Tag Archives: Politics

Indian Student politics (via a wild goose chase)

Given the forthcoming elections in India, politics are front of mind here. A couple of days ago, I had a brief insight into the student version, via a circuitous route.

I had decided to try and get in contact with an Indian family that had looked after friends, Patrick and Mary Harrison, when they were here 15 years ago. Patrick (now retired) was Secretary of the RIBA and had been visiting an architect in Cochin. The architect had asked his secretary (Katherine Alencherry) to give them a tour of the Cochin backwaters.

The ensuing brief trip (with father Sebastien who worked for Indian Railways, plus two children) was one that I was told all had always remembered fondly. Christmas cards had been exchanged since, but no further contact than that.

To make the connection, I had been given a sparse architect’s scrawl – “ALENCHERRY, Railway Quarters 132/G (or 4?), Beat No.9, Ernaculam South, Cochin”. This drew blanks from the owner of my hotel, as well as from his friends rapidly assembled to help. More enquiries in town were met with similar puzzled looks. I feared a wild goose chase.

A couple of vague directions from random friendly looking people on the streets of Cochin didn’t feel particularly helpful at the time, but after a couple of hours I found myself on the first floor of a small building in a tight back street by the Ernakulam Railway Junction. I knocked on the non-descript door more in hope than expectation. (I recalled a discussion with my father before leaving where we had agreed that “the best thing about being a pessimist is that you’re never disappointed with the outcome”).

I didn’t have time to be disappointed. Instead I was taken aback by the welcome I got from Sebastien and Katherine Alencherry. It was pure chance that Sebastien had a days leave, and that Katherine had returned home for lunch. They had no warning that a random man would be turning up at their door saying he knew someone that they last spoke to 15 years ago.

Tea was conjured up; rapid telephone calls were made; in no time 3 turned into 6 as their law-student son Karol turned up with two of his college friends; plans were made without any consultation of me; and within minutes I found myself in a cramped Suzuki Maruti 800 heading for Cherai Beach with Karol and his friends.

Slightly stunned, I told them that while I was delighted with the rapid turn of events, I was concerned that I might be keeping them from their studies?

“Oh, don’t worry, there’s a strike at the college. There was an attempted murder there yesterday”. Gulp. “Oh yes, one of the BJP [Hindu Nationalists] student representatives tried to stab one of the SFI [Communist] reps in the neck with a sharpened screwdriver.”

Another gulp. I tentatively asked if they were involved in student politics. “Oh yes,” Karol responded cheerfully, “We have started our own party. Very important demands. We want that the college bus stops at the female college BEFORE they get here rather than after. This is very critical indeed – we need to meet girls!”

After a lengthy walk and plentiful conversation, I returned to Cochin for dinner, and an unexpected dip (fully-clothed) in the pool of the pricey Malabar House Hotel. (It’s a long story, not quite as loutish as it sounds, and not making it onto the blog).

I am now in the tea plantations of the Kanan Devan hills. Another amazing bus-ride to get here, and now traveling for a few days with the afore-mentioned Justin, who rode here on his Royal Enfield Bullet. We are staying with legendary Joseph Iype, made famous by Dervla Murphy’s book “On a shoestring to Coorg”.

Given the out-of-town location of Joseph’s home, moving anywhere involves riding pillion down potholed roads on Justin’s Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike. Which is just as fun as it sounds.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, South India

Power power everywhere. (But only sometimes).

The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy once commented on the bizarre sight of an Indian worker installing a fibre-optic super-fast broadband cable – by candlelight.

Power – or rather the lack of it – is a fact of life here.

In hotels, hot water is frequently only available between certain hours. In my current hotel, it’s 5am and 8am. At least that gets me out of bed in the morning (if the fan hasn’t stopped in the middle of the night first). Virtually every city has “scheduled” power cuts, even Bangalore’s Electronic City, where all the hi-tech firms have to cut across to alternative generators every day between 2pm and 5pm. And if the generators fail, you might be waiting a long time for that UK Directory Enquiry to be answered.

In restaurants, the lights go out every night on cue around 8pm, normally just as a piece of highly-spiced vegetable is perched precariously on your fork intent on increasing the laundry bill again. You get used to the familiar sound of someone scuttling across the restaurant floor at high speed heading for the alternative generator switch.

There are exceptions. Earlier this week I ended up in a smart cul-de-sac in Bangalore drinking Laphroiag at the house of the CEO of a software company I had arranged to visit. His house was next to many of Karnataka Province’s government ministers’ houses. No power problems there, funnily enough.

Everyone gets used to it, and as with most things in India, it’s just “the way it is”, another of the massive contradictions and contrasts here.

Driving on the road to the mirrored building and manicured lawns of Electronic City, the squalor, deprivation and makeshift housing on both sides of the road is hard to ignore. An elevated super-highway is being built, presumably to mask the sight and smell of the reality of the streets for well-dressed IT professionals on the 45 minute ride from the centre of town.

Probably the most memorable thing from my visit to Electronic City was the word “No”. The guards on the Tech Parks were determined not to let me in to any of the sites, demonstrating a paranoia worthy of the most self-obsessed security man in the UK. They were convinced I was a dodgy journalist.

In fact, I managed to get round this by visiting the Electronic City Association and getting an under-the-table referral to Jacob, the Facilities manager at one of the Tech Parks. Jacob gave me a tour, and I ended up with fantastic views across the area from one of it’s highest buildings, along with a potted history of this cultural phenomenon (interspersed with bizarre homilies to the American evangelist Billy Graham – Jacob was a 7th Day Adventist).

Along with tech parks in Hyderabad, Delhi, and increasingly Chennai, Bangalore is the engine of the service-driven Indian economy.

Electronic City’s emphatic “No” is in stark contrast to the general culture of “Yes” in India that I have so far experienced. Occasionally the continual Yes can be frustrating (especially when it masks a bare-faced lie in an effort to get some of your cash), but overall I know which I prefer.

Finally, thank goodness something positive has come out of the Mumbai terror. England ‘s cricket team is saved from further embarassment, in the One-Day series at least.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, South India

Not in Mumbai

Just a quick note to say I’m quite a distance away from Mumbai and heading South. I am obviously following developments after the tragic events yesterday. Cafe Leopold, one of the targets, is a cafe well known on the traveler circuit which I went to every day.

Given I was in an aeroplane from South America to London on Sept 11th 2001, and was in a tube on the way to Kings Cross on July 7th 2005, this is about as far away as I’ve been from a terror attack.

Pretty sure it will be connected to the elections that are going on over the next couple of months.

I was going to post on the power cuts here, but that can wait.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, South India