26 April 2007

Meals ready

“Had your lunch?” is a common small-talk question in India. The next question to follow is: “Did you have rice?”

Rice is the staple food in South India – while in many parts of the North it’s wheat. South Indian food is also essentially vegetarian. I would love to show a menu from a South Indian restaurant to every person who has ever assaulted me with: “You're vegetarian?! What do you eat?!”, as if the only options available are carrot sticks or iceberg lettuce. I would gleefully show them all the delicious possibilities a herbivore has in South India. The selection would make their heads spin. Of course, rice dominates the menu: there’s tomato rice, lemon rice, curd rice, coconut rice as well as a variety of bhaths which are also rice-based: tomato bhath, bisebele bhath, vangi bhath… to name a few. Then there’s the typical South Indian snacks like idli, dosa, uttapam and vada which are made with a mixture of ground rice and lentils which is made into a batter and then fermented. These delicacies are usually only served at breakfast and in the late afternoons and evenings.

Lunch is the most important meal in South India and not surprisingly most of it consists of a lot of rich. This is eaten with a variety of vegetable dishes and condiments served in little bowls placed in a large tray-like dish or on a banana leaf. This assortment of dishes eaten together is often called thali in North India after the dish it’s served on. But ask for a thali in South India and all you’ll get is a blank look or maybe a stainless steel dish. A thali meal translated in South Indian food logic is simply ‘meals’. Signs outside restaurants all over South India tell you ‘Meals Ready’ (see pic above). One hungry lunchtime in Rameswaram when I was just dying for a dosa, a waiter apologetically informed me: “We only have meals.”

Though ‘meals’ is often the only thing on the menu at lunchtime, there are different kinds of ‘meals’. You can have ‘unlimited meals’, ‘limited meals’, or ‘mini meals’ depending on your hunger level. ‘Unlimited’ is the super-size version: a waiter will come by your table regularly with a large pot of rice and keep refilling your dish until you beg him to stop. A limited meal means a limited portion of rice for a moderate hunger level. A mini-meal is a modest collection of different rice and vegetable dishes without the mega portion of rice.

Perhaps following the same logic as ‘meals’, South Indian restaurants are called ‘hotels’ (though there are no beds), and dessert is actually considered an appetizer eaten at the beginning of the meal!

Bon appetit!

Visit a South Indian restaurant in Bangalore:

22 April 2007

New colours and sounds

For those who haven’t visited for the past week or so, you’ll notice that my blog has a new look and colour scheme. The site has only been on-line for a few weeks and as I learn more about templates and widgets, HTML, feeding and embedding, this blogging thing is becoming easier.

You’ll also notice that I’ve finally added audio clips under ‘Listen to the sounds of India’ in the right sidebar. You can listen to the song of the birds that wake me up each morning, children singing during a Carnatic music lesson in Chennai (Madras), temple priests chanting Sanskrit shlokas while pouring milk over a statue of Ganesh at the Brihadeeshwara temple in Tanjore (Thanjavur), the sounds of a crowd at a street demonstration in Madurai, and (one of my favourites) the sound of railway vendors walking up and down the platform and yelling out whatever it is they’re selling: kaapi (coffee), chaiya (tea), vada (a South Indian snack), recorded during a stop at Ramanathapuram station in Tamil Nadu during a train trip to Rameswaram.

Many thanks go to Gone India for making this blog its ‘link of the month.’

I hope you enjoy the website and please don’t be shy to leave a comment – it’s always nice to know who’s reading!

18 April 2007

Auto-driving yogi

The auto rickshaw, or ‘auto’ in local parlance, is a cheap and convenient way to get around Indian cities. Each city has its own system. In Bangalore this is pretty straightforward: you pay the fare on the metre. A minimum fare of 12 rupees covers the first two kilometres and then 6 rupees for each extra kilometre. Most drivers use their metres and don’t give you hassles for an extra fare. The auto-drivers in Chennai (Madras) however, have the worst reputation in all of South India… Here taking an auto is always a very annoying business: drivers invariably quote at least double the actual fare and it’s very hard work trying to get them to agree on something more reasonable. They always come up with some feeble excuse why you have to pay more: “Traffic is there, madam!” or “Petrol costly, madam!” or “One-way road, madam!” “U-turn, madam”… etc, etc.

One day after dance class I took an ‘auto’ from Kilpauk to the Sangeetha restaurant in Nungambakkam. I told the driver my destination and asked him the fare. Surprisingly the fare he quoted me was correct and I thought to myself: this is an honest man. But it wasn’t only his honesty that made me notice that this driver was not like the others. First of all, he spoke fluent English. Though few auto-drivers speak English, most have the basic auto-driver vocabulary of “right”, “left”, “straight”, “U-turn”, “signal” “opposite” and of course, “No change, madam!” I was also intrigued by this driver’s long hair and long beard which set him apart from the usual oiled hair and big moustache. As we drove through the midday traffic, I wondered if he could be a Sikh… he wasn’t wearing a turban but isn’t one of the tenets of Sikhism to not cut hair? I decided to ask him, this being India, and therefore no question being indiscreet.

He looked puzzled when I posed my question, so I explained that Indian men don’t usually wear their hair so long. He laughed and replied: “No, I’m a yogi.” He then explained that he teaches yoga asanas, meditation and pranayama but that he doesn’t believe in asking his students to pay for his teaching. So to make money to support his family, he drives an auto-rickshaw. I was surprised and further intrigued. Here was an educated man (as Indians would say – the fact that he spoke fluent English reveals this) doing a job which is seen to be one reserved for the lower classes. He could obviously make a living in a more ‘respectable’ and higher paid job. He could make a better and more respectable living by… well, by teaching yoga! But he chooses to teach for free and drive an auto-rickshaw instead to make ends meet. Well, why not… his job probably gives him the flexible schedule he needs to combine teaching with driving. Perhaps this is also a way for this yogi to practice ‘karma yoga’ – the path of selfless action – where the ego is given up to selfless service.

13 April 2007

Summer rain

Last night there was a fantastic thunderstorm with all the special effects – thunder, lightening, wind banging against the windows, and the climax – a power cut. Of course this happened in the middle of dinner, which became a dinner by candlelight. This was the first time it rained since I’ve been here. Everyone had been eagerly awaiting the summer showers to bring down temperatures a few degrees in the evening and water the parched mango trees.

Somehow we went straight from winter into summer, though ‘winter’ in South India is a misnomer for me: 25 degrees during the day and 15 at night cannot be ‘winter’, can it? I would smile when people asked me if I was “feeling the cold”, and all the woollen hats and scarves that came out at night would amuse me. So would the roadside vendors selling jackets, heavy sweaters and blankets. I thought the huge tree hovering over the terrace was dead. Its branches were completely empty, giving it a sad, forlorn look. But my landlady assured me that it would be in full bloom in two weeks time and that the terrace would be completely protected from the glaring sun by its shady canopy. “It’s winter, nah?” she reminded me. Sure enough only a few days later, buds appeared and leaves started to sprout and open, turning the terrace into a shady oasis.

For me summer started on the day I turned on the ceiling fan. Until then I was living a sweat-less existence in Bangalore with its warm and dry days and cool breezy nights. But so far the summer has been hotter and on some days more humid than usual. Everyone has been complaining about how hot it’s been and that “Bangalore has never been this hot.” But everything is relative of course. After spending last month in very hot and very humid Madras, summer here has been a lot more pleasant so far. At 1000 metres above sea level, the weather in Bangalore is usually cooler and much drier than coastal areas.

Schools are now closed for the summer holidays and the new school year will start again in June. Watermelon sellers are making a brisk business and everyone’s patiently watching the mango trees. Now it’s panic when the power goes off and the blades of the ceiling fan slow down and eventually stop rotating.

10 April 2007

Banyan tree

Above: The 'big banyan tree' in the grounds of the Theosophical Society, Madras.

To study a banyan tree
You not only must know
Its main stem in its own soil
But also trace the growth
Of its greatness in the further soil
For then you can know the true nature of its vitality

- Rabindranath Tagore

There are two banyan trees literally 'outside my window'. In between them stands a small shrine. The Banyan is sacred to Hindus and temples are often built where a Banyan stands. Its leaves are tear-drop shaped. It also has 'aerial' roots which drop down to the ground and become anchored in the soil. As a result, the tree expands and covers a very large area. Many places in India and other countries in Asia boast a 'big banyan tree' as a tourist attraction. The Banyan tree you see above is more than 450 years old and covers an area of over 4,500 square metres! No wonder then that it's believed to represent eternal life.

05 April 2007

Getting to the other side

Something as simple as crossing the road is a high-risk adventure activity in any Indian city. You look both ways and all you see is a sea of unending traffic. Yes, there are some pedestrian lights in the city centre which can be used at your own risk and zebra crossings dotted here and there but both are completely ignored by motorists. The only traffic rule seems to be “ME FIRST!” The car is king here and you better get out of the way! The rules governing right of way are that the biggest vehicle has priority.

Crossing the road is an acquired art. The approach is to take the challenge in calculated stages. You won’t be able to cross in one go. Once you notice a gap in approaching traffic, make your move. Do not attempt to cross in front of buses, trucks or SUVs: the drivers of these vehicles are ruthless. Motorcyclists are your friends: they will swerve to avoid you or even stop if they have to. They probably feel more vulnerable than other motorists.

Before crossing, have a quick glance in the other direction to assess the on-coming traffic. Beware of cyclists and other ‘two-wheelers’ driving the wrong way in the wrong lane. Beware also of vehicles trying to take shortcuts by crossing the median line and driving in the oncoming lane. Once you get to the median, wait there and pray to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to protect you until traffic eases up and you can safely cross to the other side. The sense of achievement is amazing.

A strategy for beginners is to stick to the side of a fellow pedestrian and follow his or her movements. There is strength in numbers. I witnessed this in Calcutta: while waiting to cross the road near the Maidan, traffic was just not letting up. A crowd started to form on the street corner, a mass of bodies surveying the traffic and waiting for an opportunity to cross. As we waited, the crowd just kept getting bigger and bigger. Eventually it took over and started to inch its way forward. Some brave souls held up their palms to the approaching traffic, appealing to motorists to slow down and eventually stop to let us cross safely to the other side. The effect was like Moses dividing the waters as the crowd surged forward asserting its right to space, it’s right to get to the other side.

Watch this clip!