Sunday 30 September 2018

Mumbai stories 1 - The Koli of Worli Village

The Koli people are an ethnic group native to Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and a number of other Indian states. Perhaps the longest continuous inhabitants of Mumbai they were there when the city was a collection of islands but became increasingly marginalised during the colonial period and were pushed out of areas that became prime real estate.  There is a strong matriarchal dimension to Koli society. The women have traditionally been very powerful and hold a dominant position in domestic and business matters. Most Kolis are Hindus but in Mumbai a significant number are Catholics descended from people converted by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Historically the Kolis have dominated fishing,  the men going to sea and the women selling the catch.

Waiting for treats
This elegant Koli lady was sitting in the Main Street
I had two encounters with the Koli people during my recent stay in Mumbai, both organised through the No Foot Prints company. The first was at 5.30 a.m. at the Sassoon Docks where hundreds of Koli women come to select fish from the previous night's catch, to barter for it at a fast and furious auction and to take it away either for re-sale or in response to orders placed by regular customers. The Koli women are renowned for their honesty and if they feel the fish is not of an appropriate standard they will tell their customers that they cannot fill their order, preferring to offer an alternative catch. Early morning at Sassoon Docks is not for the feint hearted. It can be a real scrum but it is fascinating to see the fish being unloaded, passed from boat to boat and then to the dock without labelling or documentation, yet everyone knows who each catch belongs to. Do not go there expecting social interaction. The women are completely focused on getting the fish they came for, at the best price and then whisked away as soon as possible. This is how they earn their living and they have only a few hours in which to get this done.

My second meeting with the Koli people was very different. I spent a morning in Worli Village, home to a large Koli community and where I was made to feel very welcome. The village has a market selling fish (of course) and other foodstuffs, several small food and tea shops, general stores, temples, churches and almost everything needed for everyday life. Some of the children go to school outside but others are educated in the village. There is even a gym here - established by one of the local men in the long neglected fort, now tidied up and used as an important local facility.

Fish vendor, Worli market
Parvati sells vegetables in the market
Selling vegetables outside the house
The vendors who are almost entirely female prefer not to buy their fish from Sassoon as they say it is too far to go and instead rely on more local sources. Worli market is a world away from the business carried out at Sassoon Docks and the women were happy to stop, chat a little and even to be photographed. Whilst most of them sell fish and sea food there are a number of fruit and vegetable stalls right beside them. This is not normal practice in India as vegetarians would not normally buy their food from stalls that neighbour those selling meat or fish but for the Kolis fish is the staple diet and things are different here. Stalls are allocated by a market committee and are acquired on a rental basis. The market was relatively quiet when I visited with just a few shoppers and several cats waiting patiently to be offered treats from the women.

Say something in Hindi
Arun uses the gym recently established in the old fort
As I strolled along the main street several people called out hello, good morning and where are you from? - phrases that travellers hear a lot in India and which are indicative of the general friendliness of the people. When I stopped to buy chai at a teashop one of the younger members of staff exchanged a few words of English with me, asking about my work and family. One of his work mates called out to me to say something in Hindi. I have perhaps 20 words of Hindi that I can use confidently and know the meaning of but I wanted to do something more impressive. I decided to give them the words of one of my favourite vintage Bollywood songs. And to their surprise I said (not sang - a step too far even for me) Sar jo tera chakraye, ya dil dooba jaaye, aaja pyaare, paas hamare, kaahe ghabraye, kaahe ghabraye. Now I don't know the exact meaning of this wonderful tune from the film Pyaasa, performed by the inimitable Mohammed Rafi, but I know it's a song about head massage releaving all of one's troubles. For a few seconds there was a stunned silence, then mild applause and laughter and a request to hear it again. I duly complied and then moved on with an unwarranted sense of achievement.

A little further on Ram Shantaram was sitting on his front step, seemingly lost in thought. An elderly man, he wore a crisp cream-coloured shirt and had an interesting face, clearly a handsome man in his youth. I asked him for a picture. He agreed readily  and went on to say that his wife had died recently, that he was alone and that life was not good without company. Whilst he was speaking another elderly man came along, unsteady on his feet he joked that he is an engine that no longer works properly. So unsteady was he in fact that after holding on to my hand for a few minutes he was helped home by Adi, my guide who returned with chai for Mr. Shantaram and we stopped to chat a little more before moving on. I have become increasingly interested in older people in the last few years, perhaps because of growing older myself. I am frequently struck by the loneliness of some of these people, despite their being surrounded by strong communities. And yet other elderly people in the village seemed happy, content and confident like the two women pictured below who sat talking underneath their drying laundry.

Ram Shantaram
Five minutes rest
Some peace and quiet
Where has he gone now?
Of course there are also many young people in the village. Still on the main street I noticed a little boy and girl - sister and brother I presumed, standing beside each other on a step a few feet from their grandmother. Whilst she did not wish to have her picture taken she did not object to my photographing the children. By the time I turned back the boy had gone but the little girl remained standing there looking out as if to say where has he gone now. A bit like a mother looking for her children. Earlier, at the temple, I met a delightful family originally from Mumbai but now living in Ahmedabad. They had travelled all the way from their adopted home the night before, a train journey of about seven hours.,The came to visit the Koli temple and planned to return the same day. Seeing my camera, they asked me to take a group photo for them. I was happy to comply and have since sent it to Adi for forwarding via WhatsApp. I hope they like it.

The family and some more images from Worli Village.

All the way from Ahmedabad for the day

You can see more pictures of India here.

My visit to Worli Village was faciliated by No Foot Prints who offer a series of walks in Mumbai designed to show visitors the less well known side of the city.

Sunday 23 September 2018

Ahmedabad - "Those Gujaratis will steal your heart with their food and their friendliness"

I can't say I wasn't warned. Before I left Delhi for Ahmedabad I was told that "those Gujaratis will steal your heart with their food and their friendliness". Well the food was fabulous and the generosity of the people astonishing. I don't think I've ever been anywhere quite like it. I was given free food in markets, drank countless cups of chai for which payment was steadfastly refused and was invited into the homes of complete strangers who saw me admiring their houses.

Ahmedabad is also a perfect city for photography especially in the  bazaars where I loved the colours of the fresh fruit and vegetables, the smell of the spices and the relaxed, unhurried attitude of the stall holders. People smiled, said hello or good morning and in some cases begin to engage me in as much conversation as we could manage given my ten words of Hindi. Chai was sent for during several of these interactions. Numerous people told me they had friends or family who had lived, worked or studied in London and one man, on hearing where I was from shouted Dewesbury, have you been to it?.  I haven't but he has.

Textile merchant Dewesbury, have you been to it?
Vendor, fruit market
Vendor, vegetable market
The narrow streets of the old city also offer rich opportunities for photography with their havelis, some of them 200 years old. Many are in poor condition, but others have been well looked after or recently restored. As I walked through the streets, admiring the buildings, people would appear at their doors, greet me and on occasion invite me inside to look around and even to take pictures. They were curious about my interest in architecture and some were happy to share their stories. Pankaj is 72 although he looks much younger. He saw me admiring his beautiful double doors and insisted on opening and closing them in various combinations to allow me to take pictures. He told me he is a Bachelor of Arts, once worked for Tata and then ran a business selling towels and bedding. Some years ago he had to give up work to look after his mother. She has now passed away and although he has siblings he lives alone. But I am happy he said.

Pankaj is a Jain as is Suraja. A petite, most charming lady she was the wife of a High Court judge. Now a widow, all of her family are overseas and she is cared for by two young women. Sitting in her living room with the main door open she noticed me looking at the building and called for me to come inside and to admire the decorative details above the internal doors. A very elegant woman, she insisted on removing her spectacles before I photographed her. This tidying oneself up before a picture is something that many older people do when a portrait is requested.

Pankaj  I am happy
Much of life is lived in the street here. Having had a career that involved the promotion of reading and literacy, the sight of someone lost in a book is something that excites and attracts me. In one of the lanes I noticed an elderly woman sitting on the floor of her open fronted shop, Gujarati novel in hand, completely engrossed in what she was reading. I was able to get quite close to her without attracting attention but the sun was merciless on that day and it was hard to be sure that I had captured the moment. The result was not perfect but the picture below gives some idea of how reading can carry us away. There is a small bookshop not far from where I saw the reader. It was closed when I passed but there were piles of books outside. There was no obvious reason for this but it was good to know that once our friend has finished her book she won't have to go far to get another one.

The reader
New stock at the book shop
Relaxing on the platform
Usha waiting for her lift
Many houses in the old city have a raised platform on which domestic tasks or business can be carried out. I saw people using them as rest areas or in some cases as a place to wait for someone to come and meet them. Usha was waiting for her motorcycle lift. I was taken by the contrasting colours of her sari against the pale green peeling paint behind her. The girls in the white uniforms are waiting for their school bus. The older woman sitting behind them saw me with my camera and called me over to photograph the group. When I explained that I am from London she became very excited and told me that a family living in her building will be visiting there very soon. 

In the streets immediately beside the Swaminarayan Temple, there are several of these platforms, some of them rising to ten or more steps above the street. One particular platform runs the length of several houses. The range of activity being carried out there included an open air tailoring business, people hanging out their laundry, a dog resting and two street vendors sitting beneath the platform. Such colour and activity generated by a simple structure.

Waiting for the school bus
A busy morning in the old city
Those platforms are not the only outstanding architectural feature of the old city. There are some spectacular doors here too. Many of them are made from Burma teak which is resistant to termite infection and has enabled the doors to last for over a century. Ahmedabad doors are so admired that    owners are occasionally persuaded to sell them, sometimes for scandalously low amounts. One story has it that a homeowner in urgent need of cash let his doors go for just 20,000 rupees or just over £200. Surely the shipping would have cost many times more than this.

Ahmedabad's architectural heritage goes back several centuries and includes a number of stepwells, once numerous across India but now disappearing. Man made structures, they descend as many as nine levels into the earth to a pool of rain water once used for drinking, washing and other day to day items. Many of them had ingenious drainage systems allowing water used for one task to be re-used for agriculture and other purposes. As well as supplying precious water, the step wells are also a cool, shaded place providing respite from the blistering sunshine of a Gujarat summer. They are also works of art with ornate stone carvings in a range of styles due to different artists being used for each part of the structure.

The late 15th century Adalj Vav is the most well known of Ahmedabad's step wells but I also enjoyed visiting the Dada Hari Vav, built in 1500 adjacent to a mosque. Descending to the lower levels of the well, I noticed a series of red coloured hand prints printed on the walls. These are the marks of young women from the area, married into families in other cities who would leave their handprint here so that their parents could come and "visit" them whenever they wanted. The Dada Hair Vav had fallen into a shocking state, used as a rubbish dump and for illicit activity until Government intervened some years ago and ensured more appropriate care and management of this important monument.

Doors to the Mehta Haveli
Entrance to a Jain temple
Dada Hari Vav
Ahmedabad is also home to some of India's most iconic 20th century architecture. The streets around Relief Road contain many fine examples of Art Deco from the 1930's and beyond. The style seems to have lasted longer here than in many other places. Many of the buildings carry their date of construction with several not being completed until the 1950's. Sadly most of them are in very poor condition whilst others have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. I have been unable to find details of the architect for most of them and it seems that much of this important built heritage may be undocumented.

On a brighter note, the works of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn have been accorded more respect and have been maintained at least reasonably well. Some of these buildings are difficult or even impossible to visit, especially the private homes. However, it is possible, by prior arrangement, to visit Kahn's magnificent Indian Institute of Management, completed in 1962. The highlight is Louis Kahn Plaza around which the library, classrooms and faculty offices are arranged. The spectacular red structure manages to combine modernity with references to the city's past, with its arches, columns and approach to providing light and shade.

It is also possible to visit Ahmedabad's Magen Abraham synagogue. Built in 1934, it was designed entirely in the Art Deco style and is the work of  Daniel Samson and Ellis Abraham Binjekar. The pink exterior has several classic deco motifs as does the interior, including sunbursts, ziggurats and speed lines.
Indian Institute of Management
Magen Avraham Synagogue
Art Deco building, Relief Road
Yusuf Patel, the New Irani Restaurant
Much as I love strolling in a city, I won't be happy unless I can find a cafe in which to retreat for a while. Thankfully the coffee chains do not seem to have arrived here. Instead there are numerous places that at first glance may seem run down, but don't be fooled, they are full of character and characters and offer good food at low prices. Yusuf Patel's family came to the city in the 1930's and in 1941 his grandfather established the New Irani Restaurant. Yusuf is the third generation to manage the business. Originally only chai was served but now snacks and meals can be had too. The building is partially open to the elements and in need of a lick of paint, but it is also atmospheric and very popular. Mr.Patel was keen to know what I thought of the chai. It was delicious. He happily posed for a picture but not before removing his glasses and straightening his clothing just as our friend Sara had done earlier.

The Chandravilas restaurant opened 120 years ago. It is famous for its thali but more so for its jelabis, freshly prepared near the entrance in full view of the street and the waiting customers. The sweet smell is irresistible and I succumbed to a small plate of them together with the obligatory cup of masala chai. Famous customers have included Mahatma Gandhi and Bollywood icon Raj Kapoor.

Preparing the jelabis, Chandravillas Restaurant
I cannot end this post without mentioning someone I met during my stay. Ramesh is a shoe shine. He works outside the Lucky Restaurant, sometimes alone and sometimes with his brother. Ahmedabad's streets are very dusty and I was happy to use his service more than once during my short stay. For a mere 20 rupees, my shoes were made to look like new. Not only that, he provides slippers for customers to wear whilst their shoes are cleaned which means you can nip into Lucky for a quick cup of chai whilst you wait. That's what I call customer service. Thank you Ramesh.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I was warned about the Gujaratis. They are indeed friendly people and their food is delicious. Ahmedabad suits me. I love its architecture, bazaars, chai stalls, cafes and most of all it's people. I have also been told that in India I must expect the unexpected. This must account for the girl who I saw tightrope walking at the side of road. Not only was she balancing on a rope, she was also carrying a series of vases on her head. I will sign off with her and with Gaurav, a stall holder in a small bazaar just outside the city and possibly possessor of the best smile in Gujarat.

Expect the unexpected
Gaurav, the best smile in Gujarat
You might also like Scenes From The City Of Joy - 2, "Pay Me In Dollars, I Want To Buy A House"
You can see more pictures of India here.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

I Have Food, Water and Clean Clothes What Else Do I Need - Muna of Delhi

To be Hijra is to be neither male nor female but to possess elements of both. In India Hijras are recognised in law as a third gender and may adopt what is widely held to be female dress and behaviour. They have traditionally earned a living by collecting alms and by giving blessings and performances at weddings, births and festivals. Drawn from all religious groups, their devotion to Bahuchara Mata, a mother goddess comes before observation of any other faith they might follow. India's Hijra community has a recorded history of over 4,000 years.They are mentioned in ancient literature including the Ramayana and other important texts.  During the Mughal period some of them held high positions in the court and would be called upon for advice on religious matters or to give blessings during important ceremonies.

Muna is 70 years old and Hijra. She was born into a respectable Syed Muslim family, close to the Jama Mosque in Delhi.  Feeling different from an early age, she chose to leave the family and to live separately. Last week, together with my guide/ interpreter I had the privilege of spending an hour with her and hearing her story. For the first few minutes she was a little cold, sitting on the floor outside her home, rinsing out clothes and looking away from us as she spoke. As time went on she became more comfortable, spoke more freely and looked us in the eye. 

Muna is a guru and highly respected in the Hijra community. In the past she had students who would accompany her about the city, learn from her and eventually become gurus themselves, operating in different parts of Delhi. The former students still visit from time to time but do not provide any material support. She seems a solitary figure and when asked about family says that she has only superficial contact with them but wants nothing more. Due to her age she is eligible to receive a small amount of financial support from the government but has yet to do so. Despite this she describes herself as rich "I have water, food and clean clothes. What else do I need?".

This simple yet wise approach to life was displayed when during the course of the discussion we sent a small boy to bring tea from the chaiwallah. My guide asked him to bring 4 teas, one for each of us and another for the rickshaw wallah who had brought us to the meeting. Muna objected saying that we only needed 2 teas and 4 cups. She maintained that 4 teas is extravagant and chided us that we would not be able to look after our families if we "waste money on tea".

Muna is critical of what she describes as "fake Hijeras" involved in drugs, prostitution or crime. She says that they fear her when she walks in the red light areas and come to touch her feet and to give her respect and because of this she does not make trouble for them. Many of them come to her for blessings at festival times and on other important occasions. Respect is something that Muna talks about a lot. Although born a Muslim she respects all religions, is happy to give blessings to people of all faiths and will eat the food of any religious group if called upon to attend a wedding or some other ceremony. The only exception she makes is that she will not eat at the home of a family that consumes pork. Religion remains important to Muna but her devotion to Bahuchara Mata is of the greatest importance.

Towards the end of our time together she explained the reason for her initial disinterest. She is suspicious of outsiders many of whom come to her in order to make money and write or say disrespectful things about her. Some have promised help to complete an application in order to receive señor citizen's allowance but that help has not materialised.

As we stood to leave, Muna got up to give us a blessing, placing water on our foreheads and asking that we be safe and protected. I am not someone who could be described as spiritual but I felt a certain calmness from her, despite, or perhaps because of her direct way of speaking. Although there has been legislation to recognise the Hijras, abuse and discrimination is still widespread. It easy to change the law but not so easy to change attitudes and beliefs. I understood her preoccupation with respect.

Several writers say that the word "Hijra" has an Arabic source and means leave or migrate and interpret the word as being one who has left their tribe. Although Muna left her family and community many years ago she still lives close to the Jama mosque, part of a different tribe but not so very far from her previous one. I hope to meet her again.

Friday 14 September 2018

The Labourers of Old Delhi

Delhi is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of more than 24 million. A city of two parts, New Delhi boast spacious tree lined boulevards and some grandiose buildings whilst the old city has narrow streets clogged with traffic and teeming with people. Whilst New Delhi is impressive and represents modern India it is the old city that has my heart.

Lost in thought, a carpenter waiting for work
Regular readers will know of my fondness for architecture, art and fine cafes but they will also know that for me the thing that makes a city is its people and the stories that they have to tell. Amongst the millions of people in the old city's streets there are many working men - porters, rickshaw drivers, shoeshine men and day labourers including plumbers, carpenters and men who are willing and able to do "odd jobs" and are employed directly from the street.

In the early part of the day groups of porters and rickshaw drivers stand or sit in groups, waiting for the calls to come from Delhi's various bazaars and once they begin they will go on throughout the day and into the evening. But that first part of the day offers the chance for camaraderie, talking to friends, playing cards or sitting in quiet reflection waiting for the working day to commence. These men know that there will be work each day but the more casual day labourers have no guarantee of work - ever. They gather at various points in the old city, lay out the tools of their trade on the ground in front of them and wait to be chosen.

Waiting for work in Old Delhi
Shakeel (in shorts) and some of his rickshaw drivers
Friends, two porters from Rizwan's team
Over the last few days in Delhi I have been able to speak to several of these men and to learn a little about their lives. Many of them are not Delhiwales (natives of Delhi) but have come to the city from Lucknow, Bihar and elsewhere in order to earn a living. They have been easy to talk to and happy to tell me about their work. Nazim in his thirties is a porter and a Lakhnavi (native of Lucknow). He told me that he weighs 47 kilos but can carry 55 on his head. He said that porters can earn good money - several thousand rupees a week making them the aristocracy of Delhi's manual labourers, but the work is hard and tiring. Nizam is part of a group led by a Rizwan, a fellow Lakhnavi. They share living quarters, cook together and some have members of their family living in the city, others are alone. Just across the road from Rizwan's crew there is a group of rickshaw drivers under the captaincy of Shakeel, also form Lucknow and they share similar stories.

Rizwan (in the pale blue shirt) and some of his group
Rambaksh, shoeshine
Salim 35 is a rickshaw driver - not of the hand pulled variety found in Kolkata but a cycle rickshaw. He rents his vehicle for 50 rupees a day and on a good day can make up to 1,000 falling to 500-600 when there is less business, particularly when there are fewer tourists. He likes the work describing himself as his own boss despite having to work from 8am to 8pm seven days a week. I asked him about the customers and he said that they are mostly fine, the exception being some local women who bargain very hard about the fare!

Shafiq and Mustafa are two young men who practice the trade of the khan bharia. They are ear cleaners and tour the streets of the old city advertising their trade through their distinctive headgear in  which long pins, the tools of their trade are held. I met them standing outside a barber shop offering their services to customers stopping for a haircut or a shave. When I asked to photograph them Shafiq was keen, Mustafa less so until he saw his friend's picture and then changed his mind.

Rambaksh is a shoeshine as was his father, Aged 60, he was born just outside Delhi. He has been doing this work for 40 years and sits under a picture of the deity who is the patron of shoeshines. I used his service and can confirm that he is both very good at his job and charges a fair price.

Salim, cycle-rickshaw driver
Shafiq, Khan Bharia
Mustafa, Khan Bharia
One of the privileges of meeting these men was being able to see them during their quiet moments, not hurrying through the streets with heavy loads on their heads or driving their rickshaw. Many of them sit smoking beedis the local roll-ups, interact with their friends or sit quietly, lost in thought. The picture of the man smoking at the top of this post is one such moment, his face covered in the mist of exhaled smoke, perhaps wondering how long he will wait for his next job or thinking about his family elsewhere. Perhaps my favourite picture is that of the man taking a break, shoes discarded, cup of tea in hand and the already smoked cigarette thrown to the ground. His friend, pictured in the white vest against a blue background sat with an half-smoked unlit cigarette in his mouth, about to relight it or say it for later.

Before leaving Delhi I had some of these pictures printed and did my best to find the men again and to give them a copy. All were surprised and all seemed pleased but perhaps the happiest of all was Mister Khan, a painter and decorator. I had photographed him sitting on a motorbike waiting for work and sure enough he was in the same spot when I went back to find him earlier today. He will have something to share with his family tonight.

Shoes off and a cup of tea
About to relight
Mr Khan, painter and decorator