30 May 2007

Monsoon magic

The thunderstorms we’ve had off and on for the past few days are a sign that the monsoon is just around the corner. Temperatures have gone down a few degrees and there’s no need to switch on the ceiling fan during the day. The nights are cooler.

I’ve been following the predictions of the India Meteorological Department and the onset of the monsoon in the papers. The south-west monsoon usually starts in the state of Kerala (on the south-west coast) on June 1st and then gradually travels upwards, soaking most of the country by July. But there were predictions that the monsoon would arrive early this year. Then Tuesday’s (May 29) paper confirmed that the south-west monsoon ‘has arrived with a bang’ in Kerala and that it would reach Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the next few days.

Before the first thundershower last week, I felt the palatable excitement in the air. The wind was picking up, bringing down tree branches and banging windows shut. Dark, threatening clouds were making their approach, turning day into night. I went up to the roof to watch the wind and clouds and saw that I wasn’t the only one watching the approaching storm from the rooftop. Women were busy quickly taking down laundry from clotheslines and closing windows. There was the sound of children shrieking with excitement as they flew kites in the strong wind.

Then during the storm, apart from the sound of raindrops beating down on concrete, there was an amazing and eerie silence: no traffic noise, no singing birds, no shrieking children. And then once it was all over: the cool air, refreshing after days of humidity, and that delicious smell that rises up from the wet earth.

The following day brought another rain shower and this time I got caught in it coming home from dance class. Auto-rickshaw drivers love the rain because it means more customers and they shamelessly jack up their prices. One wanted 100 rupees to take me home - the usual price is 12. I decided to wait until the rain let up and took refuge in front of a bank. Business was quiet and some of the employees came out and stood outside to watch the pouring rain. Two of them – young women - ran out into the street, getting soaked and screeching like schoolgirls.

After enduring the scorching heat of April and May, all of India eagerly awaits the monsoon season. The monsoon is the country’s lifeblood: after months of dry and dusty heat, its rains irrigate farmland and fill aquifers. It also brings down temperatures, bringing relief from the heat and signalling the end of summer and the start of a new season.

The rainy season is also considered to be a ‘romantic’ time and is depicted this way in art, music and poetry. In Indian classical music, there are ragas that are sung or played specially during this time. These melodies are moody and thought-provoking, evoking impressions of clouds, thunder and rain. Raga Megh (meaning cloud) is even said to provoke rain.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

25 May 2007

Lights out

9am. First power cut of the day. How many will there be today? Yesterday there were only two – which is exceptional. A few weeks ago there were up to five a day. Lately we’ve been averaging at least three.

I’m learning to plan the day around the daily cuts. I fill up the water bottles first thing in the morning because the water purifier won’t work without electricity. Getting a load of laundry done is more challenging. On Monday this took the whole day because the wash cycle kept getting interrupted. Luckily I have a laptop so I can continue to use the computer without interruption on battery power. I also now understand why the fridge is so COLD – if it were kept at a more normal temperature everything in it would eventually rot and melt way during the long hours without electricity.

During the day I can live with them but it’s the evening power cuts that are most annoying. They inevitably happen while I’m trying to cook. I’m becoming adept at cooking by candlelight. I’ve also been out for a meal a few times when the power has gone out. The whole restaurant is suddenly plunged into darkness. But there are no gasps of surprise from the customers or screams from the children. Everyone just waits quietly for the generator to kick and roar into life and for the lights to come back on so we can get back to the food on our plates.

Power cuts are also programmed to happen during dance class. The three ceiling fans suddenly grind to a halt and I submit to the torture of being tied up in a five-metre dance sari, the sweat pouring down my face and neck more quickly now, stinging my eyes while I’m trying to concentrate on my tribhangi. I gasp for air. We open the doors and windows wider but it doesn’t make a difference.

Daily power cuts, or ‘load-shedding’ as they’re referred to here, are a reality in many Indian cities, especially during the hot summer months when air-conditioners get switched on and electricity demand surpasses supply as a result. Rural towns and villages are worst off, with inhabitants experiencing long stretches and often whole days without electricity while power is diverted to the big cities where the needs of the middle classes are greater. Almost half the population of India has no access to electricity at all – and for those who do, there just isn’t enough to satisfy demand.

Of course businesses couldn’t cope with all these daily interruptions to the electricity supplying their computers, lights and air-conditioners, so many have back-up power available in the form of diesel-run generators. Huge UPS (uninterruptible power supply) batteries maintain power between the moment the electricity fails and the generator kicks into action. Many apartment blocks also have back up power supply in the form of generators or battery back-up systems that will keep lights on and ceiling fans moving for a few hours. For those who don’t have access to back up power, they just have to grin and bear it. In Bangalore where the weather is mild, this isn’t too bad. But I read that in Delhi when temperatures reach 45 degrees and the power goes off, people get into their air-conditioned cars for relief from the heat!

(Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

22 May 2007

Lost in the supermarket

“The big Spencers is open!” my landlady excitedly called out to me as I walked by her front porch. “I saw it when I was coming back from church!” I was more intrigued by the fact that she had been to church than the opening of the new supermarket just around the corner that she was breathlessly telling me about. To answer my question, she briefly explained that although she’s Hindu she “likes all religions” and goes to church every Thursday with her Christian friend. She then went back to extolling the virtues of the amazing shiny brand-new Spencers: “You can find everything there! Fruit, vegetables… and non-veg also! Very clean and modern, like in your country!”

These modern ‘Western-style’ supermarkets are sprouting like mushrooms all over Bangalore and many other Indian cities almost on a daily basis. Just a few weeks after the opening of Spencers’ Super, I noticed banners all over the neighbourhood announcing the opening of another supermarket chain called Fresh. I also found a flyer in the morning newspaper. And just in case this wasn’t enough to draw my attention to it, my landlady was again quick to let me in on the latest shopping opportunity: “Another supermarket is there! The fruit and vegetables are cheaper than the market!” I thought of the Tamil man and his sister I buy vegetables from in the market. And the father and son who sell me fruit. And the pushcart vendors who walk through my neighbourhood, yelling out their wares. I knew that my landlady’s excitement was not good news for them.

Above: Some of the supermarket chains springing up around the city.

Needless to say, the arrival of these supermarket chains has not only been met with euphoria but also much protest. At a recent demonstration in Bangalore, vendors protested that the entry of these corporate giants into the retail industry is taking business away from pushcart vendors and small shop owners. The Fresh chain, owned by Reliance Retail - which has plans to open stores in 70 Indian cities over the next two years - has been the target of attacks in Ranchi (in Jharkhand state in north-east India) where five stores were vandalised recently.

Above: Scenes at the local fruit and vegetable market.

Of course the supermarket trend is something that the local economies of cities and towns all over the world have had to reckon with over the past three decades. I remember the family-run grocery stores and butcher shops of my childhood. Some (very few) are still around, but most are long gone, replaced by the supermarkets, hypermarts and superstores of the 24/7 consumer society.

But is 24-hour convenience, 2 for 1 specials, and ‘the lowest price guaranteed’ the ultimate shopping experience? While living in London, I was fed up with the insipid processed food available at bargain prices at the local Asda (which is part of the Walmart group), and preferred to buy fruit and vegetables from the local market and bread and olives from the neighbourhood Turkish grocery store, even if it did mean spending a little more money. In exchange I got food that looked and tasted like food and I felt I was supporting small independent retailers instead of big greedy multinationals.

But the Indian supermarket chains will soon have to face their own competitors. Foreign retail giants like Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour have been fighting to be the first to get a share of India’s $300 billion retail industry and access to the country’s fast-growing middle class who have money to spend - and like to spend it, especially in Western chain stores. Walwart is set to open up shop shortly in partnership with Bharti Enterprises.

Will Indians be seduced like my landlady by the bright lights and low prices of these mega markets and superstores? Will they be able to offer the same quality of service as neighbourhood shopkeepers – many of whom have known their customers personally for years, offer free delivery and even credit? And what will become of the pushcart vendors? Will they disappear from the streets and have to find new ways of making a living? Will the colourful neighbourhood markets be forced to shut down? Are bright lights and cheap prices better? At what price?

14 May 2007

Summer fruit

Yesterday I decided to sample all the weird and wonderful fruit I’ve seen being sold by the vendors on Thippasandra Main Road.

Since it’s the height of summer and therefore the height of the mango season, the majority of the roadside fruit stalls are selling mangoes of almost every shape (big, small, round, oval, human heart-shaped) and colour (red, orange, yellow, green). Having heard so much about how delicious Indian mangoes are, I’ve been waiting for the mango season with anticipation – and haven’t been disappointed!

The number of different varieties to choose from is mind boggling: Badami, Kesari, Mallika, Alphonso, Raspuri, Sendura, Malgoba, Totapuri and Banganapalli are just a few. So far I think I prefer Badami and Alphonso mangoes (which are supposed to be the best and the most expensive). I’ve also learnt that every Indian fruit has its accompanying condiment… watermelon is eaten with black salt, for example! For mangoes it’s sea salt and chilli powder. But I like them just as they are.

For the past month I’ve noticed a curious fruit being sold on almost every street corner that looks like a big brown nut. I asked my friend Sudha what this large brown fruit is that looks like a giant hazelnut. She told me it’s called nungu in Tamil and that it comes from the Palmyra (palm) tree. It’s similar to a coconut because it has a hard outer shell that the vendor breaks open with a knife. Inside is the white fleshy jelly-like fruit which can be eaten with sugar and cardamom powder and – of course - chilli. I ate it ‘plain’ and found it very pleasant and refreshing – similar to the flesh of tender coconut but sweeter.

Next I paid a visit to the stalls selling a huge fruit that looks like some weird underwater sea creature. This is jackfruit, which is – not surprisingly – the largest tree-bearing fruit. This is also the ugliest fruit I’ve ever seen, and the one I’ve been avoiding… but I decided to put on a brave face and try it. The huge carcass is chopped open with a big knife to reveal yellow rubbery sheaths wrapped around seeds the size of a large lima bean. This rubbery flesh has a slightly unpleasant smell but the taste is sweet and similar to the taste of melon.

While looking for information on this strange fruit I found this description written in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Babar, which made me laugh out loud:

“The jackfruit is unbelievably ugly and bad tasting. It looks exactly like sheep intestines turned inside out like stuffed tripe. It has a cloyingly sweet taste. Inside it has seeds like hazelnuts that mostly resemble dates, but these seeds are round, not long. The flesh of these seeds, which is what is eaten, is softer than dates. It is sticky, and for that reason some people grease their hands and mouths before eating it. The fruit is said to grow on the branches, the trunk, and the roots of the tree and looks like stuffed tripe hung all over the tree.”

Another common sight is the piles of green ‘tender’ coconuts by the roadside. The water of these young, green coconuts is refreshing on a hot summer day. The vendor chops open the top of the coconut and cuts a hole though which he slides a straw so the water can be drunk. Sometimes the water tastes a bit like carbonated water depending on how fresh the coconut is. The water is also very good as a rehydration remedy because of its sugar and mineral content. Once you’ve finished drinking the water, the vendor will chop open the coconut and also cut a piece of the husk so you can use it as a spoon to eat the soft tasty flesh.

Watch a coconut vendor cut open a coconut:

09 May 2007

The strays of Bangalore

Stray dogs are a familiar sight in Bangalore. They hang around street corners watching the world go by. On hot, lazy afternoons they sleep curled up on quiet residential streets catching up on zzz’s during the day because at night they’re busy fiercely defending their territory from other dogs who are new on the block. They also loiter in market areas and around meat shops waiting for a yummy morsel to fall on the ground so they can gobble it up. I’ve often seen dogs happily trotting off with a pair of chicken feet in their jaws – donated by one of the workers at the chicken shop. They also linger at roadside food stalls where they beseech you with their eyes, begging you to please give them some of your lunch.

These mutts are also extremely streetwise: they negotiate crossing the road through several lanes of traffic with ease. One day while waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green on Infantry Road, I noticed a dog sitting beside me, also patiently waiting for the light to change. As soon as the signal turned green, he (she?) tottered happily across the road ahead of me! Another time on Airport Road I was nervously watching a dog weaving through several lanes of traffic and held my breath when it looked like it was going to be run over by a bus… but this clever canine just crouched down and let the bus pass over him (her?)!

These street-savvy strays have been in the news a lot lately. In January an eight-year-old girl was mauled to death by a pack of hungry dogs on the outskirts of the city. There was a public outcry and demands to curb the ‘stray dog menace’. Furious by the death of this young child, there were demands that all street dogs be culled while animal rights groups and other animal lovers called for more humane solutions.

NGOs have been catching street dogs, treating them for any illnesses, and then vaccinating and sterilising them before setting them free in the same area they were picked up in. A clipped left ear is a sign that the dog has been treated. I’ve been paying more attention to the dogs I see in my neighbourhood and have noticed that a lot of them have clipped left ears, but not all.

The stray dog issue escalated when another child was killed by strays in March – this time a five-year-old boy in BEML layout. There have been very disturbing reports that the city authorities have been indiscriminately capturing thousands of street dogs and systematically killing them by electrocution, beating and other cruel and inhumane means I don’t even want to mention. Letters appeared in the paper written by people complaining that their dogs have gone missing. Around this time I also observed that the strays in my neighbourhood were sporting new collars. A friend even saw some dogs on Old Madras Road with ‘I love you’ painted on them! Many strays are ‘long-term residents’ of a particular street and are fed leftovers and cared for by the street’s residents.

A more radical protest is the one taken by a holy man. I read in The Hindu newspaper that Basava Murthy Madara Chennaiah Swami of Shiva Sharana Madara Chennaiah Gurupeetha in Chitradurga began a ‘fast unto death’ on March 28 in protest to the mass killing of stray dogs.

Meet the strays of Bangalore:

06 May 2007

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle...

On a recent train journey just outside of Calcultta, a family sitting in my compartment was having a mid-journey snack on paper plates. ‘Happy New Year’ was printed on them in silver and gold lettering. The man finished his meal and then carefully folded his plate, leaned over towards the open window and slid the plate through the metal bars. One by one, as each person finished their meal, each of their plates met the same fate. My attention was then diverted by a loud argument that had broke out in the gangway. I asked our Bengali friend what the fuss was about. A tea vendor had spit out his ‘paan-juice’ in the aisle of the train and was being told off strongly by a man wearing glasses and clutching a briefcase. If only littering provoked the same reaction from fellow passengers.

A few weeks later in Lalbagh gardens in Bangalore, I observed a couple sitting with a small child on a park bench. The man emptied his fruit juice and then nonchalantly threw the cardboard box over his shoulder onto the grass. His wife followed his example once their son had finished with his. I guess they didn’t notice the signs asking them to keep the gardens beautiful by not littering.

Indians are very proud of their country but they don’t hesitate to pollute its roads, railways and waterways by throwing litter wherever and whenever they please. On a more positive note, very little seems to go to waste and whatever can be salvaged is recycled. I’ve always sorted our household waste for recycling, so I didn’t know what to do with our glass bottles and plastic containers. I felt bad throwing them out with the rest of the garbage. But I soon learned that there’s no need for me to sort our garbage before throwing it out, because everything is sorted by other people once it’s already on the roadside.

In the mornings when I go to pick up the morning newspaper from the doorstep, I put out the garbage by the road. I can only do this in the mornings because if I put the garbage out overnight the plastic bag will be ripped to shreds during the night by the neighbourhood rats, cats and dogs. So out it goes first thing. When I step out of the house again later, I notice the bag is still there but it’s been opened and some of its contents are scattered around. I’ve realized that someone opens the bag, rummages through it, and takes anything that can be recycled, like glass or plastic. Any food waste then becomes a free-for-all for the roaming dogs and cows.

Above: Cows contribute to waste disposal.

A boy rides around the neighbourhood on a bicycle every morning yelling: “Pay-paaaaar….” He collects unneeded newspaper and sells it to used paper merchants. Cardboard fetches a higher price. 'Rag pickers' walk the streets with white canvas bags collecting plastic or glass bottles, or anything else that could be reused. These people are obviously very poor: their clothes are often stained and tattered. They don’t wear gloves and they’re often barefoot. Doing such a job, they can only be from the lowest castes. Very often they’re children. After filling their bags, what was someone’s waste becomes someone else’s treasure. They’ll exchange what they’ve salvaged for a few rupees which may cover the cost of a meal.

Long after what’s worth rescuing from the neighbourhood’s abandoned garbage has been salvaged, contracted workers (who make a minimum wage of 2075 rupees (37EUR/56CAD/50USD) per month) collect what’s left in a cart and haul their loads to one of the garbage sorting sites located on street corners around the neighbourhood. A truck will then come by and the waste is loaded on and taken away.

03 May 2007


Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu is a special place for dancers. This temple is dedicated to the god Shiva in his aspect as Nataraja, the lord of dance. Every year the Natyanjali dance festival is held in his honour, starting on the day of Maha Shivaratri, the feast day of Lord Shiva. For five days Indian classical dancers perform for audiences in the temple grounds. Dancers also have the unique opportunity to dance in the temple sanctum as an offering to Lord Nataraja, as dancers dedicated to the temple once did in the past.

Above: Statues of Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance.

Chidambaram temple is also special because it is one of the five South Indian temples representing the five elements (panchabhoota stalam in Sanskrit). Here the element is space. The other four temples are Kalahasti (wind), Tiruvanaikka (water), Tiruvannamalai (fire) and Kanchipuram (earth).

An important and noteworthy aspect of the temple are the 108 relief sculptures which decorate the inside of the temple’s four gopurams (the towers located at each entrance which serve as gateways to the temple). These intricate sculptures illustrate static dance poses from the 108 karanas which are featured in the ancient treatise on performing arts, the Natya Shastra. These relief sculptures are poses frozen in time taken from the karanas, which are dance movements. Interestingly, these poses are also yoga asanas (yoga postures).

Above: One of the gopurams of Chidambaram Temple. The sculptures are found in the entranceway.

In these sculptures we see the characteristic half-seated position which is the basic position of South Indian dance styles. Some of the poses are very acrobatic that only a contortionist could possibly attempt!

You can see some more sculptures of karanas here: