30 June 2009

Online puja

I was the first to arrive at the post office. The employees were shuffling into the office with their metal tiffin boxes in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other. They milled around behind the counter, chatting, shifting packages and piles of mail. A man was busy combing his hair. Another was reading the paper. As usual they were completely oblivious to the first customer of the day and made no effort to acknowledge my presence.

At last a woman shuffled over to the counter and turned on her computer. Without looking at me, she lifted up her right hand, rounding her fingers and bringing her fingertips together in that Indian sign language which means: “Just 5 minutes.”

I watched as she busied herself in front of the computer. She closed her eyes. Her lips started to move. Is she praying to her computer? I wondered. Curious, I moved to the side of the counter and picked up a money order form. At the same time, I glanced toward her computer. I didn’t need to try to be so discreet, but I felt like I was an intruder in this morning ritual.

On the computer screen was an image of Ganesh, the elephant god. This devout post office employee was starting her workday by paying her respects to Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. With a click of her mouse, flowers started to shower down on Ganesh. With another click, she lit a virtual stick of incense, a trail of smoke drifted upwards. Another click set off a brass bell.

I was intrigued. I didn’t know there was an ‘online’ version of a puja. When I got home I looked up ‘online puja’ on the net and sure enough I found what I was looking for.

On this website you can choose your favourite deity and go through all the puja rituals. You can ring the brass bell, light incense, draw a ‘tilak’ on the god’s forehead, move the arati lamp around, and shower the god with flowers! There’s also the suitable sloka for the god in question displayed in Sanskrit as well as a description of the god.

If you’re stuck in the office and can’t make it to the temple, no problem. Just do an online puja to your favourite god and ask for his or her help to close that important deal!

20 June 2009

Do you speak Indlish?

This post was inspired by an email I received which I’m copying here:

Dear Madam,

This is with reference to our telephonic talks. I am awaiting the details of the programme as understood by me during conversation. Please do the needful and oblige.


Dr. CS

This is a true masterpiece of Indlish!

The English spoken in India has its own particular charm and flavour and is peppered with local colloquialisms and idioms, old-fashioned figures of speech, as well as some innovations of its own.

Some examples of expressions you'll only hear in India:

“I’m here only.”

“I’ll come today itself.”

“It got over at 12:00.”

“He came today morning.”

“I go to temple thrice a week.”

“I’m a localite.”

There’s a book on ‘Indlish’ written by an Indian journalist, Jyoti Sanyal. He explains that the English used in India has been shaped by its Victorian legacy. Expressions which were used by the officials of the East India Company are still in use, like “Please do the needful and oblige.” Newspapers are also full of old-fashioned expressions and phrases. Sanyal gives the example of a newspaper article about ‘miscreants’ who ‘waylaid’ and ‘relieved’ unsuspecting women of their gold chains. In a travel review, I once read: “The manager informed us that our bamboo cottage would be ready in a few minutes and offered us coolants.”

The English used in official documents is even worse. A good example comes from my rental contract: “Lessee – which term shall unless repugnant to the context mean and include …” Further on it continues: “And whereas the lessor is desirous of giving on lease…”

Indian English also has it’s own creative innovations:

‘Updatation’ is an update

‘Upgradation’ is an upgrade

‘Localite’ is a local

‘Prepone’ is the opposite of postpone

Communication can be confusing in a country where cakes are called pastries, a dress is clothing, people ask you to off the light and on the fan, backside is not your rear end but the rear of a building, and people don’t die, they expire (like a gym membership or credit card). People also shift and not move house. And just to make things more confusing for foreigners, a cover is a bag or envelope, vessels are not ships but dishes, a hotel is actually a restaurant and a parcel is not a package to be sent by post but a take-away.

Come to India, and you’re likely to be asked what your ‘good name’ is. Someone may tell you that their head is ‘paining’ or that they have ‘loose motions’ (diarrhea). Be sure to ‘click some snaps’ and don’t forget to let others know that you’ll be ‘out of station’. You’ll also see many signs for ‘suiting and shirting’ and ‘boarding and lodging’. You’ll also notice that the cost of a cup of tea is ‘very less’.

Then there are the differences in pronunciation which can make communication a challenge. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked by waiters at the end of a meal if I wanted to order a desert. Then there was the time I was looking for 4th Cross (the streets in Bangalore are classified by a myriad of ‘mains’ and ‘crosses’. “1st Cross is there Madam!” is the reply I got. “No, not 1st Cross, 4th Cross,” I repeated. “First or Fort? You are confusing me Madam!” The tendency to pronounce ‘th’ as a hard ‘t’ sound common in many Indian languages also transforms third into ‘turd’, thin into ‘tin’ and thanks into ‘tanks’. And if things were not confusing enough, in South India ‘years’ are ears, ‘yearrings’ are earrings, and USA is pronounced You Yes Yay.

Indians also have a deep love for acronyms. They’ll tell you about the VVIP who spent a week in ICU with high BP and a persistent UTI. Or they’ll complain that the OTG broke down but luckily they had an AMC. A student might say that after his MSC he wants to work for a BPO or MNC. And if you want to phone home, don’t worry, there are PCOs everywhere where you can make ISD and STD calls.

On restaurant menus, you’ll often find creative spellings. I found some brilliant examples as I was having lunch today in a small ‘hotel’. The ‘desert’ menu proposed a variety of ice cream flavours, including: veneela, chock light, butter swatch and block current!

Indian English can be a bit confusing (and at times amusing) for the outsider, but the colloquialisms, idioms, old-fashioned usages and innovations of the language are part of the charm of India and what makes India, well, India.

As Indians say: “We are like that only!”

13 June 2009

God's place

Above: A puja room (image: Wikimedia)

A friend was telling me recently how her cleaning lady is upset with her because she keeps her dirty dishes in the puja room beside the kitchen. This friend is not particularly religious and her place is small - hence the decision to maximise space and use the puja room as an extension of the kitchen sink! For her cleaning lady however, it’s disrespectful to keep dirty dishes in the most sacred room of the house.

Every Hindu home has a special puja room where religious idols are kept and the daily puja is performed. When we were looking for a place to live, I remember one landlord had pointed out the small room with a decorated door inset with brass bells and told us solemnly: “This is god’s place.”

A puja room is usually near or beside the kitchen. It could also be just a cupboard or simple shelf or a special cabinet. In our kitchen there is a cupboard without a door which I assume was meant to be used as a puja space. According to Vaastu, a puja room should be located in the north-east, north or east. Sure enough, our kitchen is on the north side of the house.

The puja is an important morning ritual: lamps and incense are lit, prayers are recited and the idols are offered fruits and flowers. In the mornings, I see men on bicycles delivering flower garlands to my neighbours’ letterboxes, especially for this purpose. For festivals like Dasara and Diwali, my landlady takes special care to decorate her puja room and always invites me to come and have a look.

Many foreigners living in India assume this small space is a closet and use it for storage. I even heard of a family innocently using it as a shoe closet. Their maid had told one of their neighbours, who felt it was her responsibility to tell the family that keeping shoes (considered impure) in a puja room was close to sacrilege!

08 June 2009

An ode to Bangalore's trees

Sitting under the ancient trees in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens

It was the poet Joyce Kilmer who in his famous poem ‘Trees’ wrote:

I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree…

If a tree is a poem, then a walk through Bangalore’s streets is sheer poetry. I have often mentioned how much I love the city’s big old trees which line the roads, providing shade and beautiful bursts of colour in every season. In my previous posts, I have described some of the city’s most familiar trees like the Banyan, Tabebuia, Canaga, Rain Tree and Gulmohar.

A Tabebia in full bloom.

An article in this morning’s paper featured some of the other trees familiar to Bangalore. I was interested to learn that many of these trees are not indigenous to India. The beautiful Jacaranda is a tree from Brazil, the Tabebuia hails from South America, the African tulip is West African and the Pink Cassia comes from Burma. Bangalore’s tree population is truly multicultural!

An African Tulip tree adds colour to the skyline. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The fragrant flowers of the Plumeria or Frangipani tree. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no wonder Bangalore is known as the garden city. But many people feel that with rapid urban development, this romantic nickname has become obsolete. Indeed, many trees have been chopped down to make way for new buildings, wider roads and the metro project. It was heartbreaking to see Racecourse Road stripped bare of it’s huge ancient trees so that it could be widened and the disappearing trees on a stretch of CMH Road where work on the metro is in progress.

Long-time residents talk nostalgically about the ‘old’ Bangalore of 20 years ago and mourn the loss of colonial-style bungalows and green cover. At the same time, many of the same people are also proud of the city’s development…

These trees are threatened by the metro project.

Instead of moaning about the past, people should take a moment to consider the present and take action for the future. Bangalore is still a pleasant garden city full of parks and tree-lined streets. There are people who prefer to take action rather than complain about a past which will not come back. In the past few months there have been a series of demonstrations and actions aiming to save trees by organisations like Hasiru Usiru (which means ‘green breath’ in Kannada).

A demonstration in progress (Image: The Hindu)

Trees for Free has initiated tree-planting campaigns. Would you like to have a tree in front of your house? Contact them and they'll come and plant a tree 'for free'.

Wouldn't a city without trees be like life without poetry?