New ways for India to succeed at the Olympics

An Indian commentator in the press recently bemoaned the lack of success of the nation’s athletes in Rio. He suggested that howking and spitting were two things at which India excelled. True, the pavements and walls of Delhi are spattered with red spittle. This isn’t blood; it’s paan masala. This is a mixture of betel and areca nuts, tobacco and slaked lime to bind it together, wrapped up in a betel leaf (parna is the Sanskrit word for leaf). It’s a mild stimulant, reportedly good for the digestion and addictive. But there’s the problem. If spitting became an Olympic sport, the Indian contestants would fail the drug test.


Apart from causing a mess, paan is a major cause of oral cancers. At University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, the pathology department has a histologist who specialises in oral cancer. This is because of the high numbers of people originally from the Indian Subcontinent living in the city and county.

I have just had Sunday lunch at a restaurant in Connaught Place, right in the centre of Delhi. At the side of the road, by traffic lights, are ragged child acrobats called Nats (nata is the Sanskrit word for dance). They perform cartwheels and flips to entertain the drivers stopped at the lights. Other groups of khelwalas squeeze their bodies through hoops, perform headstands and do other acrobatic stunts. They need to pack a lot of action into a short time in order to impress and get tips from stationary motorists. But what if they could leave the slums of Patel Nagar and be trained to become new style gymnasts who could compete at the next Olympics?


Interestingly, a physical fitness college in Maharashtra called the Hanuman (monkey god) Mandal sent a troupe of 35 gymnasts to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. They were independent of the British India Colonial team, and marched under a saffron banner, not the Union flag. They impressed Hitler so much that he ordered they be given a special medal.

So broadening the focus of gymnastics to include using wooden poles, tightropes, martial arts and traditional dancing might win India medals in future Olympic Games.

Shalimar Bagh Club

One of the legacies we Brits passed on to India was the “Club”. One of my neighbours in Leicester recommended the Gymkhana Club in New Delhi, but that is too far away for me to use regularly. Our locality has its own club, in less salubrious surroundings than the GC, but quite impressive nonetheless. You may be asking yourself why on earth would Ian want to join a club? (Surely, he agrees with Groucho Marx’s views on clubs – he wouldn’t want to belong to any club which would have him as a member?)

The problem is exercise. I need to keep fit. I loved walking in Swaziland, but here in the streets of Delhi it is downright dangerous because of the lawless driving of cars, trucks, rickshaws and motorbikes. It was difficult to walk safely in Zambia, especially around my cottage as I regularly came across elephants. I’ve never been keen on running and, of course, in Zambia things which ran were regarded as “food” by the local carnivores. Neither am I keen on gymnasia – sweaty lycra and testosterone just don’t do it for me. But swimming I love.


I heard that the Club had a swimming pool, so after work one evening we went along to enquire about membership. The building is impressive, pink and purple stone-clad walls with large plate glass windows. The architectural style is a modern take on early 20th century Lutyens’ neo-imperialist New Delhi. The gardens are lush and green, with manicured lawns and flowering bushes. I opened the glass doors and was hit by a blast of frosty air conditioning.


“I would like to find out more about the Club’s facilities,” I told the receptionist. She then passed my request onto her boss behind her and he called over a smart gentleman, immaculately turned out in black turban, trousers and crisp white shirt.

“We don’t allow foreigners to join the Club,” he said abruptly.

“But we live and work here, just twenty minutes away in Shalimar Bagh. We might be foreigners, but we reside here.”

“It will not be worthwhile paying the fees to join,” he countered.

“My contract is for a minimum of 12 months,” I replied.

“The joining fee is US $17,000.”

“That is quite a lot of money. Can we see what the Club has to offer?”

He gave us a brief tour, showing the gym (lycra and testosterone), the bar (post modern kitsch), the dining room and the banqueting hall (caters for 500 guests at wedding receptions). It was all shiny marble, gilt and glitzy, ostentatiously nouveau riche.

“Where’s the pool?” I asked.

He led us outside, past some workshops and maintenance plant, to the 26 metre open air swimming pool. The decor here was functional, not fancy. Some of the tiles had fallen off the wall of the pool and were lying on the bottom. There were some pigeons fluttering about, trying to get a swift drink. The changing area was very basic, with a few cubicles closed by a strip of plastic sheeting and some hooks insecurely fastened to the wall. But it looked reasonably clean and the water was very tempting.

View of the Club from the rubbish tip by the car park

We walked back to the magnificent foyer behind reception and I was introduced to one of the Club’s senior officers. He was sitting on a banquette, beside a large statue and floral arrangement. His white hair was neatly cut and he had a definite military bearing. As we came over, he folded away the newspaper he was reading and spoke to our Sikh guide in Hindi.

He beckoned to me and asked me to sit beside him, ignoring the ladies, who took up seats to one side. He sent a flunky to bring some cold water and asked who I was, where I was from, what I was doing in Delhi. He explained that it would be difficult to arrange for a full membership, but if I wished just to swim, he could ask another member to sponsor me. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to get a fellow medic to sign for you,” he said. All I needed to do was to fill in a form, bring a passport sized photograph, copies of my passport and long stay residence visa. “We do have our own charity clinic outside the Club, for the poor who can’t afford private healthcare,” he said. I thanked him profusely and told him I’d bring the documentation in a few days.


“You realise that it is an open air pool, so it will shut next month because it gets too cold. It will open again in April.”

Nevertheless, I signed up for the rest of the month for the maharajah-like sum of 550 rupees (£6.20). Pool only.

Happy Janmashtami

Today is the birthday of the Hindu deity Krishna. Every year, it falls on the eighth day of the “dark fortnight” in Shravaana. He is often depicted as a blue-skinned young man playing a flute, standing on one leg (just like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull), with a group of adoring milkmaids nearby.


The celebrations will probably start at midnight. Unfortunately, the weather has not been kind today. It has been raining in Delhi intermittently throughout the day. We drove through several rivers running down main roads on our way home this evening. The paths around our nearest temple are muddy with liquid shit from cows and dirt. Plashy.

But the other day when it was fine, I did manage to take some photographs of the temple preparations – a series of dioramas in the courtyard. The temple was also bedecked with garlands of orange flowers (which look like marigolds to me) and strings of lights. They are still busy fixing up the sound system, so I am not sure how much sleep I will get tonight.

Staring Can Get You Arrested

It can be menacing when you are being stared at by a crowd of locals. I’m used to it and smile vacantly back at them. But if I was a woman and felt  I was being mentally undressed by a lecherous gang of men, I would hate it. It is a form of sexual violence – not physical, but psychological intimidation. Now a Keralan police officer says that there is a law against it.


Rishiraj Singh, a state excise commissioner, has said that staring annoyingly at a woman for 14 seconds could lead to a spell behind bars. This pronouncement has been met with a storm on social media questioning how the law might work. #14secondRule

“What happens if you blink during the 14 seconds?”

“How about if you stop after 13.5 seconds, then start again?”

“If you are looking at a possible wife, surely you can check her out for longer than 14 seconds without being arrested?”

“How would they know you were staring if your eyes were hidden by dark sunglasses?”

This was all good natured banter, poking fun at the policemen. But when a young lady from Kerala said that she quite likes “checking out” good-looking men, often spending more than 14 seconds as she does so, the excrement hit the air conditioning.

The result was a wave of nasty trolling about her being a slut, bringing shame on her parents for admitting such lewd behaviour, what about double standards – one law for men and another for women, threats and so on. She stood up for herself admirably and dismissed her anonymous critics.

The official at the heart of the twitter storm, Rishiraj Singh, also said women should take up martial arts and carry a small knife or pepper spray to defend themselves if they feel that their honour is being impugned. But it appears that there isn’t a law limiting leering at all. Mr Singh sports a very impressive handlebar moustache, but even so, I would strongly counsel against gawking at it for a quarter of a minute or more.


Cable television in our apartment in Delhi may have a hundred channels, but none of them allowed us to view the Rio Olympics. I was gutted. The BBC news showed still photographs of the events, but no action. Trying to watch the coverage on line didn’t work either, with “This video is not available in your region” appearing instead of Mo and Usain doing their thing.

Indians didn’t get very excited about the Olympics until two of their athletes won medals, a silver in the badminton singles and a bronze in the wrestling.

Neither athlete was well known in India prior to their achievement at the Games. As PV Sindhu was winning her silver medal, Google went crazy as people sought more information about her. The top search terms were “PV Sindhu caste”. WTF?

PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik

There were comments about how manly the bronze winning wrestler looked. “With muscles like that, how is she going to get a husband?”

The newspapers were desperate to get background information about the two heroines. Gopichand, Sindhu’s coach, said that he had given her back her mobile phone, after keeping her incommunicado for three months before the Games.

A politician stated that he was going to arrange for Sindhu to get a world-class coach, being convinced that she would then win gold at Tokyo in 2020. He then sheepishly added that she could keep her original coach as well. Perhaps as a time-keeper using the feature on her mobile?

At Gopichand’s shuttlecock academy, he insisted that all the athletes should eat chicken, even the life-long vegetarians. He did this because he felt that eating poultry contributed to the success of  Chinese contestants.

India never fails to amaze me.


Sometimes I need to eat something else other than rice, chapatis and dhal. I went out for Pad Thai Gai noodles at a fashionable restaurant in South Delhi. It was called Mamagoto, “a funky Japanese chain with a lively vibe”. Quite. The music was so deafening, we asked them to turn it down a few notches…they did, from 11 to 9.

The decor was outrageous. There was a blue polar bear suspended from the ceiling, for example. I liked the epigram over the door, “We don’t know what Confucius says. We are too busy eating.” I enjoyed the flying pig and psychedelic hexagons on the wall.





And the food was great.

Raksha Bandhan

Did you fight like cat and dog with your siblings? If so, perhaps this Hindu festival might encourage you to bury the hatchet. Strictly speaking, it celebrates the bond of protection between brothers and sisters, but it can also apply to relationships outside the family.

A sister ties a sacred thread, or “rakshi”, onto her brother’s wrist and in return, he gives her a gift and promises to protect her in the future. She places a tilak on his forehead and feeds him sweets by hand. In today’s Times of India, there were advertisements for fancy raksha wrist watches, a more materialistic wrist binding than a coloured piece of cotton thread.

I was not required to go to the clinic today, but I’m still on call 24/7 by mobile phone, so I was able to handle questions and solve problems remotely. This morning, I decided to do a bit of exploring in Shalimar Bagh on foot.

The main street outside our apartment seems to have acquired a herd of sacred cows. They cause traffic jams; they defaecate everywhere. People place leftover food on the pavements for the cows, so they like to pick a shady part of the path to rest and chew the cud. This means that walking down the street can be tricky. Cars are often haphazardly parked, forcing pedestrians out in the road if they want to pass by. The pavements are usually broken up, so you need to watch your footing, avoiding poo and potholes. And it isn’t always animal poo. There is one long stretch of pavement which serves as an al fresco crapper. It reminds me of the descriptions of human faeces in V S Naipaul’s book “An Area of Darkness”.

Barbers, fast food stalls, potters, fruit and vegetable stalls, mattress makers, cycle and rickshaw mechanics, they all take over a patch of pavement to run their business.


I like the Pasta Hub, with its Indian take on Italian food, advertising “Maggi” instant noodles along with nachos with chaat. Street 5 is a Chinese fast food outlet, advertising that it is a “real test of Chinese” food.


I noticed a large park on Google Earth a few kilometres from our apartment, so I decided to explore the neighbourhood. I passed Club Road and entered a smaller park, which was shady and green. It was deserted, apart from chipmunks and birds – rose ringed parrots, babblers, mynahs, laughing doves and crows.


It was getting hot and I was thirsty, so I bought a coconut from a handcart. The water was a bit sour and it smelled as though it was beginning to ferment. In compensation, the boy who sold it to me offered me half an apple, which he had picked up from the ground.


I walked for another twenty minutes before reaching my objective, Shalimar Bagh Public Park. The gates for pedestrians form an “S” shape, presumably to keep out cows. And baby buggies – though I haven’t seen any of these yet. The park was less well manicured than the smaller one I had just visited. There were piles of rubbish close to the pathways, with pigs rooting for food. In one corner of the park there were some ramshackle huts where people were living.


This park was busy. In this forest of casuarina pine trees, there were about six games of cricket going on. I think the fielders played multiple games simultaneously. When I took out my camera, the games all stopped and the lads ran over to get their pictures taken.

There were groups of old men squatting around a rug, playing cards. I watched them for a few minutes but could not make out what game they were playing. It didn’t look as though any money was changing hands.

I saw some ragamuffin children playing on a metal slide. This wasn’t just a strip of shiny metal. It was a set of rollers, such as you would use to push your hand luggage towards the conveyor belt to be X-rayed. More children gathered around for photographs and when I declined and broke away, several of them threw stones at me. They missed.

I had had enough. I needed to cool down, so I went to get my hair cut. I didn’t use the barber at the side of the road; I went for the stylist with an air conditioned shop. He did the honours for less than a pound and I walked out, refreshed, tidier and a bit lighter.


There was a queue of men buying chole bhature – chole is a chick-pea curry, with potatoes and bhature is a pancake made with curd cheese and mint, deep fried so it becomes a balloon. Add some onions, green chillies and a mint sauce, and you’ve got a tasty meal for less than a haircut.


It was delicious and I went back for seconds of chole and sauce.


As I continued my walk home, I saw many families in their best clothes, visiting relations and my thoughts returned to the holiday. Today, Raksha Bandhan is a secular national holiday, celebrated by people from all faiths. But it has its origins in Hinduism – Yahoda tied a raksha around Krishna’s wrist while saying this prayer:

May the lord of all beings protect you,
May the one who creates, preserves and dissolves life protect thee,

May Govinda guard thy head; Kesava, thy neck; Vishnu, thy belly;
the eternal Narayana, thy face, thine arms, thy mind, and faculties of sense;

May all negativity and fears, spirits malignant and unfriendly, flee thee;
May Rishikesa keep you safe in the sky; and Mahidhara, upon earth.


Independence Day

Sixty nine years ago today, India became independent. I remember being captivated while reading “Freedom at Midnight”, Collins and Lapierre’s book of the events leading up to the 15th of August 1947. I was hoping to go to the Red Fort in Delhi to witness the celebrations, but the whole area has been cordoned off and is off limits to all but vetted invited guests. Prime Minister Modi will address the crowds from above the Lahore Gate, as he did last year.

This is a photograph of a photograph of Prime Minister Modi at the Red Fort in Delhi in August 2015. The picture was on display at a photography exhibit in Bharat Parv.

This article in the Times of India describes the security operation to counter any terrorist attacks. There will be 300 snipers in and around the Red Fort, sixty sniffer dogs, drone detectors, paragliders on the walls, teams of commandos equipped with sophisticated weaponry and 300 CCTV cameras. Guards will even be posted at 3,000 trees surrounding the Red Fort.


I had to smile when I read that the culture ministry posted a video on Twitter celebrating Independence Day, but featuring two Pakistani JF-17 jets, instead of Indian Teja light combat aircraft. The tweet was swiftly removed by red-faced officials. Ironically, in 2011, the Pakistan Navy mistakenly featured Indian warships in a full page newspaper advertisement.

I accompanied two colleagues on a trip to New Delhi on Saturday and we visited a posh shopping mall. The courtyard and atrium were decorated by kites in the colours of the national flag, orange, white and green. There were lots of Independence Day sales, but I didn’t feel tempted to buy anything.


I will not be attending the ceremony today. It is “off limits” for all MSF expatriate staff. The Delhi Police have issued advisory notices in the newspapers explaining what is not allowed at the flag raising – cameras, cell phones, umbrellas, for example. No food, no bags, no iPods, water bottles, cigarettes, screwdrivers, matches, either.


Delhi Belly

“You’ll probably get the squits while you’re here,” said my boss. “Most expats get something like Giardia every three months, lots of gas and gripes. We don’t know what it is, some kinda protozoa, Blastocystis or something similar. Gets better with a couple of grams of tinidazole. You’ll be right, mate.” Yes, he is Australian.


I’ve been here four days and my bowels are doing fine, despite being tempted by barbecued soya products on the street corner by our local park in Shalimar Bagh. Here’s the takeaway menu.


In fact, the food is so good, I am putting on weight. I live in a busy urban area of North Delhi where the streets are tangled with traffic for 18 hours a day. With broken pavements and open drains, it is no place to go jogging. There are gyms, filled with desperate, sweaty young men grimly pounding away on treadmills under fluorescent lights. And even some establishments for well-covered ladies trying to control their type 2 diabetes.

I am looking for an open air swimming pool nearby, but I’ll be careful to keep my mouth closed to avoid ingesting blastocysts.


The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York

What a mouthfull! No wonder people refer to this magnificent cathedral as “The Minster”. The Anglo-Saxon word “mynster” means to bring knowledge (of Christianity), and York was a centre for missionary activity in the 7th Century. I spent two hours there yesterday, marvelling at the spectacle.

I walked on the ramparts of the city wall. From here you can see the Minster arising from a higgledy-piggledy, mass of red-tiled roofs. It was built on the site of a Roman encampment, Eboracum, which is now three metres below ground level. But outside the south transept of the Minster you can see a statue of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, who took on his dead father’s purple cloak in York in AD306.

The central tower looks solid enough to support a spire, but the wooden one constructed in 1400 collapsed and when the architects looked into erecting another, they found some worrying cracks in the walls, so they decided to leave well alone. With the largest expanse of medieval stained glass windows in the world, there was no need to have a needle pointing the way to heaven.

Normally, I don’t like joining tours or listening to audio guides. But this time, I joined a group led by an American lady who was one of the 300 volunteers who work at the Minster. It was worth it. Her anecdotes brought some humanity and humour into the sanctity of the place. For example, she explained how the stained glass in the West Window is topped by a heart shape. On St Valentine’s Day, there are droves of couples popping the question beneath the window.

The lowest row of figures in the window are the eight Archbishops of York during the time of the construction of the Minster, from 1215 to 1472. The next layer shows the Apostles, but there are only eight slots available, so they had to double up at the ends of the row, and Judas Iscariot missed the cut.

Below this window, there is a modern sculpture of headless saintly figures doing semaphore. The message is that you don’t need your head to know Christ. Terry Hammill donated the work to the Minster in 2004. The message spells out “Christ is here”. When a new archdeacon named Christopher was appointed, some wag altered the figures so it read “Chris is there”.

The nave’s ceiling is astonishing. There is a central spine with ribs arching to the walls. The ceiling collapsed in the 19th Century but luckily all the decorations could be accurately rebuilt. Apart from the illustration of the Baby Jesus breast feeding – the Victorians substituted a bottle.

I always thought that the stained glass windows served as cartoons for common folk who could not read to see the Bible stories illustrated. This window shows St Peter holding the Minster, but take a look at the lower part of the window. On the right, there is a stag chasing a greyhound, in the middle section there is a fox with a chicken on its back, and on the left there are lots of monkeys, one of whom is examining a flask of urine, just as medieval medics used to do.

The next window is like a gigantic billboard advertising the original bell maker, whom you can see with a bell on his belt and bells adorn the panels around. You can also see a female bell caster in one scene.

After this profusion of colourful stained glass, it was odd to see the “five sisters”, five 16m high windows mainly containing grey glass with no images. Five sisters refers to the five great Cistercian monasteries in Yorkshire. Cistercians were rather austere and did not want to be distracted from their prayers by beautiful windows telling stories. The windows were built at the time of the Crusades, so perhaps the abstract patterns indicate some Islamic influence.

Facing the sisters is the Rose Window, celebrating the end of the Wars of the Roses between Lancaster (red) and York (white) with the Tudor dynasty. This window was destroyed in a fire in 1984. It has been rebuilt along with the ceiling decoration – instead of using the old designs, they asked the children’s TV programme, Blue Peter, to canvass opinion. So there is a “Save the Whales” decoration, one depicting the Tudor ship, Mary Rose, and another showing children being fed.

On the side of the Minster is the octagonal Chapter House, where church business was done. The carvings are fascinating. Two show haughty Queen Isabella, who would not learn English. In one, a devil is sitting on her head and in the other an eagle is pulling up her nose with its beak. Another carving shows a priest with his girlfriend, putting his hand over her mouth to ensure silence.

The guide pointed out where the architects bodged it up. The nave is a metre out of true for example. This isn’t surprising, considering the Minster took 250 years to build. This does not detract at all from the wonder of this medieval marvel. Go and see it if you have the chance.