30 August 2013

Thank you India!

I always felt like I’d be here forever. Or maybe it’s just because I feel happy and content here and would like to stay forever.

I could never imagine leaving India. “Someone will have to drag me away, kicking and screaming,” is what I thought.

But all things come to an end. And change is something which has to be accepted.

I feel very fortunate that for the past 6.5 years I have been able to live here continuously.

My husband and I had decided to move here. We weren’t sent over by some multi-national company. Before moving to Bangalore, we were living in London. One day I decided to quit my job. A week later my husband decided to quit his. He didn’t like living in London and wanted to leave. So we started to think of where to move to next… We didn’t want to go back to Belgium and I didn’t give going back to Canada even a thought. There were many opportunities in his field in the US, but moving there was out of the question.

We had been to India several times before, and as connoisseurs of Indian music and dance, it was time to give India a try. It felt right. And it was, because he got two job offers: one in Bombay and one in Bangalore. I was praying for Bangalore, and Bangalore it was.

I was able to continue my study of Indian classical dance in Bangalore. We went to concerts and dance performances, and travelled all over India to attend music and dance festivals. ‘This is what we came to India for,’ we would say, and I think we made the most of it. Working full-time, my husband often did not have the time to travel, but I didn’t hesitate to take off solo.

India gave me the chance to breathe, free my mind and let my creativity manifest itself. I started writing and this blog came into being and I found myself spending a lot of time writing about things I enjoy, mostly the Indian arts and places I’ve visited in India and found that people wanted to read what I wrote and even publish it. India gave me the inspiration to become a writer.

Thank you India!

I feel like I have experienced and seen a lot of India in the past 6.5 years... but I also feel that there’s still so much more to see and experience…

I know I’ll be back, but something tells me it won’t be the same. It won’t be like living here full-time, all year round.

I don’t know when I’ll be back and in the meantime I’m not sure what to do with this blog. Should I continue publishing something every month, at least a few photo essays, to keep my readers coming to my window? Or should I just put this blog on stand-by until the next time I’m in India?

I believe that things happen for a reason and the pain of leaving India is alleviated somewhat by another dream we’ve had which finally came to fruition recently. For years we’ve wanted to renovate an old stone house in a lovely medieval village in beautiful Istria, that magical peninsula in the Adriatic Sea. This house is helping me leave India, and embark on a new adventure. Though I’m awfully sad to leave, I’m ready to try something new.

A new adventure calls for a new blog… Thank you dear readers for looking through my window all these years. Wherever I go I’ll always have a window to look through, so please do visit me in my new home and share with me the view of Istria Outside My Window.

15 August 2013

Packing up

It didn’t take long for our neighbours to figure out we were moving. I guess they were alerted by all the pieces of furniture disappearing through the front gate as buyers came to pick up the things I had put up for sale on an expat forum.

My landlords started getting inquires about our apartment from prospective tenants. The fruit seller asked me if we had a television to sell. The electrician told me he was interested in ‘kitchen items’, and the maid blatantly told me: “Whatever you don’t take with you, give to me.”

Then one day as we were parking the car, the security guard who’s stationed at the office just opposite the house approached us and asked if we were selling our car and for how much. A few days later, as I was returning home from the market I saw three men studying our car. One of them (who works as a driver for the director of the office) approached me and asked when ‘Sir’ was coming home that evening because someone had come from Mysore to buy the car! Later I found out from my landlord that the security guard had decided to look for a buyer for our car and take a tidy commission for himself.

We sold anything of value easily. Also, I learned it’s very easy to get rid of unwanted junk. After 6.5 years I had accumulated a lot of it.

I had tons of paper to get rid of – magazines, brochures, pamphlets. I filled several bags and waited for the paperboy to come by, but of course weeks went by without me hearing his timid knock at my door.

So one day just as I was reaching home, an older man on a bicycle yelling ‘Paypaar!’ was passing by, so I told him I had some paper for him. His eyes grew wide when I presented him with my many bags full of unwanted paper. He started pulling out his scale from his canvas bag, but I told him I didn’t want to get paid for each kilogram, and that he could take all of it. His eyes grew even wider and he put his hands together in a very respectful namasté and bowed his head, which made me feel uncomfortable because this ‘gift’ of waste paper he was grateful for was just junk I wanted to get rid of and he was actually doing me a big favour by taking it away.

Then there was the issue of getting rid of the real junk: stuff I couldn’t impose on anyone. Stuff that has to be thrown out in the garbage. But something as simple as putting out the garbage is not such a straightforward task. I had filled several bags and I've learned it’s not a good idea to leave them unattended on the roadside… because if it’s not picked up quickly, the contents will end up all over the road, the work of stray dogs or the rag pickers who open and sift through garbage bags. But how to catch the garbage collection van? By the time I hear it and run outside, it’s gone. So I solicited the help of my ever-helpful landlord who told me he’d keep an eye out for them. They didn't come on Monday or Tuesday, but they did show up on Wednesday. I knew they were there because I heard my landlord yelling at them. “Why haven’t you come the whole week?” he berated them. He told them to pick up the bags I had left just inside our gate. The garbage collector started to make a lame excuse, saying they only pick up the garbage left on street corners, not in front of houses… Then he saw the 10-rupee note my landlord had in his hand (he was prepared), and quickly shut up and picked up the bags, pocketing the tip. (My landlord then launched into a long tirade about corporation employees and how they’re too lazy to do their jobs and that the only way to get our garbage collected was to pay them a few rupees every week which we shouldn’t be doing because they’re already getting a salary. Like I said, it’s not as easy as putting your garbage bag on the curb!)

It’s amazing how liberating it feels to get rid of stuff… as our furniture disappeared and the house was slowly purged of years of accumulated ‘stuff’, I felt lighter and lighter. I happily gave away things (to the delight of the maid) and felt more and more liberated. However, once the moving boxes were packed with only our essential and beloved things, I no longer felt so light-hearted as reality hit me.

After almost 7 years, we're leaving India!

20 July 2013

Things India has taught me

Following a somewhat related post I had written on habits I’ve picked up over the past 6+ years of living in India, today’s post is on things India has taught me.

India has taught me to tolerate noise.

One thing I’ve definitely learned in India is to put up with noise. Of course noise is omnipresent here. Mornings start with the koel birds exchanging their melodious calls from the treetops. I love waking up this way. Then the morning sounds start: the sweeper women sweeping the road, the sound of the newspaper delivery man’s moped, traffic on the main road, and the jingle played by the garbage collection van. A little later on, the pushcart vendors start making their rounds, calling out in sing-song voices whatever it is they have for sale: tomatoes, mosambi, tender coconuts, brooms, carpets. These are the pleasant sounds. The traffic noise is less pleasant: the constant honking and blaring of horns. Then there’s the excruciating ‘reversal music’ which plays whenever a car reverses and just adds to the noise pollution. On the next street there’s a marble works from where the sound of a circular saw is constant during the day and it sometimes continues late in the evening. When we first moved here the sound really grated on my nerves, but of course now I hardly notice it. Can it be possible I’ve become immune to noise? Last week there was some work going on behind the house, accompanied by loud banging and the sound of electric tools. I wasn’t happy about this but somehow I managed to concentrate on my work. Even a friend I was talking to on Skype asked me how I could stand all the noise in the background! Then at night, the street dogs keep up a steady litany of howls, barking and noisy bickering as they fight to defend their territory. And of course, there’s also the sound of the watchman’s whistle. Somehow I’ve learnt to sleep despite all these noisy nocturnal disruptions. Thank you India, I can put up with noise and tolerate it and find it almost strangely comforting!

India has taught me to not take people at face value.

I used to get upset when a friend would suggest meeting up and then come the day we agreed on, the friend in question would be unreachable and wouldn’t return my calls. I’ve learnt that appointments here are very, very tentative and last minute disasters are daily occurrences. Not that the friend in question doesn’t value our friendship, it just meant that something really did come up, like she was just too lazy to get out of the house that day. Now I don’t take appointments seriously at all and am not surprised when things don’t go as planned. In a way, I like the fact that nothing is written in stone and there’s always a window open for spontaneity.

India has taught me to take everything with a big pinch of salt.

I have noticed that people make things (and themselves!) sound a lot better than they really are. Also, lies seem to be a social necessity. These are often just little white lies about nothing really but somehow they’re necessary. For example, someone will never turn down an invitation but will always come up with an excuse why they cannot accept the invitation when really they just don’t want to attend. Everyone lies and everyone knows these lies are not to be believed but they’re there to save face and avoid offending. Somehow in the ‘West’ we put a lot of value on honesty and are scandalized by blatant lies, but this seems socially acceptable in India.

India has taught me to be cautious and distrustful.

This can be good and bad. I never pay for anything upfront… not until the goods are delivered and in good condition. I scrutinize every 10-rupee note I’m handed to make sure the shopkeeper’s not trying to get rid of a torn or unusable note to an unsuspecting customer. I realized how cautious I’ve become when I was in Cambodia in December and had booked a taxi to the airport. The travel agent had asked for advance payment and I initially refused. If you pay for a taxi upfront in India you can be sure it won’t show up! (But it works in Cambodia.)

India has taught me to be patient. And impatient.

I expect things to take a long long time and then I’m pleasantly surprised when they don’t. I’d rather pay more to send an inland letter by courier than wait in lines at the post office.

India has taught me to try to understand things intuitively and trust my gut instinct.

I’ve noticed that if someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying because of a language barrier, rather then just saying: “I don’t understand” and give up, they make the effort to try to understand by picking up on key words or trying to guess what you’re saying. And even though they may not understand the actual words I’m saying, they do understand what I’m trying to say, because they’re reading non-verbal clues and using their intuition. And it works!

India has taught me to be flexible.

I am unfazed by bugs, I know what to do with a toilet with a broken flush, or smoke coming from an electric socket, and have seen so many rats – dead and alive – and even chased them out of the house (unwanted gifts from my cat), that none of these things evoke the ‘OMG!’ reflex anymore.

India has taught me how to focus.

My powers of concentration have improved after attending many concerts and dance performances. I no longer get distracted by ringing cell phones, loud conversations and screaming kids running up and down the aisles. I also take liberties to share observations with the friend sitting beside me (but I whisper) and get up for breaks when the chief guest makes his (always too long) speech.

These are just some of the things India has taught me!

08 July 2013

Read the sign IV

India's a land of quirky signs. After Part I, Part II and Part III, here's part IV of Read the Sign...

26 June 2013

Why learn Kannada?

Wherever you decide to live long-term, it’s always good to learn the local language. Learning at least a few rudimentary basics can take you a long way and help you connect with the local culture.

Many newcomers to Bangalore don’t bother learning Kannada, the local language. Many people come to the city from North India and can get by easily by speaking Hindi. English is also spoken by many people here. This ease of communication is also due to the Kannadigas’ amazing flexibility: many speak several South Indian languages, Hindi and English in addition to their native Kannada. As a result, many Indians from outside Karnataka living in Bangalore for a long time don’t speak Kannada at all. My landlady (who’s from Kerala) said she never learned Kannada in the almost 30 years she’s lived here because there are so many Malayalam and Tamil speakers living in our neighbourhood.

I also have the feeling that many North Indians don’t bother learning Kannada for chauvinistic reasons. The impression I get is that since they already speak Hindi, they think they don’t have to learn Kannada, a Dravidian language which they consider ‘inferior’ to their mother tongue. “Kannada sounds like the noise that’s made when you shake a tin can full of stones,” I’ve been told, or: “Why are you learning Kannada? You should learn Hindi instead, they you can use it all over India.”

Of course knowing Hindi would make practical sense, especially when travelling in North India, and this is the reason why many foreigners living here learn Hindi when they decide to study an Indian language. However, since I spend 90% of my time in Bangalore, it makes sense to me to learn the language spoken by its locals.

I’m glad I decided to learn Kannada. It wasn’t easy though. The first step was finding a teacher, which was not at all easy. Government officials make a lot of noise about outsiders who don’t know Kannada, vehemently declaring that they must learn it. But if the government is so adamant about this, then the Department of Kannada and Culture should organise Kannada language courses and provide proper training and support for aspiring teachers. After trying a few classes with teachers who turned out to be inexperienced or clueless about grammar or how to teach languages (I wrote about one experience here), I did finally find an excellent teacher who gave me a good grounding in the language. Unfortunately, after two years of weekly classes with her, she suddenly suffered a heart attack and passed away.

I couldn’t bring myself to find another teacher after that. But I did try to use my Kannada as much as I could. Our domestic help doesn’t speak English so I use Kannada with her. She even called up her brother one day and handed me her phone, telling me to say something to him in Kannada! Then there are many opportunities to speak Kannada in the neighbourhood with shopkeepers I deal with almost on a daily basis. They know I’m learning so they always make it a point to speak it to me. There’s the market sellers, the courier lady, the photocopy man, the ironing man, the man who runs the taxi company I sometimes use, the lady security guard in the metro, and of course the auto drivers.

There are indeed many good reasons to learn Kannada and knowing the language has often worked to my advantage. The fruit sellers at the market often give me extra fruit. Either they’re charmed by my Kannada or they’re overcharging me and feel bad so they give me an extra guava or banana – I’m not sure which is the real reason!

Then there was the time I was able to avoid a traffic fine because I said a few words to the police officer in Kannada. When the right turn from Old Madras Road onto 80 Feet Road was suddenly no longer allowed, a police officer stopped our car. He explained the new rule and then said: “So what to do?” This was the signal for a bribe. Then for some reason, he asked where we were going. When I answered: ‘Manege hogthaiddivi’ (We’re going home), he laughed, and then waved us on. No fine or bribe paid!

At the airport, the immigration officers can be difficult for no reason. When I was last leaving India on a trip, the stern-looking officer looked at my residence permit and asked me in a very gruff way why I wasn’t registered. If he had taken a moment to look over my documents he would have seen that I am indeed registered at the FRRO and that everything is in order. I answered simply: “I am registered, Sir.”

“Who are you in India with?!” he barked at me next. An unaccompanied woman must be a cause for suspicion – what would she be doing in India alone? I answered that my husband is employed in India. I then repeated the same thing in Kannada: “Nanna yejmaanru illi kelsa madthare.”

The stern officer’s demeanour suddenly changed completely and his frown literally turned upside down.

“Oh ho! Very good!” he said, beaming me a big smile. “Kannada mathadthira?”

“Howdu, naanu Kannada kalithaiddini”, I replied.

“Kannada kalithaiddira?! Tumba chennagide!”, he declared, stamping my passport with a flourish, no further questions asked.

Then just yesterday I was trying to catch an auto-rickshaw from MG Road to Racecourse Road but the pesky auto drivers didn’t want to use the meter for such a short distance and were all asking me for an inflated price. In these situations, I just keep trying and eventually find an honest person. The fifth driver I stopped also wanted extra fare. When I answered "Tumba jaasti" and walked off, he called me back: “Baani, Madame!”.

“Meter haktira?” I asked before climbing in.

“Neevu Kannada mathadthaiddira, adakke meter haktini!” he replied. (Since you’re speaking Kannada, I’m going to use the meter.)

We drove off and I got the usual questions fired at me: Where are you from? Do you work in Bangalore? How long have you been here? Do you like Indian food? Isn’t it too spicy for you? I have heard and answered these questions a thousand times so can answer them easily. He seemed impressed. When we stopped at a traffic light, he called out to the auto driver stopped next to us: “Anna! Nodi! Foreigner Kannada mathadthiddare!” The other driver gave me a smile and head bobble in appreciation.

When we arrived at Racecourse Road, my auto driver shook my hand and thanked me for learning Kannada. I paid him and told him to keep the change, but he refused. “I told you I would go by the meter!” he said, and drove off.

Free fruit, traffic fines avoided, frowns turned upside down, auto drivers who use the meter, appreciative smiles and head bobbles. Many good reasons to learn Kannada!

09 June 2013

Seen in the Bangalore metro

At MG Road metro station I noticed two notices posted at the entrance. Each one features the picture of a Namma Metro security guard and tells how they acted with honesty and integrity when they returned valuables to their owners.

The Namma Metro security guards take their jobs seriously. Step too close to the yellow line and you’ll hear the shrill blast of a whistle. When a train arrives, the chorus of blowing whistles is almost deafening. One guard even blew his whistle at me because I took the stairs instead of the escalator! Namma Metro security guards are whistle happy. They also seem to be honest folk. Here are two examples:

20 May 2013

More doors and doorways

You can see more doors and doorways here and here.

28 April 2013

Hindus only

In today's edition of The Hindu, V.R. Devika asks some pertinent questions: Why are non-Hindus not allowed into temples? Also, how do you recognize a Hindu?

I've been to many, many temples across South India and wasn't able to enter the sanctums of most. At the Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa, non-Hindus are not even allowed to enter the temple complex!

However, I have non-Hindu friends who have entered Hindu temples which are supposed to be out of bounds for them. How is it that they were able to enter these holier-than-holy places and not I? Simply because they're Indian and therefore are assumed to be Hindu.

As V.R. Devika points out, the rule seems to only apply to "well known non-Hindus or white skinned people".

Read the article here.

05 April 2013

Cardboard cop

Have you heard of Bangalore’s cardboard cop? Chances are that you have. The cardboard cop has been making news all over the world and has been featured in The Telegraph UK, ABC Australia, The Huffington Post, the BBC, and even a website called Weird Asia News, to name only a few.

This cardboard avatar of a traffic cop is the Bangalore Traffic Police’s way of multiplying their presence on the city’s roads and getting motorists to follow traffic rules. This cop is indefatigable, available 24/7 and bribe-proof. But will this cardboard replica make a difference?

After reading about him in the paper one morning, I had my first encounter with the cardboard cop when I rode past him in an auto-rickshaw on Raj Bhavan Road. There he was, standing with his arms crossed, peering into traffic. Since I had read about him only a day or two before, I knew this was the fake cop, and anyway his two-dimensional appearance was not very convincing and gave him away almost immediately.

Of course once you’ve seen him you won’t be fooled twice. Apparently the police have already foreseen this and plan to replace them from time to time with real policemen.

I wanted to take a photo of the cardboard cop on Raj Bhavan Road for this blog post but when I went there on Sunday, he was no longer around. Has he already been posted to another part of the city? Or was he one of the cutout cops who was stolen, after only two weeks on the job?

Click on 'play' on the image above to see a TV report about the cardboard cop!

28 March 2013

Market lady

When I first moved to Bangalore over 6 years ago, there were supermarkets opening all over the place. I had wondered in this post what would happen to the neighbourhood markets and walking vegetable vendors. Would they lose their business to these big chains?

I have the impression that markets are still thriving and that many people still go to markets because they know the vendors and because they have the opportunity to bargain.

The same vendors still walk up and down my street several times a day with their pushcarts full of vegetables and many of my neighbours buy from them because they conveniently stop at their door and because they’ve been buying from them for years. A friend pointed out that if she ever needs some special vegetable she can always ask her regular vendor to pick it up for her and he’ll be sure to deliver it to her door the next day. You can’t beat that for convenience.

Last time it was the ‘puncher man’ I had featured in a previous post inspired by The Hindu’s “I am” column. Today I take a glimpse into the life of a market vendor, again courtesy of The Hindu.

The column by Deepa Ganesh tells the story of Lakshmamma, who’s been selling fruits and vegetables for the past 40 years at different markets across Bangalore. She works for almost 16 hours a day, leaving home at 4am to go to the wholesale market at Yelahanka. She then travels with the bags of vegetables she’s bought by bus, not an easy task, all the way to the Income Tax Office where she sells her produce on the pavement. She gets home only after 8:30pm. In the article she also gives some interesting observations on the city and how it’s changed over the years. You can read the column here.

Meet some of the market ladies of Bangalore:

20 March 2013

Lepakshi temple

While Chantal was here we did a few road trips. We both love ancient temples so of course we had to go to Belur, Halebid and Sravanabelagola. We managed to squeeze them all in in one day.

The next trip was to Lepakshi, which is just over the border in Andhra Pradesh. Lepakshi has been on my ‘list’ for a while. It’s an important pilgrimage place because of its magnificent Veerabhadra temple.

We took the Bangalore-Hyderabad highway which must be the best highway I’ve taken in India. The road was in excellent condition, there was no traffic, and the scenery was beautiful. There was even a Kamat restaurant on the way where we could stop to have ragi dosas – a favourite with both of us. We reached Lepakshi quickly.

The Veerabhadra temple is perched on a rocky outcrop and was built in the 16th century during the Vijayanagar empire.

The pillared halls are covered with intricate sculptures of deities, dancers, musicians and animals.

One thing which is unique about this temples is the beautiful fresco paintings in vibrant colours which adorn the ceiling of the kalyan mantapa. This one depicts the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.

Take a walk through Veerabhadra temple…

14 March 2013


This is an Indian expression I love which is unique to India.

Timepass is ‘passing the time’. Or it can refer to an activity that’s used to ‘pass the time’.

A few months ago, I was on the train in Andhra Pradesh travelling from Visakhapatnam to the Araku Valley. A newspaper vendor was passing through the car. Instead of calling out ‘newspaper’ to attract potential buyers, he said: ‘Timepass!’.

Reading the newspaper is an example of ‘timepass’. Other popular timepass activities are watching TV, eating or sleeping.

Timepass can also be used to refer to a hobby, one which helps pass the time.

Samosapedia defines timepass like this:

“Wasting or whiling away time. Transliteration possibly of Kannada phrase "Kaala kaleyavudu" meaning "losing time," which has the same meaning. Also means doing something for leisure but with no intention of accomplishing anything.”

Timepass seems to be a fine art!

04 March 2013

Puncher shops

Walk down any street in Bangalore and you’re sure to come across a ‘puncher shop’. This may be an actual small shop or just a dedicated space on the sidewalk. Instead of someone wearing boxing gloves, you’ll find a man repairing bicycle tires. For some reason, ‘puncture’ is systematically misspelt; that’s just one of the quirky quirks of India.

Cars, trucks, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, pushcarts all have rubber tires which get invariably punctured at some point or other. The ‘puncher shops’ provide a handy roadside service, anywhere, and almost anytime.

The Hindu has an interesting weekly column called “I am” which features “men and women who make Bangalore what it is.” I enjoy reading these little personal vignettes about ordinary people doing ordinary jobs like vegetable vendor, paper collector, brick maker and yes, puncture repairer.

Recently the column featured T. Balasubramanyam, a puncture repairer with his own shop in Malleswaram. He reveals a few details about his daily job. He keeps busy from morning to night, repairing up to 20 flat tires a day. You can read more about him and what goes on in a ‘puncher shop’ here.