EARLY MORNING IN BANGALORE
In 1987 I visited India on an educational tour run by a major third world charity for which I worked. The object was so that we could see for ourselves how money raised in the United Kingdom was being used and to be in a position on our return to assure supporters about the effectiveness of that work. After returning from the trip I wrote a short report for circulation among the volunteers who helped the Charity. The following is based on that report.
This article is totally non gay related. It does however perhaps illustrate for the benefit of the homophobic, that gay men do have lives beyond their dick. I also have a feeling that because of their relative freedom of action compared with straight men, a larger percentage of them could be involved in helping less fortunate people in the world. I have no proof that this is the case, only a gut feeling.
We flew with Air India to Bombay direct from Heathrow. The flight was uneventful except for the film which started halfway through ran to the end and then started again at the beginning. This was a very good introduction to Indian attitudes as none of the passengers a high proportion of whom were of Indian origin, seemed the least bit bothered.
Approaching Bombay by air at night is not very exciting. First a few lights appear in the ocean beneath the plane, small fishing boats perhaps, then a few navigation lights and finally the lights of the city as the plane crosses the coast and makes a smooth landing at Bombay Airport.
At first it seems like any other International airport apart from a lift attendant who tries to con us into paying a fee for using the lift, but then we go out of the air conditioned buildings into the open air and the heat hits us, We still have on our woollies and jackets which protected us on a chilly November day back in London. In seconds we are dripping sweat and undressing in the road.. We also have to cope with young men offering to carry our bags, get us a taxi or take us to a nice hotel.
It wasn’t hotel we needed, but a taxi to get us to the Domestic air terminal some 3 kilometres on the other side of the runways. We did finally manage to work out the system for ordering a taxi which would not rip us off and ended up in two cars bound for the second terminal.
In that short journey, we saw scenes we had never seem before. Although it was two o/clock in the morning, there were plenty of people around. There were people cooking under the flyovers leaving the airport, people asleep by the side of the road, people, people, people. All the roads around the airport were lined with poorly built huts, makeshift in construction and lit by open fires, candles or kerosene lamps.
We made it to the domestic terminal after a hectic ride at top speed through this Dickensian world and then as the doors of the domestic terminal closed, like the curtains at the end of a nightmare play, we were back in a relatively sane world. For those of us who had never been to a country like India before, the short experience had certainly been the culture shock we had been warned to expect.
We had a few hours wait for the internal flight to Bangalore and the facilities were fairly basic and the seats hard. Around us sat rather chunky, well fed members of the Indian middle classes who presented a real contrast to the masses of humanity crowded outside the airport.
The Airbus flight to Bangalore took just over an hour. We flew over the coast past Goa, turned inland over the mountains then over the plains to land in Bangalore. At the airport our baggage was lying in the open air on tressle tables and after we had picked up our bags we were surrounded by people offering taxis, hotels and god knows what else.
Suddenly through the throng we saw a group of people holding up a card with the name of the charity on and we fought our way towards them. They had a battered old Land Rover waiting and with nine people on board plus luggage, we took off for our hotel where we would be staying for a couple of nights.
The hotel rooms were quite large and at one time had probably been modern but now they were looking a little threadbare. A large cockroach scuttled away as I lifted the seat in the toilet. The windows were barred like a prison and the view consisted of a jumble of buildings assembled it seemed with no knowledge of design or even simple common sense. Large black birds hovered on the roof of these buildings occasionally swooping down at they spotted a morsel of food. Having always found Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘The Birds’ quite frightening, these birds looks equally dangerous.
Bangalore is known as the Garden City and with a population of around four million is one of the fastest growing in India. (Today in 1999 it is Silicon City, home of India’s booming Hi Tech industries.) Much of the British layout of the core of the city remains, including the statue of Queen Victoria, the military barracks, the museum and Magistrates court. In the early morning gangs of women sweep the streets and in the evening, families stroll along some of it’s wide boulevards bathed in the slowly fading pink light which gives the city the look of an old, faded, colour film.
Between these two periods of relative calm, the city gradually becomes more and more active with people, cycles, autorickshaws, strange double decker buses some looking like converted trucks, overloaded trucks and the omnipresent Indian car, the Ambassador. Based on a 1950’s British design and actually looking like a cousin of the London black cab, we were to get to know these cars very well over the next three weeks as they carried us to remote parts of Southern Indian ordinary vehicles could never reach.
I had a chance to wander around Bangalore on my own and found that I felt safe and comfortable and even dropped into a restaurant and had a beer and a small meal. Although an object of some curiosity by locals, I wasn’t pestered by anyone and I began to adapt to my new surroundings. This ability to adapt quickly to almost any circumstances is probably the secret of the success human beings have had in conquering the world.
After a couple of days to adapt, we took off as a group in the Land Rover bound for Mysore, Ooty and the Nilgiri Hills. Our first stop was Mysore where we took tea in what had once been a Maharaja’s Palace. After a morning’s sight seeing we arrived at the town of Kushalnagar where we were to visit the first of many projects supported by the Charity. This project had started in 1980 after an attempt by the Chief Minister of Kamataha State to evict the villagers from five villages to make way for a tourist area and a cement works. Only India could consider combining two such different projects on the same site !. This attempt was defeated. We visited the villages and heard from the people themselves how they were now much more confident after the help they had received and how they now felt able to stand up to officials.
The project had spread to 30 villages and includes leadership programmes, seed banks, schemes to end reliance on money lenders and education for children.
We moved on the village of Bandipur where two young men were working with tribal people who had been evicted from their forests when a National park was set up in 1973 to protect Tigers.. Their peaceful life as hunters and food gatherers came to an end and now they work, when they work at all, as coolies for the Forestry department or local landlords. Ten years of harassment has left a once proud people demoralised, living on small, poor bits of land often reduced to begging from those very tourists for whom the tigers had been preserved.
WITH A GROUP OF TRIBAL PEOPLE.
We visited one village where the charity had helped finance a small project to produce incense sticks. A sangha had also been set up to take up individual cases of harassment and the negotiate for better wages for labouring work. Poor health was a problem and there was the start of a small health program. There was a long way to go and a lot of work to be done but the project workers were enthusiastic and sure that they could achieve a better life for the people they were working with.
We left the plains and climbed up into the Nilgiri hills travelling along winding roads until we reach Kotagiri to meet a remarkable woman, Victoria Armstrong, an English woman working with an organisation dedicated to helping tribal people in the region (Note Miss Armstrong died a couple of years ago. There is a tribute to her on the website ‘ http://www.west-london.freeserve.co.uk/index-page43.html ’ )
This project began in 1942 and Miss Armstrong joined in 1958. We first visited a creche, one of ten, where children under five were being given a basic nursery education and meals. The creche was attached to a village dispensing and health centre, one of several out of which travelling health visitors work visiting homes and giving instruction in simple preventative medicine and diet.
In the same village was school and on the day we visited a presentation was being made to two young children who had won prizes in an Art competition organised world wide by an American organisation. This was part of a sponsorship scheme which has benefited 600 families and so far over 100 tribal children have gone on to High school and some to University and College.
Many of the children walk miles through the forest every day to attend the school. They sat on the ground in their Persil white shirts and blouses, neat short trousers or skirts, their faces shining with enthusiasm. These kids were being given a chance and in the faces of their parents who sat around the edges of the group you could see the hope that they would at least have the tools of literacy and numeracy that could help lift them from the traditional backbreaking life of the forest.
In the same village of Kolikarai, there is a small hospital. In the West we might not have recognised it as such. It was founded in 1959 and from the outside is fairly primitive. Even inside it is small and over crowded with TB patients. It does however boast a fairly modern operating theatre and a rather old but functioning X Ray machine. One patient was young girl bitten by a snake on her walk through the forest to get to school. After six months she was still in a bad way and at risk of losing her foot. She was at least receiving medical treatment from qualified medical staff.
Through out the trip it was encouraging to meet well qualified young Indian people, male and female, who had chosen to work with people less fortunate than themselves and doing so from personal convictions not from religious or doctrinaire political reasons. One young woman working with the Tribal people, had been cut off by her rich family in the city who expected her to marry well and bring even more money to their family. They totally failed to understand why she should have chosen to work with people they saw as disposable.
Close to the village we visited a farm where the families of 25 former bonded labourers were being assisted in setting up a farm. Practical help was being provided in the form of seeds and fertilisers plus help in keeping a small tractor running.
From Kotagiri we stayed overnight in Ooty, snooty Ooty as it was once called when it was a favourite hill station of the British who sought the cool air as a respite from the heart of the plains. It still has a look of the home counties but overlaid with a veneer of India. The journey there was along winding roads and our local driver rushed along like a madman and we were sure we would plunge off the road at every bend. As we climbed higher and higher it became chilly and there was a thick mist which made the journey even more hazardous.
After an overnight stay in a rather run down hotel, we moved on to the Kolar district and another project which helped some 1800 children through nursery school education, a feeding programme, creches and a programme of building self help community groups. Emphasis was place on women taking their place alongside the men in developing all these initiatives.
In one village we saw silk worms being harvested and had a long discussion with the leaders of the groups especially about how relatively small amounts of money spent wisely, especially on such things as de silting the ‘tanks’ or village water reservoirs could produce huge benefits. A tree planting scheme was also very impressive and great care was being exercised to ensure that the most useful species of trees were being used, trees which would produce a ‘crop’ which could be harvested and used rather that just being a source of firewood.
We returned to Bangalore and a couple of days break before visiting a project training development workers. These workers would go back into the villages and pass on the knowledge they had gained to strengthen the ability of tribal and low caste people to improve their lives. We also visited a small organisation teaching women from the slums handicraft skills and then to an academy for the blind.
This was established in 1969 and houses 165 blind children mostly from the rural villages. In the academy they are educated and learn their local language, English, Hindi, geography, maths, Braille reading, writing and music. They have physical education classes, swimming, health instructionand gardening lesson. Thanks also to a bus donated by the British charity, they make visits to the city to learn how to deal with the outside world they will one day have to live in.
THE BANGALORE BUS
The children are also taught practical skills which will help them earn a living such as dairy work and operating a range of machines. After leaving the academy the children are helped into jobs or careers and their progress followed. This visit was on of the most moving of the trip. The children are paired up so that they can help each other and they were so proud of all their achievements.
One boy was working with the cows. Although blind, he knew every cow by name, was recording their milk output every day and when asked if he wanted to work with cows when he grew up replied, “No. I want my own dairy !”
The type of projects we were visiting were far removed from the image charities working in the third world have of feeding starving people. All the projects were aimed at giving people the tools and skills they need to survive in a harsh world. Even more than handing out food, such work helps ensure their survival.
We moved on to Trichy and a project helping refugees from Sri Lanka. Often they are dumped by the truckload in the country side on arid land which they have no idea how to make productive.. They need help in arid land farming techniques and basic relief such as clothing, cooking utensils, temporary shelter and medicine. We saw tiles and bricks being made which were then used to build simple homes.
Another group nearby was helping gypsies, nomadic people whose traditional life had been restricted by poaching laws and deforestation. One group we visited had given up a nomadic life and were trying to settle into a village they had built for themselves on arid land donated by the government. They were a lovely group, very different from the local Tamil people. They danced and sang and were very extrovert in their behaviour. They still make traditional beadwork but are also developing basic agricultural skills, something they have never done in the past. They were also being helped with small loans because no bank would deal with them. This was one of the most unusual group of people we met on the tour, lively, independent and determined to survive.
We moved on to Natrapalya and a project started in 1977. The range of the project was wide and included the building of check dams designed to force surface water underground where it could then be used for irrigation, and education and health programme for homeless and landless families. One group of haryjan people had been supplied with a loan to buy musical instruments. They were then able to play at weddings and earn enough money both to feed their families and pay back the small loan. An unusual aspect of how aid money can be used.
We also visited a project in Madurai set up to help the poorest people claim legal title to land and fishing rights and stopping harassment by officials. So called bare foot lawyers were also being trained to go out into the villages helping to put legal wrongs to rights. Law students were also being given training in how the poor need access to the legal process.
Travelling again we reached a project set up again to help Sri Lankan refugees and which also included a scheme to house widows and unwanted orphans bringing them together in a small community which benefited both groups of neglected people. Besides housing a small project weaving textiles and a dairy farming project were generating income. Medical treatment was also provided but we did see a young child whose skull had lock up stopping his brain growing and who we were told would die within a year. In the west his condition would have been treatable.
THE HOUSING PROJECT.
We saw a huge well being dug from solid rock, the small wages for the workers being paid by the UK charity. Despite all the work being done a 10 year old boy had died of typhoid just before we arrived and a young baby had been found abandoned in the nearby woods. The baby was saved and fostered by one of the widows but for the boy his short life had gone, wasted by poverty.
Our last visit was to a snake farm near Madras where an American expat was milking poisonous snakes to use their venom to produce anti snake bite drugs. The local people are now forbidden to kill the snakes whose skins they used to sell to traders so they use their skills to continue catching them and then delivering them to the project. The ‘milked’ snakes are released back into the wild. He is also working on a rat catching scheme which helped local farmers get rid of a pest which destroyed their crops and which could also provide a source of protein in animal feeds.
Exhausted by three weeks travelling by Land Rover and Ambassador cars, and sleeping in quite primitive conditions we flew from Madras to Hydrabad. There we had a short break in reasonable hotel, although it did have a ‘porno’ channel on the TV’s in each room, a meal in a very posh Chinese restaurant and then a flight to Bombay and a transfer to our flight back to London. For some reason this took not a direct route but went via Delhi and Dubai and was long and very tiring.
After arriving back in England, and after a few days rest it was back to work. I found that the journey had helped me in my work for the charity and I stayed with them for a further eight years. The contribution such charities make on the problems of countries such as India is very small but for the individuals concerned it can change lives. I will be travelling back to India under my own steam shortly and hope to visit some of the places mentioned in this report. I am told that in the last ten years India has changed very rapidly. I will be interested to see if life has changed not only for the middle classes and better off but also for those struggling in the villages.
Note. My ticket is booked for a trip later this year (1999) first stop Madras, then Mysore, Bangalore then to Bombay. I am travelling with a friend who although Indian, was born in Africa and has only once been to India as a small child for a few weeks and remembers little of it. (Article)