canapés in the garden, followed by a sit down meal and speeches in the marquee. Hence, it was done at my expenseJ

The fact I had flown back two non pedigree Indian cats to Britain was one of the main topics of conversation at the event…The news even split the guests. While some found it cute, and gazed at the cat pix on my mobile phones, others said: “Do not tell me how much it cost you as I will find it a disgusting waste of money!”

The Indian non pedigree cat

In the evening we had a barn dance.

The barn dance

In case you don’t know what a barn dance is, it is a ritual, popular in the countryside of Britain, alongside green wellies and Barbours, whereby a caller shrieks into a microphone, while a band plays country music in the background, and people, of all ages, dance with different partners (not their own) a kind of folk dance.  Although it originates in America, it is to me, quintessentially British.
The following day we had a barbecue and salads on the lawn.

Life in England was fun. Real fun.  And in the countryside it was truly fabulous. This was not a Third World Country, no way – Mr Kaspar, I thought, as I drank sparkling wine and ate grilled Salmon kebabs, with chicken and hamburgers in a white marquee.
Of course, not everyone agreed. Or at least, my Dad and other men engaged in talk of the ‘recession’.
“I just can’t see this country ever getting out of debt. It’s too far in,” one said. “Yes, it’s the worst it’s ever been. It’s a disaster,” another said.
 “What is wrong with you?” I would say. “This country is amazing and has everything, everything you can dream of. There is nowhere like it in the world,” But they couldn’t see that. They had not lived overseas like me. They could not see that Britain was in far better shape than in 2007 when I left. It was like someone becoming fat in three years, and noone noticing apart from the person that had been away. I could see that a fight was on my hands to prove to the British that they were not in recession. 

A typical street in the UK

Oh, why are the English so gloomy and negative? The Indians, on the contrary, are far more positive and happy.
Anyway the party was a success. The best part being that no one (including my sister) noticed that I had highlighted my hair….They all presumed that was how it had become in the heat of sunny India. Ha Ha.
It had been worth it, not just for that, but in a few days time, the marquee men were to be returning to pull down the marquee.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Indian cats' big adventure

A week before my cats were due to fly from Mumbai to London, my worst fear was realised: I came down with fever, diarrhoea and vomiting.
The diarrhoea was, in fact, green. Loss of appetite was unsurprising.
That same day the freight forwarding agent, that I had been forced to employ, to fly two non pedigree Indian felines back to England (since cats are only allowed to fly as cargo to the UK) rang me and said he required a load of original documents, even though I had scanned in dozens the week before.

I could barely move. I spent the previous three days in bed, unable to eat. I could not think of a single person I could ask who would be prepared to carry the documents to his office for me, and was certainly not going to trust a courier company with them, so I sank into a low point, wondering if I had any ‘real’ friends in Mumbai.
Yes, I had plenty that wanted to meet in a café or a bar for a glass of wine. But who would voluntarily do some work for me? I rang a Bandra friend, who had a car, to see if he would at least drive me to the guy’s office, so that if I had ‘an emergency on the way’ (read: diarrhoea) he could stop the vehicle; since a regular cab driver may not get it if I started waving my hands wildly. But my car-owning ‘friend’ did not answer my calls or texts.
Next my maid showed up. Every day when I was sick, her first concern had been my health the minute she walked in the door. She offered to accompany me to see her doctor. It dawned on me, that apart from my cats, she was my only real friend.

I told her my latest dilemma and we agreed I had no option but to go myself, despite my ill health. Together we packed four loo rolls and towels for the event of ‘an accident’ in the cab, and off I went…scared.

But luckily God was on my side as the cab driver a) spoke English and b) was unfazed when I told him my predicament (that I may vomit or have diarrhoea in his vehicle.) In fact, I have always found in India that whenever things go really wrong and reach their lowest point, suddenly there will always be a silver lining. And there was. So, I reached the office ‘sans’ accident and the cab driver, clearly feeling for me, gave me his number and told me he would pick me up later. I felt less like the world was caving in all at once.

After several hours of signing forms in the cramped hot freight forwarding office, I felt faint, having not eaten for three days, so bought a mini Five Star bar from a dusty roadside stall outside.
Ten minutes after eating it the same bar reappeared in vomit all over the freight forwarding office bathroom. I was amazed at how much sick a tiny chocolate bar could produce.
The office had a water shortage (as did several parts of the Mumbai suburbs at that time) and there was no running water from the tap. Wrenching at the sight of my own sick, and feeling embarrassed to have ruined the office’s only bathroom, I promptly left.
Outside I rang the cab driver who said he would be an hour, so I took a rickshaw to a nearby five star hotel. As always with Indian five stars, you are treated like God, even though you may be pale, have fever, vomiting and have not have eaten for a week.
The fact I was carrying two large cat carriers did not faze the poshly-dressed doormen either. I glided to the hotel bar, pretending I was Julia Roberts, and sat down, hoping no one would realise I may vomit any second.
Despite the waitresses attempts at suggesting I order a special creamy mocktail, I went for a lime soda. “I am a tad under the weather, and can’t really handle a mocktail,” I said in the biggest understatement of the year. After barely sipping a fifth of the Rs200 drink, the cab driver rang me to say he was outside. I glided to the Ladies. 10 times the amount I had consumed of lime soda suddenly appeared as vomit across the five star hotel’s Ladies’ toilet. Wrenching at the sight again, I left the hotel and got in the cab. My godlike driver drove the cat carriers and me home.

By the time the day of the cats’ flight came, my infection had cleared up owing to a powerful drug called Orni-O …But the bureaucratic marathon was far from over. Despite having spent weeks filling in forms, photographing the cats, getting vet certificates and letters and scanning them all, in, nothing appeared to be ready and everything still appeared to be chaotic.

Getting ready to fly
I reached the freight office and for the 100th time the cats had to get weighed and measured, more documents needed sorting, before we arrived Nightmare on Elm Street 13 aka Mumbai cargo complex. This is a dark, scary, noisy place. Thirty men immediately surrounded the two cat carriers plonked in a wheelbarrow and me.
“To them, what you are doing is like putting two cockroaches in a cage and taking them back to England,” a helpful English friend had told me.

The flight cost Rs 50,000 and the quarantine at least four times that…”Would you spend that amount on a human?” an Indian friend had asked me earlier that week. “No,” I had said.
And I had meant it… Well, not unless the human meant as much to me as my cats. Would my Indian friend spend that on a random human? Unlikely.
My English friends were equally bemused at the cost. But do I judge them on what they spend their money on? Like skiing holidays… No. My cats are priceless. A value cannot be put on them.

I did not sedate the cats, despite several Mumbai vets recommending this. The customs official was nastier than expected…He told me to open both cages and let the cats out in the middle of the open cargo complex, with planes taking off and vehicles moving everywhere. I refused, pointing out the cats may escape as they were scared stiff. He would not budge. In a naïve moment of exhaustion and anger, I said “Do you realise I am a journalist?” He replied: “ I don’t care where you work” and our relationship soured even further. I quickly realised that comment had not been the best move, and there was every chance the cats may not get on the plane, a point reinforced when my freight forwarding agent helpfully informed me that the previous night a dog flying to America had not been allowed to board as at the last minute as the customs official had deemed the cage to be too small.

There was no vet present and no animal handler to hold my cats, and there was every chance they would escape. But with little option, I unwired the cages and lifted them both out.
Luckily they were so frightened, all they wanted to do was jump back in the cage.
Next the customs official demanded a funnel to feed water to the cats. Naturally, we didn’t have one.
Where anyone would get a funnel from at 10pm near Mumbai cargo complex was beyond me. But miraculously, it was possible. The agent sent off some boy and he returned with a funnel round his neck.

Several hours later, after the customs official had leafed through all my documents, and scared me and my agent as much as possible, claiming documents were missing then magically finding them, I was told to leave.

Needless to say I did not got to bed but stayed up all night tracking the flight on the web.
At 5am I rang Heathrow and, using my journalistic skills, managed to get through to the exact people who collect animals from planes…Amazingly my cats were expected!…. At 7.30am I rang again and the cats had landed. “Are they alive?” I asked. “ I think so,” the man said. My heart skipped a beat. “Please check.” I heard his feet patter off. Silence. He retuned “Yeah, they are alive.”…”Do they need feeding? Are they ok?” Silence followed apart from the patter of his feet. “They look alright to me.”

Hours later, an email arrived. “Your cats have reached the quarantine kennels,” is all it said. I nearly fell off my chair. I rang up the kennels straight away from India. “Are they covered in urine? Are they starving?
“No, they are fine.”
“It’s a miracle. How did they get there in one piece?”
“We didn’t expect anything less. We do this every day,” she said. “Goodbye.”
Sleep-deprived, I collapsed on a heap on my bed in my Bandra flat. “Its normally the pet owners that require sedating more than the pets,” the freight forwarding agent had told me. He was right.

If you need any kind of advice on flying pets overseas, please put your question in the comments section and I will be happy to reply.

A frightened cat knowing something is up

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Not leaving in style

I am convinced my mother has been praying in the village Catholic church every week since I moved to Mumbai, asking God to get me to come home.
Not that she has anything against India, but she is my mother, and wanted me back.

When I left England, I kind of anticipated I would stay three years, with a back-up plan to stay longer, if I really fell in love with the place (or with any person), or less if I hated it. So, I did stay three years. My British friends had all placed various bets on how long I would stay at my London leaving party, so I guess one of them has, err won.

After umming and ahhing and changing my mind about whether to come back, or not, I finally decided to in July, against the advice of everyone in India, but matching the advice of my mother and several friends in England. The ousting of Labour, and David Cameron coming into power with the Lib Dems, kind of influenced my decision, as I was pretty sure England would get back on its feet with a new Government in place. That combined with missing my favourite supermarkets in England (read: Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury's) and the vast array of food products I can get here, as well as missing the advanced infrastructure in England, the NHS, ambulances, more comfortable trains, higher quality accommodation, drinkable tap water, more polite taxi drivers, more efficient police and overall  better quality of life, kind of spurred the decision on, with some divine intervention too, it seems.

I also felt I had given India what I could, at this stage of my life, written all the stories I wanted to, and India too had given me back what I had wanted - allowed me to experience its vast diverse self (read: cuisines, languge, tribes, religions, races), and taught me that the country has a rich culture and history that takes years to unravel, but that will always be unique and steadfast and from which the West can learn a lot.

The end of an era
I will miss the fantastic nightlife in Mumbai, the year-round T-shirt weather, my Indian friends, the great social life, endless parties, vast array of soft drinks, Indian dress, Indian food, the fantastic cinema-culture, Indian theatre, the cafe culture, the work-place culture (read: daily cakes) the beaches, the roof-top bars and so on..

But for me, it was time to move on to the next phase. There are hardened British expats in Mumbai, who will never leave...they often retain very negative impressions of England...I was not one of those...I feel as though it is more the Mumbai expats from London that feel they have 'little to return to' in England, whereas people from outside London, like me, tend to have better quality lives here and so there is ''a lot to return for."
However, when I had dreamt of leaving, I had imagined I would have several huge parties, and spend my last few days meeting friends, and going for walks in my favourite places, like Juhu beach. But it was not to be. I have noticed that every expat that leaves India  leaves disastrously and I kind of did too.

I had a few days off work before my final departure, and managed to come down with fever, vomiting and  diarrhoea. This seriously curtailed my ability to pack, or rather clear out my flat and I was reluctant to see a doctor, as I had had a few bad experiences, being ripped off. One Mumbai doctor, who is recommended by the British High Commission, had on a previous occasion, made me pay Rs 800 for an appointment, when every Indian who went to him paid Rs 300, and he did not diagnose me, or offer any medicine, and was plain rude. Another at a private hospital had told me to have Rs 10,000 of blood tests, which I did not do, as I felt it was unneccessary...(This is one good thing about the NHS as they are reluctant to make you have blood tests unless you really need them..In Mumbai it seems to be what every doctor wants you to do..they have lost the ability to diagnose you from your symptoms or using their gut instinct. This is prevalent in the US too where healthcare is privatised).

Anyway, luckily an Indian friend's dad who is a top notch doctor, diagnosed me on the phone without charge and I got the Orni-O drug that slowly cleared up the infection, but it heavily delayed my packing. While friends did not stop calling me, asking me to "meet them"I was faced with the prospect of clearing out my flat. Stupidly, I had not sent anything by freight. Bin liners piled up outside my flat and every day the recycling man came to collect them.  He paid me Rs100 to Rs 150 each time and took 10 to 20 bin liners of everything from newspapers to old clothes. I quite liked this system. In the UK you would have to pay for a skip to come to your house, or you would have to pay an extortionate fee to dump it at a landfill site. There in Mumbai, someone was paying me to take away my rubbish.

A world apart - that was Mumbai

I gave most kitchen items to my maid, as well as my TV. Other valuable items I gave to friends that wanted them. I cannot understand why expats hold sales of their items, when there are so many people you can give them to...Seems really selfish, especially after living in India, when watchmen and maids could make use of these items. I felt really glad that eveyrthing was going to a good use. The only problem was I had more items than even I realised..

I lost all in interest in having a leaving party, as I had bank accounts to close, bills to pay and kgs of stuff to sort through. Luckily a friend agreed to host a leaving party for me for close friends, which was very generous. Luckily none gave me a leaving present, as it would have ended up with the recycling man.

As D-Day grew close and I realised I had more items than even I realised and so on the day I was meant to be leaving my flat, I was surrounded by boxes and bin liners. My friend dropped round and nearly fainted. She tried to help me, but most of the work (sifting through stuff and working out what to throw, what to give away, and what to keep), only I could do. My landlord gave me an extra night to sort it all out...I stayed up all night...and just met the 8am deadline of handing over the keys, then shifted 100kgs to a hotel...

 So, my ideal leaving scenario of sipping cocktails on my last night overlooking Mumbai beach were dashed. I again stayed up all night, and ended up leaving tonnes of stuff in my room for the hotel staff.
Then utterly sleep-deprived with a friend, I shifted 60kgs to the airport. My plan? Hoping they wouldn't notice. But dressed in a raincoat and a fleece to  "lessen the luggage,"  they did.

Looking rather ridiculous, I was singled out straight away as someone over the luggage allowance before anyone weighed it. The airlines man even grabbed my hand luggage, which weighed 15kgs. "It's bad enough you have 60 kgs of check-in luggage but 15 gs of hand luggage when you are meant to have 7kgs takes the biscuit. Go and get rid of some," he said.

The line about leaving India after living here three years didn't wash; in fact it seemed to exacerbate his desire to charge me extra..So,.I shoved all my cat's toys into my raincoat pockets, handed a load of stuff to a friend outside the airport, then got stung with Rs 8,000 excess baggage (= £117)...

Feeling like shit, exhausted and drained, and upset to have left half my life in Mumbai, I ran to security as I was about to miss my flight..

As I boarded the aircraft, looking ridiculous in a raincaoat stuffed with toy catnip mice, and feeling very depressed, the airline official suddenly said: "You have been upgraded, máam." He then took a biro and changed my seat number. My final flight home was business class.
"I would have dressed differently, had I known, " I said, wiping the sweat off my face.
"What would you like to drink," I was asked after sitting down on my horizontal bed. "Dom Perignon,"I replied...I guess in the same way weddings never go as you fantasised, nor does leaving India.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Getting ready to leave India

Noone has ever written a book on when to stop being an expat and when to repatriate home. There is nothing documented on it anywhere (apart from one chat forum on one website - more later), but plenty has been written about how to 'become' an expat in the first place and leave the shores of rainy England for some hot aspirational land, such as Spain or Dubai. You can read up on how to pack your stuff, and adapt to a new culture, how to dress conservatively and fit in to your new work place, but nobody tells you when to leave or how to leave.....
So, when the idea entered my head of 'returning' to England after three years working as a journalist at Hindustan Times, I had noone to turn to, noone to discuss it with. I felt very isolated. My Indian friends all sounded horrified at the mere mention I might leave, and my expat friends rebuffed the idea, telling me I was crazy , citing statistics about the recession in the UK, reminding me how much I loved India, pointing out what a fascinating job I had, how many Mumbai friends I had, and so on...and informing me I would never find a job in the UK.But a seed of desire to return to England had been planted in me and it just grew and grew....I couldn't quite explain to anyone why I wanted to go back.
"You are going back to get married?" my Indian colleagues would say. Knowing that that would be a valid reason why they might repatriate home to India, I said "Yes" just to appease them. But it couldn't be further from the truth. If anything, I have ex's I am still very fond of here in Mumbai.
So, I surfed the Net, as I do for every dilemma in my life, in the hope the answeres would be found, but nothing on how and when to return to England came up, apart from one forum on one website, that I stumbled across that was dedicated to expats 'leaving' their respective countries. My eyes scanned it with hunger looking for a clue, any clue as to when is the right time to leave, does one set up a job in England before leaving, how easy is it to find a job from a foreign country in England, do employers like returned expats? How easy will it be to readjust to England now that I speak a semi Indian dialect of English, and street Hindi? The answers were barely there...Most people on this Forum were whinging Brits in Australia, who, it seemed, hated Australia and were fantasising about aspects of English society, of grocery items, or shops, that they missed, but were too scared to return as they had sold homes/emigrated to Oz 15 years ago, and so were using the forum to vent their frustrations and share their dilemmas. I was surprised as I have several friends who have emigrated to Oz from England, who love it...Anyway, the discovery that I wasn't the only expat in the world thinking of going home with no particular reason to, at least made me feel better....I have seen many expats come and go to India...Many leave suddenly, without any leaving party, some fall ill, others have problems in their job...I didn't want to be one of those..I wanted to leave in style. I wasn't sure if I should leave...In fact, everyone was telling me to stay....but destiny had its own plans....

Getting my cats out

I found her in a cardboard box in my Society building a week after I moved into my flat in Bandra. She
was a newly-born black and white kitten with two black and white siblings. There was no sign of a mother.

My cat as a newly born kitten living in the compound

At that time, I did not realise kittens were born to strays on every street corner of Mumbai, and thought it was unusual. I tried to call the SPCA (equiv of RSPCA) hoping they would send someone to rescue the kittens, but they only spoke Hindi and slammed the phone down; I told my watchmen - gesticulating in broken Hindi - but they just looked through me; I told the poor cleaning lady who collects rubbish and occasionally throws water over the communal floors - she spat on the ground. No one seemed interested. Finally an ugly brown cat that looked like it was full of worms turned up and the commnal cleaner told me this was the mother. I shoved her in the box, and rather disinterestedly she licked the kittens.

The mother cat fed her when she was a stray in the society

After I started feeding this worm-ridden hardened stray, she took more interest in the kittens, as she smartly linked food with hanging out with her offspring. This meant the kittens were at least getting breast milk. After two of the kittens died (one from worms, the other from being paralysed by a child in the Society who threw it in the air like a tennis ball when I made a short trip to London), I rescued the final one, and she moved into my apartment. I kept the door open to see if she wanted to go back to her mother. She didn't. That night the mother left the Society and never returned. In fact initially I thought I had rescued the kitten, but it soon became clear, as the loneliness of living by myself in a city like Mumbai, and having to navigate my way through the rather terrifying P 3 party scene, as well as make friends, took hold, that she had indeed rescued me. After some time she became my best friend, and was the thing/animal I would think of all day long and who I could not wait to see after work. In fact I used to phone my maid three times a day and ask her how my kitten was. (Had Sunday lunch with some family friends at the weekend, one of whom is a counsellor. He told me that it was common for people to 'project' feelings and value on to objects (eg photos and paintings) or animals, that to others had no value at all...and this reflected íssues the person was grappling with. So maybe, I projected a 'roommate' onto her, as that is what she became. Maybe, I should not have lived alone...)

My kitten plays with random items discarded in the compound

Anyway, she soon went on heat and got a boyfriend. The stray worm-ridden black tom cat would come up every night to see her. I fed him as well, afer all I had to be was her boyfriend after all. I planned to get her sterilised, but the vet went on holiday. I waited till he got back, but by that time she was pregnant. I had caught her having sex with the black stray on numerous occasions so it came as no surprise. After growing incredibly fat, and looking like she would never pop, she finally gave birth to three kittens one Easter Saturday. I found a home for one with an American expat, one died a few weeks after being paralaysed following a fall from the 6th floor, and one was left, so I kept the remaining kitten and mother, as they were able to keep each other company.

A year ago, I started thinking about what to do with the cats if I were to leave India...My vet said to me: "If you had two children and had to leave India, would you consider leaving them behind? No. Well, these cats are your children."

I was pretty sure anyway that, had I put up a poster saying: "Adult cats available for adoption", I would have had no response. In fact, once I sent an email to all the animal charities, saying "Cat wanted for adoption", (this was before the mother gave birth,  at a time that I wanted to get her a companion) and my phone did not stop ringing for three days, some people even turned up outside my apartment block with kittens in hand without an appointment. I did not take any as I was so freaked out by the overwhleming response .

From my various involvements with animal charities, and the animal hospital in Mumbai, I soon realised that they were all inundated with 'dumped unwanted pets.' I did not want to become another like that. If the cat I rescued and her daughter were to stay in India, they would have to have a good home. But there clearly is and was no demand for domestic shorthaired Indian cats (read: stray or as my Dad says feral cats) in Mumbai. The only pet people seemed to have in Maximum City were pedigree dogs. Cats were not kept as pets. So, I had to take on the vet's view, which was, regardless of the cost, I had to fly the cats to England, and then pay for them to go in quarantine for 6 months...if I ever left India

I had absolutely no idea what was required, but knew, that being India, it would be complex, and possibly impossible to fathom. And it was.

With no idea where to start, I took a cab to the air cargo complex at Mumbai airport a year ago, with a plan of visiting the airline offices inside who dealt with cargo. I wandered inside and was promptly jumped on by security and walked to a room, where I was searched. Then , since noone spoke English I was marched to the office of the head of cargo, or similar. An Indian bureacrat who staff referrred to rather over-politely as 'Sir' was inside. Papers were stacked everywhere and timid men queued outside to see him. I was taken straight inside. I explained to him that I had two Indian cats I may want to take out of the country. "These are Indian cats!" he bellowed. "You are not allowed to take India cats out of India." That seemed like an absurd statement to make, since if I did not take them with me, where would they go? Be put back on the streets? I made a mental note that, if anyone ever asked me I would not say the cats were Indian. After all, who was to know!

He then muttered on about how complex it was and apart from a million other things, that I would need to get clearance from a single doctor, based most conveninetly in Navi Mumbai, who didn't have a phone or address and was only open three days a week, and I couldn't make appointments with and who would only issue a certificate six days before the flight...without which the cats couldn't fly..It was more complex than getting a work permit or a passport it seemed... And that was only the beginning of the labyrinth awaiting me..

The stray kitten I rescued as an adult cat