17 March 2015

Life in a slum in India

While I was in Mumbai in January, I took part in a walking tour of one of its biggest slums. I remember reading about these tours of Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s most population-dense neighbourhoods, when they started a few years ago and spawned a debate on ‘slum tourism’. “It’s voyeuristic to peek into poor peoples’ lives,” slammed some. “This is a reality of Indian cities, and how 55% of the population of Mumbai lives,” pointed out others. My take is that slums are certainly a facet of every Indian city and ignoring them won’t make them go away.  But I don’t know if I would have chosen to go one of these tours if I wasn’t researching a travel article on ‘off-beat’ walking tours in Mumbai.

As we began our walk, our guide Dinesh from Reality Tours shared a few pertinent facts about Dharavi. This is the third most densely populated slum in the world. It’s home to one million people who live in an area of 1.75 square kilometres. This means each Dharavi resident has less than 2 square metres of living space. “Poor people do not live here,” Dinesh told us. “Poor people live on the streets. Everyone in Dharavi works.” There are over 10,000 industries operating here with an annual turnover of approximately US$665 million. People living in Dharavi have migrated here from all over India in search of a livelihood. A neighbourhood like Dharavi represents the history of Mumbai, a city of migrants. There are 100 distinct ‘nagars’ with people from different regions, religions, castes, classes.

The streets and houses of some parts of Dharavi looked very similar to other ‘modest’ housing I’ve seen in many Indian cities. Though homes here are certainly modest in size, they are mostly permanent structures made of cement and brick. But other parts were definitely more squalid, with narrow lanes and cramped dwellings contrasting sharply with other sections of Dharavi. The huge plastic drums lined up in the alleys are used by each household to store the water only available for a few hours a day.

We passed barbershops and small provision stores, and fruit and vegetable vendors. Dharavi also has its wide ‘main roads’ lined with shops and small businesses. It looked like a self-sufficient community where everything is available. Dinesh took us to a variety of workshops and small businesses in the industrial area, where we saw bakers removing huge pans of puff pastry out of wood-fired ovens, sewing, batik and embroidery workshops, others making machine parts, leather bags, and even burqas for the Middle East market. 

But it was the plastics recycling unit in what is called the 13th compound which made the biggest impression on me. The air here was thick with the toxic smell of burnt plastic. There is where the city’s plastic garbage ends up. The workers here sort, clean, crush, shred, dye and melt plastic waste into small pellets which are sold to manufacturers and then made into things like umbrella handles and buckets. The workers squatted on the ground, sorting shampoo bottles and plastic food containers into neat piles according to colour and the type of plastic.

We carefully climbed a narrow metal ladder up to the roof where a panorama of Dharavi’s rooftops of corrugated iron stretched all around us. A mosque dominated the skyline. Photography was not allowed on this tour, but this is a view I’ll remember for a long time.

Photos courtesy of Reality Tours

05 March 2015

Travel tip: How to deal with staring in India

When my sister-in-law and her young daughter came to visit us while we were living in Bangalore, I took the little girl for a walk around the neighbourhood. Two minutes into our walk, she asked me: “Why is everyone staring at me?” I told her that people are not used to seeing a little white girl and that they were curious and intrigued but that they didn’t mean any harm. She wanted to go back inside!

One thing first time visitors to India can find very difficult to get used to is the almost constant staring they’re subject to. In Anglo-Saxon societies especially, staring is considered rude and can be interpreted as aggressive behaviour. For this reason, many foreigners are not used to being stared at, so this is a new experience which can make them feel very self-conscious and uncomfortable.

In India, anyone who stands out for any reason will be the object of curiosity and subjected to unabashed staring. It’s not only men ogling women, it’s also women, children… everyone stares – grannies are the worst – they can stare down anyone!

If you’re travelling in India, staring is something you have to learn to deal with. Here are a few tips:

Develop tunnel vision. Act completely oblivious to the world around you and don’t look back at people. Pretending they don’t exist helps and after a while you don’t notice the staring anymore. Ignoring the world around you and pretending you’re in your own little bubble seems a bit sad but this is a coping mechanism. Creating a bubble is the only way to cope with some aspects of India.

Don’t react. Don’t look back or try to win the staring game by trying to stare someone down. You won’t win!

Keep a low profile. It’s difficult for a foreigner to pass unnoticed in India but you can try to blend in a little bit. Indians pay a lot of attention to appearances, so dress modestly and neatly. You’ll notice that women do not show their shoulders or legs and men rarely wear shorts. Wear Indian clothes and you’ll feel less out of place.

Wear sunglasses. If you feel very uncomfortable with staring, sunglasses can help, especially in situations where you can’t just disappear. It’s easy to hide behind a pair of shades and feel somehow immune to the world around you.

Smile and say hello. A smile and a polite namaste / namaskara / vanakkom is a great way to break the ice and connect with locals. Indians can look stern but once you smile at them, you’ll get a warm smile back and a friendly discussion usually follows.

These are a few tips for those who feel uncomfortable being stared at. However, if you love being the centre of attention, you'll love India!

Do you have another tip you'd like to share?

26 February 2015

Cricket fever

It’s hard not to notice that the Cricket World Cup is on. When the cricket is on, everything revolves around it. Then when India plays Pakistan, the world stops for a few hours. That’s what it was like on February 15th. It was a Saturday unlike any other because there was almost no traffic on the roads. And it was quiet: no honking or traffic sounds, and not even the calls of the fruit and vegetable vendors were heard. Everyone was watching cricket. I enjoyed the peace and quiet and since matches take such a long time, most of the day stayed peaceful and quiet.

Yes, India won.

Friends were telling me how some cricket fans have rituals they follow religiously: they do silly things like not getting up from the chair they’re sitting on during the whole match – this means they spend a good part of the day rooted to the same chair in fear that they may jinx things if they got up.

There was an article in thepaper today about this exact topic and it gave a few examples of the weird rituals cricket fans have:

Alok, an accountant, sits in a certain chair and does not dare shut his laptop:

“I try and sit in a particular seat whenever India is playing an important game. I keep my laptop on the floor and try not to close it. I started following this after the quarterfinal win in the last edition of the World Cup. I noticed that Indian wickets fell every time I shut my laptop. I did not close my laptop during the chase in the World Cup final and the Champions Trophy final as well, both tournaments India won.”

Prakash, an IT professional wears shoes that are too big for him and drinks ice water:

“On all India match days, I wear a shoe that is one size larger. Every time I have worn the shoe, India has performed well in that tournament… I also make it a point to drink a glass of ice water, every time the Indian team claims an opposition wicket…”

Shevtank follows a routine which involves pizza and not getting up from his seat except to do a jinx-breaking dance:

 “I order food from the same pizza outlet, sit in the same seat and occasionally break into a dance of sorts to break the jinx in the case of a strong partnership by the opposition players. During the World cup final, my father got up to take a bottle of water from the fridge. At that moment, Gautam Gambhir got out. We did not allow him to return to his seat. He saw the rest of the chase leaning from the kitchen.”

Akash does not cut his hair or shave:

 “In the league stages of the last World Cup, I had not followed this ritual. After the league stages, I did not cut my hair or shave. It was only after India won the World Cup that I shaved.”

Judging by all these displays of religious-like devotion, India is sure to win the World Cup?

21 February 2015

A place I love: Vegan Bites in Mumbai

Photo courtesy of Vegan Bites
While I was in Mumbai I had the chance to spend time with my friends Samir and Hemali and have some amazingly good food. They run their own business called Vegan Bites, a catering service that prepares healthy, 100% vegan meals which are delivered to Mumbai’s busy office workers six days a week.
Aloo tikki made with love

The meals prepared here are vegan which means they don’t contain any kind of animal products like eggs, milk, butter, ghee, etc. but they are also completely oil-free. They have an amazing roster of yummy healthy recipes and the dishes they prepare are rotated so that each day the lunch provided is completely different.

I spent a morning in their busy kitchen and watched their employees chop, slice, grate, cook and pack the lunches before the dabbawallahs arrived on their bicycles to make their deliveries. 

I was impressed by how clean and efficient everything is, and how organised Samir and Hemali are, planning the menu for the week in advance and ordering all the ingredients they need, sourcing only the freshest produce and as many organic ingredients as possible. It’s nice to see that there is an option for people who want to eat healthy, plant-based food. 

Samir and Hemali also welcome vegan travellers passing through Mumbai to stop by their kitchen for a healthy vegan lunch. They just have to call ahead and a meal will be reserved for them.
Vegan Bites won an award from PETA! Photo courtesy of Vegan Bites.

Contact Vegan Bites via their Facebook page.

16 February 2015

On the bus in Bangalore

On the 201R going from Indiranagar to Jayanagar... Just after Ejipura signal, an auto-rickshaw driver knocks on the bus door and starts yelling at the driver. Apparently the bus had scratched his auto-rickshaw. A shouting match follows. The door closes and we continue on our way. The bus stops a little further away and the auto-driver is there again. More animated shouting. Door closes, we move on, stop again (heavy traffic). This time a different auto-driver is at the door shouting at the bus driver… looks like the first auto-driver has already mobilized his auto-driving buddies. Auto-driver #1 then shows up and now there are three people in the shouting match, with the bus conductor also joining in to make four. Another auto-rickshaw shows up and blocks the bus so we can’t move forward. The auto-drivers want the bus driver to get off the bus and come look at the damage on the auto-rickshaw. The commotion is now blocking traffic at Sony World signal so we move on.

The bus stops after the signal (traffic light for non-Indians) and a whole bunch of auto-rickshaws pull up too. The bus driver and conductor get off the bus to examine the auto-rickshaw. More shouting, more people. The auto-drivers’ beige uniforms now outnumber the bus driver and the conductor. Passers-by stop to see what all the shouting is about and a small crowd has formed. The back-and-forth shouting goes on for 10 minutes. The bus driver starts walking back to the bus at one point and things seem to suddenly heat up, with the shouting getting louder and body language becoming more aggressive, but he goes back to the auto-rickshaw. Meanwhile people on the bus are making impatient noises and some have got off to take another.

The small crowd then moves towards the rear of the bus to examine the body for evidence of the collision. More animated discussion. Finally the driver hands over a wad of cash to the auto-driver. He takes it, counts it, puts it in his pocket and all the angry faces suddenly dissolve. No more shouting. Everyone walks back very casually to their respective vehicles and we’re on our way again.

11 February 2015

Inside a heritage home in Basavanagudi

Recently I had the chance to step back into another time when I took part in a heritage walk exploring the old homes of Basavanagudi a neighbourhood in south Bangalore. We were a small group made up of long-time Bangaloreans and other more recent residents (and me, a former resident!), who were all eager to learn more about the cultural heritage of this neighbourhood and explore its wide tree-lined avenues, and especially its heritage homes.

Our guide for the tour was Mansoor Ali, an architect who grew up in the neighbourhood and who leads this walk for Unhurried, which organises several themed walking tours across the city. He told me that they usually visit about six homes on this walk, but despite his efforts we only had the chance to see a few because many of the homeowners were out.

The highlight of the walk was a 107-year-old house which had belonged to Nanjundiah Krishna Rau, a former Diwan (prime minister) of the Mysore Kingdom. 

Today his great grandson, Mr M. R. Narendra, an author, lives on the ground floor of the house, while the upper floor is the home of Mr Narendra’s nephew.

We admired the pillared porch which was where ‘informal guests’ used to be received, explained Mansoor, and the large garden and its many trees, including one which was surrounded by a porched enclosure. 

Stepping through Mr M. R. Narendra’s doorway was like taking a step back into another time.  He welcomed us warmly into his home and showed us around. Inside we saw many period features like a Madras terrace ceiling, a red oxide floor, colonial-style furniture, and a traditional swing. We even got a peek of a 1935 Standard automobile in the garage (sorry no photo!).

In my previous post, I wrote about Bangalore’s disappearing heritage homes. This trend to demolish old houses and replace them with apartment buildings has not spared any of the city’s neighbourhoods, including Basavanagudi.

Old and new in Basavanagudi

Gardens make way for parking lots 
A large garden is becoming a rarity in Bangalore, where people prefer to have as large a living space as possible, building huge buildings which leave little space between properties. “At 25,000 Rupees a square foot, gardens are considered a waste of space,” explained Mansoor.

I'm glad that Mr Narendra has preserved his old house and not fallen prey to the developers who are changing the face of the city. There are still a few glimpses of the old Bangalore and thanks to this unique walking tour, I had the chance to experience a little bit of it.