Sunday at Kaya

At the end of our last blog, we indicated that we hoped to return to Seva Mandir’s Residential Learning Camp at Kaya for some extracurricular activities.  Thanks to Vikas, who made the arrangements, and Prem, who accompanied us, and the wonderful staff at the camp (to all of whom, many thanks), we were able to do this last Sunday for singing and cricket!  Sir Neville Cardus would have been proud of us!

As we walked into the Camp we could hear lusty singing.  The children were in their respective classrooms singing cheerily.  When we were last there, it was the first day of this two-month camp and most of the children had just arrived for their first taste of education in this boarding environment far from their remote rural villages, parents, siblings and everything familiar.  I had been amazed and very touched that day to hear so many of the children singing in their classrooms, always led by one child who would sing each line before it was repeated by the others.  These were traditional songs and I wondered how much comfort the children were deriving from repeating these familiar tunes in this strange new environment.  So I certainly knew they could sing before I planned Sunday’s sessions.

On this visit, I spent a few minutes in the office finding laminated sheets to use as props for the songs I planned to teach the children, and then worked out that, with 197 children in the camp, it would perhaps be best to take four groups of roughly 50 – somewhat daunting, but there was no question of leaving anyone out.


We walked out to the open area in front of the camp buildings to find all 197 children, already in the four groups, sitting on the ground, with attendant teachers and an air of expectancy.  The first group assembled in a circle and I began the session by introducing myself and asking a few of the children their names.  We then started on the first song, ‘Heads and shoulders, knees and toes’, complete with actions.


Much amusement, particularly as we speeded up,


bobbing up and down touching knees and toes, and as we pointed to ears and eyes and mouth and nose!

Projecting so I could teach 50 children a song they didn’t know, in the open air, was a challenge for a voice that was seriously out of practice and I wondered how I would be faring by the fourth group.

Each group resolutely stuck to the call and response mode, although I had hoped to get them singing along with me, so we had to adapt this song, and the others, to fit this pattern, repeating each line after I had sung it once.

Next up was the ABC song


and I distributed A4 sized letters of the alphabet for every other child to hold up (feeling like a heel each time I passed over one child and gave a letter to the next – groups of 26 would be much easier!).


I was very impressed by the confidence with which they could recite the alphabet in English.  Not many English children could say the Hindi alphabet, that’s for sure!  Indeed I can’t!


The most popular song by far was ‘Five Little Monkeys’.  Whether it was the humour of the song itself, the fun of pretending to be ‘Mama’ on the phone to the doctor, or the doctor intoning pompously ‘No more jumping on the bed’ – or perhaps the ridiculous spectacle of me pretending to be a young monkey jumping on a bed and then falling off – who knows!  But they loved it, and were quick to supply the number of monkeys remaining on the bed each time one had fallen off and bumped his head!

The last song I had chosen, ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ was the least successful, despite actions like clapping hands, stamping feet and turning around.  Note to self: must find a few more songs that work better in the call and response mode.  The clapping/stamping/turning bar in this song threw the rhythm as the children repeated each line as soon as I had finished the three bars of words.  Still, it bothered me but not them!

I was exhausted after the first group – only another 150 children to go!  Will I have any voice at all for the last 50?

As I glanced round the children in a circle round me there were some who were painfully shy, some a little puzzled, some on a little cloud of their own, most eager to engage.  Without exception they were well behaved, friendly, welcoming, smiling.  And they sang their hearts out, even though they clearly didn’t understand every word they were singing.  They could certainly teach a few English choirs a thing or two about singing lustily and projecting!!

They unanimously clapped at the end of each session and chanted ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’.  I reflected, not for the first time, how different these children are from some one meets in the classrooms of middle-class Europe.  Absolutely no ‘attitude’, just a sense that they are here to soak up every drop of learning they can find as it may well be their only chance to have any kind of education.

I’m sure I learned far more than they did – and now I must work on a better selection of simple action songs and voice projection!

As Felicia moved on to the second group, John, with the help of some very keen members of staff, divided the first group into two cricket teams!  The stumps were set up and the captains tossed.  It soon became apparent, however, that some lusty bows risked disrupting Felicia’s second singing group, so the cricketers moved down to a larger area where there was a volleyball net which was soon taken down to accommodate the match.  Peace and safety for the singers!

On the newly established cricket pitch, the game was soon underway.  With 25 or so a side, it was a little challenging keeping track of the batting order and ensuring that all the children got into the game, but whilst some were keen to bat and bowl, others were happy to field or just observe.


Whilst a number had clearly played before and displayed good technique,


some of the bowling actions were slightly suspect albeit that accuracy was good, particularly one girl who had clearly honed the art by throwing stones – which she threatened to do with some vigour when, as the afternoon wore on, attention spans waned and one of the boys ‘stole’ the ball from her as she was preparing to bowl another over.  Much placating ensued and the match resumed.

With such good bowling, the most frequent call was ‘well bowled’ which the children echoed with great voice (the singing session had obviously been of lasting value); but there were a number of ‘good shots’ not least when some of the older boys and particularly the staff connected with a ‘length ball’ and dispatched it over the wall into the trees and long grass.  We had bought two bats and three practice balls which was just as well since, although there was a set of stumps and a couple of bats at the Camp, there were no balls.  It was easy to see why!  Nevertheless, on this occasion, with 25 fielders aside, a host of boys would leap over the wall to search for the ball, whereupon, John cried out ‘lost ball’, also voluminously repeated by batters and fielders alike, followed by ‘new ball’ when, pending the return of the search party, one of the spares was produced.


The batsmen were not offered the opportunity to inspect the new ball in accordance with ICC regulations, but this did not appear to be an impediment to the next lusty blow and ‘lost ball’.

On a few occasions, when a batter was bowled when not ready or some other injustice had occurred, the diplomatic call was ‘no-ball’, the left arm held out horizontally and reprieve granted.  Little did I realise how important the call of ‘no-ball’ would be for the outcome of another match, of which more later.

When the second group left Felicia and presented themselves on the cricket ground, the staff judiciously proposed a girls v girls match.  The skills were excellent and the contest keen.


Staff and pupils participated.


In the later sessions, breakaway leagues were established in true Kerry Packer fashion


and the ground soon resembled the Maidan in Mumbai, the home of India’s greatest, where multiple matches are played.  May be there was a young Sachin here too.

I was asked to bat and took guard as if at Brook, before doing a little gardening to the pitch, much to the amusement of these more rustic cricketers.  The first ball was glided to fine leg in the style of the great Ranjitsinhji and a comfortable single taken, whereupon my batting partner showed great disdain for singles and either swished and missed or swished and connected to send the search party back into frenzied activity.


In any event, at the declaration, I was one not out having faced one ball.  That makes two undefeated innings in India, the other being at Samode a few years ago where I had to ask the camel behind the bowler’s arm to lie down and the locals, having seen my forward defensive, compared me to Dravid – is there any greater compliment?

My bowling (15th change) was a tad less successful – more work for the search party and little boys, unprompted for once, shouting ‘lost ball’, ‘new ball’.


With the final match drawing to a close, it was time to head back up for some tea, here spicy chai which hit the spot.  After chatting with the staff, we took our leave, waving furiously to the children.



That evening, we resumed our watching of the Bollywood film (with much singing and dancing along the way), Lagaan, the splendid story of a cricket match played in the time of the British Raj between the garrison side, led by its cold-hearted and mean captain, and a team of local farmers and villagers coached, initially covertly, by the lovely sister of the mean captain. The match is a challenge thrown down by the head of the garrison who has capriciously doubled the annual tax, Lagaan, to be paid by the locals notwithstanding that there has been no monsoon rain for two years and the fields are parched.  The challenge is to defeat the army side in a cricket match in which case the tax will be cancelled for the whole area for three years; defeat, on the other hand will lead to a ruinous trebling of the tax.  Much to the horror and consternation of the locals, the hero and skipper of the local team, Bhuvan, a courageous and honest young man adored by the prettiest girl in the village (and later by the lovely sister, who sees the potential injustice of a one-sided match and offers her advice to the home team), accepts the challenge and three months of training and preparation ensue.

Unlikely volunteers step forward to join the team.  An untouchable with a withered arm, for example, proves to be a Chandrasekhar, and spins the ball viciously, taking valuable wickets.  However, nothwithstanding his crafty bowling, the British amass 325 runs and the innings of the local team, after an encouraging start, collapses.  Enter the last batsman to join Bhuvan with many runs still needed.  It comes down to the last ball with 4 runs to win and Bhuvan, who now has a century, at the non-striker’s end.  His determined and loyal batting partner realises that the fate of the entire area is on his shoulders as he swings at the ball only for it to be fielded inside the boundary as the batsmen cross for a mere single.  Despair! But, as Bhuvan, head drooping, squats down at the striker’s end and the army side celebrate, the camera pans to the umpire standing, arm outstretched: “no-ball”.  Reprieve!  One last ball and Bhuvan on strike.  The mean captain exhorts his opening bowler to do the business.  He steams in, delivers and Bhavan swings, connects and the ball sails high towards the boundary.  The mean captain tracks back, eyes fixed on the ball and, spurred on by his team, catches it – but, yes, you guessed, he has stepped over boundary!  The locals have won. Bhuvan is embraced by his adoring girl, lifted high by the community and declared a true hero.  The garrison is shut down, the mean captain posted to deepest, darkest Africa and the lovely sister, having embraced Bhuvan’s adoring now wife-to-be, climbs back into her carriage, heartbroken, to start the journey back to England where she never marries.  Oh, and the heavens open as the monsoon blows in to irrigate the arid fields.

How important was that “no-ball”!

For those of you who have lasted the distance: Sir Neville Cardus was the renowned cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian and also its chief music critic whose writings on cricket have been published in book form, for example Cardus on Cricket and A Fourth Innings with Cardus – no cricket library should be without them; Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, was one of the great pre-first world war batsmen who played for England; and Chandrasekhar, a cricketer who overcame polio and turned his disability to great advantage to become one of India’s most successful bowlers.  Kerry Packer was an Australian.  Ah yes, the second Ashes Test starts today!

Visiting Girwa

Sharing the beauty of southern Rajasthan intensifies the pleasure.  We were particularly privileged to be able to undertake a field trip to Girwa with Somerset and Emily on their recent visit.  Girwa is a beautiful rural area south of Udaipur in which Seva Mandir works closely with local communities on a number of vital projects including watershed, seed banks, pre-school day centres for small children and bridge schools for older children for whom there is no local government school.  Setting off bright and early, we were accompanied by two colleagues from Seva Mandir, Aarti and Chandra, and joined along the way by locally based members of the team.

Having turned off the main road, we were soon climbing up to about 400 meters and surveying the hills and valleys.


Evidence of the watershed projects was all around and the benefits in terms of improved agriculture clear to see.


We met local people who were proud of their countryside and welcoming.


After a few stops to examine watershed projects which stop the rain water running off the hillsides causing soil erosion, and channel it for use by the farmers, our hosts explained apologetically that, in order to visit a pre-school day centre, Balwadi, and school, Shiksha Kendra, we would have to walk for a few kilometres.  But we were delighted.  The air was fresh and the sun warm but not scorching.


Whilst Em had been to India before, this was Somerset’s first trip.  Seeing a camel asleep outside the Balwadi emphasised the distance from the City.  Inside the small hut, the children were seated on the ground singing.  They were bemused to see a group of strange looking guests


and one burst into uncontrollable tears.  It was explained that the little girl was concerned that we might take her away.  There was a doubtless a story here but we did not probe.  The young teacher consoled the little one and calm returned.


The Balwadis provide pre-school support for children up to the age of five.  They learn basic skills to prepare them for school and receive nutritional meals and immunization. With the small children cared for in the Balwadi, mothers are free to work, typically in the fields, and elder siblings are themselves able to attend school.

Outside, two women sat in their front yard where chillis dried in the sunshine.


We thanked our gracious hosts and moved on around the hillside


to find the Shiksha Kendra where the children, all together in one room, were reciting verse.  We were invited inside.  One of the senior girls was asked to recite a poem and did so with confidence.


The pupils then played a game.  One of them was chosen to be the detective and went outside while the class picked one of the remaining youngsters to be ‘it’.  The detective then returned and was allowed two guesses to find the right classmate.  This was done by the detective walking around the class which was seated in a circle on the ground


with the person who was ‘it’ leading some rhythmical finger clicking.  The detective had to observe carefully to try to work out who was leading the game.  No questions permitted.  After an initial unsuccessful attempt, the detective correctly identified the senior girl who had recited the poem.  How he knew we will never know, save that we suspected that the class might have selected her more often than not.  We said our goodbyes and took our leave to head back to the vehicle past homes


and fields


Time was running short and we did not visit the seed bank on this occasion but pressed on to Seva Mandir’s residential learning camp on the route back to Udaipur.  The residential leaning camp is one of our favourite places.  Built in the countryside, it is home to a hundred or so children from different rural communities who would otherwise receive no education, either because there is no functioning government school in their locality or because their impoverished parents send them to work in the fields, typically over the state border in Gujarat for the cotton harvests.  The residential camps are therefore held outside the harvest periods and last eight weeks.  The children may attend three camps in a year and are taught basic literacy and numeracy skills to equip them for formal education if the opportunity arises.

We arrived on the first day of this particular camp.  Most of the children had arrived but some were still expected.  The day was devoted to noting their details and measuring them for the two sets of clothing which are provided by Seva Mandir.  While they waited, the new pupils were encouraged to demonstrate their existing skill levels by drawing, which they did with great care and attention.

For many of the children, this was their first trip away from home.  Nevertheless, the smiles abounded at the prospect of learning.


We hope to return on a Sunday to help out with extra-curricular activities including some basic language work in English and sports.

We took our leave as the children went for a well-earned lunch cooked on the premises and headed back to Udaipur.

A wonderful morning!

Field Trip to Kherwara

An early morning start.  Pick up at 6:45am for the 10 minute drive to Seva Mandir’s office to join the bus which would take us on our first field trip of this visit.  We are excited: field trips always exceed expectations and introduce us to some of the remoter parts of southern Rajasthan, areas we would otherwise almost certainly not visit.  Needless to say, we are amongst the few early birds and able to stake our claim to front seats on the venerable bus which radiates experience.  The announced departure time of 7:15 is both indicative and aspirational.  We are on our way with 15 or so of the Seva Mandir Natural Resource Development team by 7:45 to cross Udaipur from north to south through the early morning traffic, stopping first for fuel and then further members of the team along the way.  It’s reminiscent of school bus trips with laughter and jollity as new members of the team climb aboard.

As we head out of the town on the main highway which leads to Mumbai, the Aravalli Hills are once again our guide.  Our front row seats afford a clear view.


After a little less than an hour, we turn across the highway and head down a rural road and back in time



to Kherwara, a beautiful area surrounded by the Aravalli hills, with fields green after the monsoon, wandering goats and cows, and the occasional mud-walled house



where morning washing


and other domestic chores are underway.


We are also struck by the cactus hedges: very practical when you think about it.


The field trip is beginning in earnest.

One key area of Seva Mandir’s work is Natural Resource Development.  In this rural, semi-arid region such as southern Rajasthan, the rain falls only during a short period of the year in the monsoon, and the sun beats down relentlessly for long months on impoverished soil.  Local, mainly subsistence, farmers scratch a living from a few fields


and, if they are lucky, a handful of cows and goats that might bring them a monthly income of Rs 600 (around £6 or $10).  It is therefore vital to make the best use of what water there is.

The NRD unit has many programmes in this area: watershed projects to ensure that the heavy rains, when they come, do not further degrade what soil there is,


but the water is collected in the most efficient way; water harvesting, including creating and maintaining dams,


and improving wells.  We pass several lakes filled by the monsoon but soon realise that it will probably not rain here again until next July.


Measuring the results of such projects is important for Seva Mandir and its donors.  To ensure that data collection is reliable and consistent, systems have been devised to help the field teams carry out their measurements in a uniform and simple way throughout the areas covered.

The field trip which we have been invited to join involves 20 or so members of the NRD unit, from HQ in Udaipur and from some of the blocks further afield, and is designed to show the teams how to collect data and monitor the results of the various projects.

Our base for the day was the zone office in Kojawara, which houses a medical centre with permanent nursing staff and visiting doctors who give clinics on a number of days during the week.  There are wards for inpatients,


but these are not in use at the moment.  The major problem faced by the centre is finding and retaining resident doctors.  A relatively remote rural area like this struggles to attract doctors, and those who might be interested are unaffordable.  It nevertheless provides a dispensary and delivers much needed and valued basic care and was clearly being used by the locals when we visited.


After a light breakfast, armed with two specially-made metal frames measuring 1m2 (instantly recognised by Felicia – all those years listening to the Archers clearly well spent!), we set off to a field on a hill where watershed work had been carried out a couple of years ago.   This involved building a low wall to keep cattle out and planting grains.


The team leader, Shailendra Tiwari, Head of NRD, and his team of experts, explained the process of taking samples of crop growth to monitor results.


They marched up to the top of the hill to survey the field in question, divided it virtually into five areas representative of the field as a whole (taking poorer areas and areas of better growth), and proceeded to take a sample of the growth in each of these five areas.  The metal frames were placed on the ground


and the plants within this square metre cut and weighed.


The results were noted down and an average for the field calculated.  This information will allow the team to see whether the work of creating check dams and watershed trenches has improved the yield of the area.


It was hot work and we have to admit to not going all the way to the top of the hill but seeking out the shade of a bamboo grove


where we were entertained by one of the team members who delighted in telling us that he and his wife had four children all of whom had married and flown the family nest.  He beamed as he held the backs of his hands towards us, fingers pointing down and flipped his fingers upwards to simulate the flight of the siblings from the house.  Now he and his wife enjoyed peace and cooking for two.  On hearing that we had three children and one married, our host, with flashing dark eyes, emitted a huge giggle.

The next exercise was inspecting and measuring wells on the plain.

There are five wells within this watershed unit of 500 Hectares, and, once again, keeping accurate measurements of the water in the wells has proved challenging.  Shailendra explained that there was no need to measure the depth of the wells – obviously a difficult job.  The best way was to find a fixed point which could be marked and used every time, and to measure the drop to the level of the water.   The measuring would be done twice a year, before and after the rains.

This area also contains a camp where cattle are vaccinated twice a year, in an effort to reduce Foot and Mouth Disease and Goat Disease, which the team visited.  While the team accompanied by the intrepid Felicia headed down a steep slope,


John, who had a slightly stiff ankle, stayed with our host to explore the evidence of successful planting projects along the road as it started to climb between the hills



and then engage in interpreted conversation with a local goatherd and his wife who tended the cattle.  A charming couple who were clearly appreciative of the work done by Seva Mandir.  The wife, who was in the meadow below the road, clutched an old umbrella in her right hand as she hurried after one stray and then another, even though it was not apparent that they could have gone far.  Looking up to the road where we were discussing with her husband, she realised that, whilst in the semi shade, we would benefit from the umbrella and hurried up the steep path to offer it.  Apart from being extremely grateful for the shade, I realised that the quality of the light under the umbrella would be far more flattering for portraits than the harsh late-morning sun.  The goatherd and his wife duly posed for photographs



before an errant cow hastened the return of the wife to the meadow. They, by the way, had two children, both of whom had married!  More giggles from our host.


There followed a village meeting at the house of one of the villagers.  While we waited for the meeting we were invited to relax on a charpoy (string couch)


in the shady garden surrounded by neem trees, marigolds (which a canny goat was surreptitiously trying to graze on before he was spotted and ushered out by the woman of the house) and drying chillies.  The presence of two unexpected foreign visitors was explained and we were made welcome, and proceedings began.

This village benefits from several of Seva Mandir’s activities: an immunization camp for pregnant women and their children, a Women’s Self-Help Group, a Joint Forest Management project, a Balwadi (children’s day care centre), a team of Balsakhis (who monitor and advise on child health and care), and a lift well.  It also boasts a Farmers’ Club (which has 1.2 Lakh Rupees, approx. £1,200, in its bank account and attracts a subsidy from the government).  The meeting was intended to monitor the effect of Seva Mandir’s work on village life and to give the farmers and their wives a chance to air their views.


The farmers said that the water levels had certainly increased since the watershed project and they were pleased with the harvest of 1.5 quintals (150 kg) of rice, which was an improvement on previous harvests.  The villagers are now self-sufficient in grass and grains, which saves them the money they would otherwise have to spend on buying these in.

They have an area of 50 Hectares in common forest land, divided into three sites, and have qualified for Joint Forest Management, a scheme which allows the villagers, alongside the government Forestry Department, to look after their forest land, protecting it from fire, grazing and illegal encroachment, and to enjoy the benefits of the forest land and its products.  But they would like to achieve Community Forest Rights, which would allow them to manage the forest land themselves as provided for in Indian law but in practice extremely hard to win.   Seva Mandir continues to help the villagers try to win these rights.

The villagers also reiterated their desire to see Ecosan toilets installed, and were promised that a visit to another village was being arranged to allow them to inspect the Ecosans there.  The government will not provide these toilets (which use no water but instead use ash to convert solid waste into odourless manure) but Seva Mandir is a major provider of these throughout southern Rajasthan.

These hospitable villagers then thanked us again for our visit and warmly bade us farewell.


Just time for a quick visit to an area which had been wasteland until recently but which, with Seva Mandir’s help, had now been planted with fruit trees (mango, amla, guava, papaya, lime) and also tomatoes, chillies and aubergines.


A lovely spot, bursting with fresh produce, and clearly giving a good yield to its owner, a woman farmer.



After a delicious and well earned late lunch (after all that climbing up steep slopes), the NRD team sat down to a meeting to discuss the day’s events


and to plan its next field trip, which would include water harvesting projects (how to monitor water levels in anicut dams, assess leakage, monsoon damage, silting and the use made of the water), sanitation and safe drinking water projects and lift irrigation (where water is pumped up to higher ground from a well, enabling previously uncultivated land to bear crops).

The block officials then said goodbye as they headed back to their block offices in other parts of southern Rajasthan, and the HQ team piled back onto our bus


for the drive back to Udaipur.  It was by now late afternoon and the sun was sending warms rays across the countryside.


As the driver expertly guided the old Tata vehicle through the traffic (with a steering wheel with so much play that he was in constant motion with his arms and we wondered how he could possibly manoeuvre it so skilfully), and the NRD team laughed and joked all the way, we reflected on what a dedicated and skilled team of people this is, toiling away to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world and to make sure that their work is bearing fruit.

The Markets around Delhi Gate

Rajasthan is known for the colourful attire of its inhabitants (some say that the more arid the state, the more rainbow-like the clothing) and, as in India as a whole, the vitality and character of its markets and market people.  Two of our favorites are the fruit and vegetable and spice markets of old Udaipur and surrounding streets, with hundreds of small but specialist retail shops, which are to be found close to Delhi Gate, and Bapu Bazar.  On Tuesday afternoon, we managed to escape from the rigours of equipping the house to indulge ourselves in one of our favourite pursuits.

With just a few words, we let the images paint the picture .


An India of contrasts and striking juxtapositions


A sadhu brings his elephant to the market, to the awe and delight of schoolboys well aware of the divinity of Ganesh, the elephant god.


A few Rupees, put into the elephant’s trunk and passed up to the sadhu, ensure a good reception for the photographer.


The market women sit on the ground surrounded by their produce. The market opens at around 10 am and goes through to after dark.


We have been coming to this market since we visited Udaipur on our first trip to India in 2003. Over the years and a few photos here and there(!), a number of the market women now recognise us and will readily pose for photos; always we try to return with copies for them. Some are more reluctant.


This woman, for example, was keen to have a photo with her bright-eyed young child. John took several on a trip in 2011 and tried to give her prints last year but she was not there. This time, she recognised us and asked to be photographed again. When we returned yesterday, armed not only with the most recent print (above) but also several from 2011, while other women received only one or worse still none, the decibels rose and Felicia feared that John was about to be lynched. Needless to say, John was customarily oblivious – just as well!



Snacks made from batter poured through a sieve into hot fat




Basket weavers in one of the small side streets



Brightly coloured spices


and pulses


and just about anything else you might fancy

Udaipur market 11

Felicia buying supper

Udaipur market 24

Time for a freshly-squeezed juice


Indians have a very sweet tooth!

Our lovely friend from Udaipur, Deepti, who is in England this year doing a master’s in Development Studies, told us that the fruit and vegetable market is her favourite too; her parents brought her to it when she was young and she was able to select the fruit and vegetables herself.

Another contact here , Paradhi, a keen photographer, told us that she had seen a Facebook posting of the photo of Felicia purchasing vegetables in the market  (above); she said that she had never thought of taking photos of the market — for everyone here it is just normal!  Of course, but it is this ‘normality’ which makes India such a wonderful place to visit.  One man’s normality is another’s adventure.


We’ve been giving thought to a more permanent means of transport, having used the excellent services of a local taxi firm with a very helpful driver, Pakash, who has taken us under his wing. This smart model caught our eye …

The Floods after Hurricane Phailin

In our last post of the India at Large series, we commented briefly on local media reports of the action taken by state governments and other bodies to protect hundreds of thousands of people threatened by hurricane Phailin and pointed to the political angle in the light of the elections next year.  Interestingly, the television reports which we saw on Sunday did not focus on the extent of the flooding caused by the hurricane.  On the other hand, it would appear that international reporting was already highlighting the damage and human suffering for which the floods were, and continue to be, responsible.  That said, we obviously had not surveyed a wide cross-section of India’s media.  During the week, we have followed developments in the Times of India and thought it might be of interest to share a few excerpts.

On Wednesday, the Times of India (TOI) reported on the flooding and statements by those in authority:

‘ “Flood water has started receding and we hope by Wednesday it will show signs of improvement,” special relief commissioner Pradipta Mohapatra told TOI. ( … )

As thousands of marooned people cried for food, the state with central agencies like National Disaster Response Force, Army and Navy, stepped up relief and rescue operations. Though the government said it had reached out to all villages, people complained relief was still trickling in. “We are not getting any food,” said Shyam Tudu, a flood victim in Mayurbhanj.

Mohapatra said: “ ( … ) Three IAF helicopters will continue airdropping food things in the quickest possible time. We hope to ensure relief reaches everywhere by Wednesday evening“.

Revenue minister S N Patro said although the situation in some worst-hit areas continued to remain grim, things were “under control”.

On Thursday, TOI reported:

‘Authorities in India’s Orissa state are intensifying efforts to provide relief to some 12 million people affected by a cyclone and subsequent floods.

Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit the state in 14 years, flattened homes, uprooted trees and blocked roads in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states.  Subsequent flooding has left 100,000 people stranded in parts of Orissa.  Officials said the cyclone and the floods had together damaged over 300,000 homes in 16,487 villages in Orissa.

Senior official Krishan Kumar told the Press Trust of India news agency that Ganjam was the worst-affected district. More than 240,000 houses had been damaged, power lines had snapped and nets, boats and fishing catamarans had been destroyed, he said.  ( … )

Orissa Chief Minister Navin Patnaik said the government was ensuring “that relief materials, food, polythene, medical supplies and kerosene reach the affected people“.

Separately, Indian [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh has announced compensation of 200,000 rupees ($3,234; £2,028) for the family of each person killed in the cyclone and 50,000 rupees for those seriously injured.  ( … )

The death toll in Cyclone Phailin remained low because of a successful evacuation effort described by officials as “the biggest in India’s history for such an event“.  ( … )

But the intense storm has made more than half a million people homeless, state government officials said.’

We visited Orissa and the coastline of the Bay of Bengal about a year ago.  It is a beautiful region with an incredible history and cultural and religious heritage.  It is not on the regular tourist itineraries but deserves to be.  Its welcoming and charming citizens certainly deserve support from all quarters now.

Settling In


On our previous six trips to India shopping has generally been of a predictable nature – popping into the wonderful Fabindia to buy a series of brightly coloured salwar kameez (or rather kurta and pajama or churidar in Hindi), and long scarves (dupatta), my usual garb when here, or looking for presents to take home – bags, scarves, cushion covers, silver jewellery and so forth.

Shopping for shoes

This time of course it is different.

The first task was to equip our house with the basics: pots and pans, cleaning equipment, all the things you take for granted until you have to start from scratch.  As a tourist one is not aware of the supermarkets and malls (and we have been incensed at the suggestions helpfully made to us on the streets of Delhi that we might like to visit a mall rather than the individual shops we prefer), but for bulk buying of household goods it makes sense to head to a hypermarket.

Hardware shop

Just getting in is the first challenge.  After going through the body scanner, one has to present bags at a desk and have the zips fastened with plastic tags to prevent one slipping goods into them.  We then grab a trolley and start the hunt.  We are astounded by the variety (and low price) of many things: from washing machines to sound systems, lentils to vegetable oils of types we have never come across.   We make a few interesting discoveries, for example that virtually no Indian pots and pans have lids, apart from the ubiquitous ‘cookers’ (ie pressure cookers) of which India must have the largest supply in the world, and we have a few surprises: I decide to buy some oatmeal so as to make porridge, but discover when I take it home that it is spiced oatmeal – doubtless delicious, we’ll have to see!

Several things elude us in the hypermarket, and anyway we prefer little local shops, so we go to some of the town’s ‘markets’, which are really shopping areas consisting of rows of little shops.  Bapu Bazar has electrical appliances, plastics (dust bins, storage jars etc), bed linen etc.

Udaipur 1

Hathi Pole has cotton goods (lovely Indian print bedspreads etc).  One soon realises that it is quite tricky to mime certain household things, like ironing boards and washing up drainers, and that items one takes for granted are not necessarily part of the standard equipment over here.  All part of the fun – and doubtless adding to our reputation as crazy foreigners.

In one shop recommended by a friend we are able to buy all the appliances we need and they deliver and instal them within hours.  I am particularly looking forward to working with the mixer, which includes a range of blenders to grind spices and help make chutneys and sauces – as seen on Rick Stein’s wonderful TV series.

The vibrant fruit and vegetable markets are a passion of ours, and we never miss a chance to wander through them, marvelling at the riot of colours and textures (and I’m not just describing the produce!).  I have always found it frustrating to be unable to buy any of the produce since staying in hotels doesn’t really lend itself to cooking up aubergines, okra, onion and garlic.  We have both been looking forward to being able to do just that.  So now every day we stop at one or other of the many vegetable stalls along the road and buy enough for dinner and the following breakfast.  So far I have been so tired at the end of every busy day that the menu hasn’t been very varied: a mixture of onions, garlic, aubergine, okra, peppers, tomatoes and coriander, with some cumin and chillies, accompanied by rice and some chutneys and pickles.  But I long to start trying out some of Rick Stein’s recipes.

On previous trips we have always been careful about what we ate, and been remarkably bug-free.  But of course it’s relatively easy if you eat in hotels and recommended restaurants.  Now we are shopping and cooking for ourselves.  We sought advice from a number of Indian and English friends about the use of water purifiers and how to make safe the things you are told not to eat when you travel here, so we had a reasonable idea of the procedures to follow.  But before we came, I lay awake sometimes worrying that I would get it wrong and poison us with inadequately washed and cooked veg.  But so far so good.  We have a water purifier and then boil the water we intend to use for cooking, and we scrub the veg in purified water before cooking.

For now, when at home we are following a traditionally Indian ‘veg’ diet, and it remains to be seen whether we feel brave enough to buy and cook ‘non-veg’.  There are two nearby butchers, whose wares are certainly fresh as they consist of live chickens and goats outside his shop – probably quite sensible given the lack of refrigeration.  I’m just not sure about dealing with a chunk of still warm goat or chicken…

It is a great delight to me to find things like chickoos (naseberries to us Jamaicans, and not a fruit I have seen outside these two countries) and to feast on papaya sprinkled with fresh lime juice, pineapple, custard apples and freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast.

The Indians tend to view tamarinds as a savoury to give delicious pep to savoury sauces.  I wonder if I will be able to explore making Jamaican tamarind balls (sugared tamarind flesh around the seeds, a favourite of all Jamaican schoolchildren) and guava jelly, another favourite from my childhood.


This is of course one of the scourges of India.  You can’t travel a few meters through any town or country village without seeing piles of rubbish strewn around the streets.  Part of the problem is that in many areas there is no organised rubbish collection.

When we had acquired a mountain of packaging material, following the delivery of appliances and furniture, we had to stop our lovely caretaker Jagdish from tipping the lot over the wall onto the adjoining unused plot.  Similarly, we had to rush into that same plot to recover the household waste tipped over the wall by his wife Manju – much to her amazement and amusement.  I have no doubt that they think we are quite mad.   We hope to persuade a local rubbish man (on a bike) to call by to collect rubbish twice weekly, but so far he is reluctant as the other households down our lane have proved unwilling to pay the few rupees he needs to make it worthwhile (about 1p a day).  So we take our rubbish when we go out in the car and drop it into a dumpster.

But virtually everything has a price here, and one of Manju’s relatives carted off all the discarded cardboard and bubble wrap which he sold for recycling at Rs 350.  Maybe there will be a way of making all rubbish recycling pay so that one day we’ll see an end to the awful heaps of rubbish around the place.

We’d also like to investigate digging a compost pit in the next door field, but everything decomposes so quickly here – and attracts unwelcome animal visitors – that we will need to be careful to avoid smells and flies.

Getting things done

India’s love of bureaucracy (doubtless a relic of the Raj) surpasses that of Belgium (where we lived for many years), so we had thought it would take months to get cable TV, wifi and other services.  But we were wrong.  Because on our last trip we had sought the help of the one man in India who seems to know how to ‘recharge’ (top up) an iPad SIM, he greeted us as loyal customers and sold us new SIM cards and a dongle to link the laptops to the internet, with only the need for a few forms and ID photos.  Et voila!

At the house, we had cable TV installed and set up within hours, and the wifi man is due shortly.  The furniture we had ordered from the local store of an Indian chain before we arrived was here when we arrived, as promised, and the mattresses ordered on our first evening in Udaipur arrived a day ahead of schedule – impressive.

We have been extremely fortunate to have the help of friends who have ensured that a request to install a fan in the kitchen, to move a tap to the right height for a washing machine (not sure why that hadn’t occurred to them before…), to remove a bolt from one external door so that there is at least one emergency exit guaranteed to be unlocked on the outside (important for a claustrophobe like me) results in a man appearing within half an hour.

But we can only assume that the caste system applies to workmen.  The painter obviously doesn’t think it’s up to him to move furniture or put down a dustsheet to avoid drips, the carpenter doesn’t think he should clear up chunks of wood, and the men who put in the grills around all the windows clearly didn’t think they needed to clear up cement spills from window sills or basins!  Ah well!

The simpler things take longer though.  Getting a trolley full of goods entered onto a cash register and paid for is a long and tedious process.  More often than not the bar code reader doesn’t work so items have to be entered manually.  And then as you leave the shop a guard asks to see your receipt.  The first time, struggling with an overflowing trolley of brooms, mops, buckets etc, in amongst eggs, pans, oils and spices, our hearts sank as he began to look at every item.  (They don’t give shopping bags, quite rightly, and we had not yet acquired them, so everything was piled into the trolley en vrac.)  Mercifully, he too seemed to realise that this was going to be a hopeless task and contented himself with checking a few sample items before putting a line through the receipt to indicate it was checked.  But now we had to get the trolley to our waiting car – and that meant unloading and carrying everything up and down a set of steps onto the road in the ferocious sun, while trying to make sure nothing disappeared as it waited unattended (probably an unnecessary concern).  It reminded me a little of that riddle of how to get a wolf, a goat and a cabbage across a river in a small boat that can only take one passenger at a time.

We have now worked out that there is an underground car park, but it costs 20 Rupees (20 p) so the drivers have to be persuaded to use it.  But it makes life a whole lot easier.


Setting up home abroad

As a couple we have travelled extensively, and moved with our children between the UK and Belgium.  But this is a very different adventure.

I can’t help thinking of my beloved French grandmother.  She met my Jamaican grandfather when he was a very young soldier posted to her native Normandy during World War I and she was still a schoolgirl.  They married a few years later and she set off, at the age of about 20, to spend the rest of her life with him in Jamaica.    Her tales of running a household in 1920s Jamaica are fascinating, and 30-odd years later I remember her sallying forth every Friday from her house in Kingston to Papine market, armed with a big straw basket, to do the weekly shopping.

My mother too, having grown up in Bristol during the Second World War, could not resist a newspaper advertisement for a PE teacher in Jamaica and sailed out to longed-for adventure in the tropics.  She met my father and spent the next 20 years running a home in the hills above Kingston.

How I wish I had taken the time to ask both of those intrepid women how they felt when they first braved the Jamaican market stalls, itinerant vendors and domestic help in 1920s and 1950s Jamaica.  I rather like the idea that in some small way I am following in their footsteps.

Much of what we are experiencing must seem much less familiar to John than it does to me, with my memories of growing up in Jamaica.


Hot nights

At the end of the long tiring days we have so far spent setting up home so that we can do something useful, it is wonderful to stand together on the roof of our little house, gazing at the Aravalli hills around us as the stars come up and the half-moon shines down, listening to the cacophony of nocturnal insects and birds.  Even the sound of the occasional dog barking is different in the hot night air.  Back inside we greet our friendly lizard and encourage him to bring a few friends to gobble up the occasional ant and mosquito.

Back in Udaipur

As we left Robin and Mary’s on that first evening to head to dinner, Robin had explained that the throng outside were mourners.  A neighbour in the small alley leading to their door had died and the nine days of mourning were almost over.  As we picked our way past the separate groups of women and men, the women seated mainly on thin green matting on the ground while some of the men were on chairs, we pressed the palms of our hands together, fingers pointing skyward in front of our chests, and exchanged ‘Namaste’, good day, with individuals.  There was a small temple a little way down the alley on the left which appeared to be a focal point for the mourners. Its doors were open to reveal a shrine reverberating in yellows and gold contrasting with the faded colours of the doors and walls of the alley outside.  Many of the mourners were still there when we returned from dinner.  By the next day, the numbers had dwindled and nine days of mourning were over.

To find the main street between Jagdish Temple, one of the city’s landmarks and an important place of Hindu worship, and the City Palace, which presides over both lake Pichola to the south

Udaipur 6

and the old city to the north, and the small band of tuktuk drivers based there, we climbed up steep steps and then made our way along a narrow alley parallel to the one on which Robin and Mary’s house is located, past the local dogs which have their own communities and take little notice of passers-by.

Udaipur 3

Here, there were a few small businesses, one exporting Rajasthani craftwork, its industrious owner dressed in western style, with white shirt and dark trousers, filling the doorway on ubiquitous cellphone.  Two doors along was the local dairy complete with milking cows which spend their days wandering along these tiny streets and are brought into a small courtyard at night.

Udaipur 2

When, if ever, they last saw anything resembling a green field, one can only speculate.  You see many cows living in the urban areas often ‘grazing’ on the plastic bags which are collected and dumped at specific points along the roads.  Local women buy some greenery in the morning from the roadside vegetable vendors and throw it down for the cows, but this offering is quickly devoured and the search amongst the plastic soon resumed.

On reaching the tuktuk drivers, there is a brief negotiation which results in a 60-Rupee (roughly 60 pence or 1 USD) put-your-hands-in-front-of-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best dash across town.  Udaipur was the location for the James Bond film Octopussy, still screened non-stop in local hotels and guesthouses.  Early on in the action, there is a famous tuktuk chase through the market streets of the old city with stalls overturned, bunting ripped down and trailed in the tuktuk’s wake and pedestrians scattered.  It is, however, a pale reflection of the real thing!  The tuktuk has one wheel at the front steered by handlebars on which the driver also operates the throttle and, very occasionally, the brakes; it is extraordinarily manoeuverable but, if you have not experienced this particular pleasure, you do not have this reassurance. Our previous close encounter with a tuktuk was in Pune earlier in the year and had resulted in what is known in aviation terminology as a ‘near miss’!  This time, we arrive in one piece, if slightly older than by the five minutes which the dash lasted.

The next few days were spent setting up the house.  (We are posting a separate account with more detail of these activities – see the first in our ‘Between the Lines’ posts.)

It is a very long time since we have equipped a dwelling from scratch.  Initially somewhat anxious about the availability of various key items, from fridges to loo brushes, we were soon visiting small retailers in Bapu Bazar as well as newer shopping malls with Indian supermarkets, like ‘Easyday’, which sell almost everything.  However, we had been advised by Mary not to buy fruit and veg in the supermarkets because the produce is not as fresh as that of the vendors. India has recently opened its doors also to international multiple retailers, like Walmart and Tesco, leaving it to the individual states, of which Rajasthan is one, to decide whether to accept them and, if so, how to regulate them.  The long debate leading to this decision highlighted the vulnerability of the smaller businesses, not to mention the street vendors and particularly those selling fruit and vegetables.  However, over 40%, if not more, of all agricultural produce in India is discarded as waste for the lack of refrigerated distribution and storage.  In a country in which malnutrition is still a huge problem, there are obvious potential benefits in the logistics systems of the experienced multiples.  How this revolution will play out and with what consequences for many aspects of traditional life in India, only time will tell – for now, we are grateful the service of the small retailers: ‘When can you deliver?’ ‘This afternoon!’

A number of you have asked about hurricane Phailin which hit the eastern coast of India, mainly the state of Orissa.  We were invited to dinner by our next door neighbour and were able to ask about developments and also catch some reports on one of the news channels.  Following a devastating hurricane in 1999 which killed 14,000 people in the same region, the state and national governments adopted a number of emergency measures in the hope of preventing a similar tragedy.  These included establishing a disaster recovery service and emergency shelters to accommodate those evacuated from their homes as a precautionary measure.  It appears that, in the case of Phailin, the forecasters were able to give five days’ warning, which enabled the authorities to evacuate 700,000 people, a truly staggering figure.

As of the last report we heard, there were only four reported deaths attributed to the hurricane.  The prevention efforts were aided by a decrease in the intensity of the hurricane and its relatively short duration.

Further inland, in the state of Bihar, heavy rain and strong winds caused some flooding and led to the cancellation of all flights.  One dinner guest reported that her mother’s plant pots had been blown over, but otherwise limited damage!

There is a political angle to all this.  Next year is election year in India.  Whilst the national parties, Congress and BJP, are well represented in many states, there are local parties which have regional strongholds.  Some of these can and do hold the balance of power in a country in which no single party is likely to secure sufficient votes to form a government on its own.  Coalition government is the norm here.  Accordingly, state governments and the parties which form them are anxious to do well not only to retain or secure power at the state level but also to have the possibility to influence the formation of the national government.  As the plaudits pour in for the preventative actions taken in Orissa and also Andhra Pradesh, these state governments are basking in the glory of a job well done – at least according to the reports we have seen.

Here, in Rajasthan, on the north west side of India (please see the map below), we experienced some torrential downpours last week, but understand that this was the end of the monsoon rains.  The monsoon started earlier and finished (if it is finished) later this year than usual.  It will be interesting to see the effects in the rural areas of semi-arid southern Rajasthan which we will start to visit again shortly with Seva Mandir, the Indian NGO which we will be supporting while we are here.

India_Map (1)

We thought it might be helpful to have two categories for our posts.  Those in this series are called ‘India At Large’ and those which provide more detail of specific activities and experiences for those thirsty for more ‘Between The Lines’.