Friday, July 24, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Jai mata di" (cheers!)



Early arrival by the 21:00 bus from Ahmedabad. The city is very pretty with a fort in the middle that looks like a big sand castle. Beautiful Rajasthani architecture. It's also a very touristy place, and everyone speaks English "fluently" and a little French, Spanish and Italian. They also virtually all have something to sell.

I meet with Kishan Singh Bhati, Dilip Singh's father, who lives nearby Hanuman Chowk, the place the bus dropped me at. He apologizes for waking up late as he partied with his friends last night. He slept on the roof, the monsoon still being expected here, especially by Kishan Singh who is a farmer. I'm being taken on a motorbike to my hotel, for which I will pay Rs200 per night. A bit expensive, considering that in India one can manage to find accomodation for less than Rs100 for a single, and around Rs150 for a double, especially during the Summer season, when the monsoon hits the country and most hotels everywhere are empty. But Jaisalmer, and the whole of Rajashtan, is a very touristy place. A lot of shopkeepers learn basic foreign language with foreigners, and the prices go up as soon as a place is mentioned in the Lonely Planet. They also promote their shops with big signs saying "recommended by the Lonely Planet / Rough guide". I consider this business perfectly fair, since tourism is by far the main source of earning for the city.

Kishan Singh takes me for a little party with his friends, in a small blue house made in stone just outside of the city. They use the house only for gathering and cooking, none of them actually live in it as it is too small and it doesn't have electricity. They all speak English but most of them don't try to communicate with me ; They chat and laugh as we're sitting on the floor, outside right next to the house, on a big grey sheet. It starts raining slightly, and thunder illuminates the sky nicely every few minutes. Kishan Singh translates the conversations to me and chats with me. We sip on Indian Whisky and beers, and nibble on raw vegetables with lemon juice (a mix of cucumber, tomato, onion ; The lemons here ressemble tiny limes and taste quite different) and snacks. It seems like in India it is very common to drink before dinner. All that is available must be drunk before we start eating! We manage to do so just before 11pm, when all the bottles are finally empty. Then the mutton curry, which has been simmering for more than an hour, is served, still outside while the rain doesn't seem to be bothering anyone. Interesting. We make a fire to cook our chapatis which were just prepared by one of the men. Because of the rain, they give up cooking the chapatis on the spot and two of them decide to go to town on a motorbike to cook them at a friend's restaurant. As soon as they're back I'm the first one to be served, as I explained that in France we are more used to have dinner before hitting the booze, I'm therefore not used to drink on an empty stomach and baddly need the food now. The mutton is quite spicy, even for Kishan Singh's taste, but the rice and chappatis are there to ease down the spice. After dinner, everyone go back to their houses and Kishan Singh walks me back to my hotel.

He seems to be a very open-minded person, not so common in the state of Rajasthan, a reputedly very conservative state. According to his own words he hangs out with people from all castes and social background. Dilip Singh, his son, his also proud to have people who are not from his caste as friends, like Denish. In Jaisalmer I'm told that people from the same caste usually stay amongst each other, and even more so in more rural parts of the state. And, as I'm started to be considered "friend of the Rajput", some from lower castes will hesitate before even talking to me. Indeed, even though I'm technically outside of their world and the caste system, and therefore able to talk and mingle with everyone, if I do start hanging out more with one specific caste then some people will start associating me with that caste.

Kishan Singh has had a French friend for 22 years now. André, a gardener who live in Marseille and work in Switzerland. They met during a "camel safari" over five days, which was the first camel mounting experience for André, and the first time Kishan Singh was doing it as a guide. André came back the next year, to meet Kishan Singh and go to the desert again, this time for more than a week. He then took the habit to come back every year to see his friend. Nowadays, André comes every year for as long as three months, and they still go to the desert together. Kishan alo came to see him in France, and he even worked with him in Switzerland for a week, where he got paid 1,000 Swiss francs.

Sometimes Kishan Singh goes to the desert with his friends for as long as five consecutive weeks!

Saturday, July 18, 2009



Diu Island

We decide to spend the week-end on Diu Island, in the South of Gujarat on the Arabian Sea. The midnight bus arrives at one o'clock at the stop on Satellite road, where I dropped some stuff at Siddhart's place and packed a toothbrush . The trip to Diu, including train then coach, will take eleven hours.

We book a hotel room with eight beds which we negociate for Rs700 instead of the announced Rs2,000. That's Rs100 each. Once settled in the room, various members of the staff bring us mineral water, tea, some biscuits and individual portions of soap and shampoo.

we meet Juliette as we hit Diu Island after a fifteen kilometre rickshaw ride. She's a French film maker who is travelling alone in India, like me. We go to the beach where Juliette and I go for a swim while my six Gujarati pals are getting drunk on beer further up the beach. Diu is the only place in Gujarat where alcohol can be purchased and drunk legally (a small fee paid to a police officer is often required to be able to drink on the beach).

Indians seem to be fascinated by whiteness. One could take it for a kind of positive racism at first look, except that they don't associate "being white" with certain behavioural attributes or moral values, but more simply seem to find white skin beautiful. Some cosmetics are available to give a fairer skin, and fair skinned Indian ladies have often been described to me as the most beautiful. I also witnessed people buying posters of white babies, which are found is some auto rickshaws in place of the usual Bollywood stars. When I asked the reason behind the purchase of such posters to a 50 something year-old guy in suit and tie, I'm told that it's for a friend whose wife is expecting a baby. The gift will bring luck upon the baby's birth. Those posters don't seem to exist with Indian babies on them as well.

Poster associating whiteness with purity, in a typical Indian English ("He who has a pure mind sees everything pure"). Quick one about Indian English: They often say "also" twice, at the beginning AND the end of a sentence ; Also, they tend to use "as far as (blank) is concerned" rather often also.

On Diu Island, I experienced an unexpected side of this fascination for whiteness. Drying ourselves on the beach after the swim, a few Indian men approach us to ask the usual questions (which coutry? Do you like India? etc.) and are quickly joined by some other guys. We end up being stared at by a small crowd standing in semi-circle right in front of us. However, most of them don't seem to be here to communicate with us and they start taking pictures. Then some of them join us for a few seconds, the time for their friend to take a snap, before returning to position. Getting rather impatient, I struggle to find someone among them who speaks a little English, asking him what this is all about. He replies that people from here are not used to seeing white people. Diu is a rather touristy place though... As people keep on taking pictures of us in our swimsuits, I raise the voice. And the silent and oppressing crowd just stands there, not moving an inch. We start putting our clothes back on. In a few seconds, coming out of nowhere, two police guys come to beat up the pervy Indians! Loud slaps, stick beating and yelling by the angry policemen. We wonder if we're gonna get yelled at too, but they explain to us nicely that they're here for our protection and that the crowd there was full of known rapists and other perverts who use pictures of white women to put on dodgy websites! My friend Dilip Singh shows up. The police tells him that he should never have left us alone, the place being dangerous, especially for tourists. Some men try to make their way back to us, and get yet another beating by the policemen. An old skinny man seem to be quite smashed on booze as he comes back for more a few times. We pack our stuff and leave in a rush for some quieter beach, near Sunset Point.

On Diu Island we've witnessed that Indian mentality and consumption of alcohol doesn't mix well. The danger is real for white women travelling alone in India, as for many uneducated men with little knowledge about the world outside of India, white women actually want to be approached. Which shows by their provocative ways and habits (cigarette smoking, drinking, Western clothes). Some stories are being told about white women actually wanting to have sexual intercourses with Indian men, such services being expected from their driver or guide for instance. Some of it might be true, and having heard those stories at a young age, they will not hesitate to try their luck by harassing 100 women, thinking that it could work with 5 of them. Throw in the frustration that a traditional society can create, where women and men are not suppose to mingle, some illegal hooch, and you understand why women should be careful when it comes to Indian men.

My friends are all Rajashtani and Dilip Singh, Kan Singh and Denish come from Jaisalmer, in the West, close to the Pakistani border. Next stop after two more days in Ahmedabad: Jaisalmer.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mere Belly

Dinner with some students from Alliance Francaise, where they learn French. Dilip Singh is fluent ; Deendayal (Denish) has a good French for a beginner and the others are still learning, Rajendra Singh, Jashwant, Kan Singh and Bharat Singh. They're all from the Rajput caste (caste
of warriors) except for Denish who's from the tree cutters caste.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Siddhart Jaiswal wakes at 7 every morning. He does yoga for 15-20 minutes, then 30 minutes of meditation. Meditation is done by lying down or sitting, and following a certain set of mental instructions (which are given by mp3 or a tape to the beginner) which will raise awareness of one's own body through feeling of our body's activity (breathing, feeling the wind on our skin...). The mind can then free itself from all thoughts. The purpose of meditation being to control our thoughts and actions and therefore direct them in the way we want. Thanks to daily meditation, and a 10 days retreat he did at an ashram a few years ago, Siddhart has total control over his body, keeps a strong mind, and can achieve a lot of work every day, from 8am till as late as 10pm. Siddhart teaches farmers how to go organic, he also give speaches about organic farming, is Managing Director of an organic food and juices place, and raises organic awareness wherever he goes. Today, Siddhart goes to Mahatma Gandhi College at 9am to talk to high school students about the merits of organic farming compared to conventional farming, which makes farmers dependant on seeds and pesticides companies. The organic way makes farmers independant as they make their own fertilizer and use their own seeds. The explanations are given cristal clear by Sidd and the students come out convinced and pro-organic farming, they will probably ask their parents to start buying organic products! Siddhart then makes his way to Ahmedabad Jail, were he grows a 35 acres organic garden with the prisoners. After that, he will spend the rest of the day taking care of his restaurant / juice bar, JOOS, and on meeting with the other 3 directors.

Siddhart is hosting me during my one week stay in Ahmedabad in his flat off Satelite road, just opposit the Star Bazaar shopping centre.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


My second day in Ahmedabad and it's raining heavily. Everyone is happy about it, and their preparing street celebrations to show it, women are covering their hands with henna and wearing their best sarees.

As for me, I'm gate crashing a Western party to enjoy fully my right (as a tourist and western) to purchase booze with a freely obtained license. Gujarat is a dry state, one of the only states in India where alcohol is prohibited, except if you purchase a costly license in which case you're allowed limited amounts every week. Most Gujaratis I've spoke to are in favor of this law, and they explain that allowing alcohol would see an increase in crime rates and general feel of insecurity, especially for women. At first I find these views a tad conservative and exagerated, but I get to understand that responsible drinking is far from widespread around here, and in India in general, and most Gujaratis just can't handle their acohol and would drink till they become out of their minds, becoming dangerous hazards to others.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Man of the monsoon



Train for Ahmedabad, 462km away from Mumbai. Happy to leave the pollution and the grey sky. I will appreciate a bit of dry air and cloudless sky.

Celebration of the French Revolution Day at the Alliance Francaise, a French institute to learn French and be in contact with French culture.

A storm is approaching and rain starts to fall. The monsoon seem to be following me in my journey.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ek crore

1 billion = 100 crores
1 crore = 100 lakhs
1 lakh = 100,000


About Bollywood. Back in France, non-afficionados don't know much about Indian movies. Any movie coming from India that is not a film d'auteur (Satyajit Ray's movies, very well known amongst film enthusiasts, as well as Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy or Ritwik Ghatak, known for the revolutionary movies they made throughout the 60's and 70's) will be looked upon as a show of grandeur and beautiful colours, ridiculously over-the-top acting and an overall farce with no deep meaning. Therefore most people will watch a Bollywood for the music, dancing, or a good laugh. I started taking interest in Indian Cinema a couple of years back, and it started filling my mind with questions as to why Indian popular movies are the way they are, and what real issues should one read in them. The main questions I was asking myself (and one that I generally ask a lot about all sorts of topics) being: Why?

Why the luxury, the shine, the grandeur and the exagerated acting? Why are emotions stretch to the extreme (see Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas), why do we constantly switch from one genre to another within the same film, from drama to comedy to action and so on? And by the way, why is the film three hours long??

After watching a lot of films, from various periods of the Indian Cinema History (Ranging from the golden age of the 50's and Mehboob Khan's films, to the social cinema of the 70's to the melodramatic cheesiness of the 80's till the great new actors of the 90's (the Khans) and today's films), and trying to have an insight by reading theories on Indian Cinema and various essays, reviews and articles, I found a little explanation of my own. The Indian audiences need their films to be the more detached to their everyday life as possible (I'm talking about the general public here ; I'm pretty confident that the Bachchan-Rai wedding did look something like a wedding scene from a Karan Johar's movie), so they can escape from their everyday reality. I know that the majority of the Indian population live with little earning and in unhealthy and poor conditions. The Big Bollywood Factory therefore offers to everyone's access a good three-hours long portion of dream, with so many twists, turns, and changes of mood that the audience can completely escape the everyday through entertainment. Then the dream is carried on to the streets through music. People who sang to me often half-close their eyes or raise them to the sky.

Arriving in Mumbai, I understood this need to escape reality. After only two days I was already fed up with the pollution, constant city noise and the impressive and massive over-population. I had prepared for it through tons of reading but living the actual thing is a very different experience altogether. It made me understand it fully.

I wish to take note here that, even though the Bollywood Industry is known to be the biggest in the world with some 800 movies released each year, this figure doesn't have a real meaning here. The Indian audience proves to be very discerning when it comes to movies, and only a dozen movies will actually make profit, while the news of a bad movie will be spread so rapidly by sharp Indian criticism and efficient word of mouth that it just won't cover for its cost. For instance the latest Akshay Kumar / Kareena Kapoor movie, Kambakkht Ishq, will probably not make up for its Rs70 crores of production costs (Rs1 crore = 10 million Rupees) simply because it's a disaster and people know it! Despite grossing an impressive Rs19 crores during the opening week, thanks to high expectations and hopes that Akki would be back in shape after his few horrendous last movies (Chandni Chowk To China......), the expectations were simply not met and the theatres were empty the following week! 5 persons shared the cinema with me when I went to see the movie at that time. I wont review the movie here, I'm merely trying to give an exemple of how good judges the Indian audience is about its movies.

In my quest for Bollywood, I went to "Film City", in the Goregaon district, to try and meet some of the people who make it happen, actors, directors, technicians, and hopefully to watch a shooting. Bollywood wasn't there unfortunately, and I ended up having to clap my hands for a boring dance competition program for the telly. Going back downtown in the evening, I met an American girl who had just been approached by a guy looking for extras to act in a movie. Luckily she's not so interested and hand over the card to me. It reads: "Amjad Khan, Bollystar, specialized in Western people". Perfect. I give this Amjad a ring the next morning and he asks me to come the next day for a night shooting. 5pm to 5am. The movie is for television, "Un Hazaro Ke Nam" (roughly translated by "In the name of thousands") by Siddhart Sen Gupta, and is ploted around the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. I can be seen during the wedding scene holding a cocktail glass and chatting up some other extra. The next scene, I'm running back and forth in the crowd after a bomb has exploded. I got paid Rs500 for the night and it was a lot of fun.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Jaya is of an Hindu family. She sometimes wear a bindi but only to go with a saree or other typical Indian clothes, purely as a fashion attribute. She sometimes smoke or drink Indian wine, and party with her friends. We can also talk about all kind of subject with her. She travelled quite a lot around the world, and in Europe. I think that her travelling habits have something to do with her open-mindedness. Most Indians I met tell me they've never travelled outside of India, either it's too expensive, or India is big enough a country and they don't feel the need to travel outside of it.

When I ask Jaya what she thinks about cows (which is a holy animal in India), she tells me they are treated as Gods over her, and are sometimes seen as the Mother. With their big, long, beautiful eyes, they do remind her of a mother. Other Indians will say the same thing, always replying the most seriously. Cow = mom. It's therefore a very respected animal.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

IIT Campus

I'm being hosted by Jaya Joshi over the week-end. She's head of PR for the IIT Campus (Indian Institute of Information Technology). We watch Dil Chahta Hai and the next day we treat ourselves and some of her friends with Chicken curry Bengali style.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Krishna and Ganesh

Every morning and evening Ashok prays to Ganesh (God of prosperity and success), at the little temple that his dad, Arum Sawand, set up in a corner of their kitchen. Arum also decorated it with flowers, and he changes them every Tuesday and Thursday. Still in the kitchen, Arum has a picture of his late parents on which he put a bit of yellow powder on their foreheads between the eyebrows.

Ashok, facing the temple, bend on his knees on a little rug. He pours a spoon of oil on the flame which is in a piece of cotton dipped in oil. He then lights a incense stick with the flame (Dia=light). He then prays silently with his two hands joined against his torso. He does the Sashtng Namaskar: putting his two hands on the floor before him, he stretches his body as to do push ups, touches his forehead on the floor in direction of the temple.

Lunch with Rahul's family, they're Gujaratis. The 14 of them occupy a 2 rooms appartment near Cotton Greens station, plus another little bedroom for Rahul. We were 9 at the time of eating, with the men on one side and women and kids on the other, but next to each other, sitting on the floor. We help ourselves to se dishes placed in the middle. Good ambiance, very friendly. Rahul's uncle, an architecte who's worked in Dubai for three years, chats me up. The chappatis are delicious.
Rahul is 19 years old, he has a Rock/Metal band and hides from his parents to smoke cigarets. His family are all Krishna followers and I witnessed his mom whispering the mantras to herself a couple of times during lunch.

The Sawand's appartement is of a very decent size for Mumbai, situated in a nice area of town. Ashok's parents share it with him and his wife, each couple having its own room.
At dinner time, the three men, including me, are being served by the two women. In our plates, served on silver trays, are little portions of tasty looking food. Arum is very joyful and he jokes around while we eat. He even sang something from a Dilip Kumar movie for me. The women will eat after us, helping themselves from the dishes.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hare Krishna

Breakfasts with my friends the Krishna monks. Very simple and vegetarian food. Yuk. Before serving the food an offering is made to Lord Krishna in the form of a little amount of the food we're going to have, so he can have a bite and give us His blessings in return. When I ask about the meaning of this (How does it actually purifies the food to leave a plate on the floor for a few minutes? Do they really think a superior being purifies it?), I'm being told that "it is not like Lord Krishna is coming down on Earth just to help himself to some rice, it's more of a symbol". Trying to reason scientifically, I then suggest that we could weight the plate before and after the offering to see if it is lighter after we take if back. But, once again, "it's not like that", Lord Krishna only eats a tiny portion of food, like a single grain of rice. Moreover, he's got a lot of plates to bless all around the world, so he better keep some of his apetite. I reply that it'll be possible to weight the plate precisely enough to see if, yes or no, a grain of rice has gone. They laugh.

By trying to see how far they go to rationalize their beliefs, I find that they justify scientifically some concepts (soul, rebirth), but at first look it seems there is no actual explanations to most of their rituals (prayers, offerings), rituals which are more mystical and beyond reason. Which they simply believe in, and therefore doesn't call for a rational explanation.

Jean-Paul, Canadian, named after Sartre, has been a monk at the ISKCON temple for over a year. Like his comrades, he wakes at 4 in the morning. He prays for 2 hours, then meditate individually for an hour and a half.

The prayer, or Maha Mantra, consists in 108 "beats" which you have to say 16 times a day. A "beat" is this:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Ram, Hare Ram
Ram Ram, Hare Hare

To be said no less than 1728 times each day! It takes about 2 hours of their time. If you skip a beat, you have to start all over again. By singing this mantras, they liberate their karmas to achieve happiness. They extract the purity of the soul by cleaning away the mud that covers the diamond, the pure soul. By starting singing those early in life, everyday, we can hope to join Lord Krishna in His Kingdom at some point, liberating our soul (Jiva Muktha) and achieve wholeness. Some chosen few accomplished this in their lifetime, like the prophet A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who liberated himself and could therefore start spreading the Krishna Consciousness. Orelse liberation can be obtained at the time of our death, in which case we're freed from the cycle of reincarnations. Otherwise, of course, we can start in this life and carry on our faith in Krishna and singing of the mantras in our other lives, in order to attain the Nirvana (Nir=negation, Vana=forest ; "Come out of the forest of the material world").

Jean-Paul takes me for a tour around the temple and its pretty garden, their miniature version of Vrindhavan, the birthplace of Krishna.

I'm meeting up with Ashok Sawant, who will host me from now on.

Friday, July 3, 2009


Will it ever stop raining? Today the law against "unnatural sexual intercourses" has been amended, it was used mainly against homosexuals by the police and the court. The sexual minorities are celebrating in the street. Some traditionalists Hindus react in today's paper, like Baba Ramdev, a "spiritual father" famous for making up new yoga techniques to prevent hairloss or make your marriage happier: "These gays are sick people and should be sent to hospitals. Then they can marry or stay bachelors just like me". Deep.

I meet Rahul on the train, he takes me to the ISKCON temple (International Society for Krishna CONsciousness) where he's late for the lecture. A beautiful temple of fine Rajashtani architecture, which you don't find much in Mumbai. All the monks are graduates and often have a scientifical background. Having done High studies and a year working experience are required to become a monk here. Their belief in the soul and in rebirth are founded upon scientifical explanations, or at least they provide scientifical answers where science can't. Something most religions do anyway. The cells in a human body are constantly regenerating, and every 7 years the cells of our body are completely different from the ones 7 years back. Therefore, asks the monk, how can we say that we are still the same person, bearing the same name et having the same habits, wishes and desires? A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, main prophet of the Krishna faith, responds that the fact that we remain the same person can only be explained by the presence of an immortal soul, which resides in our body and move within it. The same soul will leave the body at the time of death to go around looking for another one.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Terrence, an old Indian weirdo approaches me at the Cyber Cafe, he speaks a few words in French. I'm not easily impressed unfortunately for him. He starts talking spirituality and wants to show me the true reality through a guided tour of Dharavi, the reputedly "biggest slum in Asia", for a little money. I reply that I'm not interested to pay to have someone showing me misery. And I'm currently satisfied about meeting middle class Indian people as their life is already very different from mine and I learn a lot from that, and that too is reality for me anyway. His arguments range from assuring me that I will remain ignorant unless I follow him there (as 60% of Mumbaikars live in slums) to "I will not show you things but make you go through unique experiences" to "I don't take tourists for walking and talking dollar bags". Not working for me, and he will leave me with those words: "You will forever be the rotten apple!!!".

I would like to visit Dharavi sometimes, or some other place of extreme misery, but I certainly won't do it as a financial exchange with a "guide". I would much rather get in touch with some people who help one way or another, with education or other issues. The exchange would be much more genuine and interesting.

Santa Cruz station, West Side.
I drop my backpack at the Pillay's family house, with whom I will spend the next few days. I meet Victor and Leena and Noel, their son. According to Noel I look like an environmentalist, kaki green combats and "Discovery Channel" hat, black tee-shirt, trekking shoes and camera bag.

I meet up with some members of the website for some drinks at Mocha Cafe, a trendy bar in Bandra. The area is nice and lively, quite fashinable but not over the top, rather easy-going. I will sleep at Versova at Vivek's place. He writes scripts for the movies and he knows quite a few Indian actors (including Nandita Das) and a lot about French movies.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

First day

My first spending in Rupees went to the taxi fare, Rs130, which I shared with a Dutch couple. After knocking at the door of the hotel I booked it turns out nobody is gonna check us in. However we manage to wake some of the people sleeping in the street who will help us find a room in the area. We get a room in no time, with Indians waking more people up, taking us up the stairs of the Volga II hotel, where we wake yet more people who will take us to our rooms. Double for them, single for me. When I'm about to close my door to go to bed, it's a dozen Indians who are waving good night to me. Impressive teamwork you guys. I'm also pleasantly surprised to be able to find a room at this time of night.

The city is way over-crowded, very dirty and noisy. I'm in the historical centre, with the Gate of India and the infamous Taj Mahal Hotel, which was one of the main targets in November 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Indian men hold each other's hands or pinky. They also go around holding their friends by the shoulder. These physical contacts seem to show friendship.
I'm attracting a lot of attention, people talk to me and ask constant questions. I'm being shouted at a friendly manner "What's up dude!" and other "How are you my friend!". If I start talking to them the first question I'm being asked will invariably be "Which country?", to which my reply can either satisfy the person's curiosity, or call for yet other questions, "Are you a student in India?" "What's your name?"