30 November 2007

Winter is here!?

Warm winter sweaters for sale on Thippasandra Main Road.

“It’s official folks, winter is here,” announced yesterday’s paper. I read this while I was sitting in a sunny corner on the terrace in short sleeves and bare feet. I had to laugh. I had just spent three shivering cold weeks in Belgium and had brought back a miserable cold as a souvenir. The day was feeling especially summery to me. By my standards anyway. But having grown up in Canada, my standards are obviously not South Indian standards. Not when it comes to defining winter anyway. For me winter is snow, hats and scarves, hot chocolate, hot water bottles and wind-chill factors. If it really were winter, I wouldn’t be sitting out on the terrace in short sleeves.

I read on to learn that a minimum temperature of 12.7°C had been recorded in Bangalore this month (against a maximum of 25 to 29°C) – which was dangerously close to the record of 12.2°C recorded in November 1991. Reading on, there was worse news: temperatures are expected to dip further!

In order to try to help readers avoid the impending calamity of such low temperatures, some helpful advice was offered:

Avoid venturing out early mornings and late evenings.
Always cover your ears; keep yourself warm.
Consume freshly prepared food and boiled water.
Make it a habit to gargle twice a day.
Use medicated soap for better skin care.
Use lip balm, vaseline and moisturiser at frequent intervals.

During the day, it’s hot enough to get sunburned, but at night the temperature does take a dip of at least 10 degrees so it can feel a little ‘chilly’ at times. Of course India’s many entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity offered by the falling mercury to make a fast buck or two. Sidewalks are lined with vendors selling heavy jackets and sweaters, blankets, woollen hats and a head covering I’ve only seen in India: a strip of woven cloth which goes on the head and down the sides of the face over the ears and tied under the chin. A variation of earmuffs?

27 November 2007

Covered in gold

Coming across this ad for wedding jewellery, I remembered my friend Sai telling me how her mother-in-law had a fit when she left the house one day without her thaali, the traditional necklace worn by married women, also called mangalasutra. An Indian woman is expected to always wear this piece of jewellery which is a sign of her married status, much like a wedding ring in other countries. My friend explained that she only wears her thaali when she is outside the house because she is expected to, but at home she takes it off. She doesn’t feel she needs to show her devotion to her husband through a piece of jewellery which is frivolous compared to the bond that unites them (hers is a ‘love marriage’ in case you’re wondering). In a moment of distraction she left the house without it one day. Her mother-in-law was in tears, accusing her of not respecting her son.

For an Indian woman, jewellery is an important possession to have, not only as a fashion accessory but more importantly as a symbol of marital and also social status. The jewellery a new bride receives at her wedding (worth many hundreds of thousands of rupees) is also an investment which can be used as a type of ‘insurance’ if she ever finds herself in a difficult financial situation. Not surprisingly, India is the largest consumer of gold in the world.

Indian couples literally ‘tie the knot’ when the groom ties the mangalasutra around his bride’s neck during the wedding ceremony. You can also tell a woman is married by the tikka on her forehead or line of red sindoor in the part of her hair and toe rings (which are worn only by married women) on the second toes of both feet.

17 November 2007

Calcutta Coffee House

In the midst of popular and ever-growing coffee chains like Barista and Café Coffee Day, there are still some veritable Indian institutions which have stood the test of time. One of these is the Calcutta Coffee House. Located close to Calcutta University just off College Street and the bustle of its booksellers, this meeting place for students, writers and intellectuals has been around since 1942.

An unassuming sign above a doorway leads to a rickety staircase which climbs to another time and place filled with clouds of cigarette smoke, wooden colonial-style tables and chairs, ceiling fans suspended from ropes, waiters dressed in white uniforms and tall turbans, and walls of peeling paint.

Many of India’s great thinkers and artists have sat at these tables and sipped coffee while discussing art and politics under the gentle breeze of the ceiling fans. Some of the regulars included Nobel prize winners like writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore and economist Amartya Sen. This was also the hang-out of freedom-fighter Subhash Chandra Bose, filmaker Satyajit Ray, actor Aparna Sen and singer Manna Dey, amongst other famous Bengali personalities.

The simple décor doesn’t seem to have changed much since 1942. There has been resistance to plans to renovate and redecorate this historical café which has fortunately preserved its old-world atmosphere.

08 November 2007

Deepavali the festival of lights

Here I am sitting in Café Belga while all of India celebrates Deepavali (Divali in the North), the festival of lights. Deepavali is one of the most important Hindu holidays. Homes are decorated with flowers, lamps and kolams, fireworks are set off to celebrate the victory of good over evil, and gifts and sweets are distributed to family and friends. Hopefully I can witness the celebrations next year.

I'll be back in Bangalore in two weeks time so blogging will be a little slow in the meantime!