Monty’s Indian Outlook – Issue 70

It was the first time I’d seen a sign in India that said ‘No urinate here’ and I thought India’s approach to outdoor hygiene had finally changed… but it was ‘shocking’ only because there was an adjacent live electrical cable.

For many new visitors to India the sight of Indians pissing and defecating in public is one that disgusts them and I’m not the biggest fan of it either, but there are reasons for this.

Earlier this week, a UN study reported there are more mobile phones in India than there are people with adequate access to sanitation. In other words, they don’t have their own khazee and HAVE to go where they can.

India has some 545 million mobile phones, enough to serve about 45% of the population, but only 366 million people or 31% of the population had access to improved sanitation in 2008.

And the situation has worsened considerably in the intervening two years. Ten million new mobile subscribers are being added every month; that’s certainly not the case with new toilets being dug into the ground.

But there may be reason to this madness. The UN report cites a rough cost of $300 to build a toilet, including labour, materials and advice and building such sanitation. A spokesperson goes on to say there is a return of more than $3 for every dollar spent on sanitation through reduced health costs and higher productivity.

Compare this to the effects of mobile penetration on a country’s prosperity. In December 2008 India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority of India surmised that a 1% higher mobile subscription rate would mean a $210 rise in GDP per capita, considerably more than the ROI on building a toilet.

Perhaps the Indian Government is running it past us (so to speak) and and that Indian squatting having a dump (and probably, like all of us, speaking on his mobile at the same time), is doing India a favour.

So, in the interim it’s proably best just to look away and realise that India may ‘urinate here, but there is a peculiarly Indian reason for it.

Monty’s Indian Outlook – Issue 69

It was not my finest hour this week. A fellow-biker friend was staying for a couple of nights so we hired out a couple of Royal Enfield Bullets. I thought I’d show him how to do it and take a night-ride around the local lake. Yep, you guessed it, I drove into a ditch while he followed. No bones broken but hardly the impression I had intended to make. He’s now renamed that corner ‘Munford Corner’ – he’s a funny guy.

The reason for the crash? No, not my cack-handed riding, but the design of the bike. The brake pedal on the old skool Bullet is on the left-hand side instead of the right and after riding bikes for 30 years, this is dangerous when faced with an ‘accident situation’. One’s instinct is to press down on the right side, which puts the bike into a lower gear and… you generally fall off.

However, this doesn’t stop groups of Enfieldwallahs and enthusiasts from across India and the rest of the world on riding them around through some of India’s most extraordinary scenery. The world’s second-highest road from Manali to Leh in Ladakh is a particular favourite, like an elongated Cresta Run for motorcyclists.

But fanboys apart, the love of the Enfield Bullet is dying off almost as quickly as the Parsis of Bombay and this week’s news that Harley-Davidson is making a belated entry into the Indian market means Enfieldwallahs will soon be as niche as those UK bikers who restore BSAs and Nortons.

I once rode a Harley 1,200cc Indian (an ironic name), from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in a gloriously random trip that took in the Mojave Desert, forest fires, the biggest horse-racing event in the world and ended at a Disney fancy-dress party in the Hollywood hills.

In 36 hours I rode 932 miles and I still talk about it. The hog didn’t look back and was as reliable as an Indian railway timetable.

And that’s the problem with the Enfield. Even though it looks great, is indeed a design classic and it phut-phuts more beautifully than any Steve McQueen-ridden bike, it’s a nightmare. It’s difficult to kick over and can only be done when the ammeter is lined up correctly. It’s heavy and it banks appallingly, it cuts out all the time and it’s only curmudgeons such as me who can endure its unreliability.

If I rode an Enfield for 36 hours in India I would probably drive 93 miles, not like the 932 in the US.

But Harley-Davidson has researched this market and its decision to open dealerships in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chandigarh and Hyderabad means it is taking the Enfield on and offering affluent Indian urbanites the American dream; not the Indian one when the bike always breaks down.

A month ago, I took a test-ride on the Enfield’s new model, the Hurricane. It has an electric start, it doesn’t have that delicious phut-phut sound and the brake pedal is now on the right side. It wasn’t bad, but it just felt like riding a cheap Harley.

So, methinks Easy Rider is going to destroy Awkward Rider, but at least my other mate @justinpearse who forgot to get his visa in time shouldn’t despair too much. India may have ditched him, but at least the Enfield I’d ordered for him won’t.

Monty’s Indian Outlook – Issue 68

You might think it would be easier to book a ticket for an English League One football match than travel across India on train or buses, but you’d be wrong; very wrong indeed.

Thanks to innovative companies such as Redbus, buying tickets for India’s intricate bus network is easy as are the trains, which incidentally are as likely to be affected by strike action as somebody burning an effigy of Sachin Tendulkar in Mumbai.

However, on a flying visit to the UK last week I decided to continue a lifetime of pain by going down to Brighton to see my football team Brentford play on the same night the Champions’ League was live on terrestrial TV.

So, not exactly the hottest ticket in town, but just to be sure I rang a local friend to confirm that I could buy tickets on the gate. “Ooooh no, you can’t do that, you’ll have to pick them up at the Club Shop near the station and you’d better be quick about it”.

As it was only 4pm I presumed the shop would be open until late, but on arrival at 5.35pm the shutters were half-down and it was only after mouthing ‘I’ve come 8,000 miles’ that the grump in the shop finally came to the door.

After explaining the situation he told me the only thing he could do was give me a number, but it was OK, it was his number. What? What are you talking about? Your number? I’ve just come from India, I’m very cold, I’m stupidly wearing sockless Birkenstocks. What are you on about?

What he meant was that I had to ring him after he went back to his desk to receive the call. “Can I come in then, mate? I’m freezing out here”… And then he said the type of phrase I hadn’t heard for 18 months. “Can’t do that. It’s past 5.30, Health and Safety.”

As I shivered outside wondering how Brighton FC memorabilia and a rack of football shirts and tracksuits were a danger to me, I made the call. Ah, straight to voicemail and my beach-battered phone’s buttons couldn’t redial. Of course that was going to happen.

Out he came again, but not as grumpy as he could have been. He gave the number, I put it in the mobile and he told me he’d raise his arm behind the counter and when he did so I had to ‘press 5′. Lor blimey, it only worked. We went through a charade of a phone call, gave my credit card details and all looked bonny.

The price for two tickets was forty-eight fucking quid!! That was 3,500 rupees, I could watch the IPL for that. Oh well, haha, been away too long etc. Then, the fright of my life. The row of tracksuits moved and a new (burlier) bloke appeared on the doorstep telling me my card didn’t work.

I gave him the card, made a pathetic joke amount my account might have been ‘frozen’ haha, he looked through me, locked the door and finally I was given the tickets. You know the rest. We didn’t get a shot on goal for 70 minutes, we had a man sent off and we were beaten 3-0. Eight thousand miles and an extra 50 if you add the trip from London.

This experience has finally confirmed for me that India and the UK have swapped places. Even India’s legendary bureaucracy is slight compared to that. I may pull my hair out at times but at least Indian ways are funny, this palaver was annoying and stupid.

So, as I had my first helmet-less ride on my bike earlier this week and was nearly involved in ten fatal crashes before I driven five miles, I smiled and thought, you know, it’s good to be back.

Monty’s Indian Outlook – Issue 67

Now, this is something I thought I would never write, but tonight at the Navi Mumbai stadium I will watch Bjorn Again and Lionel Richie play live.

This is not because of a recent predilection for Abba songs or soul songs of treacle that ooze down my inner thigh, but because they are both performing at the opening ceremony of cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) and I am lucky enough to be attending.

This is the third edition of the IPL and is being shown for the first time on TV in the UK on the ITV network. I advise you to watch it. Sixty matches, 43 days and eight teams. Even if you hate cricket, it is razzmatazz of the highest order. Think wrestling meets Harlem Globetrotters.

After the initial success of the first tournament when huge sums were offered in a players’ auction, last year’s IPL was shifted to South Africa because of those silly old terrorists. Even so, the stadiums were packed.

Tonight it’s back in India and no expense is being spared on the ceremony. Not only do we have the aforementioned acts, UB40 is also playing and Deepika Padukone (my co-star in my recent movie) is doing her Terpsichorean gyrations.

Thankfully, it’s not all cheery song and dance, because life would be drab if everybody was so happy. With some large sums of money abound, dark forces are also at work with some saying the IPL is just a front for organised gambling.

Unlike Sri Lanka where there is a betting shop on every corner, gambling rules in India are vague to such an extent that back-street gambling is rife and run by very organised gangs.

Last year during the IPL, alleged bookie Zahid Miya was killed outside his club in Mumbai and Police are also aware of heavy betting patterns already emerging. The IPL’s exposure on ITV in the UK will undoubtedly send millions more to internet sites such as Betfair.

As somebody who used to be a terrible gambler but gave up seven years ago and also managed betting shops for several years, I understand gambling and how pervasive it can become. It is the worst addiction.

So as reformed gambler, I advise everybody to just watch the game because this form of cricket is great fun. I just hope Lionel Richie doesn’t sing THAT song with THAT video as a backdrop. Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea.

Monty’s Indian Outlook – Issue 66

Regular readers will know that next week I start my second Bollywood movie as a ’40+ British drug-dealer’, but in view of recent events in Goa, I shall ensure that art doesn’t imitate life.

Last week Israeli Goa drug lord David aka ‘Dudu’ Driham was finally arrested after years of apparent impunity and immunity thanks to his alleged links to top brass in the Goan police.

While I can’t get the thought out of my head that if Dudu proposed to his wife in English and she accepted, then she would have to say ‘I do, Dudu’, the Anti-Narcotics cell must know that such a risky arrest is going to have serious ramifications.

Apparently Dudu has been speaking openly of how his connections have always protected him and it is the local Police who are more afraid of further developments than the accused Israeli.

But Dudu should be careful. We have the recent experience of Mossad’s dirty tricks in Dubai and he should be looking over his tattooed shoulder very carefully. Nobody likes a smart-arse, especially if they have assassination squads.

What is more surprising is how social networks have played a part in this scenario. Not only was Dudu apparently using Facebook games such as the ubiquitous Farmville to pass on messages to his runners, it is the emergence of another Israeli on YouTube that is bringing fresh embarrassment to the local rozzers.

In the eight-minute video posted by Oren Ben Yaish, a certain Atala talks about Police officials supplying him with seized drugs for resale. Furthermore Atala was booted out of India in 2006 but has since made his way back without documents and is currently on bail for overstaying.

His case is pending in the local Mapusa court, again showing the extraordinary speed of judicial cases in India and it looks as if Atala will not be spending a relaxing time on the beach this weekend.

Consequently, not only should visitors to Goa realise they cannot behave like they do in the Balearics, this development also shows how times have changed. Once upon a time you couldn’t move for Israelis in Goa, but now the it is the Russians who are the Big Daddies. Moscow 4 Tel Aviv 0.

As for an English actor like me, I keep my nose clean and seeing how technology has a habit of fingering miscreants nowadays, I will not be taking any footage of my movie drug-dealing on my mobile phone just in case it’s misinterpreted. You can never be too careful.