The City with Two Faces – My North Indian Adventure, Part 3

13 Delhi Akshardham Temple Statue Of Swaminarayan Postcard

In the centre of Akshardham, an enormous temple and cultural complex in Delhi, is an eleven foot tall, solid gold statue of revered Hindu teacher Swaminarayan, set on a diamond-white plinth. Behind, around and above him, the walls are completely lined in jewels of every colour imaginable, gleaming gold silver pink blue as the sun filters in through the high ceiling. On the outer walls of the temple, impossibly intricate carvings and statues line every inch of free space, with so much detail you can see each deity’s fingernails.

It’s an awe-inspiring sight, and one that set the precedent for the last stop on my Indian adventure: a week in the nation’s capital. I arrived into Delhi after a comparatively short train journey of just a few hours, which was uneventful except for the discovery of a small mouse living underneath my train bunk. After an evening planning my week’s itinerary and transitioning into full tourist mode, I set off the next morning on the metro and arrived at Akshardham.

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As I walked through the shrine doors, the entire room felt infused with spirituality in a way few places I’ve ever visited have. There was a palpable sense of wonder and reverence which, even as an atheist, I felt strongly as I walked around. Although I don’t subscribe to any religious views, the beauty and intricacy of Akshardham was a reminder of just how important a role religion still plays around the world, and how strong is the faith that inspired it.

The more I explored India, the more it seemed the only place that could have given birth to a body of mythology like Hinduism. The chaotic streets, the speed and colour of life…it all reflects, and is reflected in, the seemingly endless array of gods, deities and stories. And Hindu gods are fascinating: flawed and complex, creating and destroying at one and the same time, giving in to temptation and displaying actual emotions. I was glad to have the opportunity to learn about these things as I walked around the peaceful halls of Akshardham.

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Unfortunately, my visit to the Lotus Temple the next day was considerably less peaceful. The building itself is stunning, both from the inside and out, and I managed to catch it at a picturesque moment of sunset. But almost the entirety of my visit was spent in long, single-file queues, cooking alive in the last of the afternoon heat. It took close to an hour to get inside, and when I finally did I was so annoyed at being jostled by tourists and herded like cattle that I found it impossible to be even slightly thoughtful or spiritual, and didn’t stay for long. As I left, I put on some angry hardcore punk music to channel my frustration at shitty crowds.

 

“I felt like Nathan Drake in Uncharted

On my third day I went to explore the Qutub Minar and surrounding ruins. This is the largest minaret (tower, like those in each corner of the Taj Mahal) in India – 73 metres tall and 1000 years old. The tower itself is immaculately preserved and so huge that you can’t even see the top when you look up from the base. As I wandered around the sun-baked gardens and crumbling relics of ancient civilizations, I felt more than a little bit like Nathan Drake in Uncharted, and was half hoping to discover a secret lever which would lead to a cryptic puzzle and some buried treasure.

The Qutub Minar

I’m sad to report that I didn’t find any secret treasure, but I did manage to catch a cold. A cold, of all things, in Delhi! It flattened me for a whole day with a terrible headache, blocked sinuses, a chesty cough and a very sore throat, which I suspect was caused by air pollution. I decided I needed a break from tombs, temples and the sun, and spent my next day paying a visit to the National Museum of Delhi and the National Gallery of Modern Art, where there was (at last!) air-conditioning and the sweet sound of silence.

Here I learned more about the artists who made the first visual representations of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, essentially creating the long-haired, blue-skinned image of divinity that has become the standard today. And I was amazed by the Tanjore and Mysore paintings, which use real gold, silver foil, beads and powdered metals mixed with paint to create bright, jewel-like colours. In the National Gallery was a huge variety of incredible modern art, with bits of cubism, Japanese art, twisted sculptures and abstract expressionism.

Tanjore & Mysore Painting

 

The City’s Second Face

Up until this point I had only been exploring New Delhi, given that my hostel was based quite far in the south of the city. Of course, ‘New’ is relative: even here there are hundreds of ancient tombs and temples, so frequent that you could run into one just walking down any random street. But these sites are in the middle of carefully manicured parks, or between wide highways, or just around the corner from huge malls full of Western brands. The conquest of capitalism, which is still in progress around most of India, feels almost complete in New Delhi.

Old Delhi, as I discovered on my last day in the country, is almost entirely untouched. When I got off the metro in Chandni Chowk, just a handful of stops on from the central plaza of Connaught Place, I felt like I’d gotten off in a different city. The roads are narrow and dusty, the brands replaced with local businesses, the cars replaced by opportunistic tuk tuk drivers all quoting me prices for a lift to the spice markets and Jama Masjid.

The ruins around the Qutub Minar

I turned them all down, as I wanted to wander the streets on foot and see it for myself. I made my way down the main road and towards the Red Fort, another of Old Delhi’s main tourist attractions. Unfortunately, I found the Red Fort pretty disappointing after seeing the Agra Fort: it was much smaller, and large parts of it were either fenced off for repair work or covered in ugly scaffolding. There were officials in fluorescent jackets everywhere, and they obviously took great pleasure in blowing their whistles at tourists, exercising some tiny modicum of power in their boring jobs.

As in the Lotus Temple, being told where to go when all I wanted to do was explore annoyed me quite a bit, so I decided to scrap the rest of my sightseeing plans for the day and just get lost walking around the markets of Old Delhi. I was glad I did: once I stopped looking for tourist attractions and things to do, I felt like I saw a more authentic side to the city.

The markets of Old Delhi

The narrow, maze-like market streets were bustling with life in every inch of space. Vendors were shouting, gesturing and spitting, sitting hunched over circuitboards and tiny batteries in phone repair shops, frying parathas in sizzling pans of oil beneath colourful strings of packaged tobacco. Rumbling motorcycles were careening wildly around people and potholes and dangling wires, while brightly coloured storefronts shouted KAPOOR JEWELLERY AND KRISHNA SECURITY SYSTEMS. Turning a corner, I stumbled into a large open area where hundreds of expensive TVs and radios were stacked on top of each other, all for sale. And then around the next corner a scene of pure chaos as traffic came to a complete standstill in the most narrow road I’d ever seen, and people dogs cows tried to weave their way through the cars.

This was amazing.

I had lunch in a local restaurant, paying just 100 rupees (about £1) for some of the best food I had in the country, before eventually arriving at the entrance to the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot into the sandstone courtyard, then sat down cross-legged in the shadow of the mosque, listening to Ravi Shankar’s ‘A Morning/Evening Raga’ for an entire hour.

 

The End of a Journey

In the shadow of the Jama Masjid

Watching the setting sun and the flocks of birds and the Muslim families eating picnics while their children ran around playing tag, I had another moment of international freedom – a slightly out of body, how-did-I-get-here feeling, but mixed with a sensation of total independence and self-reliance. I was sad that my journey through India was coming to an end, but as it did I felt a newfound desire to explore the world, and a confidence in my ability to meet the challenges of travelling.

That day was my last in Delhi: a fascinating city with two faces, one Old and one New, where the convergence of history and modernity is more pronounced than anywhere else I’ve ever visited. And it was also the end of my six week adventure in India, as I packed my bags and got myself ready for the long flight back to London Gatwick. There are many places I still want to travel to – Japan, Canada, South America, Germany – and I hope I can continue to share some stories from future travels with everyone who reads this blog. But for now it was back to the UK, where I got off my plane into driving rain and a snowstorm.

I guess some things never change.

Sex Scenes, Guns, and the Taj Mahal at Sunrise – My North Indian Adventure, Part 2

“Selfie? Selfie?”

Throughout my six weeks in India, I was asked this question more times than I could count. Usually while visiting tourist attractions, but sometimes even in supermarkets or simply walking down the street – complete strangers would stop and ask to take a photo with me. The first time it happened I was walking around Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, and I was more confused than anything else. I accepted and posed for an awkward photo, only because I couldn’t think of a good reason to politely say no on the spot.

By the second and third time, I stopped caring about being polite and got into the habit of quickly declining anyone who approached me for a picture. If people thought I was being rude, it didn’t bother me: in my eyes, asking a total stranger for a photograph just because they look different is far ruder. In front of the Qutub Minar, I even asked one man why he wanted to take a picture of me just because I was white and bald, when there was a 1000-year old, 73 metre-tall monument behind him. He skulked off awkwardly, not sure how to reply.

I bring this up now because the first thing that happened when I boarded my train from Lucknow to Agra was – you guessed it – my seat neighbour asked me for a selfie. Given that I was about to spend nine hours sitting next to the guy, I decided to swallow my pride and do it, if only to avoid making things unbearably awkward.

As it turns out, the man (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) was a father of three and on the train with him was his entire family, grandma included, making their way to Firozabad outside Agra. His youngest daughter, no older than five and absolutely adorable, introduced herself to me in very shy English as Minal, after a bit of encouragement from her dad. And when I opened up Midnight’s Children again, she was sat reading it over my shoulder, trying to make sense of the English words.

“A pair of barely concealed royal boobies”

Later, I was watching an episode of The Crown on Netflix when I realized the dad was also watching it from the seat next to me, so I gave him one of my headphones. To my infinite horror, almost as soon as I did this a sex scene started playing, and I found myself holding up my phone for a stranger on a train to watch a pair of barely concealed royal boobies. I was just about ready to die of embarrassment, but he broke the tension by laughing and then nudging me in the side, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

I couldn’t help but find it hilarious then, and I ended up having a nice conversation with the man and his family afterwards. It was the kind of brief but memorable encounter that travelling is all about, when people whose paths would never otherwise have crossed get to meet and briefly catch a glimpse of each other’s lives. I regretted not asking them in turn for a picture, because that, to me, is what photos are for: capturing a shared moment with somebody you want to remember. Not collecting trophies of weird-looking foreigners.

The family got off in Firozabad and I continued on to Agra. My seat was a window seat, and I was pleased to discover that Indian train windows open right up, meaning you can shove your head all the way out of them and feel the wind rushing into your face while staring up at the stars. I passed the final leg of the journey in this way, and arrived into Agra, peacefully tired, at two in the morning.

Geometric Gardens & Exotic Birds

My hostel was called Zostel, a lovely place with a very relaxed atmosphere that was just five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. I spent the whole next day lounging in bed, recovering from my long journey while soaking up the sun. And I met two very friendly guys sharing my room, Ricardo and Jim, who also had plans to visit the Taj the next day.

The gates opened at 6am.

The following morning Jim, Ricardo and I woke up at 5:30am to see India’s most unmissable tourist attraction at sunrise. Few places in the entire world attract so many travellers, or have so much hype behind them, but the Taj Mahal easily lived up to, in fact surpassed, all my expectations. It was an incredible experience which I won’t ever forget.

LOOK EVERYONE I WAS REALLY THERE!!!

The moment you step through the enormous gate is enchanting: the building’s architects repeated the same dome shape throughout the entire complex, so the main structure is perfectly silhouetted through the doors as you approach. And then you come out into the courtyard, where the geometric gardens stretch off into the distance, and exotic birds fly overhead.

The pale blue light of morning shrouded the Taj in a misty, mystical cloak, and as the sun came up onto its east side, the white marble turned a gentle shade of dawn-yellow. The scale of it is just unfathomable, and until you get right up close it’s hard to comprehend just how much of an achievement its construction was, and how well preserved it still is today.

“There were people photographing bushes”

But what fascinated me just as much as the Taj itself were the people visiting it. Something about the building inspires a unique kind of tourism, one where people seem compelled to photograph absolutely every single moment of their once in a lifetime experience. There were people photographing bushes, and I noticed that whenever someone in the front of a group would stop and take a picture, everyone else in their group would suddenly scramble to take their own, as if they were terrified they would miss the perfect angle.

I think the reason for this bizarre behaviour is that, in 2018, we all feel so much pressure from social media to turn our lives into stories, and everyone who visits the Taj Mahal senses that it is an important chapter of that story. You have to tell it perfectly – whether it’s the sexy backpacker girls all practising the same pensive Facebook profile pic pose, or the guy trying to perfectly time his kooky mid-air jump picture.

For my part, I was trying to appreciate the moment as much as possible while I was in it, rather than recording every second of it through a phone screen. I think it’s important, in the twenty-first century, that travelling doesn’t just become a social media slideshow. But I can’t pretend I didn’t get some snaps of my own, so maybe I’m just a huge hypocrite.

Israeli Potheads vs Monkeys

After the Taj, we found a rooftop cafe where we ordered some sandwiches and tea. But when the waiter came to deliver our food, he also gave us something which none of us had ordered: a gun. Answering our baffled looks, he explained it was an airgun to defend our food from monkeys, who had been known to sneak up and steal people’s bacon butties while they weren’t looking. There was nothing inside, it just made a loud noise to scare them away.

Gap year or russian roulette??? You decide

We were joined on the roof by a group of Israeli backpackers who were about to visit the Taj, and swapped some stories about where we’d travelled to and what to see in Agra. As we were talking, two of them casually pulled joints out of their pockets and lit them. I didn’t expect to find myself shooting at monkeys on a roof in the company of Israeli potheads, but life is like that sometimes.

Exploring An Ancient World

Agra Fort, where we headed next, was just as impressive to me as the Taj. The whole complex felt infused with history as we walked around it: in enormous courtyards there are lavishly decorated pulpits where I imagined ancient kings making oaths of war and peace, and in lavishly decorated palaces full of mirrors, plaques told stories from another time.

The entrance to Agra Fort

There was the king who built a solid gold chain from his chambers to the entrance of the fort, which his subjects would shake if they mistreated. And then there was my favourite – the Musamman Burj, an octagonal marble temple at the top of a tower inlaid with precious stones. Shah Jahan built this temple for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, much like the Taj, and the two of them used it to worship the sun every morning. With a twist of the most beautifully cruel poetic irony, Shah Jahan’s own son Jahangir exiled him into this temple when he seized power from his aging father, locking him away with one of his daughters, who cared for him until he died.

Musamman Burj

There were countless stories like this inside the Agra Fort, and exploring it really did feel like walking through an ancient world. The Fort and the Taj are probably the two most impressive tourist attractions I’ve ever visited, and my day exploring them both was one of the most memorable I had in India. After it was over, I retreated to the hostel and zonked out for the remainder of my short time in Agra. The next and last stop on my journey to the north of India: Delhi!

Transcendental Happiness and Roundabout Cows: My North Indian Adventure, Part 1

25 hours on the train. That’s how long it took me to get from KOAA station in Calcutta to Lucknow Junction, where I was making the first pit stop of my two week journey into the North of India. It was a bittersweet goodbye, having spent four fantastic weeks in the city completing my internship with The Daily Telegraph, and making some good friends along the way. But the adventure was not over yet, and I boarded the second-class sleeper train that was dropping me off in Lucknow, before I continued onwards to Agra and New Delhi.

I had expected train travel in India to be stressful, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Upon arriving at the station almost three hours early, I found all the information I could have needed clearly signed in English, Hindi and Bengali, with my train arriving in plenty of time. Once I found my seat, I was delighted to discover that, at least for the first part of the trip, I had an entire four-person carriage to myself.

I took off my shoes and sat cross-legged on the bottom bunk, munching on a big can of Pringles and listening to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, while staring out the window at the passing Bengali countryside. The album’s title track offered me up a moment of transcendental happiness when Van sang the words: ‘I’m nothing but a stranger in this world / I got a home on high / So far away / Way up in the heaven…’

I watched farmers herding bulls and goats along shallow seed-ponds and paths cut into the bushes. I saw colourful villages where houses were painted bright pink and yellow, and lakes just beyond the village where people were bathing in the morning sun. And I saw, for the first time in a month, a sky that was actually blue, unlike the sickly grey, translucent smog of Calcutta. It filled me with a sensation of complete and utter freedom.

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This is what ‘complete and utter freedom’ looks like.

“We never got lost, and nobody got maced.”

I know, of course, that it’s easy to idealize rural life when you’re a stranger catching a brief glimpse through a train window. I’m all too aware that poverty is as much a problem in these small villages as it is in Calcutta: the Indian government has failed to deliver on promises it made before the 2014 election about fair rates for farmers, and conditions in many areas are bleak. The unpleasant influence of industrialization, too, is as visible here as it is in the city.

Outside the towns and villages are small-scale factories and steel plants where spires of gas spew out pollution, looking like stubby fag-ends that have been shoved into the earth bottom down. Something about this kind of homemade pollution was more distressing to me than seeing an enormous industrial complex, and I couldn’t help but feel a little pang of guilt on behalf of the planet – the same kind of complicity I felt every time I got stuck in one of Calcutta’s noxious, gas-guzzling traffic jams at 1pm on a weekday.

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The train toilet. NO THANKS

I turned away from the window once my carriage filled up, retreating to my top bunk and getting lost in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, before settling down with a blanket and trying to get some sleep. The train bunks were surprisingly comfortable, although my long legs poked out over the end and kept brushing the heads of people who passed our carriage through the curtain.

In the morning, I had a conversation with a doctor who was also getting off in Lucknow, and was curious to know what I was doing on the train. I ate a very, very spicy breakfast. And then, finally, we arrived. 25 hours is one of the longest single journeys I’ve ever taken – second only to flying from London to Melbourne – but the journey was comfortable every step of the way. If I was expecting something more chaotic, it’s probably only because I watched Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited before travelling to India. But we never got lost, nobody got maced, and we touched down in Lucknow at around 11 O’clock.

The worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in…

The first thing that struck me about Lucknow was bikes. Bikes and cows. On the city’s narrow, dusty roads were roughly sixty percent motorbikes, thirty percent cars and ten percent cows. That figure is no exaggeration: for every ten vehicles I spotted at least one cow, poking around in the dirt or chewing on some stray weeds. At one point, I was flabbergasted to spot five cows sitting right in the middle of a roundabout, while queues of usually impatient taxi drivers slowed to a crawl to accommodate the holy animals.

Unfortunately, ‘holy’ is not the word I would use to describe my hotel room, unless it was in the phrase: ‘holy shit, this is the worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in’. The Hotel Rana International was a budget venue that looked passable for a couple of nights on bookings.com, but in reality it was a complete dump.

The walls were mouldy white with stains on them and no windows, and the connected bathroom had no ventilation so the room was perpetually muggy and smelled like damp. The shower didn’t work, so I had to clean myself with a measuring jug and a bucket. They didn’t provide toilet paper, or soap. And the TV, when I tried it, made a hilariously broken buzzing noise until I turned it off, at which point it never came back on again.

…And one of the best meals of my life

I was hungry after my long journey, but a quick trip to the local supermarket was a disappointment. ‘Supermarket’ might be a bit too grand a term for a grocery shop the size of my hotel room which didn’t even sell bread – not something I had ever seen before. It meant I had no choice but to live off snacks, and my diet for three days consisted of jam on muffins for breakfast, and oreos with crisps for lunch. In other words – a nice and healthy, balanced diet.

Dastarkhwan the  Mughlai delight. Lalbagh ,Lucknow
A hidden gem.

Thankfully, I was able to have dinner in the restaurant which was twenty seconds away from my hotel’s front entrance. Dastarkhwan Lalbagh was a little hidden gem that served traditional Mughal cuisine, and the food here was the best I had in India, without doubt. It was so good the first night I had to come back the next, and on this occasion ordered a plate of grilled Afghan chicken with zeera rice that was so delicious it made me want to cry. On the side, too, was the most perfectly crispy  ‘Muglai Nan’ topped with pineapple and pomegranate – far and away the best naan bread I’ve ever eaten.

It was enough food to feed three small people, but I sat and chomped my way through the whole thing solo, blissfully ignorant of the locals’ curious stares while I ascended to the astral plane of spice. This meal alone was enough to justify my terrible choice in accommodation – if I hadn’t stayed at the Hotel Rana I definitely wouldn’t have eaten at Dastarkhwan Lalbagh, and I’d have missed out on one of the best meals of my life.

“How the fuck did I get here?”

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The next day, I went for a wander in the streets of Lucknow. On a second impression, I discovered that bikes really were everywhere – some side streets were so narrow they contained almost no cars at all, just wave upon wave of motorbikes and scooters. And when I rounded the corner, I stumbled across an amazing sight.

A road in which both sides of the pavement were lined with hundreds upon hundreds of bikes, both broken down rust-buckets and gleaming new machines alike. Dusty signs hung above repair shops where groups of men sat banging at pieces of metal with hammers, or fiddling with screwdrivers. And store fronts closer to the road made makeshift walls out of tyres, stacked in three metre-high piles, while vendors holding shiny new engines and spare parts shouted prices at passers-by.

As I stood at a four-way intersection, trying to cross a dizzying rush of traffic moving in all directions, I felt infused again with the brilliant madness of India and had a slightly out of body travel moment. I looked around and asked myself: “how the fuck did I get here?”

That evening was my last in Lucknow, and after another trip to Dastarkhwan Lalbagh I waddled back to my hotel, where I made one last little discovery. The stairs leading up from my floor didn’t lead to another set of rooms, but straight out onto the roof of the building. Here, I could stand and watch the cars passing under streetlights, and look out over the distant skyline of Lucknow. It was a peaceful conclusion to my trip through a very chaotic city, even if I did get eaten alive by mosquitos.

The adventure continues!

The next day, I packed my bags and got out of my terrible hotel room as early as I possibly could, catching a taxi to Lucknow station. The next stop on my two-week adventure was Agra, where I was staying in a hostel five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. But if you want to hear about that you’ll have to tune in to the next part of this post, coming in a few days time. Thanks for reading!

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The sun sets over Lucknow Junction.

How India’s E-sports Industry Rose From the Ashes of an Elaborate Scam

The piece below is an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph India, and probably the one I’m most proud of from my time there. It’s a feature-length article about the history of India’s e-sports scene, and where it’s headed in the future. I hope everyone reads the whole thing as a lot of research, planning and interviews went into this piece! Thanks for reading as always and enjoy 🙂

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The e-sports industry has a turbulent history in India, but stands poised on the brink of change in 2018. Stuart Wood takes a look at the scene’s past, present and future, and speaks to the people at its forefront.

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E-sports – the competitive, high-level play of video games – is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. In 2017, it generated $1.5 billion in revenue, far exceeding all expectations. At The International 2017, a DOTA 2 tournament held in August, players competed for $24 million in prize money, while 92 million people watched online. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why retail giant Amazon paid $1 billion in 2014 to acquire Twitch, the online streaming service which broadcasts e-sports events, and which all those millions of people were tuned in to.

E-sports’ rise has been meteoric in the last ten years.  What started as a collection of small, competitive scenes has since become a cultural phenomenon and billion dollar industry which offers lucrative full-time careers to players, broadcasters and event organizers. E-sports has celebrities, villains, scandals, stories of success and failure, plenty of high drama and, best of all, it can be viewed online free of charge. Just as importantly, it has helped legitimize gaming as a hobby, and tackle the cultural stigma which still surrounds it in some areas of the world.

What games are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘e-sports’? Primarily, games that feature in large scale tournaments are MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), or RTS (Real Time Strategy). Both are, in effect, top down strategy games in which two highly-trained teams compete against each other to control territory and dominate their opponents. Other genres which feature heavily in big tournaments are first-person shooters such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, as well as one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter 5 and Super Smash Bros Melee.

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For as much variety, passion and market potential as there is under the e-sports banner, the industry is still in its early stages in India. The reasons for this are many: firstly, despite being home to a population of 1.3 billion, only 462 million people are connected to the internet. Of these, many are connected via phone as expensive computer equipment is considered a ‘luxury good’, and often has to be imported from outside the country. In addition, internet speeds are not as fast as those in the west, reaching only 60ms compared to 10ms in Europe and North America, which can present problems for games that require quick reflexes and reactions.

But things are changing. The e-sports scene in India is beginning to catch on, and several high profile events have emerged following the foundation of a group called Nodwin Gaming. Nodwin have partnered with ESL, the worlds largest e-sports league, to provide the ESL India Premiership, and its 2018 incarnation is offering a prize pool of 1 crore – the largest India has seen to date. It’s a far cry from previous attempts to kickstart e-sports in India, none of which reached the level of success and exposure needed to sustain the industry.

A brief history of e-sports in India

2000 – The first coming of e-sports in India is in the year 2000, when the country competes in the World Cyber Games. The event generates initial interest in the scene, but popularity wanes soon afterwards.
2005 – Online gaming begins to take off in India around the mid-2000s, when the spread of Facebook and social media brings gaming to a larger audience. Until this point, online gaming was a niche hobby and small market, owing to the cost of consoles and PCs.
2005/6 – Gaming website Zapak.com, a subsidiary of Reliance ADAG, launches a series of gaming cafes around India, where games such as FIFA, DOTA 1 and Counter Strike 1.6 can be played. The venture proves unsuccessful and fails to catch on.
2007 – The E-sports Federation of India is established, aiming to promote, represent and regulate the e-sports scene in India.
2008 – Indian Inferno, India’s first professional gaming team, launches in Mumbai.
2013 – Nodwin Gaming is established.
2018 – India’s first televised e-sports league, U Cypher, launches on MTV India.

The Scam That Started an Industry

The story of Nodwin Gaming’s foundation is one that begins with a carnival. The India Gaming Carnival, specifically – hosted in 2012 by a group called WTF Eventz, and billed as “India’s largest gaming & electronics expo”. WTF Eventz was a company set up just months before the event was due to take place, and they claimed to be offering India’s largest ever prize pool of 1.5 crore. They also claimed that they had received 4 crore in funding from two Indian companies named GenNext and NSR Construction.

Canny users of Indian tech site erodov.com, however, noticed that these so-called sponsors listed the very same address and phone number as WTF Eventz, and also that WTF listed a starting capital of just 1 lakh – not even close to enough to fund an event on this scale. The India Gaming Carnival went ahead, but it was a shambles: the entire first day was cancelled, the electricity was shut off before League of Legends finals were played, and winners were not awarded any prize money. Attendees went through an arduous process to try and get their expensive tickets refunded.

Nodwin founder Akshat Rathee calls it “a disaster”, and it was the impetus for him to set up his company: “I set up Nodwin Gaming after the India Gaming Carnival, to show there was more to e-sports in India. We had to rebuild the gaming scene.” In the half a decade since, Nodwin and the e-sports industry have gone from strength to strength, forging links with publishers and advertisers, and staging larger and larger events to bigger audiences. “We now have one million daily players of DOTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive in India”, he says.

That growth has attracted the interest of investors from within India’s game industry, as well as further afield. Nazara Technologies, one of India’s biggest mobile game publishers, acquired a majority stake in Nodwin in January of this year. It is part of their plan, announced February 2017, to invest $20 million into India’s e-sports scene over a period of five years. “We need to build the ecosystem for e-sports in India”, says Manish Agarwal, CEO of Nazara. “The foundation is there, and the infrastructure is improving. We just need imagination.”

Nazara have plans for the creation of an online content platform, a professional league, and a network of pro teams entirely supported by the company. Agarwal says they are also working on the infrastructure around the scene, setting up faster servers with better internet connection speeds, and investing in local game development talent: “We want more games that are made by Indians for Indian audiences – to build the scene from the bottom up, not the top down.”

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A Portable Future

The key to capturing that audience might lie in a corner of the e-sports industry which has been under-explored in the west – competitive mobile gaming. Both Rathee and Agarwal believe that India’s mobile market has enormous potential to grow, and that the scene is still waiting for one game to reach widespread success and unify the playerbase. Cricket games like Real Cricket 17 and World Cricket Championship 2 have been downloaded millions of times on Indian app stores, but none has proved a runaway winner just yet.

The success in China and Korea of Tencent’s Arena of Valor, ostensibly a League of Legends clone for mobile, proves that the potential is there. And Rathee envisions that India could host a different type of competition for games like these: “Perhaps we will see big events that are less like Counter Strike or DOTA and more like the Tour De France, with players competing side by side in heats until only the best remain.” Competitive mobile games have already had some exposure in India: ESL India Premiership hosts Supercell’s Clash Royale, a spinoff of the enormously popular Clash of Clans. And Real Cricket 17, developed by Nautilus Mobile, featured in a significant Indian tournament which recently concluded.

U Cypher is India’s first televised e-sports league, and has been broadcasting on MTV India through January and February of 2018. It features six teams of fourteen players, all competing in four games: Real Cricket 17, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Tekken 7. Teams are awarded points for each game, and place on a league table after each matchup. E-sports’ arrival on mainstream television – especially with the lavish production values boasted by U Cypher – is a sign of the times in India, and sure to spread the scene even further across the country.

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Rathee and Agarwal both agree that the future of competitive gaming is incredibly bright in India. They describe the industry in its current form as a ‘blank slate’ on which early adopters are staking their claim. As exposure to e-sports grows, so too does the infrastructure surrounding it, and the culture of fans and players that allow it to thrive. Rathee says that this, in the end, is the most important thing: “E-sports is about the community. To survive it needs heroes, and it needs stories.” We can only hope these stories are as compelling as that of the Indian e-sports industry itself – one with a turbulent history, but an incredibly promising future.

Learning the Language of Honk – Four Weeks in Calcutta

The Wooden Man has spent the last four weeks in Calcutta, India, completing a journalism internship for The Daily Telegraph. The following is an account of everything I got up to, with plenty of pictures to boot. Enjoy!

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The first thing is the noise. Stepping through the gate at international arrivals, my very tired, very jetlagged ears are plunged into a symphony of traffic. Taxi drivers shout and gesture to potential customers, and each other. Vehicles swerve between lanes, doors are slammed shut. And honking car horns are speaking their own language, a language we’ve never heard in the place I call home. There are short, tooting little bursts of noise saying here here here, and then there are long drawn out honks that sound almost sentient, like the cars are marking their territory.

mdeThroughout my four weeks in Calcutta, and from the passenger seat of many Uber cabs, I gradually began to understand the language of Honk. It is a language of many verbs – move, stop, look, wait. But it can also express emotion: several cab drivers, I noticed, would honk the horn when they were forced to stop at a red light as an expression of frustration, not aimed at anything or anyone in particular. And one especially mad taxi driver, who took me home from work on a Friday evening, didn’t miss a single opportunity to overtake the cars in front of him – even if it meant driving into oncoming traffic. He would honk at each one he passed, partly as a warning saying “get out of my way”, but also as a kind of boast: “Ha! I’m faster than you!”

In those first moments, though, fresh off the plane, the language of Honk meant nothing to me. I was more than a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer chaos of the roads, and the blast of heat that struck me as the doors opened. It had been a stressful flight, with several issues connecting from Mumbai to Calcutta. First I had gone through the wrong gate at immigration and then later, when going through baggage check, my boarding pass was not stamped properly. This meant that when I tried to board my connecting flight, I was told I hadn’t gone through security and almost wasn’t able to board the plane.

 

A New Day, A New Horizon

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All of this occurred at four in the morning, and my inability to sleep on planes meant I’d been awake for close to thirty hours. I finally did manage to board the connecting flight, feeling thoroughly grumpy and very, very stressed. But once we began take off, I was treated to a spectacular sight that put it all into perspective. Out the right side plane window was the most incredible sunrise I had ever seen over Mumbai – a long band of deep orange at the very lip of the horizon, slowly fading into yellow, pale green, silver and then the black of the night sky. I decided to take it as a sign: the start of a new day, and the start of a new chapter for me personally; one which I hoped would be full of new sights, sounds and experiences.

In my first week, the sight that shocked me the most (and one that was sadly prominent throughout the entire city) was the slums. I’d never before seen poverty on the scale it exists in Calcutta, and it made me appreciate how many simple things I take for granted every day. The divide between rich and poor is more prominent here than anywhere else I’ve been in the world – brand new shopping malls and hotels are next door to crumbling buildings that look hundreds of years old. The wild animals also required some getting used to. Of course there are wild dogs and cats in the streets, but the sight of wild horses, cows and a monkey caused me to do a double take. There was even a pack of wild goats that ran across the road in Central Avenue, headbutting a surprised woman who was looking the other way.

The other thing I could never quite get used to was the staring. Calcutta is not a city home to many foreigners, and my white skin (and probably also my shaved head) constantly marked me out as different. While I know there was nothing more to it than quiet curiosity, I am generally quite a private person and often found it difficult to be stared at in this way. Calcutta was the first time I had ever lived anywhere in which I was an ethnic minority: on bad days, I would describe the experience as feeling simultaneously invisible and as if everyone was looking at me.

A large part of this was just travel nerves, which passed after the first week. It isn’t easy to pack up your whole life and move to an entirely different continent halfway across the planet, one in which you know nobody and don’t speak the language. But I told myself that if I could do this then I could do anything, and that I had to conquer my fear of the unknown. Change is scary, yes, but lack of change is scarier. You just need perspective to see it.

 

The Work Begins

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Once I got my head down into some writing, I found I was more in my element. In the second week of my internship at The Telegraph, I was sent on a few food assignments to various places around Calcutta. I was lucky enough to visit Dum Pukht, one of the best restaurants in the city, to try some traditional Indian cuisine. Having not had a chance to experience proper Indian food up until this point, I went straight to the top for my first taste of the country’s flavours, and they didn’t disappoint. I quickly realized how important food is in Indian culture, as I explored the streets full of spice stalls and carts selling phuchkas and kachori. The syrupy sweets of KC Das, especially the famous rosogolla, were a favourite of mine.

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In my third week, I did some modelling. T2 were having a photoshoot for Holi all about how people were adding colour to their wardrobes, and asked me to come along. As someone who is generally terrible at having his picture taken, I wasn’t hugely excited about the idea. But the shoot ended up being silly fun – I’d never realized before just how unnatural some of the poses in professional photoshoots are, and my awkward laughter as I tried to hold them was just about enough to pass for smiling. I certainly didn’t expect my face to end up on the front cover of Tuesday’s T2, but my copy of the day’s paper is a souvenir that I’ll take home with me, and it makes me laugh every time I see it.

It was only in my final week in Calcutta that I was able to find the time to visit the city’s main tourist attractions. The gardens of the Victoria Memorial were a nice escape from the chaos and noise of the streets, and the building itself was a grand tribute to the fallen power of the Victorian British Empire. St Paul’s Cathedral, meanwhile, was the first cathedral I’d ever seen to feature ceiling fans. Both buildings felt emblematic to me of Calcutta’s peculiar mix of old and new: these imposing historical relics tower over a city which is still full of the influence of its colonial history, even 80 years on. But at the same time, India’s rapidly rising economy is giving birth to new developments, five star hotels and shiny shopping malls all across the city, while huge billboards spread the influence of Western capitalism.

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Somewhere in all these contradictions, I gradually began to understand the mad, chaotic energy of Calcutta. It truly is a different world to any other city I’ve visited, or any place I’ve called home. I won’t soon forget the noise, the sights, the smells, the people and those streets, which are more intensely alive than any I’ve seen. I just hope, when I get back to the UK to take my upcoming driving test, I don’t start speaking the language of Honk.

A Magical Mystery Tour of the United Kingdom

The Wooden Man takes you on a guided tour of the United Kingdom, one gig at a time.

 “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?”

I asked this question in the basement of a German-themed bar named Bierkeller, a venue situated in the centre of Bristol. Bristol is a British city about an hour west of London that is home to some of the best live music in the UK, and I was at Bierkeller in the middle of my first ever moshpit. The band I had come to see were one of my all time favourites – a metal group by the name of Electric Wizard. And midway through their classic tune ‘Barbarian’, the crowd – and myself – reached a fever pitch of such headbanging intensity that I felt an enormous noggin thump me right in the back of the neck.

Charged up on the music and adrenaline, I hardly even noticed at the time. But when the song ended, I turned to the greasy-haired metalhead dude behind me and asked, a bit too politely: “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?” He grinned and said, “Yeah, man. I think so.” I couldn’t even be angry – I grinned back and replied: ‘Nice one.”

Moments like these are exactly why I love live music. There’s nothing to compare to the thrill of hearing your favourite artists in the flesh, sharing in the atmosphere and the energy of a performance with like-minded people. In the UK, we’re lucky enough to have some of the best live music venues in the world, and there’s no better way to experience the culture of a city than to get off the beaten path and hear some local bands. So in this article I want to take you through some of the venues and cities throughout the United Kingdom, and recount some tales from the amazing artists I’ve seen there.

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Entering the Big Jeff Zone

The city of Bristol is known for a few things. First, it’s the home of Banksy and some of the best graffiti art in the world. Second is the Clifton Suspension Bridge, an impressive feat of Victorian engineering just outside the city centre. And third is the Bristol accent, full of rolled ‘arr’s and ‘urr’s that are famously difficult for anyone outside the city to understand.

But Bristol is also one of the best cities in the UK for live music. It’s home to a floating nightclub – Thekla, an old German timber ship converted into music venue, which sits in the buzzing harbourside area. And it’s also home to The Fleece, a rock bar which plays host to rising talent from around the south west. The Fleece is perhaps as well known for its music as it is for a small square of tarmac near the stage, which has been affectionately dubbed the Big Jeff Zone.

Big Jeff is a resident of Bristol who is something of a legend in the music scene. The man is a towering seven feet tall, and his love of live music is so strong that he attends a different gig almost every single night. That’s no exaggeration: if you go to a live show in Bristol, there is a very strong chance that you might spot the blond-haired giant himself, right up front by the stage and rocking out to his hearts content. At The Fleece, the big man has his own designated standing space in front of a support beam, where his huge height doesn’t obstruct the view of the poor souls behind him.

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Tales from the UK rave underground

Bristol is also a hub for electronic music, being the birthplace of the short-lived dubstep genre and containing a thriving scene of drum ‘n’ bass, house and techno. The UK has a storied history with raves, or underground parties – in the 80s, many illegal raves were shut down by police as the nation was swept by fear of the drug Ecstasy, and its effect on youth culture. In the aftermath of these illegal raves, many changes were made to laws on UK nightlife, allowing venues to stay open much later into the night.

The impact of those parties can still be felt at music venues around the UK. In Bristol the nightclub Motion, which is just a short walk from the city’s main train station, plays host to regular raves which channel the spirit of years past: huge speaker systems, loud bass and music playing into the early hours of the morning. Some nights end as late as five or six AM, and clubbers leaving to go home are likely to run into early morning commuters catching their next day trains and buses to work.

All drugs are, of course, banned from the premises, and there is tight security at the door. But there are inevitably some who smuggle illicit substances past the bouncers, and you can usually spot them a mile away. The person stood in the corner by themselves, staring intently at a strobe light and dancing like a confused jellyfish, is probably best left alone.

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Music in the capital

It goes without saying that there is plenty of good music in London: the city is among the top billing for almost any international performing artist. One of the best music venues in the capital, though, is the Roundhouse in Camden. This venue, true to its name, is a circular, open space with a stage at the front, and plays host to all the best bands not quite big enough to fill an arena. It is large, but the round shape of the building and fantastic stage setup keep it feeling intimate.

I came here to watch a band named Beach House perform a handful of years ago, and had a fantastic evening all around. Beach House are a band who play a style of music known as dream pop: slow, hazy tunes with wistful vocals and steady drum beats. My enjoyment of the gig was only slightly dampened when I found out, having travelled halfway across the country to get to London, that the band were performing at a venue not fifteen minutes away from my house just days later.

Going up north

That home was in Leeds, where I studied at university for three years. Leeds is another hub for live music and is, alongside Manchester, the go-to place for artists performing outside of London. Deep in the student district of Headingley you’ll find the famous Brudenell Social Club, where bands of all shapes and sizes play to adoring student crowds. I visited the Brudenell several times, to see everything from American punk rockers Viet Cong to freaky noise-pop band Deerhoof.

But the best gig I attended in my student days was one that ended with the lead singer pouring a bottle of whiskey on top of my head. Crystal Castles are an electro-pop group with elements of house music, and their shows are a sensory overload of loud bass, flashing lights and jumping crowds. I saw them at the O2 Academy in Leeds, and the crowd were so hyperactive that at one point a girl slipped and fell, causing a domino effect that left about fifty people lying on the floor. The music was stopped to let everyone get to their feet, and then resumed at the same volume as before.

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Having pushed my way to the front of the crowd as the show went on, I found myself up against the barrier for the encore. Lead singer Alice Glass pulled a bottle of whiskey from out behind the stage and took a huge swig from it, then poured the rest into the open mouths of the front row. Unfortunately, the majority of the drink landed squarely on top of my head, but I was so into the music that it didn’t bother me all too much.

That’s the power of live music: an atmosphere and energy so intense it can let you forget being headbutted, or taking an unwanted Jack Daniels shower. And the UK is second to none for gigs: whether you’re up north in Leeds and Manchester or down south in London and Bristol, the country’s cities have a huge variety of shows for all tastes. For anyone visiting the UK, seeing some artists perform is one of the best ways to get in touch with the locals and get a feel for the city, and all the venues above are highly recommended for doing exactly that. Who knows – you might even spot Big Jeff.

5 Timeless Albums That Turn 50 This Year

The year 1968 was an incredible one for music. A year on from the summer of love and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, many of the best artists from the psychedelic ‘60s were taking their music to new and fascinating places as the hippy movement reached its peak. In this article, we’re taking a look at five albums that are celebrating their 50th birthday in 2018, and why these records have stood the test of time.

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1.) The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland

The 1960s was a decade that spoke the language of the guitar, and nobody was more fluent than the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Electric Ladyland is the finest hour in his all-too-short discography, which was brought to an end when he overdosed on barbiturates and died at the age of 27. This album features countless all-time classics like ‘Crosstown Traffic’ (two of the most perfect minutes of rock music ever recorded), ‘Gypsy Eyes’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Then there’s the absolutely epic ‘Voodoo Chile’, in which we can hear Hendrix writing himself into rock music mythology right before our very ears: ‘Oh the night I was born, lord I swear the moon turned a fire red…” Electric Ladyland oozes virtuosity, confidence and raw sexuality from its every note, even fifty years on.

 

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2.) The Velvet Underground – White Light / White Heat

No artist from the 60s was as influential as The Velvet Underground. This is a band that were relatively unknown when they debuted in 1967, but in the presiding 50 years their experimental and noisy songs have been a blueprint for generations of forward-thinking rock musicians. White Light/White Heat is their weirdest and darkest album as well as my personal favourite – it features scuzzy, lo-fi rock songs about heroin, orgies, and a lobotomy, as well as ‘The Gift’, in which an entire short story is read aloud to music. And to top it all off is the infamous ‘Sister Ray’, a controversial, 17-minute noise rock freak-out that is pure, uncensored chaos. The Velvet Underground were always torn between the musical interests of their two primary songwriters: the experimental John Cale and classic popsmith Lou Reed. But on White Light/White Heat, they found the perfect balance of beauty and filth, and created an experimental rock album for the ages.

 

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3.) The Beatles –   The White Album

The Beatles wrote and recorded much of their classic White Album – officially titled just The Beatles – while travelling in northern India. The group flew in to Rishikesh to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who taught them the practice of transcendental meditation. It was a trip intended to creatively recharge the group and bring them closer together, after they had burned out on touring and the music industry in 1966 and ’67. And though it did prove a fruitful period creatively, it also highlighted the growing division between the bands four members: McCartney, Lennon and Harrison wrote many of their songs separately, and the results were then compiled into one huge double album, thirty songs long. It’s for this reason that The White Album, as brilliant as it is, often feels quite uneven – there are timeless classics like ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, but there are also throwaway tunes like ‘Rocky Racoon’ and ‘Piggies’ that mostly serve as filler. In the end, you have to take the good with the bad and appreciate the whole for the brilliant, indulgent mess that it is.

 

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4.) Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is one of the most gorgeous albums ever recorded, but it’s a bit of a difficult record to pin down. Stylistically it is somewhere in between folk, jazz and soul, but its winding songs have an elusive, dreamlike quality. They feature strummed guitar, bass, violin, flute and many other instruments, all combining in semi-improvised harmony. Van Morrison’s wild scat singing style binds it all together, as his voice latches onto words and notes and spins them in dizzying patterns. His lyrics are poetic and difficult to make sense of, but always beautiful: “From the far side of the ocean / If I put the wheels in motion / And I stand with my arms behind me / And I’m pushin’ on the door…” Astral Weeks is the definition of a cult classic, and its stature has only grown over the course of the last 50 years. Today, it rightly takes its place among the greatest folk albums ever recorded.

 

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5.) The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For the Money

Many bands and listeners were swept up by the idealistic views of the 1960s, but Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were not among them. We’re Only In It For the Money is an album that tears down the hippy subculture, and its naïve belief that love, drugs and tie-dye t-shirts could change the world. The cover of the album is a parody of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, featuring the band members posing in frilly tutus. And the songs, likewise, miss no opportunity to skewer the long-haired stoners flocking to San Francisco and Woodstock: on ‘Who Needs the Peace Corps?’, Zappa sings “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” We’re Only In It For the Money is a surreal, satirical concept album that feels very much of the 1960s, but its quirky sense of humour and playful songwriting have allowed it to stand the test of time.