Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Absolutely bilkul: A year in India: Mussoorie, Modernisation and Movember


Absolutely bilkul: A year in India

Howdidy Doodily folks! Apologies for the radio silence on this blog for a while, it was a crazy last few weeks of semester, but now school is out things have calmed down a lot.

It’s lovely being up here just chilling in the run up to Christmas, enjoying the mountain environment and spending quality time with Kirsten. We were even able to sit out and sunbathe whilst reading this afternoon. It’s boiling hot in the winter sun, but when the sun goes in it’s freezing. We’ve also been enjoying the stunning sunsets from our house…the photo here does not really do it justice but hopefully gives you a flavour.

The view from our sofa at sunset, they have been stunning recently. PHOTO: KIRSTEN BEAVAN

So, unbelievably, we’ve almost completed our first year of marriage and of living in India together. It has flown by but as I said in the title, it’s been absolutely bilkul. For those of you without knowledge of Hindi, I should say bilkul means absolutely. Why then, you might ask, am I using this tautology: absolutely absolutely?

It all stems back to a funny story when I was in Delhi. I had learnt the Hindi expression, bilkul pagal, which means absolutely crazy, and tried to level it at a taxi driver who had sped me across Delhi like a madman before demanding an extra 200 rupees from the price agreed. Attempting to express my dissatisfaction during our altercation, I told him I thought he was absolutely bilkul. Needless to say my wife and Hindi speaking family members found this mistake hysterical, and now the expression has become common parlance in our household.

Mussoorie

I realise I have not written much about the town where we live and where Woodstock is located. Mussoorie is 175 miles north of Delhi in the foothills of the Himalaya, in the state of Uttarakhand (literally mountain region). It is about 7,000 feet up and nicknamed “Queen of the Hills”, and is a hill station where people come up to escape the heat of the plains. During the days of the Raj British soldiers came to convalesce. Local author and Woodstock alumnus Steve Alter has written an excellent piece about Mussoorie and its link with literature.

It is a six hour train journey from Delhi to Dehradun, and then an hour’s taxi ride up a hairpin mountain road (if you’ve not had car sickness before, you will here!).

It has changed a lot in the 20 years since Kirsten was here growing up, and she often points out new concrete developments which sadden her deeply. I guess that is a sign of India modernising (see more below), and inevitable in some ways.

Mussoorie from below PHOTO: CHESSY BEAVAN
It has numerous hotels and guest houses, and at weekends, particularly in holiday periods, it is flooded with tourists. It is a gateway to some great walking in the Himalayan foothills, although I’m not convinced local tourists ever get beyond the central attractions of the ferris wheel, horse rides and aquarium (containing Mussoorie’s only escalator)!

It still has a number of historic buildings such as St Paul’s Church and Christ Church, the Old Library, a wooden skating rink (the largest in India apparently), and a cemetery. We hope these will be preserved for the future.

It also has a cinema called Picture Palace which is now some sort of hideous 3D tourist attraction, and I'm told, a Clock Tower, although sadly I've never seen it as it was taken down some years ago because it was cracked, and has still not reappeared. I wait in hope...

Anyway, you should really come to see Mussoorie for yourself. As a taster, a Woodstock parent and fellow Brit David Berger has put up some great photos of the bazaar on his blog, so please take a look his photos, which really capture the everyday feel of the town brilliantly.

Mussoorie's ancient cemetery entrance PHOTO: KIRSTEN BEAVAN
There is also a great video about the school, the Himalayas and the recent mountain festival, which included the first Mussoorie half marathon which I took part in, available to watch here.

Modernisation

As I have alluded to above, we see signs of India rapidly modernising all around us: building work, everyone with mobile phones, shops selling domestic appliances, and huge numbers of cars on the road. This is all a far cry from 20 years ago when there was much less traffic and fewer technological advances.

In some ways it’s great that people are prospering and able to move up the social scale into a burgeoning middle class out of poverty, and this is a good thing.

However, one can’t help thinking this modernisation comes at a cost. We sometimes see adverts of TV where the whole western lifestyle is being sold as the best way forward. Although there are benefits to modern technology, it seems India is teetering on the brink of verging away from its roots founded in the family and spirituality.

If India were to abandon these foundations and go the same way as the west in chasing the material dream, this would be a tragedy. The results of this in the west have caused much unhappiness and loneliness as we have moved away from family and God and embraced a secular society. But part of me sees the juggernaut of materialism as unstoppable, not just here but everywhere across the world. Only time will tell how things will pan out.

Movember

In November we took part in the Movember moustache and beard-growing charity event, to raise money for a local children’s hospital to buy a number of wheelchairs. The event was embraced by the community and we ended up raising a huge 150,000 rupees, a phenomenal amount. There was a competition for the best moustache, and my effort ended up a half shaved, half moustachioed head, which sadly did not win! After shaving it off, I realised a number one shave was not the best haircut for winter, so I am living in my Tibetan woolly hat during these cold months.


Photo: From the side
Left, crazy sideburns for Movember; right, a shorn Ed cutting firewood by the bukari PHOTO: KIRSTEN BEAVAN




Merry Christmas
It just remains for us to wish you a very Merry Christmas wherever you are reading this. We hope you have a relaxing time and remember afresh the great news of Jesus’ birth this Christmas time. With all good wishes from Mussoorie, Ed and Kirsten.

PS My parents-in-law kindly subscribed us to the Guardian Weekly, which is an excellent read and keeps us in touch with world and UK affairs. I had a letter published in it recently, which you can read here.

PPS Wonderful to see England wrap up a test series win in the cricket recently. Sadly my schedule and long distances precluded me from attending any of the games, but I followed it closely on TV and was delighted we won a series for the first time in India in 28 years. Jai England! (Sorry Kathy H!).

Our official Christmas photo with Kirsten's Mum and Aunt PHOTO: SELF TIMER!



Monday, 29 October 2012

Delightful Delhi, becoming more "Indianised" and Mussoorie's Winterline

Listening to an awful audio guide at Qutub Minar
Delightful Delhi

I went down to Delhi a few weeks ago for some work meetings, and was able to "do a bit of tourism" in the Indian capital for the first time.

My first impressions of Delhi were not particularly positive, as I passed through it on the way up to Mussoorie. On my first trip to India last year I only travelled from the airport to New Delhi station, which is a harrowing experience for the most seasoned of travellers, as you negotiate your way through crazy traffic, and hundreds of people at the station being hassled and harangued. Delhi can be overwhelming at first, with its hustle and bustle, and people everywhere.

Taj Mahal-esque: Safdarjung's Tomb
However, it's fair to say that I pre-judged the capital, which has many magnificent historical monuments scattered around it. My first tourist stop was the amazing Qutub Minar, a UNESCO heritage site containing India's tallest minaret, with beautiful stone carvings, dating from the 12th century.

I also popped in to see Safdarjung's Tomb, a Taj Mahal-like masoleum built in 1754 in the late Mughal Empire style, which was absolutely deserted and an oasis of serenity in the middle of the busy city.

My host recommended the Hauz Kauz Village area, a trendy, bustling part of town with small alleyways of shops and cool cafes, which reminded me a bit of Brighton's Lanes area in the UK. I was able to pick up some nice presents in one of the many antique shops there.

Finally I went and looked at India Gate, the impressive monument at the heart of the city which sits on Delhi's equivalent of the Champs Elysees, which winds its way down to the Parliament buildings.

Inspired by Paris' Arc de Triomphe, it was designed by British architect Sir Edwin Luytens and built in the early 1930s. It is India's national monument and also known as the All India War Memorial, commemorating the 90,000 Indian soldiers who lost thier lives in World War I and the third Anglo Afghan War in 1919.

The inscription on it reads: "To the dead of the Indian armies who fell honoured in France and Flanders, Mesopotamia and Persia, East Africa, Gallipoli and elsewhere in the near and the far-east, and in sacred memory also of those whose names are recorded and who fell in India or the north-west frontier and during the Third Afghan war."

The inscription on India Gate commemorating Indian soldiers who died in WWI and Afghanistan
It is very poignant and an important memorial and reminder of these Indian troops who sacrficed their lives fighting for the British Raj, an aspect of 20th century history which shamefully seems to have been airbrushed from most British classrooms, certainly from personal experience.

Arc de Triomphe-esque: India Gate


A view of a three wheeler from a three wheeler
I travelled around Delhi in auto rickshaws, the green and yellow three wheeled vehicles which are ubiquitous in the capital. Unfortunately being white you are always charged a foreigner's rate, often two or three times what a local would be charged for a ride, which means you are constantly haggling with the drivers to get a reasonable rate. It can get a bit wearing, and annoying, but then on the other hand I guess we can afford to pay a bit more than most people. Throwing in a bit of Hindi can help with negotiations (don't laugh Mark Bradby donyervard!).

I also used the impressive Delhi Metro system (map here for all you fellow public transport geeks), which is cheap as chips (ten rupees a journey), and far more clean and efficient than London's creaking system. It even has air conditioning! Sadly I didn't make it to my favourite station this time, Dwarka Sector 21.

Pristine and clean: The Delhi Metro

I'm glad I've got to see more of the capital and look forward to exploring more of its many monuments in future trips.

Becoming more "Indianised"

Mussoorie really feels like home now, I'm pleased to say. On this theme, I received a birthday card from my aunt the other week, which contained a rhyme in which she said I was becoming more "Indianised", which I think is true. How do I know this?

i) I no longer double take when I see a man driving a scooter with a broken arm / lorries driving towards me on the wrong side of the road with the horn blaring / taxi drivers overtaking on a blind bend / or when I see whole families including a new-born baby riding on a single motorbike
ii) I say certain words with an Indian accent eg no (although I've yet to adopt the famous head wobble!)

Mussoorie's wonderful Winterline

Last week temperatures really dropped and it seems winter has arrived in earnest. During the winter months, a beautiful phenomenon occurs here in Mussoorie, called the Winterline (see photo below), a false horizon in the west when the sun sets, creating stunning orange and mauve hues. Apparently it only occurs here and in certain parts of Switzerland.

The view from our house looks west so we see this amazing scene every night...yet another reason for you to come and visit us if you're ever passing through this neck of the woods.

Many thanks to my colleague and neighbour Owen Fidler for the excellent photo below.


Photo: Our beautiful nightly light show, the Winterline now showing nightly in Mussoorie!
Wonderful Winterline: the view from our house at sunset PHOTO: OWEN FIDLER

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Amritsar

Watching the sun set on the Golden Temple. Photo: Kirsten Beavan
Amritsar: home of the Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh

We have just had our quarter break holiday, and we were lucky enough to be able to go to Amritsar in the Punjab region in the north west of India, which borders Pakistan.

The city is much like many other Indian cities; a buzzing, busy metropolis with hooting rickshaws, cars, hawkers and tourists vying for space in crowded streets.

Amritsar is famous for the Golden Temple, the Sikh Gurdwara considered holy by adherents of the religion, housing the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. It was fascinating to watch many Sikhs bathe in the water around the temple, and made us realise how important the theme of cleansing is to so many of the major world religions.

The queue to see the holy book was huge, so we gave that a miss, but enjoyed watching the sun set on the temple giving us a variety of golden hues to view.

In 1984 the temple was stormed as part of Operation Blue Star by the army on the orders of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after Sikh extremist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale took sanctuary there. This act was perceived as sacrilege by many Sikhs and led to assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards six months later.



Unproud Brit: Ed in Jallianwala Bagh in front of bullet pocked wall
Talking of Gandhis and shootings, we also went to the nearby Jallianwala Bagh Park. It was strange, as soon as I walked into the park it felt vaguely familiar, and then I read it featured prominently in the film Gandhi, and I realised I remembered it from the film. I was only about five when I saw it, but it had quite a profound impact on me, and I have vivid memories of it. I remember being really upset that this "good guy" Gandhi had been shot.

Somewhat unfortunately I was wearing a Union Jack T shirt in the park. This was not a place I felt proud to be British, as this was where on 13 April 1919 British forces opened fire on about 20,000 people in the park who were taking part in a public meeting there. This had followed a time of unrest in the city after an anti-British strike, encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful resistence campaign.

It is estimated around 400 people died in the massacre ordered by British army chief Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer, who feared a major insurrection. You can still see bullet holes on the walls, and the martyrs well, which people jumped into to escape the shooting, but ended up drowning in.

In the museum there are photos and a letter from a group of Christians who are descended from the British soldiers involved in the massacre. Back in the 90s they came to repent in the park for the atrocities of their forefathers and seek forgiveness. This apology was accepted by the people of Amritsar which I found profoundly moving.

The park is lovely now and a memorial to this dreadful chapter in the history of the British Raj. Many Indian visitors there asked me for a photo with them, and we sat and enjoyed the peace watching squirrels and birds.

Bordering on the ridiculous?

We also drove up to Atari to the Indian/Pakistani border to watch the daily border closing ceremony. This was a truly bizarre experience, with crowds of Indian and Pakistanis seated in grandstands on either side of the border, watching soldiers marching up to the border line, like strutting peacocks, in a highly choreographed display.

It was like something from the Ministry of Silly Walks from Monty Python, the Indian soldiers actually touched their heads with their boots they raised them so high.

We were on the Indian side where people shouted "Hindustan Zindabad" ("Long Live India") while the Pakistanis were shouting Pak-is-tan.

It was interesting to observe the women on the Pakistan side all had their heads covered in Islamic garb...Kirsten got some great snaps of this (see below).

The Pakistani side, all the women with heads covered. Photo: KB


Although the atmosphere did not seem particularly hostile, it was hard to know what to make of this experience.

With relations between the two countries extremely low, one wonders how helpful this event is in improving Indo-Pakistani relations, and if they could do something more constructive instead?

There is a brusque handshake between the soldiers from both sides after the flags are lowered, but, continuing on a Monty Python theme, Michael Palin, when he visited as part of his travel programme, described the ceremony as "carefully coreographed contempt", which seems to sum it up well.

It's a shame there is not an opportunity for interaction between the people from both countries, as surely they have more in common through their shared history and humanity than what divides them.

Malls are cool, right?

I was delighted our hotel was right by a huge shopping mall. I have not been in such a cathedral of commercialism for almost a year...and I couldn't wait to get in there.

However, after our second trip there, I realised the local shopping experience we have here in the bazaar in Mussoorie is far superior.

One major problem was we got smothered by sales assistants in every shop we entered. Unfortunately, the stand offish "less is more" sales approach does not exist here, and meant the novely of the mall soon wore off.

But the mall's very existence, with shops including French Connection and Tommy Hilfiger, is testament to India's massive strides economically in the past 20 years. You couldn't even get imported food in India 20 years ago, Kirsten told me.


Lights, camera, action - message to my Dad

Finally, if you've forgotten what we look and sound like, here is a brief video we recorded for my Dad who was celebrating his 40th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood back in the UK, including a couple of outakes, Ed getting emotional and Kirsten holding the fort! Congratulations Dad!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3BB386VeDM

Arriving home in an Ambassador taxi, another relic of the British, with schoolgirl looking on. Pic: Kirsten Marian Beavan

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A month in the life of Woodstock: The Dalai Lama, human log fluming, and cross country (not all at the same time)

The Dalai Lama at Woodstock

The DL laughing at Woodstock on Sunday
Pic: Phuriwat Chirapisit (Fuse)
After weeks of planning in my department and to-ing and fro-ing, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to Woodstock on Sunday (September 16). It was his fourth visit to the school since he was exiled from Tibet in 1959, and he has long term links with the area, as Mussoorie was his first port of call after he left Tibet before moving to Dharamsala.

As communications associate at the school I had the job of welcoming press and chaperoning our student photographer Fuse during the event, so we got a great view of his arrival, while the rest of the school was locked up in the gym. Surrounded by a huge security entourage, the video below shows him coming up the school ramp, and you can see me shaking his hand and saying "a very warm welcome" (sorry it's on its side but when I rotate it I lose the sound).

I also got to ask him a question later during the Q&A session, what does he feel about the current situation in Tibet's capital Lhasa, which is being rapidly China-fied, to which he gave a very diplomatic answer, at one point thanking the Communists for helping Tibetans develop more character as a result of their struggles.

HH the DL with WS Principal Dr Long
As for the second part of my question, does he still work out (I read he uses a treadmill everyday), I did not get an answer! Perhaps it got lost in translation.

My orginal question was going to be "What football team do you support", but much to Kirsten's relief I didn't ask this. My sources tell me he supports Manchester United (boo).


He is certainly quite a character and had us all in fits of laughter at times. He's a bit like a cuddly grandfather. His speech was at times interesting, at times hilarious (at one point he turned round to ask his assistant what he was supposed to be talking about!), at times difficult to understand because of his accent, but the overriding themes seemed to be show love and compassion, don't view people through the lens of race or religion but look for our common humanity, and develop a positive mental attitude. All good things.

From a Christian perspective it was interesting he admitted he had no special powers to heal or bless. Ultimately he said one has the power within oneself to change, a difficult concept for Christians who believe in an relational creator God and the inherent sin inside us which we cannot ever overcome apart from Christ.

video

All in all a fantastic, slightly surreal day, and certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There is a great piece by a visiting journalist Joanna Sugden on the day here: The Dalai Lama does Woodstock



Log blog

It was Kirsten's birthday earlier this month, which coincided with our two-thirds of a year wedding anniversary, so I whisked her away to a lovely hotel for the weekend. We were staying just outside Dehradun near the Tons River, an area which we soon discovered was a birdspotters paradise, with numerous species flying around the beautiful gardens of the hotel, including a...er...red bird, a yellow bird, and a green and blue one (ornithology never was my strong point!).

We walked down to the river on both days which were sunny, and were able to swim, despite it being quite shallow.

video

Being an adventurous soul making the most of the great outdoors, and inspired by the thought that my absent bros-in-law would have done it (Marks Bradby and Oden take a bow), I decided to brave the strong current and get up close and personal with the river. Sadly I didn't have a surf board, but I found human log fluming was quite fun, particularly when my butt wasn't scraping against the stones on the bottom.

Kirsten had a go too, and although our wedding rings got quite battered, my wife assures me this is all testament "to the rich tapestry of our marriage". Watch me go on the video (above)!


Cross country challenge: I've still got it!


Still got it: Ed running in the red of Merlins
It was the school interhouse cross country tournament earlier this month, and almost 20 years after my last cross country run, I was determined to take part and rack up some points for my house Merlins (a bird, the other houses are Condors and Eagles).

I decided to run with the Grade 9 boys, the year we are advisers to, so that meant a two-mile trek round the chukkars (circles) at the top of the hill here.

It's fair to say my wife didn't have the utmost confidence in me, particularly as my earlier attempt to run at altitude had ended with my lungs almost exploding.

It is really tough running at this altitude, and I did have to stop and walk a few times, but I was pleased to finish the course in just under 25 minutes.

Amazingly Merlins, who in recent years have underachieved in the sporting arena, won the entire tournament, so my efforts were not in vain.

Now I just have to decide whether to run the Mussoorie half marathon in November...if so I really better start training sharpish!

 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Jai Hind! Indian Independence Day

Jai Hind! (Victory to India!) My first Indian Independence Day

The Indian flag is raised during the ceremony in the school gym

Two years ago I was a singleton in London stuck in the daily grind of the rat race, and wasn't even in touch with Kirsten. On Wednesday I stood in the school gym next to Kirsten, my wife, wearing a kurta (long shirt/dress that Indian men wear) singing the Indian national anthem, as part of the flag raising ceremony for the 65th year of Indian independence!! It felt surreal how quickly things have changed...who'd have thought I'd have ended up the foothills of the Himalaya in India!

It was a great day, and you can read more about it and see photos in the article I wrote for the school website here.

The Indian national anthem, entitled Jana Gana Mana, is rather challenging for an Englishman to learn, but I've just about mastered the first line. It was composed and scored by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in Sankritised Bengali. I've put the words below with a translation, it basically goes through different regions of India...why not have a go at singing it...this YouTube video should help you sing along, it sounds like someone singing it accompanied by their Casio keyboard in their bedroom.

What's funny about the anthem is that the end note seems to leave it hanging...I'm informed by a musician here it ends on a fourth...so it sounds unfinished...like it needs a final line which never comes. It's a bit like ending God Save the Queen on "long to reign over us". Have a listen to the link above and see if you agree.

National Anthem of India


Jana gaṇa mana adhināyaka jaya he
Bhārata bhāgya vidhātā
Pañjāb Sindhu Gujarāṭa Marāṭhā
Drāviḍa Utkala Baṅga
Vindhya Himāchala Jamunā Gaṅgā
Uchhala jaladhi taraṅga
Tava śubha nāme jāge
Tava śubha āśhiṣa māge
Gāhe tava jaya gāthā
Jana gaṇa maṅgala dhāyaka jaya he
Bhārata bhāgya vidhāta
Jaya he, jaya he, jaya he
Jaya jaya jaya, jaya he.

English translation
Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,
Dispenser of India's destiny.
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Shindu,
Gujarat and Maratha,
Of the Dravida and Orissa and Bangla;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,
mingles in the music of Jamuna and Ganges and is
chanted by the waves of the Indian Ocean.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.
The saving of all people waits in thy hand,
Thou dispenser of India's destiny.
victory forever!



Greetings of the day! I love Indian English!

Dear Sir/Ma'am,

Greetings of the day! I saw that fellow last week and he has told me to do the needful. Trust you will be able to tell me your timings for the train to Delhi. I must warn you there is a bifurcation at Saharanpur where the train will change direction. What to do? If you can avail yourself of the itinerary and tell me the good name of your wife I will proceed to make the booking, otherwise you may need to prepone, as I'll be out of station next week.

I'm pushing off shortly so kindly revert.

Thanks and regards,

Ranjeet Singh

I've made up the above but it is similar to some of the communications I've received from our travel agent in Delhi. Indian English still uses a number of archaic or unusual words which are delightful to the ear. My father in law tells me "good name" is a direct translation of the Urdu word for name. It certainly makes some conversations feel like a throwback to a bygone era!

Kirsten also receives some interesting communications in her role as admissions director at the school, this is one that came from Thailand recently...looks like it came straight through Google Translate!

hello! yes i giel foe fungus my name is *&^%$ please as i haers to have a person say that the school where India study excellent i will feel like to go to the school if the teacher will come to Thailand helps to contach with seek me bot to letter at I want to go to school very there the will teacher come to speak or feeshness that have interesting substance about the education pleasa now istays mookdahan is studyying the primary school level studies yere that 5 me will go to while 6 graduate of theolongies are help answer with Thank yes


Where is the Monsoon?

We've had a bit more rain in recent days but the Monsoon is still light compared to previous years. Everywhere is green and mossy which is beautiful, and when the mist lifts there are great views of the hills around, with clouds floating in the valleys. Below are some great shots of the Monsoon by two of my colleagues Amy and Abe.



Great shot of mist in the rainforest PIC: ABE OKIE
Mist hangs over the valley looking down from Mussoorie PIC: AMY SEEFELDT

Mossy walls on the chukka PIC: MY DARLING WIFE


Bethany, Kirsten and me holding packet of cornflakes, in atmospheric Monsoon mist Pic: ABE OKIE

More Olympic spirit please footballers

The English football season started this weekend; it seems a bit too soon after the Olympics, when we were all inspired by the fantastic spirit, determination and guts displayed by the Olympic athletes, many of whom had been training for years for this one shot at glory. We were inspired by Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, and also enjoyed the gymnastics and diving. London did us proud!

Such a refreshing change from the lying, cheating and overpaid footballers in the Premier League, they really could learn a lot about sportsmanships from their Olympic counterparts. Saying that though I still watched the Liverpool - West Brom game with the boys at school. Thanks to the school we all have satellite TV, and I can watch five Premier League games a weekend, a couple from the Championship, live French, Spanish and German games (happily for Kirsten, I don't!).

I also watched the Test Match from a blazing Lords as the Monsoon rain fell. Very bizarre watching the cricket in sun-drenched England as we shiver in the rain here in India.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Landslides and the Monsoon

Workers inspect the damage after the landslide outside our house
Slip land-sliding away!

So we arrived back in Mussoorie a week ago (gosh I'm becoming Americanised by Woodstock starting sentences with so!). It is Monsoon season for the next couple of months, which effectively means we are living in a cloud, and it rains incessantly. Apparently though this is a very light Monsoon compared to previous years, and we have had some clear periods and even some sun. But it is still very damp, difficult to dry clothes, and miserable for sun worshippers (such as my wife). It also means there are more spiders, scorpions and leeches sharing our humble abode.

Talking of our house, the other night at about 5am we were awoken by a huge rumbling which seemed very close to our home. We thought it was strange but were too tired to go and investigate, so turned over and went back to sleep. The next morning we got up and found a group of men in our garden area (I use the term garden loosely). I groaned and went outside to complain, fearing more disturbances from builders who had plagued our lives last semester. I was politely requested to look at a large landslide which had occured, stopping just metres from our house. That shut me up pretty sharpish!

Last term a huge amount of earth was dumped in our garden to fill a hole, this was then saturated with the Monsoon rain. This earth was pushing against a holding wall which could not take the weight...hence the landslide. The good news is that noone was hurt, and our house has strong foundations and should be fine (famous last words). But as the photo below shows, it was a bit close for comfort!

The view from our window!

Not pret-a-porter

You know you are back in India when red-uniformed porters try and carry your luggage at railway stations. These guys have an irritating tendency to board a train just as it arrives at your destination thereby precluding all passengers from alighting. They then try and grab your suitcase and carry it for a fee. Getting on or off a train is already tricky as often the whole extended family of Indian passengers board a train to say goodbye, clogging up the corridor, even though they are not travelling. These porters do offer a useful service but will often try and charge foreigners an inflated fee. On this occasion I gave them a firm "nehi donyevard" ("no thanks") as we did not require their services, although my conscience was piqued when one of them opined: "If you people do not use us how will we survive?"

Indian bookworm

I am enjoying reading Indian novels and books on the country while being here. Anything by William Dalrymple is great, currently I am reading Kirsten The Age of Kali which is very informative. We were interested to read that the city of Lucknow used to be one of the cultural centres of India, but sadly has been in decline over the last 50 years. Some of the religious violence which has taken place in recent years is also shocking to read about.

I enjoyed White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and I'm loving A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Set in 1970s Mumbai during the Emergency period, when the Government ruled by decree, it paints an illuminating portrait of India as the four characters from different backgrounds struggle to survive in a modernising India. The book captures the ghastly injustice and violence of the caste system, the grim reality of life in a slum, and the values and priorities of Indian families. It is still remarkably pertinent to Indian life today, and I would heartily recommend it.

I also read One Hundred Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseni, the follow up to the Kite Runner, but that is set in Afghanistan. It's a great, but somewhat depressing, read.

Power problems

Some of you have asked if we have been affected by the recent power cuts affecting most of northern India. Fortunately Woodstock has generators so we have not been had any blackouts, but the nearby town of Mussoorie has been. My brother-in-law pointed out that while many well-off Delhi dwellers were complaining their air conditioning was not working, hundreds of millions of Indians still do not have access to electricity. Makes you realise how lucky we are.

Highway On My Plate

Last term as part of my job I helped facilitate* the visit of a film crew from popular Indian food show Highway On My Plate to the school. You can watch the 20-minute programme online, it gives a great snapshot of Woodstock life and the beautiful campus, and if you watch carefully, you may spot me lurking in the background!

*I use this term ironically. Obviously in my job I also stovepipe out our key messages to our relevant stakeholders etc etc...

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Random observations from India

My first semester at Woodstock School in India is almost over. Here, in no particular order, are some observations on life in India.

Incessant car horns

As I write this every minute or so the peaceful mountain air is punctuated by the sound of a car hooting. This is because hooting is an inherent and normal part of driving in India, as normal as indicating or checking one's rear view mirror (although incidentally those driving disciplines don't get much of a look in here). Drivers basically use the horn as a warning to other drivers as they approach a bend: why bother slowing down when you can just "blow horn", words which emblazon many a truck. I'm always amazed there aren't more accidents on bends as one sees two cars or the numerous scooters approaching one another at breakneck speed, but somehow it seems to work out, and I've yet to see a crash.

Blow horn: Oh OK if you insist. A typical message on an Indian lorry.


Lack of personal space

Personal space as a concept doesn't seem to exist in India. This can be difficult for the westerner, particularly on a train journey, when playing Bollywood movie music at full volume in a crowded carriage is positively encouraged. Or if you try and sit on your own in a park people will come and sit right next to you. I guess many people here have grown up in large families in cramped homes, and personal space is not an option. I guess it highlights how cossetted some of us have become.

Hot work for coolies

Coolies are the men here who carry and transport stuff around on their backs. They deliever anything from shopping to fridges, which make them look like giant ants as they lug items much bigger than their body weight. They work extremely hard and often walk long distances with their heavy loads, which they tie round their heads to help ease the burden. What's depressing is the tip we sometimes give them for the delivery is probably larger than the sum they're paid to do this gruelling job.

Workmen watching on

It's felt like we've lived on a building site this semester as work has gone on for months in our garden. Most days we have a team of workmen turn up to shift earth from one side of the house to the other; then the next day they come back and move it back to where it was before. What I've noticed is that while one or two guys do some work, there will always be another two, three, four or five men just looking on (see photo below for example). This seems to be the case in the majority of labouring situations I've seen. Why work when you can watch on?

Workmen ratio of 2:5 of those working:sitting around


Doesn't matter if you're brown or white

There are adverts everywhere for skin whitening cream; it seems many Indians want to be whiter as lighter skin is considered more attractive. Meanwhile us white folk always want to be browner. Funny eh, and somewhat tragic none of us are happy in the skin we are in.

Cheeky monkeys

I rang my sister the other day and she was paying a fortune to take her family to Colchester Zoo. Here we don't need to pay for the wildlife, most days we see rhesus and langur monkeys on the way in to work. They are often very cheeky monkeys, trying to steal food and even swimming in the school pool. Contrary to my wife's advice, I try and stand up to the monkeys if they are being aggressive, insisting we assert the natural order of man versus beast. So far this policy seems to be working, and hopefully I won't get beaten up by a marauding monkey anytime soon.

I'm heading back to Blighty soon so this'll be my last blog for a while. All the very best, look after yourselves, and take great care. Edster

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Dog blog from India

Dog blog from India

A mass of mutts in Mussoorie. Photo: My dear wife
Wherever you go in India there are dogs everywhere. Scrawny, emaciated mutts lie on the edge of the road or scavenge around in rubbish.

You can't help but feel sorry for the dejected-looking dogs, frequently told to "Hut" ("Go away") by all and sundry as they struggle to survive.

Many of them limp around and are injured, probably from being hit by vehicles, but there is little hope any of them will receive veterinary care.

It's a far cry from the pampered pooches in the west who have the luxury of a daily walk, regular feeds and a kennel. It makes you realise just how ridiculous and extravagant the whole concept of designer dogs in the west is - where celebrities give them pedicures or put them up in luxury pet hotels.

Some of the kids here at Woodstock have helped to set up a dog shelter to look after stray dogs in the vicinty, which will also have a sterilisation programme to stop the increase in strays. It's a worthy scheme but feels like something of a drop in the ocean for the whole country.

I guess in a country when so many people go hungry and eke out an existence it's not surprising dogs are left to roam the streets, and there's little sentimental attachment to such animals.
The coolest dog in India

In the meantime I'll try and give big dog love to any canines I encounter on my travels. The other day we almost ran over one of the downcast dogs as we tried to park the scooter, so I gave him some leftovers from our meal that night.

But I won't be stroking any of these dogs I'm afraid to say. Having just read that a woman in the UK died from rabies after being bitten by a dog in south east Asia, I'll just toss them the odd morsel and avoid any dog dentures.


Finally: my wife gets footy

On a totally unrelated subject I can confirm my wife has finally understood my passion for football. After years of incomprehension as to why I could spend so much time, money and emotional energy on perennial underachievers Southend United and 22 men chasing a cow's bladder around a field, Kirsten finally experienced the wonder and amazement of football.

To be fair the Southend games she's accompanied me to have been two of the worst football matches I've ever experienced (most recently Southend 0-1 Bradford, Dec 2011 - a result that cost us automatic promotion).

But football fell into place for her during the culmination of the English Premier League season when Manchester City won the title in extraordinary circumstances.

As you probably saw, City were trailing QPR 2-1 with just four minutes to go, needing two goals to win the title. It looked like they had blown what should have been an easy win, and their chance to win their first title in 44 years, and get one over Manchester United. Kirsten was in tears as she saw all the crying Man City fans on the TV.

Then incredibly Dzecko and Aguero scored two goals in the final few minutes, and in an incredible finale City had come back from the dead. We were jumping around embracing each other in the most amazing climax to a league season in years, possibly ever.

At long last Kirsten had experienced the joy and despair football can bring, and that Sunday night she finally got a glimpse of that rush of emotion when the ball hits the back of the net, gaining an insight into the profound and somewhat eccentric mind of the football fan.

Monday, 7 May 2012

India's uneven platforms

Many of you will know I'm a bit of a trainspotter, so I've enjoyed travelling round India on its excellent and efficient railway system.

My wife Kirsten and I took the sleeper train from Mumbai to Goa for our honeymoon which was a very cheap alternative to flying, and gives you a far better snapshot of Indian life than taking to the skies.

As you travel through both cities and rural areas there is never a dull moment, as you see people (often women) working in the fields, kids playing cricket on any scrap of open space, or even in the middle of a busy road, and others going about their daily ablutions (the luxury of privacy is not an option for them).



Indian railway stations are a microcosm of society. There are people everywhere, many sleeping on the platforms waiting hours for a connection. But many sleeping there because that is their home. Railway platforms are a magnet for the crippled and disabled in Indian society. This makes waiting at a station an uncomfortable experience for the western traveller.

You are frequently approached by the poor and lame, begging for money or food. Sometimes there are men walking on their hands in a scrunched up crouching position because they cannot use their legs. They also live on the station, rejected by a system where they cannot afford healthcare. Seeing people like this makes you want to cry.

This is when you face the difficult decisions on how to respond. Do I engage with the person, compared to whom I have riches beyond their imagination? Do I ignore them and not make eye contact, because I'm fed up with being hassled in India?



It's a difficult dilemma for every westerner in India. We had an excellent devotion at Woodstock School recently, where former teacher Andy Matheson, who is international director for Christian charity Oasis, and has a wealth of experience of working with the urban poor in India, urged us to try and personalise the situation. Ask the person their name, engage them in a conversation, and try and communicate Christ's love through a chat. This could be the only positive interaction they have had in days.

But I won't say I have always been able to do this, after long, tiring train journeys, the default position is often to try and ignore the immense poverty that is all around. It's something which challenges one's philosophical and spiritual convictions.

I try and have a bunch of bananas with me when travelling, as these serve as a useful thing to give out. But I realise this will not solve this person's long term predicament.

So even for an avid trainspotter like me, it's not always a laugh a minute travelling around this amazing and diverse country on the train.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Pretentious, moi? Evidemment, oui.

In a past life I used to criticise anyone who started a blog. "It's so pretentious", was my plaintiff cry, yet here I am years later, starting one of my own.

Anyway, apologies for the hypocrisy, I hope you will find this interesting and an insightful insight (did I really just write that?!) into our life here at Woodstock in the amazing country of India.

Anyway, my first post is one I did for the school which I'm just going to copy and paste here, enjoy.

New Kid on the Block

I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach last month as I arrived for the first day of the new school semester. Eighteen years after I left high school in the UK, once again I was the new kid on the block, this time at Woodstock School, India’s top international boarding school situated in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Like many of the students at Woodstock, I was far from home in a new country and a foreign culture. It all seemed a long way from the frenetic scenes of the Church Times newsroom in London, where as a journalist I used to ply my trade.

But there was no need to be nervous. I received an extremely warm welcome at the school which prides itself in its student diversity, joining students and staff from almost 30 different countries, including Afghanistan and America, Germany and Japan, Italy and India.

Students come from far and wide to take advantage of the unique educational experience offered at Woodstock, rooted in its Christian values.

It is a community which seeks to develop in students a lifelong passion for learning which will have a positive impact on both India and the world in years to come.

This vision of lifelong learning is not just limited to students, but applies to staff as well, and I am relishing this amazing opportunity to be back at school.

After years in the intellectual wilderness, I’m enjoying sitting in on history classes, learning Hindi, and shooting hoops in the school’s fantastic Win Mumby gym. I have also joined the staff choir and picked up my clarinet for the first time in years in the staff orchestra.

Going back to school has never felt so good!

For more information about Woodstock go to http://www.woodstockschool.in/

Ed Beavan with his wife Kirsten at Woodstock School
Ed Beavan with his wife Kirsten at Woodstock School