Napoleon said of the British that we were a nation of shopkeepers, well India beats us hands down.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the millions of small businesses is something to behold. From the neighbourhood Kirana which will home deliver your groceries and give you credit, to the myriad number of single product shops, stalls and carts which spill out onto any open piece of pavement Chennai has no shortage of shops. Leave a space and somebody will start to trade from it.
The debate is still ongoing as to whether India will ever open up to wholly multinational retailers (FDI). I’m not sure it will, but I’m pretty confident that even if it does, the small shops of India will survive as so much shopping is local. In fact it’s nigh on impossible for a large part of the population to travel to distant hypermarkets.
This is a difficult one for me to write as I’m fully aware of the risks of criticising India for not adhering to norms that we in the West see as commonsensical. However, it has to be said, India and in particular, Chennai has an issue with rubbish. It’s everywhere: on the beach, on every street, on any patch of unused ground, in the rivers.
I’m not alone in decrying this. The newspapers are full of stories every week about the issue. So why does it happen?
Firstly there is an issue with the privatisation of refuse collection in the city. As has happened in many cities in the UK, these services have been auctioned off to the lowest bidder and as often happens, these companies are better at getting the deal than doing the work. Indeed, the city corporation has started to “nationalise” the privatised services in many central parts of the city as the problem has got worse.
This doesn’t explain why there is so much random litter though. At this point I must admit a debt to an excellent book by Pavan K Varma called “Being Indian”
. A career diplomat and writer he has written extensively on the nature of the Indian psyche and India’s place in the world. It’s a challenging read for Indians in that it questions many of the cliché’s we in the West have of the Indian character. Indians themselves have come to accept many of them as well, so it’s not a pretty sight in the mirror. To Varma, Hinduism is the seedbed for their ability to ignore so much around them. Because Hinduism teaches that the individual life is merely part of a continuum and the present is a construct, it is less relevant for a Hindu to consider the environment they live in unless it is directly impacting their own lives. In fact it makes it very easy for them to ignore anything that is not of interest to them. It is quite easy for a Hindu to bathe in the waters at Varanasi, even though there is a strong risk of amoebic dysentery because the oblation is greater than the pollution. Hinduism is a very self centered religion (and I mean this in a non judgmental way) in that you can pretty much tailor it to suit your own needs.
I’ll return to this theme in later blogs, but Varma has some very interesting theories about the concept of the Indians being an especially spiritual people: he debunks it as a misreading of their nonchalance in the face of adversity and ability to adapt to any situation without it affecting their inner core.
All of this is of course, profoundly depressing as it suggests that India will not try to get to grips with its growing waste problem until it is literally overflowing into the houses of decision makers and the rich. I don’t think we can be far off that moment though as India faces a crisis of natural resources: it’s population is growing and it’s ground water reserves are depleting or being polluted. That effects everyone. India is a country almost impervious to government led action: everyone finds a way of working around laws to suit their own needs, so change really has to come from the individual being inconvenienced. In short, effluence will need to overwhelm affluence.
Had the opportunity to visit Hyderabad last week. It’s about 800km to the north west of Chennai, inland on a plateau in Andhra Pradesh state but in feel totally different from Chennai
For a start, it has a strong Muslim influence and as you’ll see from the picture above, there are definite elements of the souk about streetlife in the old city. In terms of geography it can be divided into three:
1. The original fortified city of Golconda, which sits on a large hill to the south west and which was occupied in prehistoric times. The fort itself dates from the 12th-16th centuries.
2. The “Old City” which stretches from Golconda to the east and flows along the banks of the Musi River and which grew up from the 17th century onwards
3. The newer developments to the north and around the Hussain Sagar Lake which include the Banjara Hills, most of which is 19th and 20th century
We had 5 days in Hyderababd, but I was working on 4 of them, so just the one day to explore. There’s a lot to see, but we managed to cram in 3 major sites, so here they are
1. Qutb Shah Tombs. These are the tombs of 7 of the kings plus numerous wives and associates spread over a pleasant park to the north of Golconda Fort
It’s a peaceful site and you can wander around without much attention from touts etc
2. The Golconda Fort is enormous and you need a couple of hours to explore it.
It’s a bracing climb to the top, but you have spectacular views of the city as well as some interesting temple and parliament buildings
3. Charminar. This monument in the centre of the old town is iconic though of unknown purpose
After a short cramped climb up the internal staircase you come out onto the platform at the top from where you can see the beautiful stonework
Again the views are stunning
Main differences with Chennai
1. It’s about 5 years ahead in terms of infrastructure
2. Hyderabad is at the crossroads of north and south in India and its Muslim heritage gives it a much more Arabic feel than Chennai with is still very southern
3. Despite the Muslim feel to Hyderabad, you realise how devout a city Chennai is: alcohol if more easily available, more people dress in a western style.
4. Hyderabad is proud of its heritage in a way that Chennai is conflicted about (see my previous posts about the decay of heritage buildings). This may be because Hyderabad has far less of a British influence. It retained a level of autonomy throughout the colonial era that Chennai did not and so its old buildings are very much part of that narrative, unlike Chennai where many of the old buildings were built by the British. However, it is also a cleaner city: there is far less evidence of the littering that is everywhere in Chennai. Men still openly urinate in the streets in both cities, but you are less likely to have to walk through it in Hyderabad.
5. Hills. I realised how much I miss them. The Banjara Hills feel like an Indian version of the Hollywood Hills, clearly nowhere near as wealthy, but the share the sprawling recent development over some pretty steep surfaces. Construction is evident as in Chennai, but the spaces being built on sometimes defy gravity.
6. Chennai is the frontier. Hyderabad is a much more planned and organised city: they have numerous decent roads which have a logic and pattern to them. Chennai is uncontrolled, chaotic and amoebic in a way that would imply complete collapse in Hyderabad. In Chennai, it’s a sign of its energy. I’m not sure it’s a good thing, but it feels closer to where India is going.
7. Food. I’m a fan of the food we find in Chennai. I enjoy Southern Indian cuisine and there is a great variety of SE Asian food to be tried. However, I’ve never had such great biryani’s as in Hyderabad; the home of this dish. Biryani is something of a nondesript dish in London, basically rice mixed with some vegetables and meat. A true Hyderabad Biryani has the meat marinated in spices overnight . It is then steamed over coals between layers of basmati rice and vegetables in a dough sealed container. The taste is richer and creamier as thee rice is infused with the juices from the meat and vegetables. 2 places I’d recommend are Cafe Bahar
which is a canteen style restaurant. Also, Serengeti in Ohri’s Hotel on Road #12 where we also stayed. It’s an improbably African Safari restaurant serving excellent North Indian fare.
I was unaware of the Amul Dairy brand when I came to India. My loss, then but a pleasant learning since.
Amul is probably the most successful example of a co-operative movement in the world. It was set up by key government advisors in 1946 to support milk farmers who were finding it difficult to get adequate remuneration for their products and to allow effective collection of small amounts of milk from each farmer. From its origins in Anand, Gujarat it has grown to become the most trusted brand in SE Asia and the largest producer of vegetarian cheese in the world.
What fascinated me was the use of the polka dot, “Utterly Butterly” girl character on the front of the packs. I started noticing cartoons with her in it and a punning slogan to link any event into the Amul butter brand. In today’s Times of India for instance, there is a cartoon celebrating the Spanish Football team under the headline La Roja jaaneman! which I believe roughly translates as the Spanish Sweethearts. Two little boys and the Amul girl are aboard a galleon in Spanish football outfits holding the Euro trophy. Underneath it reads Amul Spanish Buttermada. Apart from the unfortunate linkage of the Spanish team and the doomed Armada, you have in one cartoon the sum of the genius of the marketing strategy: puns that make you smile, topicality and cuteness.
The campaign itself was launched by the ASP Agency which won the advertising contract in 1966. It’s MD, Sylvester daCunha and Art Director, Eustace Fernandez decided to go for a light-hearted approach aimed at appealing to mothers and children. It is apparently recognised as the longest running ad campaign ever in the Guinness Book of Records and is a part of the fabric of everyday life for many people. What has been so appealing is how the ads took on social and cultural issues and provided a commentary on everyday news stories, always managing to bring them back to being positive endorsements of the Amul brand. They are particularly good at exploiting any new movie or pop phenomena on the day of the event. The skill of the artist, Bharat Dabholkar who has drawn the cartoons since the early eighties reminds me of the great Giles
If you’d like to see more Amul (and I recommend it), here’s a fascinating article which explores the brand history in more depth and features over 100 examples of the topical and witty brand cartoons that have been created to support the brand over the last 55 years
Amul also cannily show their best work on their own site here
I took this photo of a Corn on the Cob Vendor on Saturday night at Elliots Beach on my mobile.
It was a windy evening and the sparks created by the wheel that pumped air into the coals were being caught by the breeze and spun out like golden flax. Elliots Beach and Marina Beach are covered with vendors carts and stall selling hot corn, deep fried chili’s, sweet lime juice, chaat’s etc. and at night the glow of fires makes it look as if a a small army has camped out on the beach as the day turns to night and the winds whip up a cooling breeze.
I’ve never tried the food on the beach as the oil looks somewhat old, but I love to wander round watching everyone browsing and occasionally buying a deep fried treat. One of the fascinating things about India is that it is a street culture. Almost every activity takes place outdoors in the street: cleaning your teeth, ironing and of course conversation. It’s vibrancy is exhausting but addictive and if you want to see the “real India”, stand in the street for five minutes.