From Indian spiritual odyssey to fluff pieces about Kareena Kapoor’s pets

Iona Salter writes: Working overseas. Making a difference. Taking your skills and knowledge to the world. Appealing, is it not? It was certainly the sales pitch that sold me on the idea of volunteering on a newspaper in India last year.

And it was great. I got to meet interesting people, work in the world’s fastest growing (yes, growing) newspaper market, and develop an appreciation for the musical properties of the rickshaw horn. Which you have to really — it’s unrelenting nature drives you to the brink of slipping arsenic in your own palak paneer otherwise.

But I reject the notion that Westerners who trot off to other parts of the globe to “do their bit” all bring valuable and relevant skills with them. It’s imperialistic. And it’s not always true.

It has often got a lot to do with cultural differences. Language for example. When the only response I can give to any question directed at me in the local language is “yes, um… Namaste” my productive capacity is pretty limited, really.

This is something I discovered pretty shortly after arriving at a Bangalore-based newspaper.

Bangalore is a city of contrasts. The heart of the subcontinent’s IT industry, much of the Bangalore’s citizenry is made up of young members of India’s booming middle class. The chain stores of multinationals line the streets, but they are the same streets down which women in saris saunter and cows meander.

India’s first metro rail network is being built to modernise and simplify commutes, but it’s creation has left the city pockmarked by dusty construction sites and Bangaloreans comment wryly that, in typical Indian fashion, it will take ten years for the thing to be finished. Like much of India, it is a city with one foot in the future and one foot in the 9,000 year history of India’s cultural traditions.

For my first few weeks at the paper, I was given responsibility for the pièces de fluff. You know — entertainment pieces, India’s answer to cat shows (you guessed it: they have elephant shows) — that sort of thing.

There were certainly perks to this. I ate really well, got invited to lavish parties (for which my backpack full off fisherman pants and thongs certainly did not cater), and can now proudly say I am a walking encyclopaedia of Bollywood gossip.

But pretty soon I was keen to get stuck into a bit of hard news, so I followed up a few leads with a bit more substance. And here is where things got tricky. I realised that my knowledge of political process, regulatory bodies, the legal system — in short: a journalist’s bread and butter — were completely rooted in an Australian context. If only you could get an adaptor for that at duty-free.

A pretty typical response to my phone queries would soon become: “I’m terribly sorry madam, but this organisation oversees the sale of camels in Rajasthan, not the slaughter of chickens in Karnataka”. Or some slight variation on this theme.

(And it is always “madam”, because for all that is said about Indian bureaucratic inefficiency, India’s public servants are invariably the politest people you will ever meet.)

So eventually I hung my head and went back to writing what would become my standout contribution to India’s public sphere: a hard-hitting piece on Kareena Kapoor’s collection of belly jewels. Or outfits for her Chihuahua. I can’t quite remember now.

Unfortunately the ethical principles of the profession were also pretty well confined to an Australian context for me. Unfortunate mainly for a pair of minor celebrities who had a picture I took of them snogging put in the paper.

I had been at party with a fairly elite guest list, trying to work out the exact point at which my version of the backpacker’s Indian spiritual odyssey had derailed to the point where I was attending roof-top pool parties pumping David Guetta. The journalist I was with suggested I play the ignorant foreigner card and snap some shots of couples kissing, groping, grinding or engaging in any similarly debaucherous activity that security would not allow the paper’s official photographer to take.

The couple were not married to other people, or even in possession of particularly high profiles. But in a society where pre-marital relationships were kept pretty hush-hush, this was sensitive — and readership boosting — stuff. They complained about the photo, and I realised that at home I would never take a photo that had such irrelevance to public interest yet could be so privately damaging.

I liken it to when you are overseas and you find it easy to splash cash around because the unfamiliar notes just don’t seem like “real” money. It is as if I did not realise I was taking a photo for a “real” newspaper because the whole situation was so novel to me. Pretty silly, huh?

I definitely do not mean to discourage people from volunteering or working overseas. It is an invigorating and eye-opening experience. And besides, there are many people who possess skills easily transferable across cultural boundaries.

There are also those who thrive in situations which challenge them, rather than wanting to curl into the foetal position after bashfully asking colleagues who Delhi’s Chief Minister is for the third time that day. (For the record, it’s Sheila Dikshit. How this name managed to so consistently elude someone with as childish a mind as mine is truly a mystery, folks.)

Besides, your usefulness increases as the days and weeks and months stack up.

I was two hours late for my first interview — two hours I spent walking the streets frantically asking bewildered pani puri vendors whether they knew the street I wanted (they didn’t, but their tasty fried snacks sustained me in my quest).

But by my last week in Bangalore, the once confusing labyrinth of a city had begun to tattoo it’s intricate layout on my mind. Catching a lift home with a friend one night, I suddenly found this voice exiting my lips, saying “oh yeah, when you hit 100 Foot Road in Indira Nagar just take a right onto 6th Main, you’ll come out at Spencer’s and New Thipassandra Road will be just on your right.”

I was dumbstruck. I had no idea how I had suddenly acquired this directional competence, but I was telling a local where to go. I just sat there smugly thinking I was one damn-well-oriented lady.

But a few days later it was time to go. I was due back to my less exotic life in Melbourne, but a life where my displays of bewildered incompetence were relatively minimal.

Was it all worth it? For sure. What I wrote over there will certainly not win me any awards for journalistic brilliance. But hey, next time a Bollywood question crops up in Tuesday Trivia at my local — ya’ll better look out.

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