Disabled drivers

During our very recent stay in the Cochin/Ernakulam region of Kerala in the south of India, we encountered two drivers with disabilities.

The first was in central Ernakulam. He was the chauffeur working for a friend. His right arm was encased in surgical plaster of Paris from above his elbow to his finger tips. He drove well despite having only one functioning arm. Luckily for him, he was driving a car with automatic gear changing.

We met the second driver twice in picturesque Fort Cochin. He wore a surgical support collar around his neck. It was khaki in colour and matched his khaki autorickshaw driver’s uniform jacket.

The first time we were driven by him, we noticed his collar, but made no reference to it. The next time he stopped to pick us up, we asked him about the collar, guessing that he might have been involved in accident. We were not expecting his explanation.

The poor fellow related that when his wife had deserted him for reasons that he did not tell us, he had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, his attempt failed because now his wife has returned to him.

Tired

The Kochi Muziris Art Bienniale is back again. We have attended two of the three previous biennales, those in 2014 and 2016.

The biennales run from mid December to the end of the following March. A joy of this biannual exhibition is that artworks are displayed in many heritage buildings that are not normally accessible to the public. Visitors get a chance to view many fascinating buildings that form part of the history of the port of Cochin.

Today, we visited the main base of the Biennale, which is housed in the buildings of the former Aspinwall company compound.

Works by many artists are on display in the various spaces within the extensive compound. This year most of the works on display are either video installations and/or conceptual art. There are a few works that are otherwise. I was disappointed by this year’s showing as compared with what I saw in previous years’ biennales. The selection of artworks seems unexciting, tired.

However, one work in this year’s show at Aspinwall stands out way ahead of the rest. It is “More Sweetly Play the Dance” made in 2015 by the South African artist William Kentridge.

Moving images are projected onto eight large screens. These images are both drawn (as in cartoons) and photographic. A procession of figures, both drawn and photographed, move from one screen to the next, travelling through a drawn landscape that changes continuously in subtle ways. The motion projected on the screen is accompanied by a brilliant musical soundtrack that is inspired by African music. The result is a spectacular audio visual experience that is both joyous and slightly sinister. I felt that the ‘white’ Kentridge was portraying the experiences of South African Black people, both their joys and their tragedies. His work, on display in a large warehouse with a tiled ceiling at Aspinwall, is truly artistic at all levels of appeal, from the sensual and emotional to the intellectual. It is a positive contrast to much of the other art on display at Aspinwall, which requires explanation before it might possibly be enjoyed.

I look forward to visiting many of the other places connected with the Bienniale. I hope that I will be seeing art that grabs me emotionally as well as intellectually.

PS Since writing this, I have visited many other parts of the Biennale. Some of these, especially the places housing the works of current art students (The Students Biennale) and the artworks in the TKM Warehouse, are outstandingly good. If you are in Cochin for a limited time, skip Aspinwall and head for Mattancherry where the most exciting works are on display.

Over the counter

The French philosopher Voltaire is believed to have written:

Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, for human beings of which they know nothing.”

I was at a party in Athens, Greece, in the early 1980s when I suddenly became aware of bilateral back pain and nausea. Luckily, there was a medical doctor amongst the guests. He diagnosed a kidney or bladder infection and wrote a prescription for bactrim. The tablets were very effective and rapid acting.

A year or so later, I was flying to Greece via Rome in Italy when I experienced a recurrence of the symptoms. As I had quite a long stopover in Rome, I took the opportunity to visit a pharmacy, but this time without a prescription. To my great surprise and relief, the pharmacist sold me some bactrim without requiring a prescription.

In the UK, it is not possible to obtain antibiotics and most other medications without a prescription. There are also rules determining how much non prescription medication can be bought at any one time.

In India, which I visit often, I have never been asked for a prescription to obtain any kind of medication. One just asks for the medicine or tablets required, and then following payment they are handed over the counter. Quite a few of the medications I have needed in India have been clearly marked as prescription only medicines, but these words are ignored by the pharmacy salespeople.

Having been trained as a dentist I have some knowledge of pharmacology. So, I feel that I am unlikely to abuse the ease of obtaining medicines in India, but I worry about others with less knowledge than me.

The freedom of being able to obtain medications without having to first get a prescription has mixed blessings. On the one hand, if you are certain that you need a particular drug or simply need a repeat of what you have been taking, not needing a prescription can save you time and money that visiting a doctor entails. On the other hand, self diagnosis and self treatment is not without risk.

What Voltaire wrote many years ago is less true today than it was then. But, still, even after so many advances have been made in medical science , a great deal of ignorance about the human body remains.

Art gallery

Bangalore in south India is not blessed with many tourist attractions. I will describe one of them, which gives me great pleasure.

Almost 10 years ago, a branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) opened in Bangalore. Even if you have little interest in modern art this place is worth seeing. Part of the collection, which changes regularly, is housed in the former Manikyavelu Palace, a 19th century edifice which has been superbly restored.

The palace is linked to an elegantly simple contemporary building in which some of the permanent collection is displayed. The collection includes works mainly by Indian artists but there are also a few by European artists. Most of the artworks were created in the 20th and 21st centuries. There is a good selection of paintings by Bengali artists.

The new building also houses well curated temporary exhibitions. Currently, there is a wonderful exhibition of paintings and drawings by the artist Khanderao, who was born in Gulbarga. His early works were beautifully executed topographical scenes. He is also a superp portraitist. Like other great modern artists, for example Picasso, Khanderao has moved into abstraction, which he deals with beautifully.

A water feature separates the palace and its modern extension from another contemporary complex. This includes an auditorium, a library, a café, and a gallery shop.

The verdant gardens of the NGMA contain several modern sculptures.

The NGMA is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest attractions that Bangalore offers visitors and residents alike.

Talking turkey

Until I was about fifteen, our family usually ate Christmas lunch at my aunt’s home with other relatives and friends. The centrepiece of the meal was often roast goose. My mother’s brother Felix used to try to entertain us youngsters with a story about Turkey Lurkey and his chums Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky, and Chicken Licken. He meant well, but his story, repeated annually, elicited groans from young and old alike.

One year, 1963, I was in Manhattan with my sister and parents on Christmas Day. That Christmas, I ate sirloin steak for lunch.

Many times during my late twenties and throughout my thirties, I spent Christmas in the English countryside with my PhD supervisor, his wife, and family. They served turkey for evening dinner on Christmas Day. They used to cook enormous birds capable of generously feeding twenty or more folk, yet there was never more than about ten or eleven of us around the festive table.

Everyone except me preferred white meat. One year, when I was asked my preference, I chose brown meat. My host cut off and then placed a whole turkey leg on my plate. It looked like an enormous club, such as might have been used by Fred Flintstone.

After 1994, I often spent Christmas in India. One Christmas Day, I fancied French onion soup rather than festive fare. A couple of years running, we ate Christmas lunch at Sunnies restaurant, which blazed the trail for fine dining with European food in Bangalore. The Christmas menu included the best turkeys I have ever eaten; they were juicy and very tasty. The turkeys at Sunnies were Butterballs specially imported from the USA.

Finally, I will tell you about an unusual Christmas Day ingredient, which I encountered at a place in Bangalore , which I will not name to save causing embarrassment. Several large roasted turkeys were being served at a buffet lunch. After I had enjoyed a serving of turkey, a friend of mine brought me his daughter’s plate, which contained a sizeable piece of uneaten Turkey meat and … a perfectly roasted large cockroach.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

Rules of the road

As in the UK, Japan, South Africa, and Ireland, the rule in India is that one drives on the left side of the road. The steering wheel in four (or more) wheeled vehicles is on the right side of the car, truck, bus etc. In the case of two or three wheeled vehicles, the driver is centrally located. So far so good.

Although the driving on the left rule exists in India, it is regularly ignored.

Unless there is an un-crossable median barrier, turning right is often done as follows in India. The driver eases his or her vehicle into the stream of traffic on the right (I.e. wrong) side of the road into which the turn is being made. With a sea of vehicles approaching in the opposite direction, the driver drifts carefully towards the middle of the road, and then joins the lanes of traffic moving in the same direction as his or her vehicle. Sounds hazardous, does it not?

If you are travelling in an autorickshaw, your driver will often drive down a one way street in the wrong direction in order to make the trip shorter.

On the dual carriageway highway, things get more exciting. The highway provides an opportunity to speed up. But beware; it is not uncommon to come across trucks and other vehicles driving in the wrong direction towards the traffic speeding in the correct direction. Once, I asked a professional driver about this. He told me that it was quite normal for this to happen. By driving down the incorrect lane, a driver can avoid having to travel in the direction opposite to that in which he wishes to travel in order to make a U-turn. That seems quite reasonable but rather dangerous. It is just as dangerous as the herdsmen who choose to move flocks of goats and other animals along the traffic filled lanes of a highway.

Whereas a driver in the UK would be startled by any of the above, Indian drivers take these curious practices in their stride. They expect the unexpected and understand that the rules of the road are, like rules in general, made to be broken.

Animal rights

Driving in India may seem somewhat chaotic to visitors from northern Europe including the UK. It might seem less so to visitors from the southern parts of Europe or from Egypt. However, there is some order in the apparent mayhem that can often be observed on Indian roads.

One unwritten rule is that it is advisable to give way to something bigger than you. If you are driving a car, it is best to yield to a lorry or a bus. If a cow or bullock or even an elephant wanders into your path, it is best to avoid it. If you collide with a large beast, your vehicle might suffer greater injury than the beast. Best to give the creature the right of way.

If you should happen to be an autorickshaw (‘tuk tuk’) driver, you are likely to have superbly fast reflexes, the courage of a lion, and nerves of steel. Drivers of these vehicles take risks on the road that sometimes seem suicidal, but overehelmingly they know what they are doing.

One autorickshaw driver in Bangalore once told me that he had been a truck driver before taking up his present occupation. He said that to drive an autorickshaw it was necessary to employ all of the senses. He said that his whole body had to be fully aware of what is going on around him.

However, even the skilfully adventurous autorickshaw drivers will give way to, or avoid cattle in the street. This is not because they hold the cow to be sacred nor because they are believers in animal rights, but because they have a sensible regard for self-preservation.

Seen girl bring ring

Arranged marriages where parents choose the bride and groom are still very common in India. Often the girl and boy hardly know each other, or may have never met, before the wedding ceremony.

In India when a marriage is not ‘arranged’ except by Cupid’s arrow, it is called a ‘love marriage ‘. My wife and I had a love marriage. When our daughter was very young she must have learned about arranged marriages from someone or at school because one day she said to us, assuming that we had had an arranged marriage :

“When I grow up, I am going to marry whoever I like unlike you.” We told her that we had chosen each other.

I am not qualified to discuss the relative merits of love and arranged marriages but both of them can be quite successful. To westerners, arranged marriages might seem strange. The reverse is true for many Indians, for whom the idea of love marriages often seem alien.

Once, I was talking to some young men in a bookshop in Bangalore. When I told them that my wife is Indian, one of them asked me if we had had a love marriage. I said we did have one. They asked me how I felt about love marriage. I told them that I can recommend it.

My in-laws, both Indians, married in India in the late 1940s. In those days, the majority of marriages were arranged. My in-laws were very unusual for that era because they had a love marriage. My father in law and his bride came from different communities. At first, the marriage could not occur because the bride’s family did not want their daughter to marry out of her community. After some time, they softened their views and a very successful married life began.

My wife and I come from different continents, but no objection to us marrying came from any quarter.

Recently, we were chatting with an elderly Indian gentleman, whose story illustrates how little say the participants in an arranged marriage might have. He told us that he had married in the late 1940s. He said that he did not meet his bride until the day he got married. He was working away from his home town when he received a telegram from his mother. It contained the words:

“SEEN GIRL BRING RING”