Not everyone’s looking forward to Christmas


Look around you – it’s hard resisting the festive spirit. The city swamped in starry lights, non-stop chatter on radio about plans for the holiday season, and TV advertisements imploring us to ‘give’, and ‘make it just that extra special for someone’.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, they say, but there’s not much room in big brand advertising for the symbolism of the birth of Christ, or the charitable traditions of Christmas…. so what really is Christmas?

A few weeks ago, a group of colleagues from work and I took a break from the self-indulgent nature of Christmas when we were invited to spend the day with young disadvantaged children at a primary school in South London.

Together with Kids Company – a charity that provides practical, educational and emotional support to children around London, we organised six different activities from cupcake dressing and face-painting, to making cards and playing musical chairs.

The volunteers dressed up as Santa’s elves, Christmas trees, and a Christmas pudding. Of the Santas, one in particular was effortlessly jolly and the other had a sophisticated hand wave. The elves and trees were cheerful throughout the day and made sure the kids had enough to eat and drink.

As a Christmas pudding, I was tasked with face painting. Nervous at first, I gradually got better with every butterfly and lion, and excelled in Superman faces. I just hoped nobody would want ‘Lady Gaga’.

While having their faces painted, some of the kids engaged in conversation, but others preferred to stay quiet and concentrate on the final outcome. Many left satisfied, recommending to their friend and pointing to the face-painting desk. It wasn’t long before we heard another ‘Miss, I would like a butterfly.’

‘Are you looking forward to Christmas?’ I asked Jeff, a seven year old boy (name changed). There was a hesitation followed by a soft whisper ‘No’.

The feeling of anxiety before Christmas is not unique to young children. Yesterday, at Crisis – a shelter that welcomes rough sleepers and people without families – there was an elderly lady, perhaps in her early sixties, apprehensive about idea of spending the day on her own. ‘Without public transport, don’t think I could make it to the centre, and I’m not sure what I’d do by myself apart from smoke cigarettes, she said wistfully.

For all that X’mas has to offer – Christmas markets, festive treats et al, I became slightly confused about the spirit of Christmas.

While Covent Garden saw festive shoppers indulge in the festive spirit, the world of young children at Kids Co. and Crisis was a far cry from what I see every day.

Perhaps the idea of Santa Claus is a fictional character that some children only see in films.  While speaking with the Kids Co. volunteers, we were informed a majority of the children at the school were emotionally abused, homeless and from troubled backgrounds.

‘A significant proportion of children find Christmas a struggle and this is further exacerbated by pre-existing financial difficulties in their families,’ said Jasmina Stosic from Kids Company. ‘These children don’t come from stable homes.
They have to make choices between paying the gas bills and celebrating
Christmas,’ she added.

Similarly volunteers at Crisis are up against the odds in trying to accommodate most guests as there has been a 43 per cent increase in homeless people since the last year.

Recent statistics released by Joseph Rowntree Foundation show child poverty in the UK has fallen to 27 per cent, its lowest rate for almost 25 years. However Jasmina said, ‘That frankly is misleading, we are looking after more than 36,000 children, and the number is growing.’

I recalled what Dr. Seuss had said in How the Grinch stole Christmas: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!  What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

With more than 30,000  children anxious about the holiday season, and a significant rise in people without a roof above their head, we could probably all afford to do a little bit more, either with our time or our money, to benefit those for whom Christmas offers no consolation from daily life.

Nobody said it would be easy – but not forgetting those most in need at Christmas time will mean more smiles on children’s faces all year round.




Note to travellers: Common misconceptions about India

It’s more than a week since I arrived in England, from a three-week holiday in India. Friends and colleagues alike have been curious to know more about the holiday. Some having travelled before love to engage with their experiences, citing mostly great weather, historic sites, friendly locals, beaches and succulent kebabs. Others, still wary, wonder if you’ve been attacked by a stray dog or have contracted an illness.

Dona Paula, Goa

Not surprisingly, a question that tops the list is “Did you have Delhi belly?” For which my answer is invariably ‘no’, and leaves them looking rather baffled.

I often wonder where, how and on what basis were these preconceptions founded upon? Was it the hippies of the yester years, travel guides like Lonely Planet or just a matter of the accumulated historical assumptions of the West about the East, the kind Edward W. Said has catalogued in his book ‘Orientalism’.

Certainly, India is a nation of 1 billion people and still growing, lacking in rail networks, infrastructure and basic amenities. However, that doesn’t imply, if you travel to the sub-continent, you will be ill.

My travels from Goa right through South India on trains, buses, and rickshaws took us through some of the most taxing roads and rail networks. Nevertheless, we encountered friendly locals, smiling faces, delicious train food for as little as 65p, and grubby loos if you were in a sleeper class. I can almost assure you 2AC for a higher price, is much more luxurious and the experience will be different.

Through my journeys and interaction with people in different places, it was not uncommon to hear fellow travellers whine about the lack of hygiene, poor sanitation, and strange men. While some of it stands true, others I believe are misconstrued ideas about the country built over a period of time.

For example – the term ‘Delhi belly’ is pejorative and borderline racist, and originates from travellers to India who have sustained themselves, understandably on cheap street food for lengthy periods. The term implies that there is a natural link between upset stomachs and life in India – when, of course, the link is as a result of the travel habits of frugal visitors. ‘Delhi belly’ will always carry a vaguely judgemental connotation that is as false as if I were to give up home cooking for a diet of McDonalds in London, and then blame the resulting upset stomach on some innate quality of the West.

Apart from ‘Delhi belly’ there are a few other misconceptions I’ve had to deal with in recent weeks, which I hope to clarify in my blog here:

# 1 Accommodation is filthy

People travelling for four – six weeks are on a budget and would naturally like to maximise value for their money. Who wouldn’t? I have several times while travelling across Asia. However, one has to recognise the price that comes with staying in budget accommodation (i.e. 1 – 2£ per day)  – will be having to put up with lizards, frogs, salamanders, scorpions, beetles and perhaps even snakes to keep you company at night.

Be warned, sometimes mattresses are often infested with dreadlocks from another backpacker, and if you are wise enough – a sleeping bag and mosquito net will be indispensable to your travel kit.

That said, not everywhere in India is like that. Infact the country is home to some of the finest hotels and unique ‘themed’ earth resorts, cave houses, tree houses, and bamboo beach huts. My advice is book in advance to avail of good deals. If you feel like you have the money to spend, go indulge yourself and try something new.

Earth Huts, Banasura Hills, Kerala
Earth Huts, Banasura Hills, Kerala

# 2 ‘I’m on a journey to self-discovery in India’

It is common practice among most westerners to assume India as home to a place for ‘self realisation’, ‘self-discovery or embark on ‘truth-seeking’ journeys. Perhaps, it’s movies such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or even life experiences and blogs by previous travellers such as Abigail Butcher and Mariellen Ward that have inspired others.

Several travel websites like IFRE Volunteers Abroad are responsible for creating this delusion ‘travel to India and it will expand your soul’. This can be quite commonly witnessed along the beaches in Goa at several ashrams and monasteries – Sun worshippers, people dressed in Indian tat, practising yoga, and on herbal diets akin.

As expected, as a tourist for the first time you want to immerse yourself into the experience wholeheartedly for fear of missing out (aka F.O.M.O.)

However, because of the endless propaganda in the west from holiday websites and tour operators – to think of the country as a place solely for spiritual journeys and troubled people, is frankly misleading. At worst, it’s a fallacy, if you travel to India – its all going to be okay.

Certainly, it is a spiritual country, with many religions, beliefs, monasteries, festivals and cultures, however, its blasphemy when you try to combine that with alcohol and drugs.

Sunset in Allepey, Kerala

# 3 Will I get Ill?

There is no shortage to the variety and quality of food one can find whether its North, South, East or West Indian cuisine. With all its shortcomings, India can still proudly boast of some of the finest ‘tandoor tikkas’ and vegetarian food in the world.

Like in any country known for their signature dishes, India has several – Tandoor tikkas, parathas, naan, masala dosas, fish curry, samosas etc.and the list goes on. However if you choose to drink water from unhygienic sources or consume food from unreliable eateries covered in flies, you are asking for trouble.

Obviously, you would like to steer of foods like rare steak or meats. Unless, it’s a place recommended by a local or its often frequented by other locals

Leo Batchelor, who visited India for the first time and has Crohn’s disease, ate everything from vegetarian biryanis, grilled fish, and samosas on trains. He said, “I feel better than ever. A little bit of spice goes a long way for the experience.”

Leo devouring a vegetable biryani

# 4 Why is India so poor?

I’m often left dumbfounded when someone asks me ‘Why is India so poor? Either you consume too much television media; or solely rely on western media films like ‘ Slumdog Millionaire’ to shape your opinions.

I’m not going to defend the country’s worth, by arguing about the number of billionaires or how entrepreneurs such as Tata and Wipro, have been responsible for creating jobs in a recession struck European economy.

Undeniably, our politicians are corrupt and bureaucracy and red tapism is inevitable. Our leaders don’t camouflage the poverty by building favelas or high-rise walls or evicting people to other regions. Plain and simple, it’s evident, what you see is what you get.

And in big cities, people sleep rough, just like they do in London and New York. With a growing population of more than a billion people, without a welfare state and social housing by the government, this doesn’t stop people from being optimistic and trying to make ends meet.

# 5 Indian men stare

You are in a country that encourages conservative dress if you choose to travel by public transport. If you decide not to honour this, you will have to put up with the consequences – endless staring from men. I did.

The reason being, many Indian men are still not used to anything other than women dressed in a saree or a salwar kameez. You can get away with it in cosmopolitan cities, however in rural areas and public transport platforms, be prepared for some stares.

Now one might question, the way Indian actors are portrayed in Bollywood, however, that’s another argument in itself.

# 6 Is it safe?

Which brings me to the next question – Is it safe? To be fair, I don’t feel safe walking the streets of London.

At best, we didn’t encounter someone who stuck a knife in our face demanding valuables. That said, I am speaking strictly for places we visited in South India.  At the time, we were travelling, news about the rape in New Delhi was relentless, both from local and international networks. What called for intense media attention was the victim’s death.

In late November, eleven year-old had been raped in Jubilee Park, on her way from school in London. However that didn’t make the international news headlines. Rape cases dealt by police officers in London are just as bungled up, as the ones in North India. So what makes people think London is safer than India? More recently, acid was thrown on 21-year-old Naomi Uni, by a stranger, when she was returning home from a late night shift.

My experience living in different countries over the years has been one where you have to take responsibility for your personal safety.

# 7  Entry-fees to public monuments is unfair to tourists

When visiting palaces and museums in South India, the disparity in entry fees for Indians vs. Non Indians is obvious. During our visit to Mysore Palace, the entry fee for Leo was  £3 (240 INR) and for me 30p (40 INR).

Understandably, its something many European visitors don’t take too well, with many stating it’s chauvinistic. However, if one were to compare the annual average British income i.e.£ 26,500 (2223135.35 INR) to the annual average Indian income i.e. £716.02, (60,000 INR) – the difference is beyond belief.

Secondly, the locals are taxpayers. Given that some of the tax-money is used for the upkeep and refurbishment of these areas, it’s only too fair for them to have easy access at reasonable rates.

Lonely Planet has endlessly argued this topic in their blog: Should foreigners pay higher prices?

Has foreign ownership impacted fan loyalty of English football clubs?

I never quite got to grips with the football frenzy, until I moved to England two years ago. The loyalty of fans to their clubs is something similar of what cricket and IPL is to the people of India. However I fail to comprehend  with little English representation among team players  and with some of the top league clubs being owned by Russians, Americans or Arabs , could this have made any difference to the loyal supporters over the years?

Leo, a supporter of Newcastle United admits club football is quite different now. He said, “Traditionally club owners and players were true local heroes, but now English clubs are often owned by foreign investors who fill their teams with an overwhelming number of foreign players who will stay as long as the money is good and the trophies are won. So it’s much harder to identify with a team whose players and bosses are seemingly far more interested in personal attainment than they are about your home town, and who will move on at the first sign of a better offer.”

In the past few weeks, I’ve been catching a glimpse of the action at the nearby pubs which inadvertently are full of men. I saw Newcastle United’s defeat against Manchester City that left him feeling quite gutted, but nevertheless still proud to see his team clinch fifth place this year. And one couldn’t forget Manchester City’s historical win against United after 44 years two weeks back.

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Having seen some of the fans take to the streets to support their teams made me wonder if it was family tradition. Wearing light blue t-shirts, people of all ages, babies on prams with Manchester City scarves were all out in force to glorify the champions; at times it all seemed a bit too sentimental.

Louise admits to it being more of a family tradition. She said, “I support West Bromwich because my dad and uncle follow them, so it’s kind of like a family tradition.”

“What football club you support is, like what religion you follow, a source of identity and heritage for many families. It is definitely passed on from generation to generation, and I believe kids automatically follow their parents’ choice of which team to support. They go to matches at an early age, and are almost certainly encouraged to like the same team as their parents,” Leo added.

With many foreign investors and players, a big question is has money taken precedence over the sport and has this potentially affected the loyalty of players and fans. There are several examples of players ditching  clubs at the very first sight of a bigger cheque being waved infront of them. Every one knows of the famous Ashley Coles move from Arsenal to Chelsea in 2006 for ₤25 million. However, on Saturday after the Blues’ magnificent Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich, he reacted by saying “this is why I came to Chelsea.”

While Chelsea FC is owned by oligarch Roman Abramovich, who has allegedly invested a million of his own money in the team, Manchester City is owned by the Sheikh Mansour of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi and Manchester United by American businessman Glazer.

Speaking with Kelly she says yes, ” It’s sad to see over the years how people think they can buy the best teams and players, it’s definitely not like what it was before. But on the plus side it has also attracted more international fans and more support. People from all over the world follow the Premier leagues now.”

With twitter and facebook abuzz on Chelsea v/s Bayern Munich, I couldn’t but resist switching on to Radio 5 live and  keep abreast of the atmosphere. When they won the European championship, even the commentators couldn’t contain their emotions, I guess everyone was in a state of disbelief.

Learning of Chelsea’s visit to Stamford Bridge on Sunday evening, I was keen to catch the players at the parade. I didn’t make it in time but was lucky to see the jubilant fans blowing whistles, chanting ‘Chelsea, ole, ole, ole’ and dressed in patriotic blue and white.  Despite the crowds, and long queues to get the train in time, the atmosphere was unbelievably brilliant.

“Sport unites, it brings people together. Yes it has changed, but as long as we win it doesn’t matter. My family always supported Chelsea, I will continue to. Ole Chelsea Champione,” said one walking back to the station.

A fan whose family has been supporting Chelsea for four generations said, “Its hard for me to watch penalty shoot outs as it is, when there are teams I don’t support. Watching Chelsea, and moreover seeing them win, it was simply unbelievable. Even now, I’m just not sure what to say.”

My Christmas at Crisis

When I woke up this morning, I was apprehensive, scared and not sure if I had made the right choice. Yesterday was stressful, I just wanted my bed. Its Christmas week and didn’t feel like it apart from the decor adorning the posh stores in Bruton Lane and the Christmas Tree in Berkley Square.

It was not my regular Christmas; I  didn’t wake up to the sounds of people rushing to church or a list of plans or things lined up for the day. This time, I was preparing to spend the day with homeless people at Hammersmith centre.

Naysayers said they would smell, they are drunk and ‘ Charlene, I bet you next time you will not go back again.’  When I reached the Crisis Hammersmith Centre this morning, the atmosphere was different. Volunteers from the gate were out in the cold to greet the homeless with a friendly smile and a warm welcome, it was heart warming.

I scurried in, tried to drop my bags off at the staff area and make my way to the Arts and Entertainment. Help was needed with additional poster making, I was only happy to. Drawing with oil crayons took me back to my school days. My mind went blank for a few minutes; I was making Art workshop posters. Little did I Imagine, just drawing and painting would bring much joy
It wasn’t long before the main games area started to fill in with the guests. I liked the way the homeless were referred to as ‘guests’. Trying to break the ice is always hard. Some were chatty; some with language barriers tended to keep to themselves.

I attempted to chat to the quiet man sitting in the corner. It didn’t take me long to figure out he was Italian, and moreover from a city I was familiar with Arezzo, from my days in Florence studying Italian. I listened to him, he was positive, didn’t drink or take heroin. I asked him what brought him to London. He told me about his divorce – he was in London 25 years ago, and went back. The current economic situation compelled him to return in the hope of finding some work in the restaurant business. But a few day into his stay,  he was robbed, and this drove him to sleeping rough on the streets. I was curious to know what it was like, how he survived?

He was quick to emphasise; When tough situations are thrown at you; you always find the courage to survive. He was extremely positive and fondly spoke of his mum, why was I not surprised? Bless.  I was touched by his simplicity, humility and positive outlook despite the odds.

It was nice to meet fellow volunteers during the day. No one spoke about what he or she did as their job and where they were from. Our only focus was to make it a special day for the guests. In the course of the day, I spoke to many guests. Most of them looked forward to the t – shirt painting workshops which were at 4 pm. Its little wonder they say some of the best art and writing comes form experience in the streets. I thought it was true. Towards the end of the evening, when they were put on display, I was captivated by their imagination.

One of the guests overcoming heroin addiction needed help, and constant reassurance to finish his t-shirt. He was well pleased with a task accomplished, admitting its hard for him to keep focus. He was suicidal and travelled from Newcastle in the hope of finding some company in London for Christmas. Luckily a Crisis pamphlet spotted at Victoria station brought him to the centre in Hammersmith.

In the course of my few days there, you could see the transformation. Many of them were happier, weren’t drinking or under any drug influence, but were happy. A thought that did cross my mind was the fact , there is a huge section of society that is neglected, unloved and uncared. Speaking to most of them, I realised it takes very little to change your circumstances which made me appreciate more what I have in life, a close family, friends and the small things in life.

Many of them were incredibly intelligent, articulate and opinionated. I had many questions and probably still do but most importantly my time them was all about making them feel loved and respected and enjoying their company in every activity I was involved with.

Its all about giving they say, but what one doesn’t realise is how much they get out of the experience, well I did. And I’m sure to go back again.

I left feeling with a real spirit of Christmas, an inner joy and satisfaction not even the buffets or gifts can buy !

How to start a revolution?

A week ago I started interning with Frontline TV, a news organisation that advocates independent journalism.  My job includes reviewing and writing short synopsis for several documentaries sent in from international filmmakers, which I find very interesting cause I love documentaries and films.

Luckily it was the week, where most films based on recent events in the Arab Spring were being screened, I was pleased and one particular film caught my attention, How to start a revolution by Director Ruaridh Arrow based on a book by Gene Sharp

Before I went to the screening of the film, there is little that I understood about what it took to overthrow dictatorships using non-violent methods. I saw the trailer, and read a little more into it and was captivated.

I had never heard of Gene Sharp or the book before, but watching this film gave me a deeper insight into the kind of work he carries out and how countries have fought for a democracy using some of the non-violent techniques listed in his book. From putting women at the forefront, to co-opting with police and military officers, mass disappearance, flash mobs and several others these are some of the tools mentioned.

I particularly liked the way Ruaridh weaved case studies into the film from different countries ranging from Serbia to recent events in Tunisia and Egypt. What Ruaridh said in the Q &A session after the film screening, was even more interesting. He spoke about what actually caught his attention and what led him to make such a film and provided insight into countries that have been strategically planning the downfall of their dictatorship, something which is unheard of in the news.  One could also learn from the Serbian Otpor or recent revolution in Tunisia and Egypt , there is no definite recipe. A technique that worked for one country need not necessarily have worked for another, but an underlying tool was not to give up in their fight towards reaching their goals

While I was watching the film, there are several things I could identify in light of recent events that has been taking place at the Occupy movement in London. While the root cause of most protests in Middle East, Africa and Serbia were years of oppression and dictatorship, here in London, New York and other countries it was a fight against alleged financial greed, years of corruption and the huge disparity between the rich and the poor.

This has certainly also raised a lot of questions as to how effective the Occupy movement is going to be? A good start is, they seemed to have got the church on their side by allowing them to camp outside St. Pauls till January. And more recently camps have been set up in other cities across England such as Cardiff and Leeds. However little is known about their concrete objectives or goals? Do they have a strategic plan in place?

Guess it will only be a matter of time, before we see the outcome. But the important message here as we heard and know  is not to give up.

So much for health and safety

Part of my experiences of living and working in London include immersing myself in the local culture and festivities. On Saturday, we went to the fireworks display in Crystal Palace, a five-minute walk from where I live. Being perched on top of the hill, overlooking the rest of London, I was expecting to get a good view of the fireworks, however such was not the case. Crystal Palace usually has the feeling of a sleepy suburban and is quite disconnected from the centre of London.However Saturday saw the pubs and streets full of people, who came from all over to witness the fireworks display at the palace grounds.

“Bonfire night” or the “Gunpowder plot” as they call it here, is celebrated every year on November 5 since the sixteenth century, to commemorate the failed attempt of catholic rebels including Guy Fawkes trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament and overthrow King James I. Fawkes and his fellow men were then executed for treason and agitated Londoners who knew little more than that their King had been saved, joyfully lit bonfires in thanksgiving. In short ever since that day, the tradition continues. People burn effigies of Guy Fawkes on this night and light bonfires.

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Crystal palace had a celebration of a different kind though. The fireworks display that was to start at 8, were delayed by forty minutes. In the meanwhile, we thought to kill a bit of time in the cold lighting sparklers. Leo seemed to have attracted much attention. When he lit up his, kids from a distance ran up to him and were rather mesmerized as though he was performing magic. It wasn’t long before the cops showed up and trampled on our sparklers. Tim’s sparkler seemed to have taken a little longer to be put off, at one point we could smell melted rubber from the cops shoe.

When asked why, his reason for banning sparklers was due to a new health and safety policy. It all seemed a bit of a paradox I thought. Barely a distance away I could see fireworks, but sparklers were banned. And  bonfires too.Why? For health and safety. Then I heard someone in the crowds shout out, “That’s like our childhood taken away.  Health and safety seems to be the blanket reason for stopping most fun activities today.” I reckon in a few years, even fireworks will be banned, so much for health and safety.

Some more friends arrived, the fireworks lasted a good fifteen minutes. Soon after we headed to a local pub for a few drinks. Still keen on using our sparklers for the rest of the evening, we held on to them. At around midnight, we lit a couple of sparklers, which we were barred from using earlier outside ‘The White Hart’. Some fellow drinkers sitting outside were quick to join into the spirit and the generous Leo shared some with them. Before we knew it, a few others joined in with their own and came by to light theirs. Everyone was just happy; so much for sparkles that brought cheer to strangers in the street. Oh come on officer, you can’t take away the Sparklers away !




Occupy LSE – Two weeks later “People will not be got rid off”

Since the start of the protests two weeks ago, there has been a sea of changes right from the organisation, increase in support from people not only here in London but all over England. There has been resignations from prominent clergy leaders and now ongoing discussions whether the camp is going to be evicted and more over where will they go?

I went down again to meet fellow protesters and participate in the afternoon .A lot had changed but this time round there were talks about the City of London corporation and cathedral authorities looking into legal procedures to evict the campers.

Everyone seemed to be burning with fury and had an opinion and were involved in some way or another either at the tents or the talks outside. But there were also the few getting wasted on beer in the cosy atmosphere of their tents. There was a free tea coffee tent, and free food by the Hare Krishna Hare Rama movement .

Many argued, what is christianity if they are going to ask us to leave? Is that what the church would do? Do they support the greedy corporates or us? Certainly they haven’t been causing any disruption and the demonstrations have been peaceful so far.

Amongst the optimists, there was always the odd pessimist who said they should leave and find some place else, these protests aren’t going to achieve anything

I was curious to find out why such a tough  stance on the protesters, and if they are to be evicted where do they go next. I got further insight after speaking with some of the people present.  Watch the video for more details