Digital Dharma

Digital Dharma

View from hotel

Mumbai Calling

I certainly was not expecting to see a satellite dish poking out of a Mumbai slum dwelling, but that probably tells you a bit about my bourgeois preconceptions. Why not, indeed? The view from the hotel terrace is amazing. Mumbai is big. Really big. Not Hitchhiker’s Guide big,  but big nonetheless. From one side I can see the Arabian Sea and on the other side, butting snuggling up against the hotel wall is a…..what? A shanty town? A slum? A community, certainly.

A colourful cartload of fruit is pushed through a group of teenagers playing cricket. A man builds an annex to his house with a sheet of corrugated iron. Children dressed like English public school girls walk through the dust. An elderly lady relieves herself under a tree. I look away quickly, realising that seeing these scenes through Western lenses is voyeuristic.

There is enough that is familiar here to unsettle an Australian/British middle-class sensibility. I found quickly that a temporary suspension of my preconceptions of order and logic is necessary. Yet I am drawn towards the use of ICT in this world that appears so strange to me. In the slums, everyone appears to possess a mobile phone. Denial of European concepts of housing, sanitation and clothing do not appear to preclude access to voice and data.

In his 1993 collaboration with Bob Neuwirth, John Cale referred to “Mozambique Electronique” as a forward glance to the way in which telecommunications would connect Third World (?) countries. The dynamics of the mobile phone in Mumbai are fascinating. Although one could describe the city as being languidly chaotic, the appropriation of contemporary telecommunications seems superficially at odds with the pulse of the place. Certainly it is modern, rational, capitalist, enlightened on the one hand, but also a sense of decay and growth not just at the edges but from the centre. Yet it represents one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

And through all of this, the unmistakable heartbeat of data and voice pump through all levels of this stratified society, connecting, reconnecting and helping define the rhythm of this ambiguous and contradictory city.

To Dadar and Back

It caused me to pause for thought when I realised that the hotel has 5 armed guards at all times. Getting a cab was problematic. It is not safe to flag one down as you risk getting run down in the process. One of the nice guards goes outside the hotel precinct and commandeers one for you. Then the fun starts. As with many things Mumbai, health and safety is an inconvenience that does not trouble this city. Traffic lights exist merely for decoration and the car horn is the major tactical instrument at the driver’s disposal. Several times I wondered if either the Australian or the British embassies would be obliging enough to repatriate the tangled mess of my body in the inevitability of my bloody demise in a Mumbai cab. Miraculously, I survived the ride, and after the cab getting lost several times (yeah, right) I was deposited marginally closer to the conference venue than from where I started out.

I was greeted by the charming conference organisers at the Navinchandra Mehta Institute of Technology and Development and I went through the bureaucratic business of conference registration filling in innumerable forms in triplicate one of which, touchingly inquired about my hobbies. I obliged by sharing my somewhat dull interests in excessive detail. Having received my conference pack and noting with a warm fuzzy feeling that my paper was published in the proceedings, I decided to take a walk in the surrounding area.

The Institute is in the university precinct and I enjoyed strolling around the campus dodging the motor scooters and lethal rickshaws. I suddenly found myself in a  market and every cliché came screeching into my head. Four sensory experiences occurred simultaneously.

Firstly, the noise. The rapid-fire chatter of bartering and street-talk provide a soundtrack like no other. Take a listen to the third part of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music if you want an approximation.

Secondly, the smells hit the inside of your nose and the back of your throat as if you had shoved your head into a spice rack and inhaled the entire contents. Coriander is the most prevalent. Chillies, onions and cardamom were also recognisable, but the air was infused with so many strange fragrances it made me lightheaded.

Thirdly, the colours are so bright and iridescent that they make your eyes water. Are tomatoes really supposed to be that red? The chillies that green, and the oranges that…..orange? Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices piled high on trestle tables or on the crumbling pavement along with ubiquitous chrysanthemums in garlands and wreaths or stored as petals in large earthenware pots. Less visually appealing were the large portions of dead animals that punctuated the otherwise colourful vista. A fly-ridden goat’s head with a slightly annoyed expression on its face sat at a jaunty angle on the ground, its tongue turning slightly green and lolling gargoylishly from its mouth. I tried not to think too hard about what I had for dinner last night.

The fourth sensory assault was kinaesthetic, as street urchins tried to pick my pockets. Luckily, being reasonably tall I had cunningly placed my cash and phone in a top pocket which was out of reach. I half-heartedly waved them away and they gave up with remarkable good humour and went looking for other tourists, which I noticed, for the first time and with alarm, were absent. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb.

I moved on swiftly, choosing a road at random and walked towards what I guessed was the north. Five minutes into this walk I encountered a group of about 20 men walking towards me, a handcart at their centre. The man leading this procession was swinging what I assumed with my amazing powers of perception was a censer as it emitted a fragrant smoke. I stepped to one side and stopped as I realised this was a funeral procession. The deceased lay on the handcart, wrapped in white linen and with a garland of chrysanthemums around his neck. He had been an elderly gentleman with a white beard and hair and an avuncular expression on his face. He jiggled gently on the cart and seemed to be enjoying his last ride. I silently wished him good karma in his next life and waited for the procession to pass.

Further up the road I came across the Bengal Cricket Ground and stopped to watch the match for a while. A vendor was selling coconuts as refreshment nearby along with various brightly coloured and sweet-smelling snacks which I passed on, the image of the goat’s head still fresh in my mind. A small Hindu temple stood on the boundary of the ground where prayers were being offered, presumably to influence the outcome of the match. A couple of those might’ve been handy during the recent Ashes tour I thought with a sudden surge of bitterness.

Walking on, I entered what seemed to be a Muslim neighbourhood, the dead giveaway being the huge mosque towing over the neighbourhood with a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from a precarious looking minaret. It had been several hours since I had left the conference registration and I was flagging slightly in the heat. A roving taxi driver noticed me and touted for a fare. As I had been in Mumbai for 24 hours, I considered myself streetwise and haggled the cost. We agreed 50 rupees (about 70 pence). After getting in the cab he immediately upped the fare to 100 rupees and a good-natured argument began. By the time we had reached the hotel, we had settled on 80 rupees. However, as I had enjoyed the interchange I gave over the full 100 rupees and shook his hand. The last time I saw him, he was on his mobile phone, no doubt telling his mates what a twonk Westerners are. This one, anyway.

Fuzzy Logic

And so to work. Having been had by the naughty rogue cab driver yesterday I was not be caught again and sharing a cab to the conference with a professor from Korea (hi,  Byoung) I paid the metered fare and not a rupee more. At the conference we were greeted with cardamom flavoured coffee so sweet you could feel your fillings melt. Prayers for a successful conference were offered up to the Hindu god, Ganeesh accompanied by some chanting and incense burning. Ganeesh is the elephant god of plenty and a jolly chap he looked indeed, beaming across the proceedings and waving his trunk in a benedictory way.

The keynote speeches were somewhat mixed in quality and I was initially disappointed until one of the speakers said something that I violently disagreed with. That cheered me up no end. There was an interesting discussion around the four I-s of social media (involvement, interaction, intimacy and influence) and some interesting linking of web 2.0 with multiple intelligences. After some workshops on neural networks, fuzzy logic and mobile technologies sounded good but frankly went way over my head we paused for lunch. I was delighted to see some rather literal translations of English dishes which although sounding alarming were delicious as they were flavoured with spices I had never encountered before. My favourite was the mushroom omelette which was translated (rather poetically I thought) as “fried smashed eggs with inimitable fungus” and which in Bill Bryson style I took pleasure in ordering verbatim.

After some lively discussions on social networking as a disruptive innovation, it was suddenly my turn to present a paper on the effect of learner response systems on mathematics achievement in years 7 and 8. Despite the rather dull title it seemed to go down a treat complete with smiling faces and polite applause. I even had some questions that I was able to answer nearly coherently. It was a long day and I took a stroll by sea before dinner looking out over the Worli Bridge. The beach is filthy but people didn’t seem to mind, playing ball, strolling and sitting watching the spectacular red sunset. There were three distinct things that reminded me that I was not walking along an Australian or English beach (as if these were sandy extremities that could be classified within the same genus). The first was the herd of cows (presumably sacred) that wandered nonchalantly along the shoreline look for all the world as if at many minute they would grab a boogie board and engage in some bovine surfing. This was however, extremely unlikely as the sea was the colour, texture, shape and smell of a cow pat.

The second thing that drew my attention was a man wearing a loin cloth, a garland of flowers and with long plaited red hair. I assumed he was some kind of religious figure as he walked briskly along the sea wall accosting the canoodling couples and extorting rupees from them in exchange for a blessing after which he theatrically flagellated himself with a large bullwhip which I suspected was more for aural effect than self-mortification. Anyway, he seemed to be doing pretty well out of this scheme with a 100% success rate from the couples he approached. Good luck to him and them.

The third thing was very curious indeed to a Western eye. A large concrete platform bore the body of a dead person which was being eaten by a flock of crows and what looked like kites and possibly a vulture. I did not spend too much time on ornithological analysis. It later transpired that this was probably a Zoroastrian funeral. Given the level of pollution in the city, this was probably a greener means of disposing of human remains than cremation, although there was an “electrical crematorium” just around the corner as well. So much for a stroll along the beach.

The conference organisers had organised a delightful “evening of culture” for us. Traditional and modern Indian dance performed by students of the university was charming, entertaining and genuinely moving. A particularly dramatic dance about Shiva was even slightly alarming in its dramatic execution and the story of Krishna was executed in a devotional and touching way. It was a lovely performance.

The dinner which followed was unlike any conference I have ever attended. For a start, it was in a tent which was a nice touch. The food was far more delicious than any conference I have ever had. Curries, soups, salads and sauces that almost vibrated with colour and flavour. It. Was. Fantastic. The fact that they were served on plastic plates with plastic cutlery and there were insufficient (plastic) chairs and (plastic) tables did not detract in any way from the meal. It was a happy event indeed.

On return to the hotel, I ordered an Indian (Black Dog) whiskey  which was delicious but tasted more like rum. A very good day indeed.

About 20 metres down the road from the hotels another world. Noise and pollution from scooters, motorbikes, ancient taxis, trucks, motorised rickshaws again assault the ears. Children play in the dirt, women weave baskets, men stir large woks of curry. Teenagers stand around languidly using expensive mobile phones. There is a simultaneous sense of chaos and lethargy. Everyone seems exhausted and people are asleep everywhere. On the pavement, in the gutter, in trees, in the road, standing up and sitting down. It is very, very difficult to make sense of the apparent  poverty and indolence without bring a neo-colonial bias to the scene. Can one ever step outside one’s own cultural values and beliefs and fairly and sympathetically understand cultures that differ so greatly from one’s own.

I have learned a great deal from this conference. There were some wonderful presentations. I was introduced to a conceptual framework to support self-directed learning in distance education. I heard about e-learning on the semantic web and intellectual property rights in podcasting. I heard for the first time about e-learning and synthetic learning outcomes and online teaching using metaphors. I was intrigued by the concept of e-trust (“an attitude of confident expectation in an online situation or risk that one’s vulnerabilities will not be exploited”, Corritore).

I fear that I took more away from this visit than I brought to it.

January 2011

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