Freelance Nomad

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Roopali Hotel. A 'hotel' in the Indian sense meaning an inexpensive food joint rather than a place to stay, it's a Pune institution, along with sister restaurant Vaishali, just up the street.

It's on Fergusson College Road, opposite the University of Pune's Ranade Institute, noted seat of learning and where I had the pleasure of studying for a year. For my circle of journalist friends, Roopali is our 'adda'. I guess the closest English translation would be 'hangout.' Event though our student days are sadly behind us, we still meet there regularly. In true student fashion, we can easily spend a couple of hours chatting about everything and nothing over a couple of cups of chai or coffee, shared 'two by two', much to the annoyance of the management.

The waiters - who we either know by name or nickname depending on how friendly they are - are fine gentlemen, looking pretty sharp in their white uniforms. They can easily discern between the proper customers – who eat proper meals then leave – and jokers like us, doing ‘timepass’ (my favourite Indian English expression). But then we are regulars, with our preferred tables and favourite orders.

Everyone thinks I always order the 'Special Tomato Uttapa'. This is not true, but it probably is probably my favourite item on the menu. Rather than dip mouthfuls of uttapa into the side bowls of coconut chutney (very tasty) or sambar (uh... a kind of mildly spiced watery tomatoey dip... more appetising then my description makes it sound), I tend to slather everything over my plate and mix it all up. This horrifies everyone, although usually I can get away with playing the eccentric foreigner card. I believe that in the same way that the English invented cricket and football (and rugby, and let's claim baseball, basketball, kabbadi and cross-country skiing whilst we're about it) yet other nations teach us rather brutal lessons in how to play them, so India invented the dosa and the uttapa and I alone know how to appreciate them properly.

I almost always have a fresh lime soda at Roopali. A healthy and inexpensive option. Now while James Bond may like his vodka martinis shaken not stirred, I like my lime sodas “No sugar, no salt. Plain.” The waiters all know this but they still ask me every time. It's their little joke.

Now despite my fondness for Indian cuisine, Bollywood movies, Hindi music and Kingfisher lager, I'm still very much the Englishman abroad. Perhaps not quite the white-suited Man From Del Monte, but I have been known to stroll around in the mid-day sun ready with a newspaper tucked under my arm, casually waving cheery hellos to all and sundry. I'm not tanning much either. The other day I was described - by a fellow Brit! - as looking like a 'frozen milk bottle', a harsh if not inaccurate description. And I still speak better Geordie than Hindi, alas.

Speaking of which, in Newcastle's Bigg Market, there’s a great Indian restaurant called Rupali. The manager is a real character, going by the magnificent name of Lord of Harpole; I suspect he purchased the title many years ago from one of those outfits that advertise in the back of Private Eye. His restaurant is home of the infamous ‘Curry Hell Challenge’. Basically, if you can finish what is alleged to be the world's hottest curry, you get your meal for free. It's a wonder Lord Harpole hasn't been prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws. I remember Matt giving it a crack several years ago and ending up with chemical poisoning. Beware.
Christmas Caption Competition

OK - this picture is from last year. But since we have the technology, let's use it. Send in your best photo captions and I'll publish them here. Winner gets a mystery prize... And yes, that is a red saree I'm wearing (albeit unconventionally). Manda seems unimpressed.

Merry Christmas everyone.
Some Indian English

Indian English is here to stay. Rather than just a load of tired linguistic clichés featured in old Two Ronnies sketches and episodes of Mind Your Language, it’s a pukka variant of English, conforming to developed grammatical rules, and is – I would argue – as valid as any other form of the language.

And it’s interesting to see how it works. I suppose Indian English has branched off from 1940s colonial British English, with constant modern inputs from all over the English-speaking world, particularly the USA.

Back in August I found myself giving a talk on British English to the Pune chapter of the Society of Technical Communicators (India). I talked a little bit about regional accents and dialects, but also used examples of American English and Indian English for comparison.

Indian English (not to be confused with Hinglish, which is something else) has many interesting characteristics. Rather than get into a detailed examination of the linguistic complexities – for which I am wildly unqualified – I’ll list a few words and expressions:

Airdash – to fly somewhere urgently, usually in the midst of a crisis
Batchmate – classmate
Eve-teasing – innocent sounding euphemism for sexual harassment
Funda – concept, belief. “He’s got some weird fundas. Like, he wears only purple on Wednesdays.”
Gift – used as a verb; “She gifted me that book for my birthday.”
Godown – warehouse, storage unit or lockup
Item number – song and dance routine in Indian film totally irrelevant to the plot but featuring scantily clad hottie writhing around a lot
Mild lathi charge – when the police decide to go whack people with their big cane sticks
Mishap – horrific accident. “In an unfortunate mishap 49 persons were killed when the bus in which they were travelling plunged headlong off the edge of a 300-foot cliff.”
Pain – used as a verb; “My leg is paining.”
Pass out – to graduate (universal; not used only in the military sense)
Votebank – politicians attempt to cultivate votebanks who they hope will vote for them en masse. These votebanks are often based on caste or religion; really, this is a cynical and divisive approach that fuels social and communal tension. If you ask me.
Timepass – obviously, passing time, but also an activity in itself. Sometimes even a description: “Dhoom 2? It’s a timepass movie.”
VIP – basically any mate of a politician who can blag favours and get free tickets for cricket matches
VVIP – a politician in office. They get to travel round in escorted convoys (if they’re not busy airdashing) and all traffic is halted to allow them through on their way to some jolly or other. They lose touch with reality and tend to believe that they really are the anointed masters of the people, rather than their elected servants. So there.

“The minister airdashed to the godown, scene of the alleged eve-teasing. Police resorted to a mild lathi charge to disperse a crowd of college batchmates, who had gathered for timepass.”

You get the idea.

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day: wear your ribbons

Today - 1 December - is World AIDS Day. Given all the work going on with DISHA and Wake Up Pune, that's a big deal.

This time last year DISHA organised an event called 'Celebration of Life'. It was about bringing together the local community to be positive about HIV/AIDS, to remember that HIV is not the end, and that people living with HIV should be treated with dignity and respect rather than stigma and discrimination. In the morning we had a rally around the area, with local schools and community groups joining in. Then in the evening, there was a stage show - with plenty of laser lights and dry ice for added atmosphere - featuring dances, songs, street plays, positive speakers and all that jazz. It was fabulous. More than 3000 members of the Tadiwala Road community attended. Not that they could really stay away, since it was held slap bang in the middle of the slum.

This year - tied in with of Wake Up Pune - we'd lined up Celebration of Life 2006, even bigger and better than last year. Unfortunately, the event has been postponed. The cause: violent unrest in Maharashtra.

A couple of days ago, a statue of Dr B R Ambedkar was vandalised in Kanpur, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Dr Ambedkar was a major figure in the Indian freedom struggle, a brilliant mind (he framed the Indian constitution and served as independent India's first Law Minister) and a hero to the Dalits - the so-called 'untouchables', of whom he was one. Dr Ambedkar was a champion of the oppressed, and in many hutments in Tadiwala Road you'll see a picture of him on the wall.

As a reaction to the vandalism, there have been violent protests all over Maharashtra. Pune is no exception. "Normal life was thrown out of gear as Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal transport buses went off the roads for a major part of the day. Angry mobs continued to damage buses, cars, other private vehicles and shops." (Maharashtra Herald, 1 December)

I don't think Dr Ambedkar believed in this kind of violence. But tensions run high, and at the moment there are a lot of 'offended sentiments'. I don't know whether this bloody unrest is solely a reaction to the original vandalism, or is in fact a symptom of the wider issues of marginalisation and alienation in the community. Perhaps people just enjoy a good riot.

Anyway, for the time being, the Celebration of Life is off. It's important to be sensitive to the local population - as Hans puts it, any kind of 'celebration' would be inappropriate at this time. As for the rally, people might get confused what it was about. I saw a rally going round Tadiwala Road yesterday evening and they definitely weren't celebrating anything.

Things seem better today though: some of the local shops have raised their shutters, and rickshaws are plying the roads again. Usually, these things blow over in a few days.

How blasé we can become.

Folks: please wear your ribbons for World AIDS Day and show your support for the cause.