23 December 2009

Christmas in India

My friends often ask me what Christmas is like in India, and whether it’s celebrated. Christmas Day is an official holiday here, and it is celebrated by India’s Christian community – which makes up about 2.4% of the population – so that comes to 24 million people, which is more than the population of some countries in Europe!

For the past few days, some shops and restaurants have been displaying Christmas decorations. There are trees and decorations for sale. There are also street vendors selling Santa caps on the city's roads! In India, the tradition is to hang a big, colourful lantern in the shape of a star outside your house. These look beautiful when they’re lit at night. So I can tell which of my neighbours are Christian by the star lanterns hanging in front of their doors.

Being away from home is of course always a bit difficult at Christmas time. Many of my foreign friends have already gone home for the holidays. Others take advantage of the Christmas Break to travel. Schools will close for almost two weeks and many people are looking forward to the long weekend.

The advantage of being in India is that you can almost forget it’s Christmas. First of all, of course there’s no snow, and the weather is too warm. Overall Christmas is very low-key, without the commercialism which is overdone in the West. I admit that I don’t miss that aspect.

For this Christmas break, I decided to visit a state I have never been to and know little about. Also, I don’t want to go too far north because of the cold! So I’m heading to Madhya Pradesh. I have done some research and have learned that there are lots of interesting places to see. I’ll write about my impressions once I get back. In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all my readers!

21 December 2009

Achala's pups

As I closed the gate and headed down the street I saw two schoolgirls crouching beside a car. Their attention was caught by something underneath it. It was a puppy! They were trying to get it to come to them. I thought it was theirs, but when they walked off I realized it was probably a lost, homeless puppy.

With the help of my landlord, I tried to catch it so I could put it inside the gate where it would be safe and I could give it some food. But this little puppy was too scared and only wanted to hide. That night I heard it crying. I phoned my vet to ask him what I could do. He suggested I call the animal shelter who would come pick him up. I phoned the shelter and explained the situation. They replied that they could only come the next morning and promised to get back to me. I went outside to see if I could try to catch the puppy again. It slipped under a stone slab in the gutter, out of reach. At least he’ll be safe there, I thought.

The animal shelter phoned me the next day, as promised. At 6am I got a call: “Puppy is there, Madam?” a voice boomed on the phone. I went outside to see if it was still there. I caught of peek of it sleeping soundly under the stone slab.

Later, the man from the animal shelter reached in and picked up the puppy by the skin of its neck. He was so small! All of a sudden, I felt a little sad: Will they treat him well? Will he find a good home?

If I had known Achala at the time, I would have contacted her. This young woman with a big heart has decided to do all she can for Bangalore’s street dogs. She helps lost and abandoned puppies by finding caring families to adopt and take care of them. Life on the streets isn’t easy for Bangalore’s street dogs. They aren’t often given the love and respect they deserve. Adoption is a way to keep these dogs safe and off the streets.

So far Achala has rescued and found homes for 55 puppies. She has created her own organisation called Let’s Live Together and regularly holds puppy adoption camps and awareness campaigns to sensitize the public about street dogs.

To find out more visit her website: http://letslivetogether.wordpress.com/

Photos courtesy of Achala Paani.

02 December 2009

Hanuman Jayanthi

I was woken up by the sound of chanting coming from the temple. It was 5am. Living close to a temple may be auspicious, but it can affect your sleep. The next morning I again had the privilege of waking up in this lucky way. And the next day too...

I knew what was up. The temple is a Hanuman temple and Hanuman Jayanthi was just around the corner. I knew this because of the colourful banner that had been hung up in front of the temple informing (or warning?) the neighbourhood that Hanuman’s special day was on the 30th of November.

Hanuman is the popular and much-loved monkey-god. In the Ramayana, Hanuman flies off (yes, a flying monkey!) to (Sri) Lanka to save Sita from the evil Ravana and return her to Lord Rama. As a result, Rama and Hanuman are great friends and Rama Navami (Rama’s birthday) is also celebrated with much pomp (and noise!) at Hanuman temples.

On the evening of the 30th, the road in front of the temple was crowded with people. The temple and surrounding buildings were decorated with colourful garlands of lights. I was passing the temple on my way home when I saw the priests carrying the idol out of the sanctum. They perched it on a throne under a canopy made of flowers. A tractor then slowly pulled the idol in a procession down the street. Traffic had been blocked. The ceremonial drummers were there as usual, leading the way with their frenetic drumming. The procession stopped and the drumming got even more frenetic. The vibrations were so strong I could feel them bouncing off me. A few men started to dance wildly. Crowds of people were standing on the sidelines watching the scene.

There’s a picture I wanted to take but I missed it, so I’ll describe it here. The priest had handed the arati plate to a woman who took it to a group of women standing on the sidewalk. The women rushed forward to pass their hands over the flames and then over their heads, receiving the god’s blessing. The light of the fire cast a glow on their faces as they crowded around it. I wanted to catch this image but it happened so fast and then it was over. But I have it in my memory.

12 November 2009

By the sea

I only recently discovered Karnataka's coastline and its tranquil, unspoilt beaches. This is a welcome change from some of the beach towns of Goa and Kerala which are becoming increasingly commercialized. I made a quick stop in Murudeshwar, a pilgrimage centre famous for its Shiva temple and tried to catch its atmosphere.

Taking an afternoon dip in the Arabian Sea.

Fishing boats.

A bangle seller.

Going out to sea.

The world's tallest Shiva statue!

Posing for a picture in front of the temple.

29 October 2009

To and FRO

FRO. These three letters are hated by every foreigner living in India. Everyone has to pay a visit to the Foreigners’ Registration Office at least twice a year and submit themselves to the bureaucracy of applying for and extending residence permits.

My attitude is if that you can’t beat them, you may as well join them, so I admit that I kind of enjoy the experience of going to the FRO because it’s an opportunity to witness the infamous Indian bureaucracy in action (or rather, slow motion).

The scene is Kafkaesque. There are no queues. There are no signs. There is no one to receive you. The high-ceilinged room hasn’t been repainted since the last century. Half the room is divided into a workspace where men in shirts and big moustaches sit behind desks lined up in rows. They are busy writing in big ledgers. There are files piled up everywhere and not a computer in sight.

Separated by a low counter with a window, is the other side of the room which is arranged into a waiting room. Facing the rows of men with moustaches writing in ledgers there are rows of chairs and lots of grumpy-looking foreigners sitting on them.

You never go to the FRO once. No, you must go to and fro because there is always a document missing. Or one more photocopy needed (there is no photocopier here either – you must leave the office, cross the road and make photocopies at a little stall which probably makes a killing photocopying foreigners’ passport pages). The photographs must be glued and not stapled (glue sticks are also available at the little stall across the street!). Even if you have all the documents with you, there is something else you need that no one told you about. And you must wait. This is part of the process. It takes time to copy out all your details into the big ledger and file all the duplicates you’ve given them. I don’t know what they do with the six photographs.

Just to make things more complicated you must first apply for a three-month extension and then a nine-month extension. Every year. This ensures that you pay the FRO a visit at least twice a year. And even though they already have your documents and duplicates stored away somewhere in those great big piles of files, you have to re-submit all of them again. And don’t forget the fee. In US dollars, please! The rupee has no currency here.

Even though visits to the FRO are tests in patience and photocopying skills, foreigners cannot complain about India’s immigration system (if I can call it that?) which is quite simple and straightforward compared to other countries. There are no interviews, medical tests or fingerprinting required. The next time you are dreading a visit to the FRO, have a look at all the forms and documents an Indian citizen needs to provide just for a Tourist Visa to Europe. Be glad India hasn’t (yet?) imposed all kinds of restrictive measures that our own countries have to keep foreigners away. I’d rather be part of the Kafka novel.

(Photo courtesy of Sean Ellis)

27 October 2009

Kannada Konfusion

After doing an introductory class in spoken Kannada a few months ago, I decided I needed a refresher course. I found out there’s a retired man who teaches Kannada in my neighbourhood for free.

The classes take place in his garage which he has converted into a classroom. There is a white marker board and two rows of plastic chairs. A squeaky fan turns overhead.

The first class started after Diwali. There were six men and six women. I am the only foreigner. The others come from other parts of India. Some have been in Bangalore for over twenty years and are embarrassed to admit that they don’t speak Kannada. Only 55% of Bangalore’s cosmopolitan population is Kannada-speaking. Kannadigas have a flair for speaking other Indian languages, so since other languages like Tamil and Hindi are so widely spoken here, many ‘outsiders’ never learn the local language.

Mr Bhushan is in his 70s and is a product of his generation. On the first day he asked the ladies to sit in the first row and the ‘gents’ behind in the second row. At the next class, all the ladies had shown up but not the men. Mr Bhushan told us that he had observed that ladies tend to be naturally more curious than men. Hence their interest in languages. “Gents have other things on their mind. Like their work,” he concluded. Accordingly he has adapted the course content for us curious but diligent ladies. We are learning how to buy vegetables and saris in Kannada and how to speak to our ‘maidservants’.

Mr Bhushan’s English, liberally peppered with Indianisms, also reflects his generation. Perhaps not used to a ‘foreign accent’, he also has a hard time understanding me. My classmates always have to repeat my questions in a more 'Indian' way for him to understand!

His teaching method is simple. According to the topic, he asks us to write down sentences in English. He then writes down the Kannada equivalent on the whiteboard. Since the focus is on spoken Kannada, he uses the Latin alphabet and not the elegant swirls of the Kannada alphabet which would take me months to decipher.

Mr Bhushan teaches us ‘proper’ Kannada. Though many English words have snuck into the colloquial language, he insists on teaching us the proper vocabulary. So we have learnt that market is ‘marukatte’ and airport is ‘vimana nildana’. Also he wants us to say ‘yeke’ for why, instead of ‘yake’, which is more commonly used. “Yake is a low-class word,” he explains, “you should use yeke. This is a high-class word.”

We are also learning to use the polite form when addressing others. But when the topic turned to ‘communicating with the maidservant’, the hierarchy of language (and Indian society) again became apparent. “Now we will have a discussion between a housewife and her maidservant,” he announced. "Now we will use the impolite form. Also, ‘dayavitu’ (please) is not necessary here.” And so we learned some useful expressions for communicating with a maidservant, which started like this:

“You are always late.”

Followed by:

“Come early tomorrow. I want to go out.”

“First sweep and swab the house.”

“Wash the vessels properly.”

“Take 10kg wheat and get it powdered.”

I try out my Kannada with my ‘maidservant’ (but contrary to what my teacher has taught me, I don’t use the ‘impolite form’ with her). It’s also useful with shopkeepers and auto-rickshaw drivers who sometimes address me in Hindi, thinking I might be a North Indian. When I answer: “Hindi gotilla” (I don’t know Hindi), “You speak Kannada?!” is their surprised response. They then happily babble away to me in Kannada… I hope that one day I’ll be able to understand what they’re saying to me!

17 October 2009

How does your coffee grow?

Above: coffee berries

A few weeks ago I spent a few days in the area around Chikmagalur in Karnataka, which is one of the major coffee-growing regions in India. 73% of India’s coffee is grown in Karnataka.

While tea is popular in North India, South Indians love their filter coffee. I have never liked the taste of coffee. But after trying South Indian coffee I quickly became hooked. It has a milder and less bitter taste. It is always served Indian-style, with lots of sugar and milk!

The fresh air, rolling hills and fields painted bright green by the monsoon were a nice break from the city. I stayed on a coffee plantation owned by Ajoy whose family has been in the coffee-growing business for over 100 years. It was the tail end of the monsoon and it poured rain almost non-stop for the three days I was there. This was exceptional for this time of year and Ajoy was concerned about his crop. If the rain persisted, his crop would be ruined.

Above: the coffee plantation

One morning the rain let up and Ajoy showed us around his 275-acre estate and explained the coffee production process. The plantation grows a mix of Arabica and Robusta coffee bushes. The more valuable Arabica is a more delicate plant which needs sprays and fertilizers and thrives in high elevations. The Robusta, like its name, is hardier and grows well in low elevations. This variety is used mainly for instant coffees.

Most of the coffee berries were still green and would eventually ripen, turning a bright red in the next few weeks before being harvested in November. Coffee plants need some sunlight but not too much otherwise the productivity of the plant would be affected. A variety of trees are grown around the coffee plants to provide shade, but branches are regularly trimmed so that the plants get some needed sunlight. The bushes are also trimmed to keep them at an ideal height for harvesting. A mature bush can yield 8 to 10 kilograms of coffee beans.

After harvesting, the skin of the red coffee berries is removed. The beans are then washed before being spread out on coir mats and left out in the sun to dry for about 7 days. The beans are then sorted using a sieve according to size and quality. The leftover ‘bits, cuts and blacks’ are used for instant coffee. The coffee is roasted only after export.

Coffee is the second most highly-traded commodity in the world market. So coffee-growing must be a highly lucrative business? It certainly can be, explains Ajoy, but it is also volatile. Last year he lost 70% of his crop because of excessive rain. Also, running a coffee plantation is becoming increasingly difficult. His main problem is finding labour. He needs at least 300 workers to harvest the coffee. His workforce has traditionally been made up of farmers who migrate to the region during the coffee harvest, but labour is no longer easily available. With socio-economic changes, people are moving to cities and towns and do not want to stay in rural areas. Ajoy is the fourth generation of coffee-growers in his family but he is not sure whether his sons will take over the family business in the future.

When the crop is good, he manages to sell all of it. Nestle and Coca Cola are regular buyers. He also has regular visits from representatives of international coffee companies who come to taste his coffee and buy up some of his crop.

With the proliferation of popular cafés like Barista and Café Coffee Day and the growth of ‘coffee culture’ in India, coffee consumption has been steadily rising by 8-10% a year. 60% of the coffee produced in India is consumed at home, while the rest is exported. But if demand continues to rise at current levels, it will exceed production in 4 years. Does this mean that India will cease to be coffee exporter? Or will it have to import coffee to meet demand? Only time will tell...

16 October 2009

Happy Diwali

Look outside my window and you'll see Diwali lamps.

Diwali lamps for the festival of light.

Wishing you a Happy Diwali full of light, peace, joy, prosperity!

30 September 2009

African tulip

Each season has its tree.

It’s the end of the monsoon and the tree of the season is the African Tulip. The sight of this tree in bloom is spectacular. It’s quite high and the bright orange flowers make it look as if the top of the tree is on fire. This adds colour to the city scape.

The flowers are quite big and bell-shaped. They fall down from the trees and carpet the roads.

Once while I was walking to dance class I came across a street sweeper who had collected a bunch of these flowers which had fallen on the road. He was busy arranging the flowers in circles around the trunk of a tree. I didn’t have my camera so I couldn’t take a picture – but I’m sure you can imagine it.

Not surprisingly, the African Tulip tree is native to Africa. It is also known as Flame of the Forest or Fountain tree, and – less romantically – by its botanical name: Spathodea campanulata.

It blooms twice a year. The flowers will be back again in the spring.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

25 September 2009

Durga puja

All of India is in the midst of the most important festival season. In Bangalore schools are closed for the ten days of Dasara and the streets and markets are busy with shoppers. With Diwali only two weeks away, I have a feeling this will extend into a non-stop month-long party.

In North India, this festival is celebrated as Navaratri which runs for nine days, while in Bengal it is Durga Puja, the most important festival for Bengalis. Artisans work for months to sculpt and paint life-size statues of the goddess Durga. Each family or community buys an idol to worship during the festival before immersing it in a river or lake.

There is an intriguing collection of images of artisans in Calcutta working on the idols here. If you liked that, you can see more here.

21 September 2009

Eid Mubarak

Today's Times of India featured this beautiful ad wishing readers a Happy Eid.

Eid Mubarak!

15 September 2009

Horn OK Please

Photo: Top Drawer

One thing that always strikes me when I come back to India after having spent some time away is the noise. Europe was eerily quiet… especially on Sundays.

The traffic noise I hear outside my window is a symphony of honks, horns and the general hullabaloo of Indian street life. ‘Horn OK Please’ is the mantra of Indian roads. This is painted on the back of trucks, inducing other motorists to make as much noise as possible. In South India, it’s ‘Please Sound Horn’ or ‘Sound OK Horn’.

Photo: Peter Rivera

Each of the different vehicles on the road plays its own part in this intricate symphony of traffic noise. The auto rickshaws provide a constant drone to the soundtrack of the city’s roads with the sputtering of their four-stroke engines. In contrast, motorcycles purr merrily along before screeching to a sudden halt. Scooters contribute an annoying, loud beeping sound when turning corners. The honk of the city buses sounds like a deep baritone, while trucks’ horns have a booming, authoritative blare. The ring-ring of bells on bicycles is more like music to the ears. Included in this cacophonous medley are the musical tunes which are set off when a car is in reverse. This must be an Indian invention. I’ve only seen (or heard, rather) this in India. I understand the concept of alerting others that you are about to reverse but these jingles are more than irritating. I do not appreciate hearing ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ after midnight as a neighbour reverses into a parking spot. Another neighbour has ‘Jaya ho’ from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack set as his ‘reversal tune’.

Photo: Lazzari

It’s been a long time that I put up a new sound on this blog so this evening I went out to the main road with my recorder and recorded the city’s traffic symphony. Listen to this by clicking here or on ‘traffic noise’ under ‘Listen to the sounds of India’ in the right side bar. Sit back and turn the volume WAY UP!

03 August 2009

Taking a break

To all my lovely readers: I'm taking a break from looking outside my window and will be back in September!

31 July 2009

Varamahalakshmi's blessings

Today is Varamahalakshmi’s day. On this day, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity grants boons (vara) to anyone who worships her. Everyone wants wealth, prosperity and a few boons, so this is a popular puja day in South India.

The market was busier than usual this morning. People were busy buying things they need for the puja like betel leaves, fruits, coconuts, and flower garlands.

The puja is performed by married women who pray for the welfare of their families. Traditionally, women fast on this day until the puja is over. I was invited to an acquaintance’s house for the puja. It was more of a social than religious affair, with ladies sitting around chatting and eating snacks. There was a beautiful colourful kolam in front of the front door. An image of Lakshmi was in the kitchen decorated with flowers garlands.

I also went to see what my landlady was up to because I know she celebrates every puja day without fail. She showed me her puja room where Lakshmi was garlanded with flowers. There was a little tray with a pot filled with water and rice, some sandalwood paste, vermilion powder and a small mirror. It also happens to be her birthday – she’s happy to share this special day with Lakshmi.

For more information on how this puja is performed, look here.

24 July 2009

On the rooftops

Raji’s balcony looks out over the roof of the building next door. This building is a simple South Indian restaurant where I often go for breakfast or an evening meal. In the early mornings and late afternoons, I see people sleeping on this roof. I recognise them. They work in the restaurant. They’re the waiters and young boys who clear the tables. I can’t help but be fascinated by this. Why do they sleep on the roof? It is cooler to sleep outside but the sheets of corrugated iron that make up the roof can’t be a comfortable bed. Also, there is a lot of traffic noise and pollution, with a flyover running just metres away. But I am often surprised at some people’s capacity in India to sleep just anywhere. I often come across people fast asleep by the side of the road. Sometimes I pause to see if they’re breathing but I seem to be the only person who notices these destitute people.

I imagine these young boys sleep on the roof because they have no other place to sleep. Maybe they have come from other towns and villages in Tamil Nadu to Chennai to look for work. Maybe they had a friend from the same village working in the restaurant who helped them get a job there.

They start work early, once the restaurant opens at 6am. Maybe some of them work in the kitchen, helping to prepare the idli batter or coconut chutney. Some work as waiters. They serve me a stainless steel tumbler of water and bring me the menu. They switch on the ceiling fan over my table. They often don’t understand me when I order a dish because my accent is unfamiliar to them, even though I’m only saying ‘rava idli’ or ‘masala dosa’. When I’m finished eating, one of the younger boys in shorts and bare feet will come along with a plastic basin and collect the dirty metal dishes, dropping them in the basin with a clang. They observe me with as much curiosity as I observe them.

They must make very little money. Not enough to rent a room or even a bed. Maybe they send home the little money they make. They have their meals once the customers are gone. In the afternoons when the restaurant is quiet, they have some time off. They go back up to the roof and have a nap, have a smoke or just watch the world go by. Until it’s time to go back to work.

22 July 2009

Smashing pumpkins

I didn’t know that I had arrived in Chennai on an auspicious day: the first Friday of the Tamil month of Adi.

When I arrived at Raji’s apartment, the kolam drawn on the floor in front of her door was bigger and more intricate than usual. This was a sign that it was a special day.

I had arrived just in time for lunch. She told me we would have a special meal because it was the first Friday of Adi. She had made some coconut milk payasam (like a sweet pudding) which is prepared on each Friday of Adi.

Raji explained that Aadi is an important time, but it’s considered an inauspicious month for weddings and other ceremonies like housewarming pujas.

The newspaper had a special shopping supplement. I’m not sure what the significance of shopping is during the month of Adi, but I guess any excuse for shopping is a good one.

When I stepped out yesterday morning, I saw shopkeepers breaking huge green pumpkins in front of their shops. The tops were cut open and filled with red kumkum powder. A candle was then stuck in the opening and lit, before the pumpkin was smashed on the ground. For the rest of the day, I came across the red-coloured fleshy remains of these pumpkins on the sidewalks. Later when I quizzed Raji she told me that it was a new moon day, Adi Amavasi. On this day, ancestors are remembered. The broken pumpkins are to ward off the evil eye.

Today happened to be the solar eclipse. It took place early in the morning and I slept right through it, waking up to a sunny and very hot day.

Adi is also a month when the goddess Amman is worshipped. I read that she cures heat-related diseases like pox and rashes. If I pray to her, will she cure my heat rash? I left my prickly-heat powder in Bangalore!

08 July 2009

Sacred snakes

Above: A stone statue of the snake goddess at the base of a tree in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens

At the local fruit and vegetable market I often see a woman walking around with a small basket in her hands. She once approached me and opened the lid of her basket. There was a snake inside! I don’t know if she was expecting me to give her some money for her snake, but after she saw my look of horror, she quickly realized there was little chance of that. The fruit vendors had a good laugh watching my reaction.

Many animals are worshipped as gods in Hinduism. There’s Ganesh the elephant and Hanuman the monkey. The snake is also worshipped as Nagaraja: the king of snakes. Killing a snake is considered inauspicious and it’s believed that this can bring bad luck which will follow you in all your successive lives.

Above: A shrine to the snake god on a Chennai street.

I sometimes come across small shrines and stone images of snakes, often at the base of a tree. This is considered to be the entry to the underworld and a resting place for snakes, believed to be the guardians of the underworld. Trees and snakes are also symbols of fertility.

Above: A roadside shrine on a Bangalore street I pass often

Many temples in South India have a shrine to the snake goddess Nakamal, the snake virgin. There are also temples dedicated to snake worship. Snakes are offered milk to appease them and to cure infertility. Snakes even have their own festival day, called Nagapanchami.

For more about snake gods and temples, see this link.