30 May 2011

Dance of the peacock

Image courtesy of Benson Kua.

A few weeks ago I was staying on the banks of the Kabini river, next to a nature reserve. It was still April then so it was hot but the best time of year to see animals in their habitat.

We took a boat and jeep safari. From the boat we could see herds of elephants on the shore of the river, literally dozens. Big elephants, small elephants, baby elephants.

But elephants are a common site in India. Of course the animal everyone wants to catch a glimpse of, even fleeting, is the tiger.

Above: the Kabini river

Kabini is supposed to have a high concentration of cats: tigers and leopards. But the big cat would remain elusive during our stay.

We took the jeep safari early in the morning. It had rained the night before so the morning was foggy. The first animals we spotted was a family of elephants. We could only just make out their foggy outlines in the forest.

Can you spot the leopard tracks?

The closest we got to a leopard was its footprints. It had probably taken the same path only a few hours before, its tracks were still visible in the wet mud. But we were not lucky enough to catch a sighting, even a fleeting one.

When we would come across another jeep, the drivers would stop and the guides would exchange a few words: ‘What did you see? Any tigers?’ Others were more lucky that morning: they had seen four leopards. Two pairs!

We continued on our cat search but it was futile. However, we were in for a surprise. At some point on the road ahead there was a huge peacock. It was a male because only males have beautiful long tails. As we watched, it opened its feathers, and ‘danced’, prancing gracefully round and round, showing off its splendour, literally ‘strutting its stuff’. And then a second one, not to be outdone by the first, also put on a show for us. I was amazed by this animal’s beauty, its elegance, its brilliant colour.

I was watching the spectacle through binoculars so I couldn’t get a picture. But I didn’t manage to get a few other pictures of a peacock perched on a stump.

The peacock is India’s national bird. In Hindu mythology, the peacock or mayura, is Lord Murugan’s vahana or vehicle.

They say that when a peacock dances, rain is on the way. It must be true because it did rain that night.

26 May 2011

What’s the landmark?

“What's the landmark, Madame?” This is a question I’m asked on almost a daily basis by couriers, delivery and repair men, and taxi drivers. A written address is not enough to go by in Bangalore. House numbers, mains and crosses don’t seem to count. However landmarks do.

I had quickly learnt that Bangalore’s complex system of numbered main roads and cross streets is not as logical as it first seems. Though you’d expect 5th Main Road to come after 4th Main Road, sometimes some numbers just disappear. So after 4th Main you’ll find 6th Main and you wonder what happened to 5th Main. Or you expect the road after 10th Cross to be 11th Cross, but all of a sudden you get 10th A Cross, 10th B Cross, 10th C Cross and you have to walk for blocks before you finally come to 11th Cross.

Then there’s the numbering system for houses and buildings. There are old numbers and new numbers. The new numbers were supposed to of course replace the old numbers. But some people still use the old numbers, while others have adopted the new ones. So both are used. To make things more complicated, these numbers are not always chronological either. And unlike the system in many countries, where odd numbers will be on one side of the street and even numbers on the other side, this doesn’t apply here.

To add another layer to this confusing web, many neighbourhoods or localities have different ‘stages’ or ‘blocks’: so there’s Indiranagar 1st Stage and Indiranagar 2nd Stage and Jayanagar 1st block, 2nd block, etc… As a result, addresses look like this: Old no. 28/312, New No. 4, 4th Main Road, 1st Cross, Indiranagar 2nd Stage, Bangalore 560037. The only person who has mastered this complicated system of old and new numbers, Mains, Crosses, Phases, Stages and Blocks is the postman. Everyone else needs landmarks.

Landmarks are like helpful hints to help you crack the puzzle. So on some addresses you’ll see: ‘Opposite Corporation Bank’, or ‘Behind Bata Showroom’, or ‘Near Jain School’, or ‘Diagonally Opposite Nilgiris Supermarket’. If the bank, school or supermarket closes at any point, you’re in trouble!

So when a courier company called yesterday morning to say they had a letter for me, (can you guess why it’s mandatory to give the addressee’s phone number to courier companies?), I was invariably asked: “What’s the landmark?” I gave the usual directions I have recited over a thousand times. Later that afternoon, I realised the letter had still not arrived. Feeling something was amiss, I called the courier office and they gave me the mobile number of the ‘courier boy’. I called him up and asked when he was going to deliver the letter. “I gave it to Mrs Gita, your employee in your office,” he informed me, to my surprise. I do not have an office or an employee called Gita… but I had a feeling where my letter ended up. He had delivered it to the office next door! So despite my detailed directions and description of all the neighbourhood ‘landmarks’, the letter still had not reached me!

20 May 2011

Go Reva

The big news this week was the hike in the cost of petrol. It has gone up 5.47 Rs to 63.4 Rs a litre (1 EUR a litre!). This affects everyone. Vehicle owners will be paying more to fill their tanks. Commuters will eventually face higher bus and auto-rickshaw fares.

This may push some people to reconsider the way they get around. They may walk the few blocks to the post office instead of taking the car. Or they may consider cycling. This is becoming more and more popular in Bangalore, especially among the ‘techie’ crowd. They stand out on the city’s roads. While couriers and chai-wallahs totter along on their beat-up Atlas cycles, the techies zip past on their mountain bikes, helmet on head and backpack on back, on their way to Whitefield or Electronic City.

Another common sight on Bangalore’s roads is the Reva. This tiny car can be seen but not heard, because it runs on electricity. Bangaloreans are proud of the Reva, because it was designed, developed and built in Bangalore only.

I’ve noticed that whenever there’s a petrol price hike, there will be an ad for the REVA in the paper, boasting its petrol-free prowess.

While it’s popular with the eco-friendly set, it doesn’t have a lot of takers. It’s small. And expensive for it’s size. Those who can afford a car would like a big car. But the Reva produces no exhaust, is easy to park, and is apparently dent-proof. And of course, it's petrol free!

08 May 2011

Household help

Following on the theme of my last post, having household help is very common in India. Every middle-class household has at least a maid who comes to do chores like sweeping, washing the floors and laundry. Some also have cooks, nannies and drivers. I know some households that have more staff working in their house than family members!

Of course for foreigners, it’s a huge luxury to have household help. I have an aunt who’s fascinated by this. Every time I see her, she asks me the same questions:
“So you’re not allowed to work in India?”
“But you have a lady who comes to do the cleaning?”
“And you take your laundry to get ironed by a man in the street?” (She’s surprised that this is a man’s job!)
“And who does the cooking? You? Well at least you do something!”

She’s also surprised that my household help comes three times a week – which is a bare minimum in India – but for my aunt it seems excessive. “Why so often?!” she asks. I try to explain to her how dusty it gets, especially in the summer. By the afternoon I can already see a thin layer of dust that’s settled on the tile floor. That’s why most people get their floors swept and washed every single day.

Savitri has worked for us for the past four years. I feel very lucky to have her. It’s not easy to find good household help. “It’s easier to find a good husband than a good maid,” seems to be a popular saying here.

Indeed a lot of my friends complain endlessly about their maids. “She’s gone to her village for a week. How will I manage?” is a common complaint. When I tell them that in the ‘West’ women manage the cooking, cleaning, kids and a full-time job, they look amazed. “Ayoo! Poor things! How do they cope with no help?”

I also hear all kinds of stories. When a friend got a new maid, her sugar supply started mysteriously disappearing. Another asked for a loan and then disappeared. (A common occurrence.) Another became more and more demanding, continuously asking for raises and ultimately a scooter!

Savitri has never been to school but she speaks four languages fluently: Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. She’s always pleasant and cheerful and rarely misses work. If she doesn’t show up, I know it’s because of a good reason. The next time she’ll tell me why she couldn’t come: because she had fever, or because her grandchildren were visiting. She didn’t show up for two days last week but when she came on Saturday morning, she had some important news for me: her son is getting married. She seemed very happy and was wearing new gold earrings and had more green glass bangles on her wrists than usual. Her son is the last of her three children to get married.

When she finished her work this morning she told me that she won’t come for a week because of the wedding preparations. I sensed her excitement and happiness and know she’ll be busy preparing for this important event. But one week! Ayoo, how will I manage?!