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A Backwater Christmas

You’ve probably just woken up from your post-Christmas meal nap and are either waiting for the Doctor Who or Eastenders special to start. It has been an incredibly alcoholic/calorific day and you can’t remember a time when you weren’t at a dinner table or splayed out on a sofa. The jumper you are wearing has a snowflake or a reindeer on it and you don’t care a little bit. Your dad is probably still asleep, snoring and has forgotten to take his party hat off. This is what Christmas usually looks like. However, writing this in Allapay on the backwaters of the River Periyar in Kerala, I can’t say that we have had the most conventional Christmas.

They don’t really celebrate it here even though a significant number of people are Christian – however, the hotels containing tourists really do make an effort. I managed to pack a couple of Christmas jumpers in the vain hope that I could wear them without melting underneath. My thin “Chilling” jumper was just about bearable for breakfast before it got absolutely ridiculously hot. Considering the weather has always been freezing at home in the last few years, this was a much welcome change. In Greenwoods, there was a beautful treehouse that we climbed to peer over the town of Thekkady before we left for the final place, Allapay. Then I saw a turkey. A real live, gobble-gobble turkey and I raced down to see it. It was particularly grumpy, but it was huge and the irony was too strong for me to not take a picture with it.

Skipping ahead the three hour long car journey, Allapay was back towards Cochin where we started, and so it was humid beyond belief. However, this was mitigated by the fact that it was bang in the middle of the backwaters, which are like canals and very famous in the area, which cooled the land around them. You could see palm trees, paddy fields and so many house boats – it was almost like a Venice-themed set for Lost. To top it all off, the only way to get to our hotel was to get there by boat. Yes, a boat bus.

We jumped onto the barge and made our way across the lake to the Lake Palace resort. When my Mum said that she was going to organise a five star trip for my 21st I thought she was joking, but this place was literally like paradise in the middle of nowhere. Set up a serious of cottages straddling the river, the entire hotel was completely integrated into its surrounding environment. Our “room” is surrounded by a man-made lake, the centre of which stands a swimming pool. You have to get around here by golf cart and they offer free pottery classes. And when someone offers you claywork on Christmas, you would be an idiot to say no. So I’ve set up a class for tomorrow – go figure.

The highlight of the day though was the boat ride over the backwaters here. They are separate from the rest of the ocean and act like roads for the fishing and agricultural markets. One of the key features are the thatched house boats that were traditionally set by fisherman over week long campaigns where their family could stay with them. Now they are a cool tourist attraction and inevitably everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. To be honest, all of the other things aside, it was nice just having the tranquillity and the sunset behind us as I thought about how different it would have been in England. There wasn’t a television or Shrek re-run in sight.

With only a few more days left in India, it has dawned on me that this is the last time I am going to be here for a while. Having been here three times in two years and seeing over half the country, it is time to take a break. Saying that, it is going to be sad to say goodbye to this, and especially enjoying these last few moments with my family. I will be forever grateful to my Mum and brother for single-handedly putting this whole thing together. I am not a birthday person at all, but this is the best way to celebrate it.

I may not have learned anymore about Christianity this year (it has been difficult to do so with no wifi and few English-speaking churches out here) but I have learnt the importance of having my family around me. It is easy to lose a sense of that at university when you have been away so long.

I may have met turkeys, made pottery, climbed tree houses, swum in a pool inside a lake, ridden on a few boats, worn a ridiculous jumper in the crazy heat and eaten Indian food instead of Christmas dinner. Like I said, it’s been an unconventional festive season. If this is the last thing I get to say about South India, then all I can say is that it really is “God’s Own Country” as they advertise it everywhere.

I think they just have better tea.

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What a sunset

The “Fixed Price” Myth

You would think that after the wedding, all of the gifts had been given and it was time to move away from incessant shopping. You would be wrong. Whenever you are in India, there is a need to buy a gift for everyone there, back home and some people you don’t even know. As soon as you walk past something, there is a committee meeting with three distinct questions: 1) can we make use out of it or give it away? 2) is it something that we have seen before or unique? 3) can we afford it? If two out of these get an overall yes, then the process begins. If you didn’t know it already, Indians love a bargain.

We decided to stay in Baroda for a few more days after the wedding considering we hadn’t spent enough time with our family. It had been so hectic that we hadn’t really had the chance to relax with them. However, part of this bonding experience meant exchanging gifts as well as finishing off any last minute shopping. And if you walked around any market, you would be surprised what you can walk away with for 350 rupees (about £3.50 at this current moment).

The most laughable part about the process is the “fixed price” signs that they put in each of the shops. It is an unwritten rule that there are absolutely no fixed prices in India, unless it is unlucky enough to have a barcode – although to be honest, the most persuasive person could probably do the job. If you are trying to buy a sari, for example, then you can assume that they are charging you 20 percent more before you have even sat down and it has been unfolded in front of you. The so-called NRI (non-resident Indian) or foreigner tax. Then you can probably shave another 20 percent off if you have a little more chat, and the more items you buy, the bigger chunk you can get off the overall bill. By the end of it, the original figure seems like a fairytale and however upset the vendor looks, he or she knows for a fact that they have got as much out of it as you have. Just be ready to walk away if the price isn’t right.

When prices are so flexible, you start to get an eye for quality. The street markets in India are generally better than those in the UK, but you have to be careful, and it means shopping around. Whenever you enter any showrooms here, with stacks and stacks of clothes delicately placed behind the counter, it is no mistake that there is a huge mattress on the floor. You don’t look through the clothes here, they are presented to you. A salesman will get our sari after sari, shirt after shirt, until the entire white surface is covered in a heap of colours and material. If you are lucky, he (all of the sari vendors seem to be men) will try on the sari in front of you so you can see what it would look like. The first time it happened, I can’t tell you how many glances were exchanged between my brother and me.

As much as I hate shopping, especially in the intense heat, it is interesting to see the performance every time. It is always the same routine as I have described above, and it is amazing the effort that each vendor will go to in order to sell his wares. Everything is in fashion, a good material, with some sort of quality certificate and an absolute steal…whether it be 100 or 10,000 rupees. We seem to be spending a lot of money out here, but I can see why.

There aren’t many good shows in the world that are cheap.

Lagna

“Lagna” is the Gujarati word for wedding. Whether you speak Gujarati or not, everyone knows the meaning of this word. It culminates the entirety of all awkward conversations with older relatives in your twenties as they unsubtly hint at the fact that you still don’t have a ring on your finger until you finally tie the knot; the showcase of your summers in your thirties as every week is another journey with your spouse to a stately home or temple for another cousin’s ceremony (or usually string of ceremonies); the laborious chore of your forties as you introduce your children to the various rituals that you yourself have been getting to grips with for most of your adult life; the expense of your fifties as the time eventually comes to give away your daughter or welcome a new one to your home; and finally in your twilight years it remains the rare opportunity to bring your family together and celebrate the beauty of such a union. This may be the longest sentence I have ever written. However, it reflects the nature of lagna. It permeates each stage of life and is a centrepiece in Hindu tradition. Fair to say, it is kind of a big deal.

Weddings in India are the stuff of film and legend. Growing up watching Bollywood films, I imagined that it would be thousands of people all adorned in their finest clothing, steel cast after steel cast containing delicious food and an intensely traditional ceremony that would give me an insight into how weddings should be done. It wasn’t…quite like that. The bride, my cousin, and the groom had decided to go for something much simpler and so it remained close family and friends – they didn’t want a big fuss. Go figure. The one time that we spent all of this time and effort to see a ridiculous Indian wedding and they had chosen to “keep it basic”.

However, the venue was absolutely amazing. There are a few extremely ornate temples in the UK, but it was absolutely nothing like this. This was on the level of a palace in the middle of a busy city. Domes of marble and coloured statues filled the grounds with large open platforms that lit up a sparkling white when the sun finally came into view. From the very finest detail in the pillars, to the huge carved tiles that made up the ceilings, it looked like someone had gone through this place with a microscope. I had never seen anything like it.

Unlike back at home, the weddings are conducted in the late afternoons here because of the intense heat. Even though this was technically the winter, it reached the mid-twenties when the ceremony started and we all started to sweat into our outfits. Because lagnas are such a big part of Hinduism, both practically as a means of legitimising marriage and spiritually to move forward to the next stage of life, it is important to understand the rituals. It is said to be the bride’s occasion, the very last event before she leaves her parents’ house and moves in with her in-laws. The more lagnas you attend, the more you start to pick things up – I guess this is part of the point so you know what you are signing yourself up for when it finally happens to you.

But that is just it, isn’t it? This preparation and celebration comes with the frightening expectation that the seconds are ticking. I don’t think I really feel it at my age, but I can tell that my brother can. Every wedding we go to now, he can’t escape without another distant relative promising him that they can find him a girl. It doesn’t matter what his current situation is (they never ask that) but they are determined to make sure that he gets married. It has become a running joke that I get to tease him about, but I am fully aware that my time is coming.

The prospect of arranged introductions is promised with love. It is 50 percent inquisition and 50 percent well-intentioned. However, it is 100 percent pressurised. There are a very few cultures where the narrative is so direct and continuous – there is almost no question that an Asian man and woman in their twenties should get married against all of the odds. Homosexuality is never discussed and the concept of staying single must mean that there is something inherently wrong with you.

I can’t imagine the prospect of not getting married. Yet, I don’t know whether I have been conditioned to think this way in all of my relationships or whether this is what I actually want. I am sure it is what I want in the end, but there has never really been any other option. It is scary how the lives of most Indians are already mapped out until their 30th birthday.

I don’t know whether tradition has saved or shackled us in this regard. We don’t question marriage like we do other institutions. It just is. Maybe the big weddings are worth it then, hey?

Walk A Mile In His Shoes

Every place that we visit has a beautiful family history that spans the same trip over 25 years ago. Sitting in the Hotel Aram in Jamnagar for breakfast this morning, my parents told me about the last time they were here. My brother had just celebrated his first birthday and they had given him his first haircut. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a very auspicious ceremony, as the hair signifies the remnants of a previous life forgone as it is cut and replaced with a new beginning – a clean head of sorts. Although the baby doesn’t always see it that way and ends up bawling it’s eyes out.

Apparently the now patio of gravel and iron tables was once a lush garden filled with white chairs and a fountain. Over 200 people came to the ceremony that day, and the hair was purged within the hotel as well, as a sign of prosperity. I am not sure how much I buy into the ritualism, but there is something wonderful about the idea that my parents sat newly married in the same seats a quarter of a century ago, looking ahead at what their lives would bring.

Since then, obviously I was born, but it was the first time that they had set foot in the hotel since the occasion. According to them it hadn’t changed much in the time that they had been away, but it seemed like Jamnagar had. The city, close to the Western coast of Gujarat, was the birthplace of my grandfather, Jamnadas, who unfortunately died a year before I was born. My mum always joked that my birth was a blessing that the family needed after a distressing period and that is why I became so close to my grandmother. It has always been a great source of sorrow for me that I never got to meet the man who I seemed to be so alike.

Apparently he was impeccably well dressed, stern, committed to his family and a bit of a wanderer – everything I could relate to except potentially the first quality. I don’t think I could get away with wearing a three-piece suit everywhere like he did. There were so many times, according to Dad, that he would disappear on the bus for the day just to take in the life of the world around him. He would sit on a bench near Marylebone Station and contemplate what was going on, giving himself space to think and gain perspective on a life that spanned three different continents: Asia, Africa and finally Europe. It is something I have always aspired to achieve.

Walking around the famous reservoir in Jamnagar, that is now unfortunately running dry due to climate change, I imagined what it would have been like 70 years ago when he walked past the same, then brimming lake. It is a funny thing to feel an affinity with one you have never met. I imagine it is the same feeling as walking beside a character that you envisioned in a book; one that you had a real relationship with, but will never be able to meet.

Did he get the same itching to travel the world? To see the stars beyond the sky in front of him? I discovered his old passport this year, and it was covered with stamps from different countries including Tanzania, where I climbed Kilimanjaro. He lived in a world that didn’t have planes, or fast trains, but boats and steamers. What took us a day would have taken him three months, but he carried on. He ditched his sandals for shoes and walked a mile of footsteps with nothing to guide him but his heart.

It seemed pretty surreal to look at the same sunset all these years later with the knowledge that he succeeded. He made it to the other side of the world and back. Through us. Through me. And we never exchanged a word. There is something so beautiful about that.

And now the shoes have been passed onto me.

Reading The (Gujarati) Signs

I learnt Gujarati, my home language, religiously until the age of 11. I remember sitting in a women’s kitchen, with a makeshift whiteboard on the wall to my left, looking down at a tattered textbook that I imagine was probably used by teach her children, leaning on a table that was covered in a thin plastic sheet to prevent the ink from our pens ruining her mahogany table. As I look out the window of this campervan, and try to read the various signs of these shops that we keep passing syllable by syllable, I must admit that those lessons seem to have come in handy.

This will be the third time that I have visited India in the last two years, having never set foot in the country before my 18th birthday. It was more by luck than circumstance that I was able to come in the first place, but this trip is completely different. I can’t remember the last time that we went on a proper family holiday, as both my brother and I have taken the last 6-7 years consecutively to finish our university degrees; but that means that we haven’t been away together as an entire family for nearly a decade.

India seemed the natural choice. My mum, having not been back since Nikhil was a baby (some twenty years ago), has been itching to come back and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. My only cousin out here in Gujarat is finally getting married, which is the only real incentive that she needed to plan out her ideal trip. Only two days in now, and already on the way to our third location it seems like she is determined to make up for lost time. I am less apprehensive than I was before we arrived – having mostly been travelling on my own for the past four or so years – I now feel happier and less stressed knowing that the weight of all this running around is much less heavy and more luxurious than I could afford on my own. There seems to be a lot more luggage though.

After a really stressful couple of months, this feels like the perfect time to start writing again. I wasn’t planning on doing anything like this when I left, which is unusual as I carry a journal with me all the time, but I don’t remember the last time I wrote anything down for me. My diary is always full of appointments, my pads full of seminar notes and my head full of conversations. At some point in the last two years, I just stopped engaging with them all and decided that my responsibilities were more important than my personal development.

Today was the first day in a while that I looked out the window and felt that pang to write. Anyone who writes a blog probably understands the feeling. Reading those signs in Gujarati shot me back into that kitchen in my childhood, my connection with my grandmother (we will get onto this another time) and this big move forward for my family. India has always been about heritage and at this moment, all I want to do is write it down which is fantastically exciting.

This space for my writing has always remained a risk and a source of nervous tension. When I plan what I want to say, it changes at least eight times before the final version is ready. Ironically, I re-wrote that previous sentence a few times before I was happy with it. However, I am going to go back to how it was at the beginning of this journey and write fearlessly. The next month will be the most honest conversation that I have had with anyone who reads this since I started writing as a confused and scared teenager.

I can scarcely remember what it was like to be that 11 year old who sat in the kitchen. Let’s go and find him.

This Is For You

I’m sitting on a train contemplating adulthood. I never much felt like a teenager, but now it’s a fact. And I can’t help feeling like I got here too soon. Thinking back to the first time I got on a tube myself, or when my Mum trusted me to get the bus to school on my own, clutching a handful of 20p coins that I shakily gave the bus driver. Snatching my ticket and jerking my head back, I could see a smile on her face and watery eyes – I was growing up. Now sitting on a train, the thousandth time on my own, it makes me realise how such a scary notion has become second nature.

I started to look back at my old school photos, and wondered how I’ve managed to lose the dimple in my left cheek over the years. How the clothes started to get a bit tighter and the collar a bit sharper. And the final one in a suit, with hair slicked back, almost ready to take on the world too soon. Now wearing the same suit, with three others in the wardrobe, ready to take on job interviews and actually seeing the minus sign in my bank account disappearing (for a short while at least).

Being 20 comes with pressure. And it is all self-inflicted. The party that I turned up to seven years ago, when I didn’t really know anyone, has become all too familiar. It isn’t about video games but the Game, and the drinks are less fizzy and more fermented. Everyone is a little bit more blurry, and the morning after is starting to hit harder. Innocence was lost a long time ago, but Ignorance is starting to fade. As I read in a recent VICE article, the party doesn’t end until you wake up and walk home.

But I don’t want to. I was sitting with a few friends in the early hours of this morning, the obligatory “Happy Birthday” sung amidst some of the people that really matter at university. I wasn’t in a mass of people, there was no cake or formality – it was a relaxed smile and a cold drink…I much prefer that. The party that I am turning up to has changed, the world has changed, but I haven’t – not in myself. The real 13 year old that got onto the bus, handing in that change, is now looking to make a different sort of change at 20.

I am not a birthday person. I never have been, but I like the fact that I can reconnect with my past, and the people that hold up that mirror. This is the first time it felt different. When I woke up feeling like things are actually clearer. I am healthy, content, assured, smiling and loved. I couldn’t ask for much more when the daylight hit my face this morning.

This birthday isn’t for me. I never want it to be. I want it to be about the people that have supported me. That have loved and lost me. That have walked in and out, leaving the door open so I can see them waving in the distant. This day is my thank you to them – not the other way around. Because I wouldn’t be here to “celebrate” it without them. I would still be the shaky handed, slick haired kid with fear in his eyes as to what was coming.

My body is not shaking anymore, although my hair is a little rougher. And I definitely need a shave. I am not afraid of the future, I am embracing it. And this means embracing you. So if you see me, hold out for that hug and smile.

Because this is for you. Cheers.

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Meet Ann and Trevor

These stories are such bittersweet reading. You feel your heart pound as the details of these sufferers is laid bare in their own words, but you are empowered by their courage to do one simple thing: be brutally honest. I can’t think of a better couple that empower this ideal than the Reeds, Trevor and Ann whose lives were wrecked 7 years ago.

To make matters worse, it was Christmas morning in 2007 when Trevor started to shake uncontrollably, when he should have been opening presents with his children and sipping champagne. It became clear after a few hours that Trevor had contracted meningococcal septicaemia, where poison was getting to his brain, and he was hours away from death. He was a mere 51 at the time.

On the day when everyone is resting at home, the Reeds were slowly fighting to keep their family together. As his organs slowly started to give way, he fell into a coma, and it was unclear whether he would get through the day. From x-ray to scan to medication, doctors were desperately trying to treat the infection before it started to spread to other parts of the body. He was hanging by a thread.

But the human spirit is not fragile. And belief is a wall that stands up in the quicksand of despair. Ann said “…I just talked. I could not lose him and I hoped he could hear me” and the sound of his wife’s voice was enough for him to tell her “How I love you” groggily as he started to make his recovery, three weeks after falling ill. He had survived. Though the disease had left its mark – Trevor had to have his fingers and toes amputated as they had deteriorated in the process of recovery and he was suffering from memory loss.

“But I am alive. In my heart I know it was the skill of the doctors in ICU who helped, but I honestly truly believe it was the love of my wife and family that pulled me through. Plus that amazing thing called willpower.” Usually I can write the words for others, but in this case, Trevor says everything that there is to say.

The money that is donated to the Meningitis Research Foundation, funded the befriending system that saw the Reeds matched up with a couple in a similar situation so that they could have some support. Trevor says this help was invaluable. Contracting meningitis and septicaemia can make life a lonely place, even if you have all the support in the world. It helps people to realise that in the darkest most isolated room in the hospital, there is someone there to offer a hand or an ear.

That is why I am asking you to support the work that is being done here. Read it, share it, talk about it. Give something back. Because none of us are safe until we have got it of it for good.

To read Ann’s story then click here and for Trevor’s testimonial follow this link.

#BeTheMiracle

Let The Dust Settle

It isn’t true when people say that setbacks make you stronger. It depends how many you have in a given time period. If you are constantly taking one step forward, and two steps back, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that you are going backwards. I felt like I was going backwards for a long time. It is always difficult to talk about this sort of thing, even on here, because it always comes across as self-indulgent. The truth is that this is my own form of therapy – the talki-I mean the writing cure. So it is slightly self-indulgent.

People don’t like to talk about the things that stop them from getting out of bed in the morning. It isn’t the natural conversation that you have over the dinner table. We prefer to talk about how our families are doing, or how our communities are changing, or what we are up to right now. We like to talk about politics, but not the drama that is going on in our lives. No one wants to know, we tell ourselves. They have their own problems to deal with and they won’t care about this insignificant speck of dust on the windshield of my existence. So I’ll keep it to myself, and we’ll talk about how muggy the weather has been recently instead.

But do you know the problem with dust? It builds. Soon, if we forget or choose to ignore the dust then it collects so much on this windshield that we can no longer see through it. And that is when an arrogant kid comes along and writes out “Clean Me!” on the front of it to make matters worse. I let the dust settle for too long.

I have never really been good at analysing the things that I do wrong. I’ve always got too many questions, and I’m searching for the wrong answers. So when I am about to take another step back, I can’t seem to stop myself and it’s the most infuriating thing in the world. When you know you are falling, but you have no idea how to catch yourself. And then it hit me. It is impossible to catch yourself. For we must all be caught.

It has taken me 19 years to realise that I need help. That I can’t do it alone. I always thought that speaking to those that are close to me and asking for advice was a sign of weakness, and so I never did. I learnt to deal with things myself and I learned to fend for myself, which has made me the person I am today. But it also meant that I fell faster and harder because I didn’t have all the answers. Well, no one does. But some have a better idea than others, you just have to find out. It is better to say something, than to lose your voice completely.

For the first time in a long while, I finally feel caught. And it feels amazing because when I get out of bed in the morning, I don’t want to look back at it. If you feel like you are falling, then reach out to someone or something. Reach out to the only person you trust, to a complete stranger or even a diary. It will be difficult. Just please, for the love of God, please promise me that you won’t let the dust settle.

365 Days Down

It will be a year today since my Ba passed away. And I sit here at 3:09AM trying to find the best way of telling you that nothing has changed. It feels pathetic and saddening. 365 days post that traumatic event, I can’t even lie and say that everything is better and everyone has moved on, because it isn’t and they haven’t. We’ve been coasting.

I want to tell you that I don’t feel cheated. I want to tell you that I am dealing with it in the best way that I possibly can. I really want to tell you that I am being mature about it. But I can’t tell you any of those things, because they are lies. I still feel as bitter as I did the day I found out what happened, I have just found better ways of dealing with it. It still haunts me because I am yet to understand the full implications of it.

I am away from my family. In the cocoon of my university life, I am sheltered from grief and reminders. All I have is a picture of us all from my brother’s graduation, but I can’t bear to look at it today. That was happy occasion, showered with love and pride, yet I can’t help feeling angry because she will miss all of the happy occasions to come. She will miss us getting married. She will miss holding her great-grandchildren. She will miss us growing old together.

And I miss her more than I thought I would. In two days, I will celebrate my birthday with friends that I did not think I would have the fortune to have after such a short space of time here on my own. Yet there is a part of me that feels empty knowing that when I call home, I will not hear her voice and she will not be able to feed cake to me. Every birthday for the rest of my life will be taunted by this memory.

Though it does not do well to dwell on these things and to remember her as she was, a part of me cannot remember. Every day, something fades and disappears into the banks of my consciousness and will continue to. Time is no healer. Time rearranges the sand so that we cannot make out the dunes any more. It is only when I shut my eyes tight and look into my childhood that I remember her smile, her laugh, her face. A glimmer of hope.

As I sit here, having to stop after ever four words to dry the tears that are streaming from my eyes, I don’t feel better. 365 days down, I still feel grieved and I am tired of feeling upset. I am tired of feeling frustrated and angry – I just want to find a place where I can see a picture of her without wanting to thrash or sob or cry out.

I want to smile. But clearly 365 days is not enough time.