Monday, March 24, 2008

Vote for Frankenstein

An Indian politician, yesterday.

Hello everyone. I am no longer in ASIA I am in IRELAND. One day soon I will actually go HOME. Until that moment, here's another essayistic riff provoked by my recent subcontinental travels.

Vote for Frankenstein!

India, it is often said, is a land of a thousand languages. But as recent visitors to the subcontinent can attest, one of those languages is heading for supremacy, and it isn't Hindi. It's English.

English is everywhere in India. On television and roadsigns, in newspapers and advertising. English is also in the mouths of the people, and for good reason. In a country so diverse, English is a unifier. If a traveller from Calcutta or New Delhi wants to be understood in Kerala he is arguably better off speaking the old colonial tongue. Because the official national language of Hindi is a mystery to many southerners.

So pervasive is Indian English, some experts think the native language is in danger of dying out: at least as a serious means of communication. Hindi is certainly struggling as a language of the elite. Mumbai University is reporting a collapse in Hindi studies: ten years ago there were 400 students taking a master's in Hindi every year; that figure has now halved. Many Bollywood stars, like Soha Ali Khan, admit they only talk Hindi to their "drivers and liftmen".

Moreover, when people do speak Hindi, it is often peppered with Anglophone idioms and phrases. Supposedly Hindi newspapers are full of this hybrid "Hindlish": "Tumko aana compulsory hai. Mere dinner ka time ho gaya hai".

All this is rather melancholy for Hindi patriots. But there is a comical aspect - for outsiders at least. Such is the prestige of western culture in India, many locals are giving their children names which are culled indiscriminately from English literature, and European history. Often to bizarre effect.

The upcoming elections, for instance, will see a battle between Romeo Rhani of the BJP, and Zenith Sangma, Admiral Sangma, and Adolf Hitler R Marak of the NCP. And the
honourable candidate for Mendipathar? A mister Frankenstein Momin.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thai Punks on Bulb

Don't bogart that... er... mosquito coil, man.

I'm STILL in Asia. The following Asia-ish piece, by me, appeared in thefirstpost, a few days back.

Mad Thai Drugs

Drug scares are a regular occurrence in Thailand. In the 1980s, the great fear was "China white" heroin. In the 1990s, methamphetamine came along. Now there is a new drug on the Siamese streets - and it is truly bizarre.

The narcotic is colloquially known as "4 x 100". The name comes from its four main ingredients: Coca-Cola, cough syrup, boiled kratom leaves, and crushed-up coils of mosquito repellent.

Three of these ingredients can be found in the average supermarket. Kratom is an endemic local weed with properties similar to marijuana: you can buy it anywhere in Thailand, for a few baht.

No one knows who first concocted this extraordinary mix. But everyone agrees that 4 x 100 comes from the country's roiled, insurgent south, where bored Muslim youths - forbidden alcohol by their religion - experimented with various substances, to see what made them high. Somehow they hit on the 4 x 100 combination. The resulting brew is drunk very quickly: because it tastes much as it sounds.

The effect is like a slow-burning, hallucinogenic opiate. The user is stupefied, but then becomes agitated - as the dreams and visions kick in.

The craze has lately hit Bangkok. You can see people whacked out of their gourds, on 4 x 100, in many poor parts of the city. The government has tried banning cough syrups containing codeine, but the kids have simply switched to new brands.

Indeed, the fight against 4 x 100 is getting more complex, as the drug evolves. Rumours are circling of a refinement of 4 x 100: known as 6 x 100 or even 7 x 100 - because of the addition of new ingredients. These can include yoghurt, coffee or Alprazolam, (a sleeping pill already nicknamed the "deflowering drug", in the Muslim south). The final ingredient is the powder from the inside of fluorescent lightbulbs.

Monday, March 03, 2008

What I Did On My Holidays

A gluesniffing Indian kid, yesterday.

This piece originally appeared in thefirstpost, a few days back.

Sean Thomas is working for FIFA, publicizing charities around the
world. Recently he arrived in Calcutta. This is a diary of his first
day in this Bengali city, of 15 million people

One Day In Calcutta

21:00 Arrive from Bangkok

22:00 Drive into Calcutta. On the way learn that Winston Churchill
said of this city: "I am glad I have now been to Calcutta, because it
means I never have to go there again".

22:30 During the drive, nearly crash twice due to insane traffic
conditions: cars ignoring lights, trucks barrelling up wrong side of
road, everyone pressing horns creating a mindnumbing cacophony

22:35 Wonder if I am just being paranoid and traffic isn't that bad

22:36 See aftermath of road accident with taxi completely overturned,
in a narrow street: blood is splashed across the asphalt

23:46 Go to bed at hotel with large gin and tonic

09:30 Visit Futurehope, a charity that works with Calcutta's thousands
of streetchildren: abandoned, homeless and feral kids

09:40 Meet nine year old Jamal. Hear how he was found lying in the
railway station, where he slept with a razor blade under his tongue. Discover he used blade to defend himself from attackers

10:10 Meet twelve year old Kesar, who was burned hideously when his
mosquito net caught fire: a fire that killed his mother who was lying
next to him. He was found in the station sniffing glue and smoking heroin.
He plays football with us

10:50 Meet fifteen year old Ravit who was found age seven living on
street having been continuously raped for years by predatory
homosexuals: his syphilis was so bad he had to sit on a bucket of
potassium permanganate for six weeks

10:55 See the wooden sculptures that Ravit now carves. He is a
charming and friendly boy

11:00 Just about manage not to cry

11:40 Go for tour of Calcutta, "the city of joy"

11:50 On way through suburbs pass a begging leper, with no fingers;
see people living in plastic shacks by side of the road

12:00 Learn that we are in "the posh part of town"

1:00 Visit flower and spice market where peasant girls in gorgeous
saris sell beautiful garlands of orange marigold

1:45 See people living under the nearby flyover

2:15 Crawl through traffic and have minor crash: driver ignores incident

2:16: See an angry taxi driver continuously punching a smaller guy, in
the middle of the street

2:30 Go to the shores of the great river Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges

2:40 Thousands of men are washing in the filthy water. An albino
child, apparently abandoned, stares wistfully at the banyan trees

4:00 Cross the river on the world's busiest bridge - a mighty steel
arch erected by the British - and take the slumroad to the "burning

5:00 Three corpses are being cremated in the open air, on great pyres
of wood. A new corpse is being prepared for its immolation. The relatives stand around chatting as they watch the corpse attenders anoint the head with dark brown clarified butter

5:30 Watch as the fire is lit; the scent of burning human flesh fills the air

5:45 Step back from the heat and smoke as a previous pyre is stoked by
the corpse attenders; the half burned corpse rolls out of the embers:
the skull is still intact but the legs are burned to blackened stalks

5:50 Avert face from sight

5:51 See that behind me is a man naked from the waist down, in the
process of soiling himself; his loins are a mass of scarlet sores and
his wounds are seething with flies

6:30 Realise the man is dying

6:45 Climb back in Futurehope van to visit street kids who live under
the platforms of the vast Howrah railway station

7:15 See a teenage boy lying across tracks, with green flannel
draped over his face: the flannel is soaked in glue. His body spasms
as he inhales

7:50 Fight enormous urge to get taxi straight to airport

9:00 Instead go to visit Sonagachi, the red light district of
Calcutta, where 12 year old Nepalese girls grab every man by the arm,
trying to drag him in

9:15 Decide as a group to head directly and instantly to the hotel and get drunk

10:30 Have dinner in hotel restaurant of softshell crab in brandy
sauce, accompanied by Chilean shiraz

11:15 Realise wine cost hundred pounds: realise have drunk, in forty
minutes, a year's salary of average Calcuttan

12:05 Go to bed.

12.25 Stare at ceiling

12:26 Take Valium