If I used Twitter…

Here’s 10 things I would have tweeted recently (in 140 characters or less)

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
Ten months of cultural immersion concludes top development goal for Rajasthan is more shikanji. #UNDPmilleniumgoals #lemonade

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
Just massaged camel manure into sand. What have you done for environment recently? #gross #curiouslyenjoyable

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
Tik hei. Tik hei, bilkul, bilkul, bilkul sayey, ha bilkul. Tik hei, bilkul sayey. Sayey. Tik. Tiiik hei, tiik hei, ha, tik hei, tiiik hei. #indianphoneconversations

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
Those times I blamed kids for breaking hearing aid? Turns out was excessive sweat from head. #oops #probablyshouldnthitthem #disgusting

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
RT @Nokia You WON! Now, That’s some high-flying solitaire! #feelgood #grassrootvices

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
If I had a dime every time I flinched because I thought an insect was crawling on me. #actuallysweatdrops #girlscreams #fasttrackmillionaire

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
I can always rely on Facebook friends to keep me up to date with important global news. #cutecatvideos #ladygagavideos #palinscrewups #hangovers

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
I can always rely on Facebook friends to keep me up to date with latest Middle Eastern rebellion. #selfcenteredtouristsolidarity

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
There is an extreme weather event approaching, it’d be cool to film this. #whatnottodoinathunderstorm #sandlash #famouslastwords

simonmcnorton Simon McNorton
Kush thought large reddish bruise on forehead was bindi from temple. Called me handsome. #steelconstructionwirecollisions #summerfashion #slut

I do actually use Twitter occassionally, you can follow me here: http://www.twitter.com/simonmcnorton.

Posted in Experiences | Tagged , | 2 Comments

How Indian am I?

Part of my Indicorps’ adventure is about dissecting my connection to India. For those who think I have a killer tan, here’s the reveal: I’m actually half Indian. Believe me when I say it’s happened more than once, before I even got here. In fact, I think about fifty percent of people feel sufficiently awkward about race to avoid the question altogether, and assume neither, instead imagining me a miscegenation of the gods – which is fine.

Yesterday I wrote about community immersion, which got me thinking about how Indian I’ve become, from ‘fresh off the boat’ to Rajasthani villager. Gradual change is difficult for me to see, but I can see the change through reactions of people I encounter.

Language has been a big factor. In August last year I arrived knowing two words, ‘namaste’ and ‘panne’. I hadn’t, as Indicorps’ requested, made any attempt to learn Hindi, and I suffered for it. My Hindi still needs improvement.

Back in September, until around January, I made a point of persisting with bad Hindi. I’d answer questions with poorly structured answers and ask them in a random flurry of tenses. We don’t speak English, people would say. They’d complain to my friends that I always speak in English. ‘You need to start speaking Hindi’. ‘But I am speaking Hindi!’, I’d cry. They’d stare back blankly.

Now my Hindi is convincing enough to have people believe I’m from India, perhaps not from Rajasthan. Maybe I’m just a little bit stupid or perhaps I’m from Gujarat (interchangeable).

‘What village are you from?’


‘Is that in Maharashtra?’

‘No, it’s in Europe.’

‘South India?’

‘Actually, it’s outside India.’


‘Yes, near there’.

When they hear my mother is Indian the questions come a little faster. ‘So why don’t you speak Hindi?’ My mother is actually from Malaysia but descends from Andhra Pradesh, a region of south India where Hindi is not spoken. The local language, spoken by over 100 million people, is Telugu. ‘So you speak Telugu?’ Evidently, I don’t speak Telugu, for which I am chastised as a bad son (I blame my mother, which is again evidence that I am a bad son).

After ten months here I definitely look more Indian. My new physique – my patla patla frame – has removed evidence that I was once carnivorous, a small giveaway. I’m also darker. My NGO head recently told me that my hair has turned black. The next week his sister made the same comment. Presumably it was blonde when I arrived. I’ve also accumulated lines across my skin, and I will not use the f-word to label them (not that one). It’s a tell-tale sign of exposure to the sun, something of a Rajasthani trait.

And then there’s my clothes. Once meticulously ironed and colour coordinated, the only coordination that remains are dirt stains that carry from my neck through to my chapples. Today I’m wearing a clean khurta and once-white pyjama pants, but I doubt my efforts to look nice will carry through the week. By dress alone, I definitely look like I’m from Chachiyawas. But I’m still not that convincing.

People find it hard to believe that I could be part-Indian (‘Oh, so that’s why you have so many Indian features!’), because in so many ways I fit no stereotype they have. Here I am, an Indian raised abroad that cannot speak Hindi and is not religious (be I Hindu, Muslim, or Christian). ‘Who is your favorite god?’ How can I be Indian when I am so heterogeneous.

I don’t want to veer off-topic but this is where I love to challenge pre-conceived notions of what is right and what is wrong. Let’s take my heterogeneity regarding gender discrimination (there’s a pun in there somewhere).

‘Did you hear about Poonam?’


‘She has two boyfriends, she is a slut [implied, that is not an accurate translation].’

‘Don’t you have two girlfriends?’

The gender stump comes up very often. Everyone knows that they should treat women equally to men. And every will righteously declare that they are not sexist. And then they will make markedly sexist comments.

‘His new wife has been married once already, what kind of man is he?’

‘But Anurag has also been married twice.’

So I challenge sexism regularly. And people know that I’m right, that’s what makes it so fun. I’m pointing out their hypocrisy and they know immediately that they’re wrong.

It’s not just sexism, it’s everything.

‘What are you wearing?’

‘These, these are shorts, s-h-o-r-t-s.’

‘I know, but you can’t wear them.’

‘Why not?’

‘You just can’t.’

‘But it is so hot and these shorts keep me cool.’

Logic isn’t regularly employed here so when I point things like this out, it’s as if I’ve questioned the unquestionable. It’s conventional wisdom. If India approached every decision with a question rather than following conventional wisdom… well…. India would be a very different place. But I digress.

Breaking homogeneous norms here is a magnified deviance that attracts attention. It makes me less Indian and hinders my identity as part of the community, but it’s important to me and it’s important to them.

‘Why do you call your papa David?’

‘Because that is his name.’

‘But it is disrespectful. And you shouldn’t argue with him like that.’

‘Why not.’

‘Because he is your father.’

‘But he is wrong!’

That’s a big part of Indian culture I refuse to adopt, unyielding respect for elders. It’s part of the legacy of conventional wisdom, and again I blame many of India’s societal problems on a refusal to question or challenge parents. Respect for ancestral tradition is not inherently wrong, but you can question something while retaining respect for it. Here, questions are considered rude (although this rule never applies to me) and this plays out in classrooms and workplaces across Rajasthan. Again, I digress (but still maintain that this is a part of me that is not Indian).

So am I Indian? I like to think I’ve been elevated to a half-Indian pedestal. My mixed race heritage means I’m not expected to follow Indian protocol, but similarly I’m definitely not white. I’m somewhat impervious to fault because the disparity between expectation and actuality can be excused as a result of my miscegenation – by the gods. Because people aren’t quite able to identify me as one of them, I’m excused from norms they would otherwise apply to me.

But there is one answer that does not satisfy anyone.

‘No, I don’t have a wife.’

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Four thousand miles

It’s the middle of Sunday afternoon. Four thousand miles away, I’d be in a green park on a sunny summer day. This morning I’d have taken the dogs for a walk with my dad, I’d have chatted to my brother on the phone; he’s about to fly to the US for the summer. Last night my twin would have driven me to our friend’s stag party before he gets married next month. I might have spent some time watching TV, lazing on the sofa with a cup of tea, getting lost in a Sunday broadsheet. And around midday my mum would have cooked a delicious Sunday roast, I’d be content and full – full of food, love, around friends and family.

I didn’t sleep last night. I’ve had a fever for three days but I don’t have much medicine left to pick from. My first aid box is a little bare, except for rehydration packets and anti-diarrhea tablets. I woke up in sweat this morning; stepped outside to help Bhagchand lay the last camel manure across the courtyard. We’d started last night but it was too hot to finish. I’m the only other person on this side of campus so I wanted to keep him company. I told him we don’t have enough camel manure to grow a proper lawn but I couldn’t get the point across in Hindi, I miss speaking English.

A dried-out aloe plant, gifted to me by Indicorps’, sits lonely on the window sill. I can’t water it this morning because there’s no water yet. I use the same excuse for the pile of dirty laundry. At any rate, clean clothes turn brown in hours, labouring to scrub them clean seems pointless. I climb back onto my cot, lined with a thin sheet. The wooden bed crunches against my spine and pelvis. There’s not really much flesh there anymore to pad me. I’ve lost a lot of weight, I miss my health. That’s something you don’t appreciate enough when you have it.

My alarm clock, a gift from a friend now departed, tells me it’s 98 degrees Fahrenheit inside. There’s no electricity so the fan won’t start. The crisp night air turns to a dry haze with sun rise so I close the windows to keep the heat – and the sand – out. Justin calls me but we get cut off.

The campus is empty. It’s Sunday, so everyone returns to their villages to see their families, I miss my family. Without the children it’s eerily quiet, even Bhagchand leaves me to make the two hour bus ride home. He tells me he’ll be back in the morning. I need to get some food but I’m reluctant to come out of the shade – it’s hard to open your eyes in sunlight at that time – early afternoon. My fever makes the light more undesirable. Out in the open, a blast of sand knocks my hearing aid dead. It’s becoming ridiculously temperamental.

At the mess Kush is cooking, I try to talk but he’s about to go home too. Between his thick lisp and my temporary deafness we don’t get much small talk in. He’ll be back in the morning. He leaves the key to the kitchen with me.

Eating food, the same food, has become an insurmountable effort. The baked roti and dry, oily, sabji has become all-too routine, and I spend five minutes prodding the stark contents of my plate before tearing the bread. A million voices tell me to eat more, if only that was the solution. I crave everything from meat and pasta to chocolates and juice. I miss food.

The campus feels hideously remote, dead; forgotten to the world and hidden by sand storms blowing in from the Thar Desert. There’s no one here, they’ve all gone home to see their families. The kids I came to work with are into the second month of their summer vacation. I don’t get a summer vacation.

Sundays are not good days for me. It’s spare time and isolation that gives me pause for reflection.

I have good days and I have bad days. But today I miss home more than ever. I miss speaking to my parents, my family, and Justin. I miss sharing moments with friends who understand me. I miss the weather, computer comforts, home comforts, a cup of tea when I want it. I miss sleep and good food. And I miss my health and my hearing.

Above all this it was my project that sustained me. My responsibility to my community kept me motivated, it put things in perspective, and seeing my impact on their lives still does bring me happiness. In these moments, I can keep my composition and manner in the most desperate of environments.

But over the summer my project – and my kids – have not been here. They went home.

I can’t think about my home without tearing up. I’m surrounded by a billion people, but they aren’t family; they don’t share my life, my beliefs, or my language. My health has nose-dived and my hearing has all but gone. The people and places I turn to for support aren’t there.

I pull out the brown envelope from under my desk, full of old photos and letters wishing me well from friends, Becky, Siobhan, George, Cheryl, Justin, Laura, Jenny, Helen and Ed, Michael, my parents, grandmother and auntie, and my brothers. I’ve read them hundreds of times over; but photos and letters of support now remind me of what I’m missing.

In all my time here I’ve never wished to go home early. But today, I’m about ready to give up.


I pull out the brown envelope from under my desk, full of letters wishing me well from friends, Becky, Siobhan, George, Cheryl, Justin, Laura, Helen and Ed, Michael, my parents, grandmother and auntie, and my brothers. I’ve read them hundreds of times over, now they just remind me of what I’m missing.

Posted in Experiences, Journal Entries, Simple Living | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Community immersion, trust, and apathy

He lurched across the courtyard. I’d never seen him like this before, staggering into groups of well-wishers, cursing his friends indiscriminately, and stopping to retch on his graceful exit from the shaadi.

He wasn’t the only one drinking. From the moment we arrived at the village wedding in the desert region of Nagaur, I could smell alcohol; with it, trouble. Candid but obvious, it flowed freely from shadowy corners. It wasn’t light, either. Heavy liquors in old plastic bottles, with no obvious mixer. There was no attempt at moderation.

With the covert nature of a freight train through an opera hall, adolescent drinkers – many my friends – attempted to be sly about their habits. But young Indian men would not qualify as CIA operatives, and their attempts at secrecy bought attention to their shame and naivety. These were men convinced they were heroes, instead imperiously masquerading as sordid incarnations of depravity. How easily trust can be lost, respect replaced by disgust and disdain.

Plotting escape, I felt endlessly hypocritical. One year ago I not only tolerated that behavior, but most likely I was the starring thespian. The opium of the masses knows no borders. How can I judge people for making the same decisions I do? Surely it’s both condescending and arrogant to judge my community by one criterion and make excuses for myself?

But I did judge my friends. I scolded them without remorse. In rural India alcoholism is rampant and anxious mothers impose early curfews to protect their children, only to suffer unparalleled levels of domestic abuse inside the home. Villages: by day, vibrant farming communities; by night, centres of vice, violence and notoriety. As a moral imperative, I serve in opposition to drinking.

It’s important to realize the difference between my community here and that back home. As a westerner, alcohol does not invoke the same universal disdain and disgust in me that it does in every fearful child and mother here in Rajasthan. How can I do what is best for my community if I don’t allow for a difference between what me – the westerner – thinks is important, and what me – a member of the community – thinks is important? A more qualified candidate would call it anthropology, I call it community (or cultural) immersion. It’s considered an essential component of grassroots development.

As a core Indicorps’ value, community immersion asks that a Fellow become a member of their community in order to understand the priorities – needs, wants, and problems – of that community. As Fellows, we live in the communities we serve; we eat and sleep with them, sharing both stories and hard-working chores, no matter how laborious. Even our stipend is set to match local incomes.

Given my anecdote this makes sense, but community immersion is difficult to get right.

Indicorps’ values are subject to interpretation, with each fellow living them in their own right. As Fellows, we’ve talked about the importance of language in community immersion, where I’m outnumbered by native-speakers of Gujarati, Bengali, Hindi and other languages from the sub-continent. The consensus is that good language is essential to community immersion, which leaves me defeated, even if I disagree.

I speak bad Hindi, so I look elsewhere for opportunities to immerse in my community. There are plenty of ways to communicate; we have five senses, after all. But I depend on another important factor.

Trust is not something easily earned. A stranger on your doorstep offering quick fixes to daily struggles may sound enticing; but would you trust a stranger who turned up outside your front door to fix something you never considered a problem worth tackling? If you don’t trust them, then why would you trust me?

Like the anecdotal stranger, a lot of people question why I’m here. I struggle to answer the question; no one asked me to come and help and telling them I want to help sounds patronizing. Telling them I want to do service doesn’t sound convincing enough. It was me who decided they needed me, so who am I to ask for their trust? Luckily, trust comes hand in hand with service.

When my community sees me doing the same chores that they do – it means something. When they see that I’m willing to train teachers for a class that I won’t teach; that I’ve toiled to launch a business that will empower disabled people and their families; or that I will stand up to alcohol abuse while making myself unpopular – and all while asking for nothing in return – this earns their respect and their trust. Actions, after all, speak louder than words.

When my community sees an unflinching commitment to their cause they understand that we share a common goal. It’s a sacrifice worth making. Through mutual bonds, we identify and challenge problems together.

But there’s a reason people here haven’t found their own solutions. After just nine months, I’ve come to accept bovine vandalism, awful phone and internet reception, and a lack of road and traffic signals. Even the food doesn’t seem so bad. How can I spot problems if I’ve learned to live with them?

Recently Indicorps’ had the chance to meet Desh Despande, CEO of the Deshpande Foundation. The Deshpande Foundation funds a university, dozens of major development projects, and countless hundreds of minor experimental projects across Karnataka, effectively running its own research laboratory across the state and finding solutions to development problems.

The foundation also supports a fellowship programme to pioneer new development techniques; providing holistic approaches to old problems. It’s like the Indicorps’ Fellowship, but with a significant difference: Mr. Deshpande is hesitant about adding core values to his fellowship, and in particular he cited community immersion.

He said that community immersion prevented those in the field identifying and tackling the problems they face. He felt that by becoming too involved in communities, his fellows risked becoming apathetic to the challenges faced by members of the community.

I can offer countless anecdotes. My ease at riding three to a motorbike; making do with unclean water; eating the same, unvaried food; being agreeable to temperamental electricity; and dealing with cattle meandering down busy highways. All are candidates for development. But how can I fight for them when I’ve come to accept them as inevitabilities? I’m not sure I can.

It is clear that community immersion is something I find challenging. Living with my community helps me understand their needs; it helps me identify local solutions; and it is based on mutual trust. But it leads to apathy.

Having reason, rationality, and some level of objectivity helps keep things in perspective. While being in the moment, I need to be able to pull myself out to look at the bigger picture.

It’s arrogant to think that I know better than my community, but the truth is that I am here to help them find solutions to their problems. And part of that is helping them identify their problems. My method isn’t perfect, but it’s working, I hope.

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My nalgene bottle and I

Here in India I have to downplay the cost of everything to avoid ridicule. On a recent work-related endeavour in Delhi I bought a USB-powered desktop fan to sit under my laptop and cool it. It cost Rs. 1100, but I needed it. They’re not available in Ajmer, and my laptop overheats in minutes without it. To me, it was a worthwhile investment to avoid running my precious Acer Ferrari into the ground.

I told my community it cost Rs. 600, and they barfed at the ridiculous expenditure. Someone told me they could get me one for Rs. 100. People always tell me they can get me the same thing for a fraction of the cost. My Manchester United shirt? I told them it cost RS. 800 (about a third of the real cost), they laughed at my naïve spending habits and told me they could get me an exact replica for Rs. 200. They continue to tell me that I would be better making an annual shopping pilgrimage to India and sending everything home (or better yet, buying things in India to sell at inflated prices in the UK). I try to explain the many reasons that make this a bad idea, but they just don’t get it. To them, I’m an idiot who is wasteful with money.

I bought my nalgene bottle in 2008. At $19.99, I thought it was expensive, but I was in one of those instant gratification moods. It would have been cheaper online, for sure.

Yesterday I sat drinking chai with Nadan, Bhagchand and Devinderbhai on campus. They complained about the dirty state of my nalgene, asked why I hadn’t thrown it out, asked how much it cost. I recently decided that honesty was the best approach to cultural differences, so I told them the correct exchange cost, Rs.900. They all laughed at me relentlessly, clearly I’m an idiot for wasting my money/not cleaning something so expensive.

I explained that nalgene bottles are extremely strong while they told me I could buy another plastic bottle for Rs.10. Somewhere during the discussion I got frustrated (my hearing aid stopped working) and buried under the avalanche of mockery, I snapped. I threw the bottle across the hall and watched it smash into the wall, bringing down a little plaster with it.

But the nalgene bottle remained intact, unscratched, completely flawless. Look! I explained, Look how strong it is!

A little startled, and in disbelief, they were curious. Was my nalgene worth the investment? They’d never questioned my infallible plastic container, just scorned my attachment to it.

Things got very funny after that. I challenged them to break it. They started easy, knocking it on the floor. Nadan and Bhagchand attempted to karate chop and punch it, hurting their hands. Devinderbhai started to stomp on it, and hurt his foot.

I was in hysterics by this point, but it got better. Unsatisfied, they found some bricks outside. First they threw the bricks at the bottle. The bricks shattered on impact (bricks here have the consistency of a grass and hay mudpie). Then they found some larger rocks and tried to bring them down on top of the smarting bottle. Apart from a few exterior marks, it remained pristine.

At some point between throwing the bottle across the mess hall and bringing out a flamethrower, they decided to give up. I calmed down a little. They conceded that the bottle was impressive, but continued to tell me that I could buy it cheaper in India.

This morning at breakfast the nalgene bottle became the topic of conversation again. My friend Kush had returned from a wedding and the others challenged him to break the nalgene. He was hesitant, he didn’t want to break it. I explained that it was fine and he could break it to prove the others wrong.

I’m not sure what possessed him, but he seemed set on destroying it with his fists, and now has cuts across his knuckles and side of his palm. The nalgene earned a few more scratches, but is otherwise reveling in the attention.

I don’t think I was proven right – that the investment was worth it – but my friends are now fans of nalgene. That said, I’m sure they could buy it cheaper in India.

Posted in Experiences, Reflections | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Karnatakan Expeditions

Me, on the upper berth of the Chalyuka Express

Me, sat on the upper berth of the returning Chalyuka Express

49 hours later I found a number 4 tempo, the penultimate leg of my 1700km journey home from Karnataka, deep in the Indian peninsular. I’d been in Karnataka for a week-long Indicorps’ workshop, an experiment into multiple thresholds of humanity. The number 4 tempo takes me from Ajmer railway station to Shastri Nagar, where I can catch the local bus to the village of Chachiyawas.

I shared the tempo with two men. One of the men seemed to enjoy talking at the other one. Until the other one got out. Then he turned on me. ‘Jajijajas,’ he hollered. I drew blank.


‘Jajijajas!’ He was persistent. He moved next to me to see if I’d understand him better when he spat it in my deaf ear. ‘JAJIJAJAS! GAAM!’

Gaam means village – I put two and two together – he meant Chachiyawas.

‘Ha! Mei Chachiyawas se!’ I replied. He was ecstatic. He was also very drunk, barely coherent and by this point was projecting chewed tobacco, adding another coat to the several layers of dirt and sweat that occasionally terraform my face.

The journey to and from Karnataka is a logistical challenge; over 100 hours round-trip. This journey is the last of my multi-day travel during the Indicorps Fellowship (my final trip back to Ahmedabad in eight weeks is a spritely fourteen hours).

I commenced my erstwhile Karnatakan adventure in the early morning eleven days ago. The bus connecting me to Ajmer was full when it arrived and made only a marginal attempt to slow down; there was no chance of me performing the acrobatics required to reach the roof while laden with rucksack. I hitched on the back of a motorbike instead, the driver kindly dropped me at Ajmer’s government bus station.

The first time I used government bus transport I wanted to cry. Government bus stands in Rajasthan come straight from a sci-fi script; dozens of huge, lumbering buses rolling in and out of a giant concrete-cum-corrugated shack, complete with terminals (as if an airport), flashing neon signs, and offering enough varieties of human and kichori to match a Star Wars bar scene.

There is no English, even the signs are written in Devenagari, but nowadays I can read the script enough to figure out which of the nineteen ticket counters sells tickets to Kota.

This six hour leg of the journey was the most uncomfortable. As a law of Rajasthani bus physics, when the outside temperature is 45C, the inside temperature hovers around 307C. You have only two options, the sauna sweatbox rollercoaster or the blow-dryer catapult express. With the windows closed, you suffocate in a sweaty suspension-less haze. If you open the windows, you can hang out in the exhaust stream of a sand geyser.

The bus was full of characters. I was lucky to get a seat next to the central aisle, which was jammed with larger women. When someone decided to belt out track five of the Ultimate Rajasthan Dance Collection 2011 I was repeatedly face-bumped by an oversized bottom keeping to the beat. Later, the same lady asked me to call a number from her phone. She was illiterate (unable to read the numbers she gave me) and her phone was set to Hindi. That was interesting. The noise on the bus meant I couldn’t hear a thing she was saying, but between my intuition and her frantic gesturing we eventually reached resolution.

The ride to Kota has its moments. After four hours, you descend through a gap in the mountains into a valley where the historic city of Bundi is situated. The winding road clings to the side of the valley. Opposite, the foreboding city palace and walls impose over the crumbling blue and brass havelis of the old city. In the center, a dried up lake plays home to grazing cattle.

Entering Kota offers a contrast, being hit first by the smell emanating from Asia’s largest fertilizer factory. Moments later, you spot red lights somewhere in the stratosphere that mark the perimeter of numerous industrial and chemical plants, before trundling into the smoggy, sweaty, and crowded bus terminal from another planet (but still in the Star Wars galaxy).

That evening I was meeting three of my co-fellows in Kota for the next leg. I tried to catch an auto-rickshaw to the railway station. Auto-wallas are notorious for trying to cheat foreigners, so after several minutes of failed trade negotiations, I usually end up walking (and regretting my stubborn nature for the sake of Rs. 20 (30p/40c)). The first walla offered me Rs.50 for the short trip. I explained this was unfair and he wouldn’t budge. The next offered me Rs. 70, which he reduced to Rs.50 after a little hassle. Then a member of India’s vodka-testing-team came to share his wisdom. He explained that it was Rs.100 to the station and that he would take me. Faced with exploitation or death, I chose neither and moved on. Luckily, I spotted a tempo (shared transport) heading for the train station, and for the cheap sum of Rs. 5, I made it there.

I met up with my co-fellows outside the station and indulged in some Punjabi Paneer. Our late train finally arrived at 12.30pm. Thirteen hours after I’d left Chachiyawas, I hadn’t even escaped Rajasthan.

The train was delightful, complete with overbooked waitlisted travelers who had fallen asleep in our pre-booked berths. When we claimed our seats, a disconcerted evictee wasn’t happy so he slept on the floor between our beds, feet up in the face of a co-fellow, and made loud, heavy, sweaty noises. We got a photo which made it better. We fell asleep quickly and woke up around 6am, nineteen hours into my adventure.

This part of the journey, aboard the FZR BCT JANTA EXPRESS, was scheduled to take twenty hours and fifteen minutes and would get us as far as Dadar Station in Bombay. When we woke up six hours into our journey, we were clearly a little agitated that we still had fourteen hours to go in a crowded train. Chai generally solves all world problems, and it definitely helped that morning.

We were excited to see that we had electricity outlets in our carriage. But much like my home in Chachiyawas, the train enforced blackouts for the entire day. With mobile internet off the table, we shared stories from the two months since we last met and did some reading. I actually finished my second book in less than a month – Game Change. It wasn’t as funny as Tina Fey’s Bossypants, but it was very interesting.

We shared the carriage with a school football team on their way from somewhere in northern India (I want to say Punjab but I’m not sure). My conversation with them faltered and nosedived when I tried to explain that I support Manchester United, but they chatted with my co-fellows while I dreamed of a day when I speak Hindi properly. We all remarked on the contrast between what we saw and our project sites – that a school could afford to send a team across the country to participate in a football tournament; while in Chachiyawas, we ration the food we give to our kids (despite their clear malnourishment).

Indian trains are like mobile cities. We brushed our teeth, attempted to shower, ordered food and drank even more chai – all without leaving our carriage. The climate change as we travelled south was noticeable, from the sweaty, arid desert in Rajasthan through into Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. In Maharashtra we crossed a fairy-tale border – the mighty Narmada river – and into the lush and green Western Ghats region of western peninsular India. The temperature, with relief, drops massively.

By 8pm, thirty-three hours after leaving my room, we made it to Bombay, where we met up with more Indicorps’ Fellows and members of the Indicorps’ staff team. Here we were rushed. The team was splitting as the ongoing train to our final destination – Dharwad-Hubli – was overbooked. The Chaluyka Express was available only by ladies quota, meaning that the women had seats. The men were booked on a private bus from across the city.

I was stunned by my first experience of Bombay. Like most of India, but more apparent, the desperate poor were flanked by the indolent rich. Our bus departed from a roundabout that would have resembled somewhere in New York’s Queens or Brooklyn, were it not a very un-American roundabout.

The bus was a few minutes late, arriving at 9.45pm. After gorging on some cheap (Rs.10) fruit salad – my first fruit in weeks – we got on. Our Indicorps’ staff member had our tickets, sleeper seats 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23. And there were only three of us. We saw the berths, S18, S19, S20, S21, S22 and S23, and got in. These were an exciting few minutes as we made ourselves comfortable on the two double berths and a single, happy we would finally get some sleep on the air-conditioned bus, complete with suspension and other fancy additions (including power sockets).

Ten minutes later we were kicked out of our berths, our temporary joy permanently suspended by the realization that we were booked in the sleeper seats, not the sleeper berths. We tried to make ourselves comfortable on the reclining seats on offer. The air of demoralization was palpable – fourteen hours in a seat makes your bottom ache.

I woke up around 5am, fourty-two hours after leaving Chachiyawas. It was cold and mosquitoes – currently off-season in Chachiyawas where they are executed by sun-driven firestorm – were feasting on whatever skin was exposed from the thin sheet I had covered myself in. Not happy. But the scenery was markedly different, as was the level of development. On either side, lush green fields and blossoming trees made me feel I’d crossed into India’s nirvana.

Six hours later we reached Dharwad. It’s difficult to explain my surprise at a city where none of the buildings are in decay, where streets are clean and where everyone – men and women – are dressed in clean clothes. Occasional beggars aside (and assuming I didn’t see many slum-areas), this was a city, and state, decades ahead of rural Rajasthan in development stakes by both economy and equality.

Fourty-nine hours after leaving Chachiyawas we arrived at our home for the next few days, a nature and yoga center a short local bus ride from Dharwad city center. Exhausted, we had two hours to freshen up and prepare ourselves for the week-long Indicorps’ workshop.

The journey was the easy part. But thankfully, despite being 1700km from home, Karnataka still serves chai.

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International Day Against Homophobia: Who is fighting for you?

Today I came out in Rajasthan. It was a tense, meticulous, and emotional conversation – like telling my family – but this time in a village in rural India. The reaction of my colleague was exceptional: ‘It’s a private, personal matter. What matters is what you do and what you’ve done. You have made a difference here, this is what is important’.

It’s what you want to hear when you tell someone that you’re gay. But today, it wasn’t what I expected to hear. Today I talked openly about gay equality in rural Rajasthan, a bastion of conservatism. I told a friend the truth about who I love and I was prepared to hear the worst. I got lucky.

Rajasthan is one of India’s poorest and most underdeveloped states. Tourists marvel at the rich history and tribal traditions, traditions that continue to reign throughout the desert-state. It has the worst literacy rate in all of India and only half of all households have electricity. Here, women are owned; equality – and with it homosexuality – is definitely not on the agenda. So if being gay in India is difficult, then coming out in a village in Rajasthan is plain irresponsible.

May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia. The timing of my disclosure is coincidental; in India you might call it fate. In eleven years as an out, gay man – including four years working for gay equality organisations on both sides of the Atlantic – I’ve watched barriers fall as we worked towards progressive politics and social change. Back home in the UK – with a raft of anti-discrimination legislation and gay marriage on the cards – I’m able to celebrate who I love like anyone else.

The movement in India lacks such momentum. Two years ago homosexuality was finally decriminalized, yet tens of millions of Indian men and women remain closeted. Because marriage is so sacred and talking about sex is so taboo, Indian society presents an indefatigable barrier to homosexuality. International Day Against Homophobia will be celebrated in London, New York and Paris, but the message will dissipate the moment it crosses the Ganges.

When I accepted my Fellowship one year ago I made a decision to keep my sexuality secret. I remember responding to friends who wanted to work in international development but suffered a predicament: How can I help a community who will persecute me because of who I am? You make a sacrifice, I said. If you want to empower, support and develop poor communities the world over, then you should be ready to make that sacrifice. Which is more important? I made that decision.

I’m an avid advocate for social justice which is why the Indicorps’ Fellowship has been so magical. My work with disability has enabled me to provide opportunities to people across my district in employment and education. And my hearing impediment serves as a role model to worried parents that their child stands a chance. I’m lucky to be where I am.

But alongside my work, a personal fight for social justice has emerged. Through the internet, through personal errors, and through friends, I’ve lost ownership of the choice I made to conceal my sexual orientation. In this new scenario I face being ‘outed’ before my Fellowship year is over. Coming out in Rajasthan? Alarm bells are ringing.

Had I arrived in Rajasthan as a parading, rainbow-colored beacon of gay equality it is quite likely that I would not be here today. By coming out I risk being ostracized and ruining what I’ve achieved, being in the closet has kept conversation firmly on my work – fine by me.

But hiding my sexuality from close friends and colleagues in Rajasthan is made difficult by the sexual inquisition that befalls a liberal westerner. The denial of who I am is against everything I stand for, and by conforming to the norms of my community I induce self-disgust at my apparently obscene perversion. My encounters with gay Indians so far have been shameful cases of harassment. I know better, that a repressive sexual culture is to blame; but if manifested to society in this form, is it surprising that my community consider it sinful?

I speculate their reaction: You sleep with men? That’s not right, it’s sick! Get out of my home! When living through a lie – the lie consumes you. I am a pervert, this is sordid. Like inception, the morality of my community has become me. My relationship, my values, my work in gay equality; working in India requires a devaluation of everything that matters to me, my own cause. Isn’t it ironic: fighting for the equality of others at the expense of your own?

How do I reconcile my battle for social justice with the prejudice of those I’m trying to help? As a young, determined and conscientious man making an impact and fighting a just cause for the disabled, I’ve impressed my community. In light of recent events, I’m determined to prove that I can use this experience to serve as a role model for countless Indians.

So now I’m facing a juncture in my fellowship year. Should I commit to the decision I made a year ago? Should I restrain my pride and lock the closet door, confiding in those I trust to control the disclosure in a damage-control operation?

Or should I take control over what has become inevitable, using the confidence, trust, and respect I’ve gained, combined with the immunity of a foreigner, to challenge that very raw and untouched stigma in Indian society. Should I be (Am I?) an example of how things might be if only people understood?

On the second day of my fellowship I confided to my American mentor that I was not here to be gay; I reiterated the commitment I made before I came, that my cause was greater than my need.

But what if my cause is my need?

Today is International Day Against Homophobia. Many people around the world will rightly celebrate years of liberation and social change. But for hundreds of millions of men and women who face a lifetime of repression, isolation and persecution because of who they love, today is no different to tomorrow. Who is fighting for them?

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A quick note on haircuts

My family holds me infamous for my history of bad haircuts. I’m to blame for misdirected styles that come straight from a Tekken lineup. But hairdressers must share credit for the slanderous photo legacy that I left in my wake.

In India it’s easier to get my hair cut than before. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, there are just two significant styles in Chachiyawas. The hairdresser is an expert at these two cuts. I get my hair cut fogy-style. This means I get it cut army-style. The simplicity and expertise of the hairdresser in cutting my hair to this standard means I get the same thing, every time (this sounds like a commercial, but there’s a reason I’m fawning).

Secondly, currently my mastery of Hindi is enough to explain a subtle adjustment to the standard cut – that I want it longer on top – but not so good that I confuse the hairdresser with a range of requirements garnered from the glossary of Topiary Monthly. I also think my hairdresser has less passion to practice creativity than the gay lineup offered at Covent Garden’s finest.

Thirdly, I have less hair than I did before. India has balded me somewhat (this is a blessing in disguise). My trichological woes mean the hairdresser has less hair to style and thus increases the chances of getting it right. For example, if I was bald, I would have just one hairstyle.

I think fourthly, and my favorite part about it, is that haircuts here cost Rs. 15 (about 20p/30c). They take about 15 minutes, and the hairdresser operates in a shanty, corrugated iron hut on the dusty roadside about five minutes from the campus gate. This sounds grubby, but the convenience cannot be understated. I can get my haircut every two weeks to keep it trim and pretty.

I have thought about paying the hairdresser to become the first member of my presidential entourage.

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My experiences with psychologists

Here at RMKM psychologists are in large demand. They are also very, very well respected. I think, given the admiration they receive and the awe in which they are held, they are considered equitable to rocket scientists and brain surgeons in intelligence rankings. I am flattered by the often-held assumption that I am a psychologist or – after the bashful truth is known – praise that I am an honorary psychologist owing to my astronomical IQ of 97.

We have no fewer than three fully trained psychologists and two in-training. Yet for all the psychologists we throw at the problems here, the children are rarely assessed; the role of the psychologist is largely reserved for teaching people to work with children with developmental disabilities. That, and to put yellow garlands on people at lengthy, dull ceremonies and functions. Their role in interacting with our children is limited.

Eight weeks ago a new psychologist moved into the hostel. It’s common for new staff to have difficulty getting the children on-side and this psychologist was no exception, repeatedly failing to gel with the kids in a productive manner. The most important tool we have is patience, the ability to rise above unpleasant situations and persist to hammer a message home. Bad behavior is not tolerated, and I’ve worked diligently to help staff understand the benefits of stoicism in face of bad temperament (although I often fail in my patriarchal duties).

In early May I was surprised to find the new staff member, anonymously called psychologist-walla (mainly because I can’t spell his name) taking two of the most-popular children for a morning walk across campus. How sweet, I thought; he’s actually engaging the children (hitherto not within his realm). Five minutes later he returned hand-bound with a kid on either side. The two children, smiles beaming, were gloriously munching on sweets bought from the store on the edge of campus. Outraged! The new psychologist-walla had used bribery to get the two most-popular children on-side!

I learned lessons from this episode, most importantly that psychologist-walla really understood the psychology of the children and would exploit this for self-serving purposes, uprooting the work of dedicated hostel staff. But he clearly didn’t understand our work enough – or find it important enough – to realize that he had set a precedent for the children and how they could be treated if only they were manipulative enough.

It made me think about the wider work of psychologists on campus and how little they achieve, despite their over-arching presence in all matters. They are rarely questioned, even in cases like this. As a rude generalization, they often act with the demeanor of a spoiled and out-of-touch monarch, elevated to an undeserved level of respect and incapable of carrying out their work. It’s almost as if they trained (or are training) for the position simply because it brings unadulterated praise and respect.

It turns out that I don’t get on with most psychologists because of their patronizing nature, which turns me into a frenzied goblin. I’m also genuinely frustrated by the fact that between three psychologists we have yet to conduct a coherent and effective assessment of the children just once, let alone on a regular basis. But that’s endemic of most entities here in India. Lots to brag about but little to show for it. The question of outcomes is rarely asked. ‘You have three psychologists and you put a garland round my neck?! I will sign this cheque imminently’.

It is psychologists who most often refer to me as having special needs because of my hearing loss (I am grateful that they stop short of full-out mental retardation). This is regularly mentioned when we have oblivious guests who can be awed by my ability to stand up straight and drink water without dribbling down my chest, such is their understanding of special needs. This misappropriation seems reserved to psychologists, despite their so-called study of the subject. Teachers and other staff are far more generous of my ability as a person with disability to be a role model for their children.

It’s probably not fair to make sweeping generalizations about psychologists. But the scale of my bad encounters with members of the profession is a cause for frustration. But there are exceptions.

There is one psychologist who – in my experience – is genuine, capable, and caring. At times he seems on an endless quest for knowledge, completely dedicated to understanding his field. I’m very lucky to call him a friend and a mentor. Owing to his conscientious attitude, he was recently promoted above the remit of psychology into management. But he has remained diligent and been a great ally in effecting change on campus; his IQ is evident without a name plaque featuring the abbreviations of fourteen qualifications. Yet I do worry that his presence in the upper-echelons will reduce him to a career in placing yellow garlands on chief guests who are three hours late.

Maybe I’m just bitter than I haven’t endured the necessary requisite of intense study to receive acclaim. But I think beyond that, I’m bitter that so much faith, time, and resources are invested in these people to help our work here, and yet we have so little to show for it. Perhaps, actually, taking steps backwards (see child bribery, above). But what have I done about it? The sorry truth is that for all my frustrations and complaining, I haven’t actually done anything to fix the problem yet.

And that makes me a bitch.

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10 things I’ve done this year (but haven’t told you about)

Often I mean to blog about an experience but don’t quite get round to it. When I do find the time, the moment has gone. Here’s a quick cap of 10 memorable moments I haven’t covered, before I forget.

1. I rescued a goat from a spider-pit.

There really is nothing I can add to offer more clarity. I rescued a goat from a spider pit. But there is an anecdote I must offer from an anonymous member of the rescue team, let’s call him Dave.

DAVE: ‘There are too many spiders. Maybe we’ll have to let him die.’

I am not one for letting a goat die because of arachnophobia.

2. I contracted Dengue Fever (and lived to tell the tale).

While staying in a flooded village in rural Gujarat I got very ill and lost a lot of weight. The doctor told me I had mild Dengue Fever. I refudiated* this diagnosis when I was offered a course of painkillers and vitamin C tablets to combat the deadly disease and recovered in a few days. I blame the water buffalo that shared my living quarters.

3. I got a very nasty bout of diarrhea in a slum in Ahmedabad at 4am.

Last August I stayed in a slum in Ahmedabad and was offered bad chicken. I woke up at 4am and had to find a toilet in the middle of a dark, powerless slum in monsoon season. Those are two hours I won’t forget.

4. I ride on the tops of buses

The classic Indian adventure. This has succeeded just once (I’ve attempted to do it at least ten times). Failed attempts usually involve a combination of the following factors:

a. Bus not slowing down enough

b. Failing to accurately compensate for the speed of the bus with the speed of my leap

c. Failing to accurately gauge the length of the required leap

d. Rear ladder not properly attached to bus

e. Lacking testicular fortitude

5. I slept one night in the basement of a Sikh Gurudwara and got hit during an arbitrary dispensation of justice featuring Kirpan (ceremonial spears).

I don’t want to stir up racial/religious tensions but I would like to quote my anonymous co-worker, lets call him Rupert.

RUPERT: ‘Sikhs have a problem with alcohol and a tendency towards aggressive resolution of differences’.

6. I won a trophy at a National Awards ceremony in Delhi

This is the first time I’ve won anything. It was for a business plan which I worked on for 144 consecutive hours (it was submitted three days over the deadline). I gave a speech and things (in English). Best of all, we will receive funding and consulting from business, marketing and branding experts over the next three years to help establish an enterprise to employ people with disabilities.

7. I got caught in a parade to celebrate Mahavir Bhagwan’s birthday in Jodhpur

I was actually with my parents in Jodhpur when we got caught in a small (large) friendly (terrifying) festival. The festival (stampede) featured lots of floats (tractors) in the narrow streets of old Jodhpur. We were walking against the flow of traffic, which allowed us to watch out for things that might kill us. The large terrifying tractor stampede also included large rolling spiked balls ala Indiana Jones.

8. I treated leprosy patients in a jungle in Maharasthra

Actually, this was at a hospital in a small community called Anandwan – I played nurse for about thirty minutes. Anandwan had an incredible history, founded in 1948 as a haven for those suffering from leprosy to find acceptance and treatment, it has grown today to a thriving colony of international stature. See here.

9. I fed an orphaned giant sloth in an animal sanctuary in a jungle in Maharasthra

This I actually did. Giant Sloths are very fast, very big, and very scary (David Attenborough takes bribes to tell you otherwise). They eat by sucking food in through their huge, thick lips. It sucked chapatti bread from my hands six inches away. A lapse of concentration and it would suck my brain from my skull.

10. I slept with a giant cockroach

This has happened more times than I care to remember. I once woke up in the early morning at a bus station in Nagpur with an itch. I stretched and realized I had a giant cockroach on my chest (underneath my khurta). I had a small seizure accompanied by soundtrack in a surprisingly populated, if cavernous, bus shelter.

On the same topic, I once woke up at 5am on a sleeper train (at my stop) to find two small children sharing my bed. Clearly, their parents had commandeered my reservation and opted not to tell me.

*use of refudiated courtesy of Sarah Palin

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