I found my India in Amsterdam

It’s as if those feet that I bought in a shop in Amsterdam walked me into the museum quite spontaneously. I bought them because somewhere in the various layers of my brain, I knew they had some spiritual significance. I placed them on my altar at home, which consists of a motley collection of holy deities, symbols and figures from across the world.

In faraway India, the elections of 2019 were entering their fifth phase and almost everyone who has anything to do with Indian soil is forced to reckon with what makes or doesn’t make them Hindu. The elections began on April 11th and end today, on the 19th of May. Enough time to show their more Trumpian than Trump side. The hate speeches have grown more brazen as have ‘alternative facts’. Whats App, Twitter and Facebook are full of election ‘news’. Most mainstream media and many institutions favour the ruling BJP – a ‘Hindutva’ party. The recipe is to win a second term by stoking hate and fear in order to distract from the real problems of the day: the highest rate of unemployment in forty-five years, a tax levied under the present government that many find a bridge too far, farmer distress, rising inequality. Instead, ‘Hindus’ (not in my name) are ‘uniting’ to fight the ‘outsider’ who, (surprise, surprise) is the Muslim. An old, old trick of democracies at election-time. If there isn’t an enemy, find one to rally the forces. In present day India it is Islam. Without Islamophobia, this government wouldn’t get a second term. But I digress.

The feet that walked me into the museum on a day when I wasn’t planning to miraculously reappeared in a vitrine as a part of an exhibition called “What do you believe in?” And I learnt more about the feet and why my brain guided me to buy them many years ago, and a few other things.

This is how the feet in the vitrine are presented to the viewer: “The relief depicts the feet on an Indian holy man who lived in the fourteenth century. Hindus worship him as Ramdevji or Ramdeoji, while Muslims venerate him as Ramapir or Ramshah Pir. Once a year, on his birth date, Hindus and Muslims join together at his temple to celebrate his attainment of the highest state of enlightenment”.

Then there was a picture like many hundreds that I saw growing up in India and this is how it was described: “In south India, where next to a Hindu majority also live Christians and Muslims, posters such as this are put up. They stand for religious tolerance. From left to right: The Hindu god Ganesha, Jesus Christ and the Islamic sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina.

A picture in the same vitrine as the feet

A god on a horse

And I saw a god on horseback who is described thus:
“the Hindu God Khandoba was originally a rural deity of the forests and meadows, typically worshipped by herders….. Khandoba is a god for everyone regardless of caste or religion, and is venerated by Muslims, Hindus and Jains.

Also in this vitrine with it’s various figures, objects and deities, there was one of a parade, and these are the words on the museum wall to explain it: “this parade standard is adorned with Shia symbols, such as the hare, the lion and the mausoleum in the centre. But the mysterious female figures on either side of the building are more typical of Hindu art. They could be dancers like those frequently depicted on the facades of Hindu temples”.

So feet, thank you for walking me into the museum.

What do I believe in?

I believe in the India that rests on my altar and the one that I found in Amsterdam.

Vitrine of exhibits for “What do you believe in?” in the Tropen Museum, Amsterdam

All that’s spice can’t be nice

‘It gets especially out of hand in the evenings when at 10 pm at night, a bus arrives on the street and twenty people stand outside it, including children talking and laughing loudly carrying bags of rice. It’s not New Delhi on the Amstel’! For a (Dutch) resident of Westwijk in Amstelveen, this strange behaviour on the part of their Indian neighbours adds up to a form of harassment. The detail of ‘rice-carrying’ in the complaint especially catches my attention. It’s almost as if the complainant has already begun to smell what’s coming.

A distressed Amstelveense Indian resident in turn writes to ‘Shallowman of Amsterdam’ (good to know that agony uncles exist alongside agony aunts) asking for help against his Dutch neighbour who cannot bear the smell of (his) home food.

‘We moved to an apartment in Amstelveen and unfortunately got an old Dutch lady as our neighbor. She has trouble with people coming from other countries and staying over here. Hence, at minimum chance, she keeps on writing abusive letters about how “nasty and disturbing” our native (Indian) cooking smell is, and asks us to “leave her land”. Every time she sees us, she starts shouting abusive words. Even the other neighbours living in this apartment find her letters abusive and discriminatory, but she never stops. My wife and me are really tired of bearing this abuse and disturbance every alternate day. If you know any good legal service or complaint cell who can resolve this once and for all, that would be really helpful’!

And this ‘old Dutch lady’ is not the only one getting abusive. Complaints of the smell of spice, which lingers on in corridors is making some (otherwise) nice Dutch people feel not so nice. And they want an end to those busloads with their bags of rice!

It appears that in the land of the blowing wind there’s no fresh solution to this rather peculiar phenomenon. But who was it that recently told me of Mr. Daan Rosegaarde (of Dutch origin) who has designed a vacuum cleaner to suck the smog out of Peking? Maybe there’s a job awaiting him back home in Amstelveen.

Because ahem, looks like those rice-carrying folks are only increasing in number. Because ahem, we, in the Netherlands need these ‘knowledge migrants’ to work in ICT, Financial and other such-like industries on the border between Amsterdam and Amstelveen. Lekker goedkoop.

And they have their rice and eat it too.

  1. Links: ‘We live in Amstelveen and not India on the Amstel’

2. Link to ‘Shallowman in Amsterdam’ site


‘We came from far’

My friend Sara commented ‘I feel like I’m on holiday’ as we walked through the city centre. She had travelled from Olst, near Deventer to Breda, and I from Oegstgeest. She’d never been to Breda and I once before.’ But you’ve lived your whole life in the Netherlands!’ I said. To which she and her partner Joek gently reminded me that there are places in the Netherlands that they are still discovering (obviously, I thought in response). I, after almost twenty years of living on Dutch soil still cannot wrap my head around to the Netherlands as a place with undiscovered parts. After all, you can get from one end to another in a matter of a few hours. It sometimes took me longer to get to my workplace within the city of Mumbai than it took to get to Breda from Oegstgeest. And this on a day when the trains did not ride out of Leiden Station and I had to take two busses and then one train to make the journey. Such experiences make for perspectives that apparently cling despite years and thousands of kilometres of distance.

‘We came from far’.

To see a film with this title.

It was a documentary made by filmmaker Bob Entrop who greeted us at the door. On Saturday the 6th of April, Oeder drom (original title of the film) premiered at Filmhuis Breda. The smell of curry filled the theatre space and Bob was dressed in fine silk. Beyond him, ladies in sarees and glittering gharaaras, with bindis, bejewelled, hair down to the waist or put up in a bun flitted around gracefully. And blue-eyed gents in kurtas passed by. And a sense of mismatch as the senses took in the information – spoken Dutch, visions from afar and appetite awakening to comfort food. On a spring day in the city centre of Breda. First the film, then the feast.

No, Oedoer drom is no Indian language and it’s also not Dutch, but the language of the Sinti, otherwise known as gypsies. The film follows a group of them who visit Rajasthan, in search of their roots. Conversations between Rajasthanis and the Sinti reveal that the words for different parts of the face – kaan, naak, jeeb, moo are the same in Hindi as in the Sinti language. This fact, and the connection the Sinti make to parallel views on family bonds and respect for elders convince them that they came ‘from far’ – from India to the Netherlands hundreds of years ago.

‘The whole street is like caravan’ remarks Kleine as he gestures around him in Jodhpur. ‘They, like us, seek proximity, like to cluster and feel cozy together’. Other common ground they find is the connection to music and dance, to horses, to flowing skirts and colourful scarves and last but not least, matching physical features, the colour of hair and skin.

Indeed, some of the Sinti I see before me do certainly look like they could be my family!

‘We came from far’.

Trailer of ‘Oedoer Drom’

Article from the Guardian on Latcho Drom another documentary on the subject


Article on dance form from Rajasthan


Article on gypsy identity and connection to Rajasthan


The Great Indian Family Business – then and now

When I tell people I know here in the Netherlands that my parents’ marriage was ‘arranged’, they cannot hide their curiosity. So I tell them more. I tell them that at the time that the marriage was arranged, my father’s family ran a business and my mother’s father had a job as a highly respected bank manager. Out of the union of these two families, other businesses were transacted besides my brother, my sister and myself.

Then quite often, I see an expression that borders on ‘poor you’ or sometimes ‘ a not knowing how to react to such a story’ look. One that happens to be true and is presented as just another fact of life. Like you are born, you grow up … then old …. and then you die. Hopefully time passes between each stage and you have enjoyed the ride.

I guess my parents enjoyed the ride, bumpy as it was at times, though unfortunately neither of them lived to old age, even by Indian standards. For them and my grandparents before them such liaisons that appear to be so utterly transactional were essential to how families and communities generated wealth and a net of social security for each member in a trusted environment. The ‘transactional’ is the ‘relational’ so to speak.

My parents’ ‘arranged marriage’

I grew up listening to business talk along with my daily daal and rice, as do probably millions of others in India even today. In 2018, India figures as third in family run businesses worldwide. Not only that, these businesses are generating more capital than non- family run businesses, and have been doing so since India’s independence in 1947. In that sense, nothing much has changed. However, a lot has changed in how these businesses are run. What defines family and how each member presently goes about conducting their business has gone through a sea change in the India of today.

So if my father had lived in this day and age, would he have necessarily given up being the army officer that he was, to join the family business as a junior as was then expected of ‘the eldest son?’ If yes, would the head of the family business suggest he had better first get a management, business or law degree in order to prepare him for the challenges ahead, while at the same time offering to support my mother while he did so? Or would my mother have been the one to use her talents and/or qualifications to enrich the family business and support my father through his formal education? How would she, in turn be supported to make sure that my siblings and myself got the nurturing that we needed in order to grow up? Would the family have a constitution or a council to structure and regulate the business? Or would decisions continue to be taken around the dinner table – along with the feeding of daal and rice into the mouths of young ones? These and the answers to questions like them mark the difference between a family’s business then and now.

My mother joined my father in running the company

To this day, my maternal and paternal family members run businesses. Their children are not expected to take over from them. As India faces myriad social and economic influences from outside and within, family businesses are also be evolving in order to thrive. As the well-known industrialist Adi Godrej has predicted, a lot of family run businesses in India today choose to hire professionals to manage them. It won’t be long before these businesses become institutionally run ones. As for those of us in the Netherlands with a desire to broaden our horizons with regard to India, it should be some source of comfort that when it comes to professional culture, there are meeting points. Engineers understand engineers across the board. Sales people understand others in their profession. However, this does not make it necessarily ‘easier’ to do business together. The deeply entrenched cultural norms that we all carry with us can be very determining as to how we conduct ourselves and communicate. Cross-cultural awareness of intercultural communication is crucial for successful international partnerships.

As for my father, he was probably better off pursuing his career where he was. Not that he was made to fight battles. He was ‘offered’ to the Indian army by the family – another practice in the Sikh community of those times. But that is another story. Like a lot of army officers of his time, he was excellent at all things ‘relational’. He could make genuine contact with people of all ages in a matter of minutes, had no head for balance sheets and, in his own words, ‘invested in people’. In the India of today, he probably wouldn’t be chosen as a candidate for the family business at all.

The owners of Zodiac Reprographics – brothers Jaideep and Ajaydeep inherited the business from their father MD Singh (also an ex army officer)

My cousins co – owners of Zodiac Reprographics won awards in 2014 and 2018

Is India safe for women?

‘Stop smiling and showing everyone around you how friendly and approachable you are.’

This is one of the tips I have sometimes given to a European woman who was due to travel to India on work, in the course of a ‘Doing Business in India Training’. It came as no surprise to me when a senior lady manager, a very warm and friendly one, told me of the Indian men she met while on a business trip there who sent her messages and called her in Europe incessantly after she was back here. I had to tell her to be careful. She didn’t see that her exuberant and friendly personality could have been misunderstood by the men who kept ‘connecting’ with her. Over the years, I have refined and improved my ‘do’s and don’ts’ list based on the experiences of women inside and outside India. Last Sunday, I spent an exciting afternoon. I had received an invitation from FCCI (Foundation for Critical Choices for India) for a seminar entitled ‘Female Safety in India: a Reality Check’ and I went. The location, a hotel on the edges of Schipol airport served as a reminder that the movement of people occurs when borders are open and when people feel safe enough to move.

In light of this, is India a safe place for women? If you trust Reuters then no, it is not. The Thomas Reuters Foundation report brands India as the most dangerous place in the world for women. The FCCI seminar was a response to the publication of this report. Seven years ago, a similar Reuters survey had resulted in India joining four other nations as the most dangerous. The others were Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Somalia. This year, India topped the list. Listening to the FCCI presentations and the interactive discussion that followed, one thing was clear – a lot of effort went into the research, presentation and implementation of this seminar over an issue of extreme relevance.

The presenters, panelists and most of the people who responded, including myself expressed our apprehensions about the methodology followed by the Reuters Foundation. However, everyone agreed on one thing about the situation of women in India. As the Dutch would say ‘er is werk aan de winkel’. To which one could add: veel werk. In other words, there’s much ground to be covered. Roll up your sleeves and get on with it. There’s a serious problem here. It’s as old as the hills.

I had a question. Quite apart from the Reuters report, what is it, in the present day atmosphere that feeds into people’s perception that India is a very dangerous place for women? To which I received three answers and I summarize:

  • India is worth noticing. It counts on the world stage
  • 24/7 media coverage in India ensures that these stories get out, which in turn feeds western media
  • When a people has the ability to be self-critical and self-reflective (as Indians do, in this respect), then they are vulnerable to attack from outside

These answers help us to understand what lies behind the perception. If one wants to count oneself in with the movers and shakers on the world stage, then women are going to have to be free to cross borders safely – which include a range of places from home to school, college, workplace, village, town, country street and yes, disco, café, restaurant, park, shopping mall and cinema hall at all times of day and night, if they choose. With or without men. But the biggest border that needs to be crossed lies not outside, but inside the minds of men and women. Because violence against women begins at home, along with mother’s milk as was also rightly pointed out in this seminar.

And true, media, which includes social media and India’s free press give these stories a life that, in more repressed parts of the world would never see the light of day. Not in the least, the demonstrations and public displays of protest as happened in response to the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape in 2012, and more recently, the call to action that the #Me Too movement has encouraged are certainly a mark of a democratic, non-violent struggle to overcome the violence that women face on a day to day basis amongst urban and/or the literate layer. They reflect the voice of this group of women. Our mothers and grandmothers were not spared any of what we face today, and often from the men and women they trusted the most but they couldn’t find anyone to share their traumas with. So this is a big change.

And lastly, about the ability to self-reflect and be critical. The intense response of the last seven years has given visibility to a privileged group of women speaking up about an evil that some activists, social workers, policy makers, lawyers reformers, artists and women who are none of the these, have been relentlessly working on for decades. Tirelessly hammering away against the edifice of patriarchy, often at a great cost to themselves. In India, the hard work of combatting violence against women received impetus when women were burnt. First for the sake of honour. Then for the sake of dowry.

The response through recent protests are not the first in India. That the voices of the urban, middle class women are seen and heard today reflects an India in rapid transition, and puts the problem squarely on the agenda. So much so that during a recent intercultural training for Chinese women managers due to travel to India, they asked my colleague Esther Janssen (Culture Inc.) if she thought India was a safe place for them to go to. Despite China’s allegedly limited access to the more broadly used sources of the internet and social media, they knew exactly what they had to ask.

Is India a more dangerous for women than it was before? No, I don’t think so. That’s the perception, but the problem has been around for a long, long time, and is alive and well even today.

Satyarani protesting the alleged dowry murder of her daughter, Delhi,1982

Thomas Reuters Report on the most dangerous place for women