30 June 2007

Another monsoon update

Above: The skies over Bangalore.

Following my last update, most of India is now getting a good monsoon soaking. Here in Bangalore, apart from a few fallen trees due to strong winds, we've been spared most of the fury. For the past week the cloudy, menacing skies threatened rain, but we only got a light sprinkling here and there.

Other parts of India, however, have been devastated by the heavy rains. Last weekend there were floods and devastation in other parts of Karnataka and the state of Andhra Pradesh. A depression in the Bay of Bengal was to blame. The cover of Sunday's newspaper showed a bus submerged in flood waters with only the tops of trees visible. Strong winds uprooted trees and brought down power lines, disrupting electricity supply. Several roads were closed and trains cancelled or diverted.

Mumbai (Bombay) has been experiencing heavy rains for the past 24 hours, with several low-lying parts of the city experiencing flooding. The airport was temporarily closed today due to poor visibility. The downpour is expected to continue for the next two days in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Goa.

Next week I'm heading to Orissa for a few weeks. I checked the forecast and sure enough it's: rain, rain, rain...

25 June 2007

The sacred Tulsi plant

Above: The Tulsi plant is on the left.

Outside my study window I can see my landlady’s Tulsi plant. It’s planted in a special raised decorative pot made of terracotta with an OM painted on the side. A clay oil lamp rests on the top which is lit during pujas (ceremonial prayers or rituals). When the temple priest comes to the house to perform puja, he also says a special prayer to the Tulsi plant. Most Hindu homes have a Tulsi plant in their courtyard or garden. Sometimes a kolam is drawn in front of it. Tulsi is actually the basil plant, which is sacred to Hindus and associated with Lord Vishnu.

This plant also has many medicinal properties. I remember when I spent some time in a yoga ashram in Kerala there was a man who used to walk around with a basil leaf on his head. When I asked him why, he simply answered: “Medicine!” Tulsi is used in Ayurvedic treatments as a herbal remedy for many common ailments such as headaches, fever, colds, stomach upsets, and heart problems to name only a few. It’s purifying and antioxidant qualities can also help to reduce stress, enhance strength and stamina, and eliminate toxins. Tulsi is also believed to purify air and repel mosquitoes and other insects. Many good reasons to keep a basil plant in your home or garden!

Above photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There's even a special day called Utthana Dvadasi or Tulsi Vivaha when the Tulsi plant is worshipped. This is how it was described in the paper (Times of India):

Lord Vishnu, after a long war, killed demon Shankasura and went to sleep in his ocean of milk on Ashadha Sukla Ekadasi day. While the Protector was asleep, the world and humans were vulnerable to destruction by evil powers. On Kartika Sukla Dvadasi day, Vishnu woke up (Utthana means getting up) to perform His duty. It was on this day that the Lord married Tulsi (born by churning of the ocean of milk).

To celebrate the day, Hindu families keep a basil platform (vrindavan) on the right side of the house. The tulsi plant is watered and decorated with rangoli, haldi, kumkum, flowers and gooseberry branches. Lamps (jyothi) are lit around the vrindavan. An idol of Lord Krishna is traditionally kept near the plant and worshiped with flowers, milk and sweets like payasam made of beaten rice (avalakki), jaggery and coconut burfey. Prayers are offered for wealth, peace and prosperity and bhajans on Krishna and Tulsi are sung. Bursting of crackers is also common on this day. The belief is that by worshipping Krishna and Tulsi, the head of the family attains moksha (exemption from further transmigration) and is blessed with material and spiritual benefits.

21 June 2007

Sounds outside my window

I have no need for an alarm clock – the birds wake me up. They like to congregate in the tree outside my window and at 5am they start with what seems like a call and response type of game. A bird calls out something that sounds like: “a whoo whoo whoo WHOO!” And then, further away, another one responds. (Listen to the clip ‘birdsong at dawn’ under the menu ‘Listen to the sounds of India’ in the right sidebar.) This is a pleasant way to wake up. I hear the cooing of the birds in my dreams and drift back to sleep. Then a crow interjects with a loud and annoying: “caw caw caw!” and ruins the magic of birdsong at dawn. I wake up again. Chipmunks are also very active first thing in the morning. These are chipmunks with long tails, or squirrels with stripes down their backs. I can’t decide if they’re chipmunks or squirrels, maybe a bit of both. Whatever they are, they sound like birds because they make a squeaky chirping sound. By now I can’t get back to sleep.

Above: The tree outside my window.

The first ‘human’ sound of the morning is the sweeping noise of women sweeping the street with handle-less brooms made of long straw bristles. Some cars drive by. Then the sound of blaring music becoming increasingly louder and a mumble of words coming from a loudspeaker. This is the corporation garbage truck coming to take away the garbage. They stop just outside the house and a recording repeats something over and over again in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and English. I try to concentrate when the English recording starts up but all I can make out is: “Please do not throw garbage on the roads or pavement.” Yawn. Moan. Time to get up. I understand why India goes to bed early. It’s because India wakes up early.

While I drink my tea, the first pushcart vendors are making their rounds. I don’t understand what they’re calling out but I recognise each of their calls. The milkman on a bicycle with a plastic crate attached to the bike rack behind him filled with half-litres of milk in plastic bags. The boy who collects used newspaper. The potato and onion man. The vegetable man. The woman with a bag balanced on her head – I don’t know what she sells.

There will be more traffic noise coming from the main road by now. The sound of honking car horns as people rush to the office. The ‘put-put’ of auto-rickshaws and the ‘vroom’ of motorcycles. The voices and laughs of schoolchildren going to school. Bells ringing at the temple.

As morning fades into afternoon there’s the sounds of small children playing and women beating laundry. Noises come from the new house being built down the road: drills, hammers, electric saws. By late afternoon, the vendors are back again. The ice cream man ringing the bell of his bicycle. Walking vendors with pushcarts loaded down with carpets, or colourful plastic receptacles and containers of all shapes and sizes. The mango man. The vegetable man again. In the distance comes the call to prayer from the mosque. At dusk the birds recommence their call and response game.

In the evening, neighbours come home from the office and put their cars into reverse to park them, setting off musical tunes. This seems to be standard in Indian cars: I hear the same annoying tunes over and over again. Someone told me these are musical versions of songs from Bollywood hits. My neighbour’s car plays “twinkle, twinkle little star” when reversing.

Once night falls the cricket symphony begins. At 10pm, the neighbourhood watchman starts his shift, announcing his presence by blowing a whistle and banging a long stick on the ground as he makes his rounds. After midnight there’s the sound of planes taking off from the airport. A gecko makes a strange loud clicking sound on the terrace. Street dogs bark in the distance. The leaves in the big tree rustle in the wind. Sleep…

18 June 2007

Movie madness

Passing a cinema on Friday night, I saw a huge crowd waiting outside but thought nothing of it, as this is a common sight. The next morning I learned that what I witnessed was the opening of the very much-awaited Tamil film Sivaji – The Boss featuring Rajnikanth or ‘Rajni’, a former bus conductor who has become one of Tamil cinema’s biggest stars. I read in the paper that the opening was a scene of complete mayhem. The police was on hand to try to control the crowds who thronged cinemas across the city, causing traffic chaos. At Ajanta cinema the police even had to inflict a lathi charge’ (translation: to hit with big sticks) on cinemagoers who tried to enter the cinema hall as the crowd that attended the previous screening was trying to exit.

In India, movie stars are akin to gods and that’s the way fans treated their idol Rajnikanth. They poured milk on the film posters and garlanded them, lit camphor and broke coconuts. Apparently die-hard fans were even seen kissing the posters. Tickets sold out in advance and huge crowds formed at cinemas across the city to book tickets for the next available show. Ticket scalpers cashed in on all the excitement by re-selling tickets for five times their price.

Going to the cinema is extremely popular in India and the Indian film industry is the biggest in the world with over 800 films produced each year. A Bollywood (Hindi) or Kollywood (Tamil) film has to have the perfect recipe to be a success. Take a larger than life hero figure with a big moustache, add a few beautiful starlets, mix with a hint of melodrama, an energetic soundtrack, several outrageous song and dance sequences, and at least one big fight scene with acrobatic moves which put Bruce Lee to shame – and you have an instant recipe for success. A coherent storyline is optional. If the film is successful, then the soundtrack will also be a huge hit and long after the movie is off the screens it will live on in its songs played over and over again at restaurants, in shopping malls and on the bus.

It looks like Sivaji is already a big hit despite lukewarm reviews. You can watch the trailer here:

17 June 2007

Monsoon update

After a string of thunderstorms at the end of May and beginning of June, we’ve seen no rain for the past two weeks. On June 7th, the newspaper announced that the “stagnant monsoon may advance again” following a disruption by the cyclone in the Arabian Sea that hit Oman. On June 12th the prediction was that the monsoon may pick up again in three days. With still no rain, the humidity intensified and it seemed hotter and hotter with each passing day.

The past few evenings it really did look like the sky was going to open. On Friday night the wind picked up and dark clouds crossed the sky with occasional flashes of lightning. Yesterday the threatening clouds seem to appear and then disappear from nowhere and the evening was actually cool enough for long sleeves. This afternoon we had a sudden light sprinkling of rain which ended as soon as it started. It seems like the monsoon is playing hide and seek. The cooler temperatures are welcome though and children are taking advantage of the strong wind to play with their kites. Maybe it will rain tonight?

17 June: No rain
18 June: No rain
19 June: A few sprinkles
20 June: Light showers lasting about 15 minutes
21 June: Some light rain in the morning
22 June: It's been raining most of the day with varying intensity. The monsoon is definitely here!

Photo courtesy of www.cepolina.com

13 June 2007

Doing the laundry

Above photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the noises I often hear is the ‘thwack, thwack’ sound of women washing laundry on the rooftop opposite. They hit the soaked clothing against the pavement to force all the dirt and grime out - hence the ‘thwack’ sound. Some houses have a square piece of grooved stone on the floor of the courtyard which is used to scrub laundry against.

Dhobis are washer men who collect dirty laundry at your door, returning it the next day freshly washed and ironed. In many cities laundry is washed at the dhobi ghats which are like big open-air laundries.

The dhobi ghat in Mahalaxmi, Mumbai (Bombay). Courtesy of www.cepolina.com

A very common sight on every street is a pushcart with a man busy at work ironing huge piles of clothes with an old-fashioned charcoal iron. The top opens and is filled with hot, smoldering coals.

Though I’m a regular customer with the local ironing man, I use a washing machine to do the laundry. This isn’t always convenient because of the frequent power cuts, as I mentioned in a previous post. Also the strong dyes used in Indian clothes have led to several laundry mishaps. This post was inspired by my whites which came out of the machine yesterday tinged blue. This was just as the pinkish tone was starting to disappear after the last laundry disaster. I used to religiously separate colours from whites but more recently I’ve been throwing caution to the wind and washing everything in cold water – with obvious disastrous results. Any laundry tips are most welcome!

08 June 2007

Finding a suitable boy (or girl)

One day while waiting for the bus, I met Mary. She asked me where I was going and then the usual questions followed: “Where are you from?” “What are you doing in India?” “Do you like India?” “Do you like Indian food?” The cross-examination continued once we were on the bus: “Are you married?” – I knew that one was coming. And then: “Is it a love marriage or an arranged marriage?” This innocent question never fails to amuse me. I explained to Mary that marriages are not arranged where I come from, and that each person marries the person of his or her choice. She seemed surprised. I then turned the tables and asked her if she was married and if her marriage was arranged. She replied that she was now divorced but that her marriage had been arranged. I guessed she was Christian because of her name and the absence of a bindi on her forehead. She confirmed that she was, and so was her ex-husband. “But he did not act like a Christian and he was not a good man,” she confided. “Just girls, girls, girls…!” is precisely how she put it.

In Indian society, marriage is everything. Without a husband or wife and at least one child, you’re somehow incomplete and society has little place for you. The parents' duty is to have each of their children married well. Arranged marriages are the norm - 95% is the figure I come across everywhere. Arranged marriages are not only practiced by Hindus and Muslims, but also Christians, as Mary’s example shows.

A girl in dance class has lost a lot of weight. She told me that her parents are looking for a husband for her and that she wants to look more presentable for any potential candidates, hence the weight loss. I asked her how she felt about being married in this way. She said she has no problem with it, as long as she likes the guy. She wants a man who’s taller than her, whose family has a business background like her own family. She wants to work after marriage, so he has to be OK with that. And of course he has to be a Brahmin like her, and have a postgraduate qualification. Surely not too much to ask? Then once she finds someone she likes, and if he likes her, the next hurdle in the selection process is horoscope matching. An astrologer will examine the couple’s horoscopes to determine whether they are compatible. If they don’t match then there will be no wedding.

A popular way to find a prospective bride or bridegroom is through ads in the newspaper. Every Sunday, the matrimonial ads are full of potential life partners of literally every caste and creed. There are two sections: ‘bridegrooms wanted’ and ‘brides wanted’ arranged according to linguistic group: Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telegu, and Urdu. There’s also a ‘cosmopolitan’ category. An ad typically lists the person’s caste or sub-caste, skin tone (‘fair’, ‘very fair’, ‘wheatish’, ‘medium-colour’), profession and even salary. Interested parties are asked to send a CV, a recent picture, and their horoscope.

Here are some examples I’ve gleaned from last Sunday’s paper:

Alliance invited for a 28-year-old, convent-educated, BBM graduate, fair, good-looking girl from Bangalore of intercaste parents Kannada Bramin/Marati seeks software professional engineers from upper middle class well-settled groom with age gap of 1-5 years. Caste no bar.

Tamil Muslim UK settled Dr father seeks only MBBS MS MD Computer Engineers Groom working in UK or Dr working in India but willing to go UK for his UK Citizen Lawyer daughter 26/168 tall fair.

Alliance of professionally qualified Tamil Iyer Bachelors solicited for Tamil Iyer girl, 36/163, engineering graduate, Sr. software consultant. Widowers, divorcees please excuse.

Alliance only from open-minded progressive not too traditional but cultured well-educated unmarried Tamil Brahmins studying or working in US for 26/168 smart, very fair, pretty accomplished girl doing her PhD in economics in the US.

Alliance invited by affectionate cultured well-to-do Iyer family for son: 28/178 Vadama Athreya Anusham – handsome, clean habits, university topper master’s (Oxford) & MBA (top ten global b-school) global investment bank consulting firm. London top salary India posting possible looking for qualified (not necessarily professional), simple, homely girl, not working or at least not very career-oriented.

Of course, there are also many Indian match-making websites available on the Internet. Here’s one example here.

Watch this funny commercial:

05 June 2007

Holy cow

A cow lives on my street. She works for Gemini granite and marble. For most of the day she stands or lies outside the courtyard where all the slabs of granite and marble are kept. Her job is to pull a cart, once it’s loaded up with these stone slabs, around the corner to the workshop on the main road.

Her keeper takes good care of her. He brings her food in buckets. Mostly straw and some kind of grain. He also brings her water to drink. When it’s hot he sprinkles water on her and at night a small fire keeps the flies and mosquitoes away. He also changes her shoes from time to time.

I call her Belga because her horns are painted in the same colours as the Belgian flag.

Meet Belga: