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What to do if you NEED to “go!” Public toilets in India

There are simply things not done in polite society… and yet when there are no easy ways to do what most consider rather private activities, it becomes a very public matter.

My favourite walking spot is the promenade with a view of the Bandra Sea Link. I’ll never forget one time I watched a mother patiently help her young daughter learn how to squat and defecate over a drainage hole. If you live on the streets, it is certainly a better alternative than many other options.

So the other day, I was delighted to see colourfully painted public toilets for men and women… set up to service the labour community that has sprung up next to the Sea Link promenade to build the new metro station. How fabulous!

Except, despite appearances and it being a terrific initiative, they don’t work. At all.

Instead, they stand locked, testament to a great idea with infuriatingly poor execution. Clearly money was spent to set them up, but not to actually keep them functioning.

It is hard not to be cynical. Until GST, on every transaction an additional 0.5% cess was paid to raise funds for “Clean India” i.e. Swachh Bharat… which is best seen in propaganda paintings supporting the government agenda of the day rather than real change.

As a woman, I dare you to find a decent public toilet outside of fancy malls…. that works.

However I remain optimistic. I take hope in the efforts of individuals who work to improve things… despite the odds.

PS – Interestingly this post prompted racist hate mail, naturally by a man, offended that I was concerned that time, money, effort went into something which could serve public good but doesn’t. Because after all “Foreigners like you have only to say shit things about India like any typical Westerners.” Hmm… I suppose having a life linked directly with India since 1990, nearly 20 years calling India home means nothing and I’m not entitled to have an opinion as my origins are outside India. I wonder if that same individual, if living in say Canada, would believe he has no right to be concerned about something he finds potentially positive but frustratingly not fulfilling its mandate?

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Aspirations of becoming a ‘zamindar’… sort of…

When you have spent your entire adult life in rented homes and apartments, owning your own little slice of property is a dream.

Living in India with my current status means there are considerable hurdles to ownership, however as an Indian citizen, my husband can.

Right from when we met, he was looking at land outside Mumbai… after a few near hits, misses and – let’s face it swindles – it seemed at long last we  found our little slice of heaven on the road from Mumbai to Goa.

Our ‘blue room’ aka study/guest room

Until our landlord threw a spanner into the works!

He has regretfully given us notice… our beloved Bandra home will be sold over the next 2-3 months.

Very kindly, he’s given us the 1st opportunity to buy it… knowing that after nearly six years, the building society is happy with us and even the secretary keeps urging us “Ask your landlord to sell to you!” 

We also know what to expect… cognizant that every decade or less, there will be upheaval as infrastructural repairs take place. We’d be only too happy to remain.

Alas, his expectations are double our current capacity and yet, with his announcement, we halted our plots and plans for land outside Mumbai to shift focus completely to our backyard.

A rare remaining Bandra bungalow… naturally 100 times outta our league…

To make an interesting discovery…

What was once completely out of our reach has now become a difficult but not impossible.

Thanks to demonetization, home purchases can be made with ‘white’ money.

Thanks to GST and further slowing of the economy (no matter what may be said publicly, this is the case!), prices have come down considerably.

And biggest surprise to us both, free-lancers like ourselves may actually be eligible for a modest mortgage… as banks are crying out for ‘assets’.

So… if anyone knows of a decent 2BHK (translation 2 bedroom, hall, kitchen with 2 bathrooms) anywhere in Bandra West, East, Khar and even a bit beyond… let us know!

And don’t laugh at our budget… it is small but sincere.

PS – Turns out it was a ‘false alarm’! No sooner had we decided against buying, found a new flat, were about to sign the lease… our landlord decided NOT to sell after all. Given our overall comfort in our current abode, hassle and expense of moving, we’ve decided to accept his change of heart and renew for another three years. Our aspirations remain unquenched… just now back to our original plan to get a wee plot of land in the country.

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Being “Mrs Smith”…. Everyday life post shadi

Thanks to the movie “Mr & Mrs Smith“, folks delight in calling us by that monikar…

Now thankfully we don’t have any assassination plans for each other, however it is amazing how many times I’m asked “How does it feel to be Mrs Smith?”

Here is the thing, I’m not actually Mrs Smith but remain Ms Hickling – firmly, confidently and happily so with the full support of my hubby.

And in terms of our everyday life, very little has changed.

Many folks assume this will help with my Indian visa… and it may in a couple of years but not anytime soon. The rules in India are one qualifies to apply for an OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) visa only after two years of marriage. So in the meantime, my work visa will hopefully remain uncomplicated.

At a recent gathering I was put on the spot to name two things that are different. Not good or bad, just different.

Bandra Gym Membership… Almost

Amusingly one of the 1st things my partner did when we received our marriage certificate was go to the Bandra Gym and start the process for my spousal associate membership. It isn’t through yet but I can’t wait as it means I will finally get to use the pool!

However there is a traditional – dare I say mildly sexist dimension – it can only be issued in the name of Mrs Smith. Now had it been me who was the member and my husband applying to be an associate member, no such name change would be imposed. However as a ‘wife’, I’m expected to take on his last name. Hmm…

Needless to say my partner was outraged on my behalf, however in the grand scheme of things, if it is that important to meet the Catholic cultural sensibilities of the gym, why should I be fussy? Provided there is no requirement to back it up with a legal name change!

Community Events

Along with privileges comes responsibilities. My partner is terrific at ‘giving back.’ One of his many activities is judging things like school elocution and debating contests. This year he expected to be off on a film shoot so had to declined one All-India Anglo-Indian inter-school debate.

When it was discovered the dates were pushed back, “Mr & Mrs Smith” were cordially invited to be chief guests. Not just Mr Smith but Mrs Smith too… not really optional.

It was my 1st venture into such ‘wifely’ activities in the Anglo-Indian community… Always up for new adventures!

Naturally I was also asked to ‘say a few inspiring words’ to the students and their teachers from the participants who came from all corners. You’d have to ask those who attended whether my comments hit the mark but it was interesting hearing the debates from the high calibre students.

Beyond this, really, not much has changed! We’re quite content with our lives and see no need for a piece of paper to make much of a difference. We knew from when we first met, we found friend, companion, lover and above all partner.

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Ms Zoe has a gentleman caller…

Some of you may know we were adopted by an amusing little feline – Ms Zoe Moonlit Zappa

Did you want this box?

She pranced into our home nearly two years ago, stole our hearts and wound her way into the fabric of our lives.

Yet Zoe is very much a solo cat… aside from her very early days on the streets of Bandra, she’s had no acquaintance with others of her kind.

In came Mr Quantum or “Q” as he’s affectionately called.

“I think I’ve had enough…”

He’s another Bandra street urchin… rescued by a Dutch friend in a lane near our home when he was being used as a cricket bat. Seriously.

Just a few weeks ago, his rescuer, initial mom (who then discovered she is allergic to cats) and I were caught exchanging Q pictures and stories at a party. All that was missing was his current keeper!

Who naturally adores him to bits as he’s a most amiable lovable guy. Which is why he’s with us… she’s traveling at the moment and we decided to experiment bringing our two solos cats together.

“I’ll take my belly rub + massage now please”

We’re on our 2nd round of Q coming to the “Smith-Hickling cat spa & resort.”

Let me be honest, Zoe isn’t thrilled about this interloper in her home. However the guest room has been allocated as ‘his’ territory… which she respects.

1st contact…

From the initial “Who the heck are you!” to wary curiosity, to some bravado of hissing and growls, they’ve again settled into scampering about the flat and even being the occasional fridge buddies.

“Who are you looking at?”

Yes – he really is more than double her size but she more than holds her own!

And at night, they call a truce… as snuggling is an important part of keeping humans. And both Ms Zoe and her gentleman caller Q wouldn’t want to be caught being derelict in their duties!

Other adventures of Ms Zoe:

Ode to the Indian subcontinent…

Yesterday marked 70 years of independence for the Indian subcontinent. For many, the memories of the partition which followed – a tragic moment in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’s history which gave birth to at first two then three nations – have become faded over the years.

Earlier this month, we joined a remarkable Remembering Partition project  organized by Godrej India Cultural Lab  with:

  • A pop-up museum of precious items brought with families
  • Stories captured through the India Memory Project
  • Recordings of families recounting of their journey from the Pakistan side of the border to India…
  • Art installation
  • Panel discussions
  • Imagining partition through fashion
  • The poetry of Kabir set to music by Kabir Cafe
  • 1st viewing of Gurinder Chadha’s film – Viceroy’s House (English) / Partition: 1947 (Hindi)… in which my husband can be seen as Jinnah

While acknowledging the blood, sweat and tears that was part of history, I’d also like to extend a personal thanks to India for giving many the opportunity to be ‘adopted’… this marvellous, maddening and at times mystifying country India has been kind enough to let me – and many others – call it ‘home’.

Here are a few images from the Remembering Partition events…

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Random bull…

Street art of various forms have a habit of popping up all over Mumbai. And others appear then disappear… either with the ravages of weather of simply the ever evolving pulse of the city.

I shouldn’t be surprised… but must admit, I was by this random water buffalo that just showed up on the narrow path between a park and the small homes of the original village just outside our door.

I’m sure there is a story behind this fellow… but none of his neighbours seemed to know.

It is just one of those things…

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Migration migraines… Welcome to India’s GST

India has a reputation as being a place where some things take “foreeeever” to accomplish. Whereas others happen so fast, no one is prepared! Such as the sudden overnight demonetization of Rs 500 & 1,000 notes.

Or the “GST migration” taking place all over the country.

In the last two weeks I’ve been inundated by emails, pro-active phone calls begging and pleading me to migrate my Service Tax number before the “deadline” of 31st March 2017.

But guess what?

The initial “deadline” was completely impossible to achieve. To migrate one assessee took several hours of painstaking mind numbing effort online, repeatedly trying and testing to see if this photo would upload or that one… In short, the government servers and systems are so slow and archaic or so poorly designed it was simply not possible!

Welcome to digital India!!

And the real kicker to all of this?

As of close of business on Wednesday, 29th March 2017, the status of India’s “brave new tax reforms” was stuck at the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) which had raised objections regarding the GST bills which then went to the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament).

Meaning an entire country’s machinery was being activated even before it was passed by Parliament or became law!!

And the latest greatest twist to this story? An invitation to a “GST Mela”!!

Now a mela in India is a fair – something fun! A great big gathering, often community celebrations but… for taxes?? Seriously taxes??

Naturally the invite:

  • Doesn’t say where this mythical event will take
  • Only dates not timings (being government it is assumed everyone knows only between 10:00am to 2:00pm and maybe possibly again between 3:00pm – 5:00pm)
  • Sent from a hastily created Gmail ID
  • Released the email IDs and names of 382 other fellow Assessees!!!

I’m not kidding. Seriously. This is a bonafide tax office initiative.

So I wrote back asking where, when and what the heck is up with releasing my email ID to scads of other folks stuck in this hapless situation of ‘migration’?

Amazingly within less than a minute, I received an email reply providing the details, assurances this is a legitimate request to help assessees.

Even more remarkably, it was followed up seconds later with a phone call. From a young man speaking in English helping clarify and sincerely requesting I complete my migration – either in person or by sending my assistant (naturally he assumed I have one!).

And when I asked what is needed:

  • Only your mobile number and email ID…
  • Um… that doesn’t sound right. Anything else?
    • Maybe your Adhaar and PAN number…?
  • But I don’t have an Adhaar (India’s controversial universal ID card)
    • Oh ok. No problem…
  • What about the photo and address proof as required on the website?
    • Nope not needed!

Umm…. really? Somehow I don’t think this is correct.

On disclosing everyone’s email IDs, he apologized that they hadn’t thought about tax payer confidentiality and shared they are under “too much pressure!” to get 100% compliance.

Obviously he couldn’t actually say if my migration was outstanding or not.

That would be too simple.

Moral of the story?

Living in India Tip #3

Never underestimate the speed things can happen… or change… or that if you just dig a bit further they may be alternate arrangements for the back-up arrangements. It may not initially make sense but you will get there in the end!

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Delhi dawn… another Sunday snap

For many years I called Delhi home.

Winters would bring chilly temperatures hovering just above zero. Which sounds wimpy when compared with a Winnipeg winter of -40’c, however when you have no indoor heating, it is mighty cold!

And fog, so thick sometimes you could barely see a few feet in front of you. Causing havoc with air transportation with delays endemic those winter months…

This is what I found looking out from my hotel window, an early morning in February…

20170203_delhi-dawn

Dawn in Delhi from the window of the Taj Mahal hotel on Man Singh Marg. That mythical quality was clearly not captured so well in the photo, and alas is a combination of natural (fog) and unnatural (pollution) factors.

Such a contrast to our scorching sunshine days in Mumbai! I returned from Delhi early Feb to be greeting by an unseasonably early temperature rise.

Related Sunday snaps:

Garbage bricks? In Bandra

Years ago a Turkish diplomat getting ready to leave India shared that one thing he would not miss about Mumbai was the constant cacophony of the crows.

I was puzzled as this was not an issue for me… at the time I lived in Kalina. While there were birds a-plenty, crows weren’t specifically a problem.

Til we moved to Bandra.

That’s where the fun began.

And I remembered the crow comment… Oh how I remembered his genuine frustration at the constant, relentless cawing… What trouble they were getting into homes, garbage… the nuisance and nonsense of these feathered devils.

It was a frustration I began to share.. particularly as we have several crows who have adopted our building.

bandra-crow

One does get used to all sorts of noises and sounds, so after time, the cawing simply blended into the noises that make everyday life here.

However there is another aspect to the equation.

The humble garbage bin.

Why you may ask is this at all relevant?

Because in addition to the sharp cawing, this is a further element of angst with these scavengers.

They LOVE garbage. They LOVE even more making a mess of things. All your unmentionables strewn about for all and sundry to see… Our building crows boldly open bins to unearth your hidden edible treasures.

Enter the brick to the rescue.

In my climb up the stairs I discovered a simple yet smart way adopted by several neighbours to combat the crow garbage scourge!

bandra-garbage-brick

Just like the odd cones on our building pipes that keep the rats and mice away, a simple brick on top of the garbage bin makes it sufficiently challenging to the crows.

Voila! Garbage crow deterrent!

Now I gotta go get me a brick!!

Other Sunday Snaps:

A ‘Tolly’ good evening in Kolkata

As I sat in the Tollygunge Club in Kolkata, hearing Bengali, munching on fried fish with kashundi (mustard sauce), sipping my ‘rum pani‘ (Old Monk, of course), I felt so much at home.

There I was with an old friend and his partner, my partner and his old friends – who just so happened to know each other.

It is a small world like that.

20170122_kolkata-tollyganj

My partner was in Kolkata to perform in a play.

I was in Kolkata to meet with my client and conduct focus group discussions with their team.

It wasn’t an accident we were in Kolkata at the same time. One commitment sparked another and thankfully nothing got in the way.

So that Sunday evening, we came out after the play to meet our friends, enjoying the slight nip in the air…

I could not have been happier.

For me, Bengali is one of those languages that I do not speak but I was immersed in enough consider it a familiar friend. It is the sound of one of my many past homes… the home where I lived in the 90s as a student in Chittaranjan Park, Delhi.

And Bengali food is something that once upon a time was what would constitute a regular home cooked meal.

The setting? A piece of history.

While the Tollygunge club was officially founded in 1895, the Club House was built even earlier and is now over 220 years old. What was once home to Tipu Sultan’s son and a member of the East India Company now is where our friends come out to enjoy their day or night.

Rather than be a stuffy relic, ‘Tolly’ is where families and friends go to entertain and be entertained, relax and re-invigorate…

It is a nice reminder that things do change… yet also retain elements of days gone by.

It was also a time to reflect…

Looking at a friend I’ve known for more than 20 years, it was clear that I’m not the same person I was back in early 1995 when we first met.

However I would not be the person I am today without all the ups and downs, rights and lefts that occurred in between.

So though Bengal is no longer a core element of my everyday today in a way that it was living in a Bengali home in a Bengali colony, hearing Bengali, eating Bong khanna, listening to Bengali music… these experiences are all intrinsically part of me, not just my past but indelibly part of who I will always be.

And for that I am thankful. It was indeed a ‘Tolly’ good evening!

20170122_kolkata-carissa

Me with my friend’s partner

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