Saturday, 21 September 2013

Adventures in Bombay, Contemporary Epics, review of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Curry.

I just went on another excursion outside of the YA and paranormal zones, and it was completely worth it.

I read the gigantic, extraordinary, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It's supposedly based on the extraordinary true life story of the author, and his adventures in India in the 80s. I was in India myself 6 months ago. To me it was all about the history, the wildlife, and the numbers of people. India hits you around the face with its population everywhere. This is the Victoria Terminal in Mumbai in a rare moment when there aren't - literally - millions of people there.

In Shantaram the lead character experiences or observes EVERY facet of Mumbai. Which is impressive. With a population of 20 million it's bigger than most countries. He describes life in slums, among gangsters, lepers, and film stars in depth. My Mumbai was mainly the tourist facet. The beautiful old Victorian buildings, the jungly trees, the huge eagles on the street, and the monkeys...

His book is also filled with mystery, and intensity. The mystery is cool, there's a couple of clever who-dunnits in the story. The intensity, though, can be a bit much. It might be just me. But there's much love and so much hate, and none of it makes sense, but it's enough to sign your life over to someone else, apparently...

The two biggest similarities between the book and my experience are lots of food and taxis. The cabs are replicas of British cars from the 1950s, with 'busy' signs tacked on the hood, that flip out like flags when the cab is busy. I've never seen such gigantic menus, lists of hundreds of amazing combinations of vegetables and cheese and multiple kinds of bread. When I was a kid I loved the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the fantasy world of Narnia, but Narnia actually resembles my suburban childhood more than the fantasy that is India.

If you want to get an in depth, exciting, dramatic over view of Bombay, then this is just the story for  you, and everything else in the book is worth it...

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

No Books, No Stories. Real Life.

This blog is about fiction, writing it, reading it, and things that contribute to it. Real life doesn't often intrude here, and my real life never does.

But this post is an exception. Today, making up stories about King Arthur paled in comparison with the story of my working day.

 In my real life, my real job, for the last six months, I've been working on projects involving Syrian refugees in Jordan. Specifically, I've been organising programmes to deliver English training in the Zataari and EJC refugee camps.

I've visited them both.

I've travelled around a fair bit, I've been to thirty or so countries, but these are, hands down, the most dreadful places I've been. Before the war I visited Syria. Damascus was one of the most vibrant, fun, historical cities I knew. The people there had dynamic, comfortable lives.

The change they have experienced, and the violence that preceded it, have to be among the most horrible things that can happen to anybody.

They live in tents in the middle of the desert, miles from anyway. Everywhere they move they are surrounded by clouds of dust, though they can only really move in the daytime. At night it's too dangerous.

There are schools for the children, but not enough spaces in them, and even if they were many of the children are too busy to go to school. They need to bustle from place to place in the camp, queuing up for hours for bread, shoes, mattresses, whatever they hear is on offer. Some of it  they keep, some of it  they try and sell.

Today, for the first time in my life, I was in a traffic jam of wheelbarrows. Wheelbarrows are the commercial vehicle of choice in Zaatari camp. They are pushed by small boys, rented by the hour, to haul rice, bread, bricks, blankets, from one place to another. Don't get me wrong. The boys are laughing and shouting. But they should be at school.

Zaatari is a phenomenon. It is populated by 150,000 people who have had their homes torn from them. Everybody has family who have died. But life goes on. The resourcefulness is astonishing. Tents and caravans are converted into shops and businesses. I saw tailors, barbers, an internet cafe, shaorma restaurants, bakers and shops selling fruit and vegetables. There is a place you can rent wedding dresses for heaven's sake.

There are places, run by amazing teachers, themselves refugees, that are working with kids who have missed two years of school, so they can join the camp schools and not be in a class with children  3 years younger, then drop out. I'm planning training for these teachers, so they can better help the kids, and so that they feel like professionals, though they teach in a tent, coated with dust.

I've placed a teacher in a camp. She travels an hour to get there and she teaches refugees how to introduce themselves, how to fill in forms, and how to explain their wishes and dreams. Tiny children sneak into the back of the classroom, covered in dust, and stare at her goggle eyed. She treats them all with kindness and smiles. The adults get a sense of progression, that today, a little bit, was a good day. But she's just one teacher, and there are two million refugees.

And of course, the camps are only the thin end of the wedge. Jordan, a poor and tiny country, has taken half a million refugees into its towns and cities, the equivalent of Canada moving to America. They deal with it with astonishing sympathy, as desperate Syrians drive up rents and food prices, use scarce water and electricity, work for less than they will, and mean teachers work double shifts to deal with all the new pupils.

I don't know if you are the kind of person who gives to charity, who contributed to the Tsunami response. I don't know if you are distracted by the war rhetoric. I don't know if you think that food and water are most important, or that education and security are more so. Probably you're tired of  the constant influx of news of suffering.

But still, I would urge you to think about it a little, and wonder if you can contribute a little. There are a horde of organisations that are labouring to try and improve conditions in the camps and in Jordan. They focus on sanitation, or child brides, on education, or counselling. I won't recommend one to you, though if you email me a question, I'm happy to answer.

All I would say is think about the children, who are forgetting the street they came from, who are adapting to life in a hut, who still laugh, and jostle to play in the playgrounds and football pitches established by aid agencies. Day by day, as they don't go to school, their future shrinks, and is being curved and warped by the decisions of the powerful and the mad.

Do what works for you.