29 April 2009

Sleepy afternoons

This is my third summer in Bangalore and it’s by far the hottest. Summer had also come early this year. Temperatures had already reached the 30s in February and we still have a month to go before the monsoon arrives, bringing some respite to the heat. Temperatures have been topping 35 degrees every day. Sometimes it rains at night which brings some relief, but the heat comes back quickly. In North India, it’s far worse: Delhi reached a record temperature yesterday at 43.5 degrees while temperatures in Orissa have been as high as 47.

At the height of summer, daily life takes on a different rhythm. The day starts at dawn when the air is still cool. Indians are early risers; many are up by 5 or 6am when day is just breaking. This is when people like to take their morning walks, water the plants and do any household chores.

By 8 or 9 o’clock the heat starts to set in, peaking around midday. After lunch, many people like to take an afternoon nap. This is when I like to go to the shops if I need to pick anything up because they’re almost empty. The streets are also quieter at this time, with less traffic.

I often see auto-rickshaw drivers fast asleep in the back of their auto-rickshaws, strategically parked in a quiet shady street. White uniformed drivers also catch some sleep in their cars while they wait for their employers to summon them.

The street dogs spend most of their day curled up underneath cars, sleeping. The cats have also adopted this rhythm. They’re active in the early mornings. During the day they prefer to take shelter indoors or find a shady spot on the terrace and sleep until the evening when they like to roam outside until dawn.

After such a long, hot summer, the monsoon is eagerly awaited. In the meantime, we have another month of hot, sleepy afternoons.

20 April 2009

A Sunday morning at Lalbagh

I arrived just before 7am, an ungodly hour for a Sunday morning, or so I thought. While the city streets were largely empty, Lalbagh was teeming with early morning activity. A sea of motorcycles and scooters was parked at the gate and the footpaths were already crowded with walkers.

The Lalbagh Botanical Gardens provide a much-needed breathing space in an increasingly congested city like Bangalore. Gone are the days when children used to ride their bicycles and play carefree on the city’s streets. Walking on the traffic-choked roads can be dangerous, and not to mention a health-hazard because of rising pollution levels. Many lament the loss of green cover which has permanently transformed the ‘Garden City’. It is no surprise then that residents flock to parks like Lalbagh for some much-needed space, fresh air and greenery. On a Sunday morning, this calm green oasis becomes the city’s playground.

A group of tourists with cameras slung around their necks had assembled at the base of the Lalbagh rock, one of the park’s landmarks. With close to 2000 plant and animal species, Lalbagh’s diverse flora and fauna make it a favourite with photography enthusiasts. This is also the meeting ground for birdwatchers. Take a walk around the lake and you may come across herons, egrets, kingfishers, coppersmiths and even pelicans if you are lucky. These are only some of the close to 50 types of birds who are regular visitors.

The bandstand, another Lalbagh landmark, is a venue for classical concerts. On my way there, I come across a group of fitness enthusiasts who are busy stretching in preparation for their power walk. They ask me if they can see the photo I had just taken of their group. “Is this for the newspaper?” they excitedly ask. As I pass the famous glasshouse, the atmosphere becomes more contemplative. A man is sitting cross-legged on a bench, doing pranayama. Another stretches out across a stone table into a backbend. Just a few metres away is the bandstand, but there are no sounds of music today. As I get closer, I see three figures seated in vajrasana, palms on their thighs, in meditative silence.

Signs lead me towards Lalbagh lake. Along the footpath, almost each bench is occupied. A middle-age man reads the newspaper while a couple sitting opposite is having a deep discussion. I hear children laughing. Two young girls play badminton while their parents watch. On the lawn, two school-aged boys in shorts are playing cricket.

By the time I reach the lake, the heat has set in and the morning light has changed. The magic has dissipated. The speed walkers are making their last rounds and the dogs have all found shady spots for a long nap. I make my way back to the main gate. The sea of motorcycles is gone. The ticket collectors are there, ready to welcome visitors of a different kind. The early risers have called it a day.

Take a walk through the gardens by clicking on the slide show on the right side bar.

14 April 2009

India's 3rd gender

I remember the first time I met a hijra. It was during my first weeks in Bangalore. I had got off the bus and a woman walking in front of me caught my attention. It was the way she was walking: swinging her hips from side to side in an exaggerated way. No Indian woman walks like that! Her sari blouse was cut low, exposing most of her back. I caught her profile and realised that this was a hijra. She was passing a vendor selling grapes. She provocatively grabbed a few grapes from the big pile on the cart and popped them into her mouth without losing her stride. She paused to cross the road. This is when I caught up with her.

I could feel her studying me while we crossed the road. “Sai Baba?”, she asked me inquisitively. I understood that she was referring to the Sai Baba ashram further down the road and thought that maybe I was on my way there. I pointed to the apartment building on the other side of the road and told her I was on my way home. “Marriage?”, was her next question. I said “Yes, I’m married”, and then asked her if she was married. She burst out in a fit of giggles and said no. “Had your lunch?” Another common question. I said yes and asked her if she had already eaten. “No, now I’m going home to cook”. I had reached my building. “Bye!” she said with a big smile and wave of her hand before continuing on her way.

Since then I’ve come across hijras many, many times. They’re usually in groups, dressed in colourful saris and wearing too much make-up. I see them making rounds of the shops, going from one to the other, asking for money. Shopkeepers always give them something. I watch how others observe them with a mixture of amusement and fascination and even a little fear.

Hijras are a fascinating sub-culture who live at the margins of Indian society. They consider themselves to be neither man nor woman, but rather a ‘third gender’. Despite their marginal status they are revered because of the belief that they have the power to bless or curse. Shopkeepers give them money because they fear they will get cursed if they don’t. Hijras are also famous for showing up unannounced at weddings and birth celebrations. They will sing and dance and bless the household. Again, the family will give them a generous donation to avoid ‘bad luck’ or being embarrassed by their suggestive behaviour and threats.

Here’s a video I found on YouTube of a group of hijras who unexpectedly show up at a family home the day after a wedding:

10 April 2009

Mango time

It’s the height of summer. Schools are closed and the streets are filled with children playing cricket. Watermelon, sugar cane juice and tender coconut water is available on every street corner. The city falls asleep during the afternoon heat. The cats spend most of the day sleeping. Ceiling fans spin and air conditioners hum. Exceptionally there have been no power cuts for several weeks now. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s also election time.

Summer time also means mango time! I’ve been watching the mango tree next to our front entrance. It didn’t have any fruit last year but it did the year before. This year it’s full of fruit hanging heavily from its branches. Each day the mangoes seem to be bigger but they are not quite ripe yet… A few weeks more. My landlady complains that the mangoes disappear before they are barely ripe. Disappear? “Drivers and schoolboys,” she explains.

Mangoes have already appeared in the supermarket. But there are only very few varieties available. But soon, mangoes will be everywhere in all shapes, sizes and colours, filling the market stalls and supermarket shelves. Just a few weeks more…