26 December 2010

An Indian Christmas

Since Raji has family visiting, I had to find another place to stay while I’m in Chennai. So I’m staying as a paying guest with M, a widow who is originally from Kerala. She is also a very devout Christian. There are many pictures of Jesus in her small living room, one of which is permanently lit up with a red lamp.

She was happy to find out that I was brought up Catholic. Every morning she asks me if I want to go to church with her and I always have an excuse ready: a concert here, a lecture-demonstration there. She was also happy that she would not be alone at Christmas and I was glad to keep her company. So when she asked me if I’d go to midnight mass with her, I readily agreed.

This was the first time I would be attending church in India. I had expected a typically sombre and solemn mass but it turned out to be a very different experience, something between a fun fair and a karaoke party!

We arrived slightly before 11pm. The atmosphere was festive, with loudspeakers blasting loud, screechy music. Off to the right side of the church, a manger scene was set up and next to that, a Christmas tree. This neighbourhood church happens to be the picturesque 16th century Luz Church built by the Portuguese in 1516, one of the landmarks of Mylapore. It was decorated with garlands of colourful lights and large lamps in the shape of stars. I was surprised to see the altar set up in front of the entrance with many rows of plastic chairs lined up in the small square in front of the church. Since the church occupies a small, intimate space, this alternative arrangement was meant to accommodate the many believers who were expected to come for Christmas mass.

We sat close to the front. Very quickly the rows filled up as families arrived with their kids in tow. The women wore brightly-coloured silk saris and the children were sporting earmuffs (the papers had reported that the spell of ‘cold weather’ was going to continue, with temperatures dropping to an alarming 26 degrees Celsius, two degrees below average!)

Sometime before midnight, a man stepped up to the mike and made an announcement in Tamil. That’s when it dawned on me that the mass would be in Tamil. I was in for a long night! Meanwhile, off to the left side of the church a group of children was assembling around microphones. They launched into a loud rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful, accompanied by a synthesizer and drum machine. Christian or not, the whole neighbourhood was going to be subjected to some Christmas cheer. This was followed by Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree: not exactly a Christmas carol I pondered, but a Christmas song nonetheless which seemed to keep up the festive atmosphere. Next came many fast-paced songs in Tamil that sounded more like film songs than carols or hymns. I have no idea whether these were Christmas songs or just popular tunes meant to keep the party going.

After the kids had sung their lungs out, things settled down a bit as mass began. Shortly after, at the stroke of midnight, the church bells rang (just as the neighbours had fallen back asleep?) as the priest carried a plaster statue of baby Jesus over to the manger scene and laid him in his makeshift crib.

Part of the mass was sung by the priest. He then launched into a long sermon – in Tamil of course. Judging by the laughter coming from the congregation, I was clearly missing out on all the jokes. The rest of the mass was more familiar with the usual sitting, standing, kneeling and genuflecting. When it came time to say “Peace be with you”, people put their hands together in a polite namasté and nodded to their neighbours instead of offering a handshake. It took some time to distribute communion to the large crowd. It was 2am by the time the mass ended. It concluded with one last number from the child choir: Happy Birthday! The whole crowd joined in to sing Happy Birthday to Jesus. Then a huge cake was carried outside, cut and distributed. Such a conclusion to Christmas mass was unusual for me, but I finally understood the party atmosphere: it was a birthday party after all!

23 December 2010

The smell of India

“It stinks of India!” This is what the mother of a friend of mine exclaimed when she opened her suitcase during a trip home.

A friend had once asked me to bring her a sari. When I gave it to her, she buried her face in it, inhaled deeply and sighed: “Ah, the smell of India!”

What is the smell of India? Does it have a particular smell? I think that most places and even cities do have their own smell. A friend who had lived in Paris as a young child told me that when she returned as an adult, the smells of the city (especially of the metro!) brought back many childhood memories.

In this blog I try to share some of the colours, sights and sounds of India. I wish I could share its smells too! So what I’ll do is try to attempt to describe some of the smells of India… The ‘smell of India’ is hard to define, but there definitely are smells that I associate with India. For me, these are mostly sweet smells but there are some stinky ones as well. I inhale deeply and tell you what I smell…

The smell of clothes. The vegetable dyes used in clothes have a strong earthy smell. I think that’s what my friend meant when she buried her nose into the sari.

The smell of jasmine flowers. This is definitely an India smell. Jasmine flowers are sold everywhere on the roadside and outside temples. Women often wear strings of jasmine flowers in their hair. This is a sweet, intoxicating smell.

The sharp stink of sewage which comes from open drains. This is one of the stinky ones!

Another quintessential India smell is the smell of incense. Used during pujas, this is a smell at temples and in shops in the mornings when the morning puja is done.

The smell of overripe guava fruit sold by the roadside fruit vendors.

The sweet smell of the flowers of the Canaga tree which are in bloom right now.

Another India smell for me is the disinfectant used to clean bathrooms. It comes in brightly-coloured bottles and has a strong, chemical smell.

Of course there are the food smells too, like the smell of frying curry leaves and mustard seeds.

The smell of diesel used in generators switched on during power cuts.

The smell of Medimix soap.

The smell of India is a mix of all of the above!

12 December 2010

Pay up or shut up

Since December 9th was anti-corruption day, this was a much talked-about topic in the papers over the past few days. Yesterday a rally was held in Bangalore against corruption, dubbed ‘Saaku' (Enough). According to a recent survey by Transparency International, India is the 9th most corrupt country in the world and 54% of Indians paid a bribe in the past year.

Indeed it seems like paying a bribe is almost inevitable if a person wants to get any type of official document like a marriage certificate, driver’s licence or passport. Avoiding high traffic fines by slipping a bill to the traffic police is considered to be normal practice. From opening a bank account to securing a place in a good school, or even a seat on the bus (see below), or basic essentials like access to water and electricity, people are often given no choice but to pay up.

A website called ‘I Paid A Bribe’ has been getting a lot of media attention lately. It’s a public forum where people can air out their grievances by posting their experiences with corrupt clerks and officials who have demanded bribes. I have included some of the situations ordinary citizens encounter on an everyday basis below:

Paying a bribe to open a bank account:

Post marriage I had to re-locate to Delhi… and because I did not have any document to establish my proof of residence as a local I wasn't being able to open an a/c in any bank... until one of the Officers at SBI Bank suggested I pay him Rs.1500/- and he would get a letter from the local MLA stating that I have been residing in Delhi since a long time. I did precisely that... and was able to open an a/c in the bank with 1 day only!

To obtain a marriage certificate:

I went to the sub registrar office along with my wife to get our Marriage certificate. The concerned officer gave me the details of the documents - He briefed regarding documents. When asked for the fees as per him 120 rupees for the document charges and 1000 rupees as misc charges.

We were startled at that time because there were 10 pairs along with us. Even if I take 20ppl comes daily for marriage certificate..... the officer will be easily grabbing 20,000 rupees per day.... That means 6lakhs a MONTH!!!!!!!!!! I needed the certificate badly so I did not had any option other than to pay...

To get a seat on the bus:

Lady conductor of volvo bus (KSRTC) took 100/- extra for providing seat. I was in urgency so didn’t find other way...other than paying her. Don’t know how much she is earning per day like that..

To register a property:

I had my Registration Check ready since June 2010. Had told my builder that I will not be paying a bribe to get MY HOUSE registered. The Builder told me that the registration will not happen without a bribe. Attempted it, but they just refuse to talk to you. And not being a local is another problem. The guys treat you as if you are from a different planet.

After waiting for around 6 months, I gave into the demands. I paid INR 13000 as a bribe. I asked the builder to see if it can be reduced. He said that they have negotiated this price. The Registrar's Office charges around INR 20000 otherwise. This is a definite nexus between the Builder and the Registrar's Office.

To obtain a birth certificate:

Birth certificate... it’s very difficult to get when you are not famous in your town or someone who doesn’t know any one in municipality office... The officer openly asked me bribe for certificate 2000 Rs.

To get a passport:

I think I should start from the time when I got this new job which offered me an opportunity to travel to Netherlands. What I learned from fellow colleagues was that I need to grease the officials at every step, especially in UP, where I was planning to get a doc stamped.

I thought if my documents (birth Certificate among others) to be stamped are genuine and if I am in no apparent hurry, why would anyone ask for a bribe. I was wrong.

There is only one babu in that office who deals with such applications. He asked me to write an application to the registrar to stamp my birth certificate. Within 10 min I was back to his desk along with the application. He started off with saying why it is not written in Hindi language, and that he'll accept applications only in Hindi. I did that in another 10 mins. He looked at it and asked me to put it on his desk as he was going for chai-pani break. I waited for him for almost 45 mins before he came. He then looked at the application and said , Aahh! It should've been a typed application and not simply written by Pen. I then rushed to the typist and got it printed. He looked at it again and said: Don’t you know all such applications are typed on the stamped paper? I was losing patience now. I asked him why didn’t he tell me that earlier? For the reply he said, you guys should also have a taste of hard work. I complied and got him the application on a stamp paper. By that time it was already 5 and he was about to leave, so he asked me to put it on his desk.

Next day when I reached his office, he was out somewhere, and when he came back , I learned that he hasn’t yet added the application to his daily tasks file. I requested him to add it now. He started yelling at me saying, you guys have no patience and that things take time and are never done so quickly. He then engrossed himself with work. He did ask me to take 3 photocopies of the application though, which I promptly did. He then called a peon and asked when is the mail leaving. Peon said: It had left already for the day and can now go the next day only. So the 2nd day went in vain.

The third day I reached his office before 10AM and was waited for him to arrive. When he arrived and saw me, he was ******* off and asked me to leave. I didn’t and told him that if he doesn’t process, I would need to speak to someone in the head office. He didn’t budge. So I went to see the registrar, there was a long queue there as well. Waiting for my turn, which came after 45 mins and could finally speak to the Registrar. I told him the story so far. He sounded as if he is hearing this for the first time and was surprised, however when I requested him to do something, he called in his Peon and asked him to tell the babu to get the ball rolling. I went along with this Peon to hear him say to babu. Babu was unperturbed. I understood know. It’s all linked.

He took full 3 days to dispatch the paper to one dept. By that time I started understanding the process. When the doc went to another dept (Municipal corporation) I was already there. Since I knew what was needed, as soon as the Babu saw the application, came to me and straight away asked for Rs.500. I negotiated and paid Rs.200. The file then went back again on the 6th day. The previous babu took another 3 days to process the file and sent to Delhi , Lucknow home ministry. The people there were little more considerate and understood my need for urgency. They processed the file within few minutes and sent it back to the Ghaziabad which took one day. On the next day when it reached the original babu he sat on it for another day more without any reason. The next day, when I asked the stamped doc, he shamelessly asked me Rs.5000/- before he could hand over the doc. I was ******** off and now that the docs were right there I started negotiating bribe with him aloud. He looked around if anyone was hearing our conversation. No one was... or rather pretended that they weren’t listening. He came done to Rs.2000, then 1000. I handed a 500 rupee note to him and said get lost. He took the money and started working as if nothing has happened.

Paying off the traffic police:

I had to drop my parents to Airport. My parents had already boarded a private vehicle and I was on my bike with my brother and was following the vehicle. A constable standing next to Interceptor jeep stopped me, checked my documents, and when he came to know all the documents were proper, he said I was over speeding!!! I am sure I haven't crossed 60kmph [permissible speed is 80 kmph]. He told the fine is Rs 300. I didn’t have time to negotiate or to check what my speed was. I asked him "swalpa nodi saar" and he slashed the price to Rs 100. I promptly paid it and went.

Another experience with the traffic police:

This is not about bribe I paid, but what I saw others pay. In this case auto drivers… I was at Cantonment railway station Saturday early morning to receive some relatives. There is a 'pre-paid' auto stand in front of the station where the drivers are supposed to wait. In their eagerness to get a customer they crowd around the exit gate to solicit customers. The police constable on duty takes Rs.10 from each of them so that they have the advantage of the vantage position. One poor guy refused to pay and his number was promptly noted down by the cop. I guess the autowallas have to pay this Rs.10 at several places during the day and the conman man is actually 'paying Rs.10 over meter' to fund the cops. And we blame the petrol hike for increase in fares :)

To obtain a death certificate:

My father was a Government Employee and got expired on 04-10-2007. He had a severe sweating and nausea at around 10:30 P.M and we rushed him to hospital, which is around 0.5 km. from our house but with our bad luck, we lost him before we got him to the doctor.

Doctor tried Emergency procedures, (although he confirmed on first sight that we lost him), CPR and others and does justice to his duty.

He also had given a writing, that my father was brought dead to hospital.

Now the story started. When we lose a family member, we don’t see and think for logistics. I thought the same and we finished the funeral.

After about a week I went to local municipality for his death certificate. The municipal officials never accepted the certificate by the doctors on hospital letterhead, but only on their prescribed format.

When I went back to **********, they escaped saying that he was never admitted, (I still have the bills of the emergency injection, and casualty fees receipt, etc., with me) therefore we can’t sign it.

At last, the RMO of that hospital took a BRIBE of 1500 and signed on the format. That too after mentally torturing in many ways.

To get a driving licence:

On 28 Nov 2010 at Koramangala (Bangalore) I went to get Driving license but I tried 4 times but they rejected me… at the time one fellow came to me and asked 1500rs for licence. Finally I gave 1450Rs and I got my licence. This is the process going on nowadays.

Another experience:

I have paid 1000 rupees to get the Driving license in RTO Office Gudur, Nellore (d.t).-Dt::06-08-2004. I don’t know how to drive a car but I am having LMV license.

To get paid a scholarship:

We received a scholarship and went to the computer science department to get the amount. The actual amount was 5000, but the clerk gave us Rs4800. He said we will get good jobs and earn a lot in our career. So this is the only time he can ask us money.

To get water supply:

Ward no-7 jurisdiction of Byatarayanpura on Bangalore International Airport Road . Here the problem is with water. The person who leaves water takes 10 bucks a day to get water for 1 hour. If we don't pay we won't even get a drop of water for 3 days.

For electricity supply:

We had a nice house warming ceremony but before that we had to feed a big hungry mouth to have a smooth function at our house. The electricity supply is a major issue on the day and the guy who came for inspection/verification of the name change from the previous owner to our name was smiling all the time saying "It’s not a big problem sir...we just have some small formalities." The small formalities include signing the documents and paying 5K cash and mind you this is just for him. At the end we spent close to 10k for all the hungry mouths to see lights in our house.

To file a police complaint:

I was working at a hotel in Koramangala at around 10 pm when a drunk ex-employee came rushing into the hotel shouting and screaming and assaulting the security, the other employees and disturbing the guests. Long story short when we called the police on what is supposed to be an emergency number, they came to the hotel but refused to step in of we didn’t give them money. I explained to the man that I was on duty and didn’t have any but to no avail. Finally, someone gave them Rs1000 and they intervened. What reliable protection indeed!

Illustrations by Paul Fernandes from the I Paid A Bribe Website.

07 December 2010

Pondy in the rain

I knew it was raining in Pondy. I was forewarned. So I took my raincoat and my most beat-up pair of sandals.

It didn’t rain. It poured. It was like someone suddenly turned on the power shower full blast.

I got stuck in the rain many times. The first time I was climbing the old Auroville Road on a rickety bicycle. A few large drops announced what was coming. Three guys in lungis riding ‘triple’ on a motorcycle quickly parked by the side of the road and ran for shelter under the parapet of a building in construction. I abandoned the bicycle and followed them. They stepped aside giving me some space under the parapet. The four of us watched the rain in an awed silence. Then one of them lit a cigarette and they had a discussion in Tamil. I understood ‘taani’ and ‘maale’. They were talking about the rain. Quickly, small red streams of water tainted by the dark red earth formed and ran down the slope. The man with the cigarette threw the butt into one of these mini-rivers and I watched it being swept away. After ten minutes the rain stopped almost as suddenly as it had began. I waded through the red mud back to the bicycle. The air was warm and pleasant.

The second time I was in Pondicherry at the INTACH office on Sri Aurobindo Street. The sound of the rain beating against the roof and the window was very loud. But I was comfortable and dry inside and was enjoying reading up on the city’s heritage conservation project and browsing through before and after pictures of the many heritage properties which have been lovingly restored. It was still raining when I had finished my research. I spent some time looking out the window. The rain was pouring in streams off the roofs. Once in a while a motorcycle or bicycle whizzed by. I observed how people protected themselves from the rain: raincoat and umbrellas of course, but also plastic bags rolled into improvised hats. On motorcycles the passenger seated behind the driver would hold up an umbrella, protecting both passengers. But it was raining too hard to not get wet. Quickly the street became a small river. A rubber flip-flop floated downstream. A woman in a soaked sari waded through the water, carrying her footwear in her hands. A motorcycle sped by and she cursed loudly as water sprayed out in all directions, soaking her further. It was showing no sign of letting up so I decided I had to brave the rain. I rolled up my pants up to my knees and was grateful I had decided against wearing a churidar that morning. I zipped up my raincoat and put on the hood. I took my sandals in my hand and stepped into the calf-deep water. It was warm.

The third time I got stuck was at the Subramania Bharathi museum. It is closed. Indefinitely. Reason unknown. This is the information I gleaned from three men taking shelter with their bicycles on the veranda. While sitting out the rain, I took a few pictures:

Pondicherry had a sweet smell. It was because of all the Canaga trees which were in bloom. Their Ylang Ylang flowers lay in wet, scented carpets.

So I admit it: yes, the rains are romantic! In Pondicherry anyway.

24 November 2010

Prasada by post

It’s that time of year again when men in black can be spotted at traffic intersections all over the city. This past weekend, while waiting at a red light, one of these bearded, barefoot and black-clad men tapped on the car window and made a short speech of which I only understood two words: “Sabarimala” and “Ayyappa”. He held out something shaped like a coconut in which he was collecting donations. I’ve always been intrigued by this annual pilgrimage so I was happy to make a small contribution towards his journey to Lord Ayyappa’s abode in Sabarimala in Kerala.

I have written about the Sabarimala pilgrimage before here. This is a popular pilgrimage undertaken only by men (pre-pubescent girls and post-menopausal women are also ‘allowed’ to take part). For weeks before embarking on the journey, pilgrims must (among many other things) walk barefoot, not shave or cut their hair, eat only vegetarian food, sleep without a pillow and “have no connection with wife” (this is how someone explained this to me!).

My landlord told me that he would go to Sabarimala every year. But he finds the pilgrimage too strenuous now at his age. Pilgrims have to walk for a long time, barefoot, uphill, on difficult terrain. He also said that this pilgrimage has become increasingly popular in the past ten years and that it’s become difficult to negotiate the huge crowds.

But today I learned that Mohammed doesn’t need to go to the mountain, the mountain can come to him. When I logged onto the website of a courier company this morning to check the status of a shipment, an interesting advertisement popped up announcing the ‘Holy Prasada Express Home Delivery Service’. DTDC Courier and Cargo has launched a “holy venture to distribute the prasada of Lord Ayyappa.” Thanks to DTDC, there’s no need to submit to 41 days of austerity and walk for kilometres through thick forests all the way up to Sabarimala to receive Ayyappa’s blessings. Instead, you can easily pop into your neighbourhood DTDC branch and place your order for prasada (holy food blessed by the god). The company guarantees quick service: “the holy prasada will reach your door step within 10 days from date of booking.” For the more technologically-inclined, on-line booking will soon be available.

Intrigued and almost tempted by this ‘holy venture’, I did a bit of research on the prasada offered by Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala:

- Called ‘avavana prasadam’, it’s made of rice, jaggery, sugar, raisins, cardamom, cumin, ghee and coconut.
- Between 120,000 - 160,000 250ml cans are sold on average each day during the two-month pilgrimage period.
- Around 100,000 cans are produced daily. (Not surprisingly demand surpasses supply and shortages are common!)
- The shelf life of a can of ‘avavana prasadam’ is one year.
- To make 100,000 cans, 38kg of rice, 200kg of jaggery, 3.6kg of ‘sugar candy’, 1.8kg of raisins, 0.720gm of cardamom, 0.360gm of cumin powder, 10 litres of ghee and 16 coconuts are needed.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

12 November 2010

Change illa

The most valuable Indian currency note is the ten-rupee bill. Why? Because it’s so handy… You can use it to pay bus and auto-rickshaw fares, tips, cups of tea… It’s also essential to have lots of ten-rupee notes in your wallet at all times because no one has change.

Auto-drivers will always say “Change illa!” even if they do have change because they hope you’ll be forced to round off the fare in a way that’s favourable to them. If I play his game and insist I don’t have change either he sometimes suddenly remembers he has a few bills in his shirt pocket. Or I’m forced to surrender some of my precious brown-coloured bills.

At the supermarket I always pay with 100 or 500 rupee notes in the hope of getting some change back from the cashier. But invariably he or she will always ask: “Do you have change?”. I will say no, because I cannot part with my precious 10-rupee notes and I know that the cashier most likely has change but (like me) is trying to hoard as many of those brown bills as possible! In the eternal quest for the 10-rupee note, this is the game of deception played by all!

Bus conductors have plenty of ten rupee notes (they tuck them, folded lengthwise in thick wads, in-between their fingers) but they don’t have coins. Once you hand over your ten-rupee note to him, he will write down the amount he owes you on the back of the ticket and hand it to you. Then he will promptly forget and ignore you for the rest of your bus journey. I slyly observe him collecting fares from other passengers and wait to hear the clink of coins as he puts them into the leather purse he carries slung across his shoulder. Aha! The next time he passes me (in a hurry and looking the other way), I thrust him my ticket. He stops and nonchalantly digs around in his purse for my change.

ATMs add an additional challenge to this quest for change. They seem to only dispense 100 or 1000 rupee notes. Once I had to make a payment of 25,000 rupees in cash. I went to the ATM. It would only issue 5000 rupees at a time, in 100 rupee notes! By the time I finished making five withdrawals, I had a huge stack of bills which filled up my purse. I went into the bank to see if I could exchange this gigantic stack for some (more discreet) 1000 rupee notes. The clerk watched as I piled the stacks of bills on the counter in front of him. “Where did you get this?” he asked, eyeing me suspiciously. I explained my battle with the ATM. Having established that I was not a robber of banks or dealer in some kind of shady business, he slipped my bundle of notes into the counting machine and then counted out 25 crisp 1000-rupee notes.

Of course when I need a significantly smaller amount from the ATM, the machine inevitably spits out only 1000-rupee notes. Then I’m in the very unfavourable situation of needing change! After some reflection I have figured out how to proceed. I go to the usual shopkeepers I patronize and since I’m a familiar customer, they’re happy to give me change. Suddenly everyone has change! The man at the photocopy stall has lots of small change if I need coins. The man in the shop where I recharge my mobile phone has lots of 100s. The pharmacist is another person likely to have change. He also has lots of torn or ripped bills which he has tried to pass off on me in the past but he now knows this doesn’t work with me. I carefully examine each bill and if there are any tears, I promptly return them because I know they won’t be accepted. He takes them back without a shrug. He’ll try again later with another less attentive customer!

03 November 2010

Getting ready for Diwali

Diwali - or Deepavalli - is just around the corner and there's a feeling of anticipation in the air. Everyone seems to be getting ready for India's biggest and most important festival. Shops are decked out with everything needed for this festive occasion, including colourful paper lanterns and decorations.

Diyas or clay lamps are for sale on every street corner in all shapes and sizes.

And in every colour too! These will be filled with oil and lit for this festival of light.

Starting tomorrow night, Diwali will be celebrated for five nights...

Diwali also means fireworks. These are also for sale everywhere. (This is the part of Diwali I don't like because of the incredible noise and air pollution!)

This is also a time to buy new clothes and gifts. Shops are offering special Diwali discounts.

A very Happy Diwali to all my readers!

31 October 2010

What’s in an Indian name?

Names are quite unique in South India. They have their own formula and conventions which are different to naming practices in other countries and even other parts of India. Every Indian has a unique first name of course. But what I find interesting is people’s surnames or family names.

In South India, a girl often takes her father’s first name as her surname. So a girl name Vidya born to a man named Venkatesh will be named Vidya Venkatesh. Likewise when a woman gets married, she takes her husband’s name. So if Vidya marries Suresh, her name will then become Vidya Suresh. This is of course if she decides to take her husband’s name. A lot of women today decide not to. When I asked my friend K why she didn’t change her name when she got married, her answer was that she didn’t see any point in it: “If husbands were expected to do something similar then maybe I would have considered it, but just the fact that only the woman is expected to do it makes no sense at all to me!” is how she put it.

Sometimes the administrative hassles of changing a name is enough for some women not to bother. K told me that her mother-in-law took her father-in-law’s name only much later because she found that the process was too complicated. But she did eventually get down to it, and despite the fact that my friend K did not change her name does not deter her mother-in-law from tacking on her son’s name to K’s name when she needs to write it down for someone! My friend S has also kept her maiden name for administrative reasons: “When I got married, it was a huge hassle to change my name in my passport and as I was moving to the US just a week later, I did not want any trouble with passports and name changes. When I had to renew my passport, I again decided not to change it because by then my name had been used on all my official documents, so I just kept my name.”

Interestingly, S’s kids don't carry her husband's name: “Because of all this confusion of each child in the family having a different last name, our entire family has chosen to keep the last names of the next generation on the basis of our Gothra (a sub-caste or clan).” Similarly, a caste name is also often used as a surname in some families, like Iyengar, Iyer, Nair, Naidu, Pillai, etc. Other families have dropped their caste names so that they can have a name which is caste-neutral.

To make things a bit more complicated, S’s husband has yet a different name! Which brings me to men’s surnames (in South India)… which are a bit more complex than women’s! S’s husband carries the name of his ancestral village as his surname which is also a common practice (for men only). Sometimes this is tacked on before a man’s first name as an initial. A more common practice is to add the father’s initial to the boy’s name. So a boy called Srinivas born to a man called Gopinath will have the name G. Srinivas. And sometimes the boy’s birthplace will also be tacked on as an initial.

We can take the interesting example of the name of the famous yoga guru: B.K.S Iyengar. The B stands for his birthplace: Belur, the K represents his father’s name (Krishnamachar), the S stands for his first name – Sundararaja – and Iyengar is his caste name.

This whole name business is quite flexible and it’s easy for someone to change his or her name. K’s husband G had only one name for a long time until he had to come up with a surname at some point: “I attached a surname to my name for my school records, though this was not mandatory. I used my dad's name as my surname – also because I knew that it’s absolutely necessary to have a surname when you apply to American universities which is a career path for many Indian engineering students. Looking back, I think I could have chosen any surname I liked. In fact ‘Rao’, the family surname, would have made more sense. It was during my dad's time I think, that they all dropped their surnames to keep their names short and smart. My grandfather, for example, had ‘Rao’ as his surname.”

M got his present name because of a clerical error. “My real name is Mxxxxxx Vellore Srinivasan. Vellore is my ‘native town name’. So my name would have been Mxxxxx V Srinivasan, Srinivasan being my dad's name and automatically the family surname. When I went to design school a clerical error turned my name to ‘Mxxxxx Vellore’ and I quite liked it. It rolled much easier on the tongue. Also it traced my family back to the place of origin, instead of changing with each generation. And it was not patriarchally biased because it was the name of a place. So I asked my Dad if he would mind if I changed my name, and he quite liked the idea. So I went ahead and changed it officially.”

These are just a few examples of the diverse naming conventions used in South India. Indian names as diverse as India itself. Each region, caste, community, family has it’s own conventions. So a name can be just as unrevealing as revealing. It can reveal a person’s caste or gothra, their native town or who’s the person’s father, or husband in the case of women. Or it can reveal none of these. Isn’t a person’s first name enough?

27 October 2010

Sacred Space

For the past few months I've been working on a new blog. I got the idea long ago to start a blog dedicated exclusively to my writings on Indian classical dance and the performing arts. The name 'Sacred Space' is inspired by the temples where Indian classical dance used to be performed. The above photograph is of Swapnasundari, a famous Kuchipudi dancer photographed at Khajuraho temple by an equally famous Indian photographer, Avinash Pasricha who has kindly allowed me to feature his photograph in Sacred Space.

So far, Sacred Space is mostly a collection of some of the articles I've already had published. I plan to add new material on a regular basis.

In the meantime, I will still be here, sharing what's going on outside my window.

Enter Sacred Space here.

15 October 2010

Festive days

It’s Dasara time again. Schools are closed for this 10-day festival and there’s a festive atmosphere in the air. Like each year my landlady has dusted off her painted statues of gods and goddesses and set them up in her puja room. Displaying these statues or ‘dolls’ on a multi-tiered pedestal is a Dasara tradition in many families.

On Saturday afternoon she invited me to come over while the ladies from her vedic chanting group were there. They were all dressed in resplendent peacock-blue saris. “This is the colour for Saturday,” I was told.

“This is my tenant!,” my landlady announced loudly, introducing me. I smiled while the small crowd of ladies dressed in blue scrutinized me. “She knows Sanskrit and Kannada!” she announced proudly. I started to reply, reminding her that I had only studied Sanskrit for a few months and that I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to Kannada, but she was keen on telling her friends more about me. “She’s a Bharata Natyam dancer!” The ladies nodded to each other in approval. I again opened my mouth to explain that I am now learning Odissi but my landlady was carried away by her enthusiasm. “And one more thing… she’s a writer!” she concluded with a broad smile. I could only smile meekly while the ladies again murmured their approval.

They sat on mats on the floor and started to loudly chant the prayers in Sanskrit which they recited from little books printed in Malayalam. Then it was time for food. The ladies in blue swarmed around the dining room table, filling their plates with idli, vada, chutney and black channa with grated coconut, followed by payasam for dessert. My landlady had spent the morning cooking up a small feast, with some help from her sister-in-law.

A small tray was passed around filled with strings of jasmine flowers, and kumkum and sandalwood powder. The ladies took turns smearing the powder on their foreheads and tucking the flowers around the buns in their hair. We also got glass bangles, red and green, two of each. (I have quite the collection of red and green glass bangles by now!)

Before leaving, we were asked to sit on the sofa which faces east, and holding a tray, my landlady presented each lady with tamboolam. This is a small decorated bag which contains a coconut, betel leaves, betel nuts, kumkum powder, turmeric and a one-rupee coin (see the photo above).

Tomorrow is the ninth day of Dasara which is Ayudha Puja: the day when everyday tools and machines used to make a living, including vehicles and computers, are blessed. In the streets there are flower garlands for sale everywhere, as well as pumpkins and stalks of banana leaves. The people at the office across the street have already had the puja. A priest dressed in saffron broke a gourd filled with kumkum before the front door decorated with flower garlands and banana leaves. Each of the employee’s cars was also decorated and smeared with kumkum, as well as the office’s generator and I imagine, their computers! The employees then passed around a box of sweets as the priest got on his bicycle and went off to the next office or house to perform Ayudha Puja.

07 October 2010

After the rains

I came home to a moldy house. The walls of the living room and the ceiling resemble a Jackson Pollack during a grey period. In one corner, there’s a huge patch of cracking and peeling paint. This is proof that this year’s monsoon was a good one. So good that it won’t go away… it’s now the end of the first week of October and the rains are not letting up. I wake to grey skies in the morning and the rain usually starts in the late afternoon with a few drops which eventually become a downpour.

It’s noticeably hotter than one month ago and the humidity in the air is palpable. The laundry doesn’t dry, and the drawers in my wooden chest of drawers must have somehow expanded because no matter how hard I tug, they will not open! I’ll have to wait for drier times before I can access their contents again.

I showed my landlords the artwork on the ceiling and they were quick to take action, calling in the builder to take a closer look at the cause of the problem. Most houses here have flat roofs which means that water seepage is a common problem. The roof needs to be waterproofed and the ceiling and walls repainted but this can only happen once the rains stop.

The cat doesn’t seem to mind the rain. She comes home in the middle of the night – soaking wet – and then tries to get in under the covers!

27 September 2010

Old postcards

There's a website I love: ImagesOfAsia.com. It features an eclectic and fascinating collection of old postcards from all over Asia, including over a thousand images of India. These are mostly paintings and lithographs or photographs in colour, black and white, and a few in sepia.

Many of these images are over 100 years old: there are street scenes and city scapes and portraits which offer glimpses into another time. I have often featured images from this collection in my blog posts.

I like the black & whites and especially the portraits. Here are a few I've selected:

22 September 2010

Trichy street scenes

A few weeks ago I was in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. This town is famous for its Rock Fort and is the site of some famous temples. It is also the gateway to the temple towns of South India. I captured a few scenes of street life: