31 August 2007

Bangalore's disappearing bungalows

People like to talk about what Bangalore used to be like before the IT boom, before the Indian economy’s growth spurt. And I like to hear about what the city was like in another time. I imagine it was a lot like it is now but with less traffic, pollution, noise and fewer construction sites. I also imagine more trees and bungalows set in scenic gardens. My friend Ranjini told me that when she used to spend her summers in Bangalore as a child with her grandparents, there were no traffic jams and no pollution. She described driving along Bangalore’s tree-lined roads as picturesque. The family used to go on long Sunday drives just for the pleasure of it. Driving in Bangalore today is not very scenic or pleasurable. You don’t venture out on the roads unless you have to, and then you try to avoid rush hour traffic. She also described the beautiful colonial bungalows set in flower-filled gardens which were characteristic of the city at the same. Sadly there are few examples left of these old, charming houses. These have given way to apartment blocks and gated communities with 24-hour security, power back up and unlimited water supply.

Luckily I live in a neighbourhood that still has tree-lined streets and one- or two-storey houses but I can see signs of how it’s been changing over the past few years. Just a few streets away, one road has been completely taken over by apartment buildings and more are being built as I write this. I can understand that many homeowners are tempted to tear down their houses and sacrifice their gardens to build an apartment building which will bring in a very generous income thanks to the city’s property boom. But this trend is ruining the city’s landscape. Does urban planning exist here? I would hope so. But seeing how things are going it makes me wonder. I also suspect that if there are urban planning rules and regulations in place maybe they’re often overlooked by the authorities in exchange for a hefty ‘tip’ from the developers.

Everywhere I go in Bangalore I hear the sounds of hammers, drilling, electric saws. New buildings and additions to existing houses are being built everywhere I look. Construction sites are scattered all over the city. In the space of a few days, houses literally disappear – to be replaced by the skeleton of a new construction which is then built in almost no time at all. Almost every week, while walking through the neighbourhood, I pass yet another 1960’s style bungalow being hacked, hammered and battered by the chisels, picks and hammers of demolition workers smashing windows, breaking down walls and destroying the foundations (and souls) of these old houses that are making way for the new. This demolition work is all done by hand – in India people are still cheaper than machines. The debris is then carried away by peasant women dressed in colourful saris while their children play nearby. I’m fascinated by these women and can’t help but watch as they effortlessly balance heavy metal plates full of the fragments of these old houses on their heads. (They seem to be equally fascinated by me because they often stop in their tracks and stare back at me in curiosity.) Young girls also do this work alongside their mothers. I’ve also seen pregnant women working on construction sites. The workers are brought in by developers from neighbouring villages and sometimes even from other states. They sleep on-site in tents or in the new buildings once the foundations have been laid. In the mornings I see them preparing their breakfast, brushing their teeth, bathing their children. Laundry is strung in the gaps where windows will be. Once the new construction site is complete, they move to another site, another building, another job.

22 August 2007

The second sex

I was saddened to read this morning that Hina Fathima has died. I’ve been following her story in the papers since she was the victim of a vicious acid attack almost two weeks ago. The perpetrator was her husband who forced her to drink acid, burnt her eyes with cigarettes and threw acid on her face and body. She was admitted to hospital suffering from burns covering 80% of her body. She died of her burns in hospital yesterday.

Hina was the victim of dowry harassment. Not satisfied with the 20,000 Rs dowry payment her parents gave him at the time of their marriage nine years ago, her husband has been demanding that her parents pay him more money and buy him a motorcycle. When his demands were not met, he tormented and tortured Hina. Eventually he killed her.

Marriage seems to be a high price to pay for many women in India. In 2001, 7000 women were killed by their husbands or in-laws because they wanted more dowry. Many cases of ‘dowry death’ or ‘bride burning’ are not even registered because they’re often reported as accidents or ‘suicides’. Here is one example of an alleged suicide in an article I clipped from the newspaper recently. (Note the use of words like ‘allegedly’ and ‘reportedly’ and ‘suicide’ in quotation marks.)

Woman commits suicide

Anitha (20), who was married less than a year ago, allegedly committed suicide near Upparpet colony here on Monday night.

She reportedly poured kerosene on her body and set herself ablaze. Demand for more dowry from her husband Chandru (25) and in-laws is alleged to be the reason for her “suicide”.

Following a complaint lodged by Hanumantharayappa, father of the deceased, the police have arrested Chandru, his parents Nagappa and Gowramma, and sisters Jayamma and Shalini on charge of harassing Anitha for dowry.

Unfortunately similar stories appear in the papers on a regular basis.

Since 1961, it is illegal to ask for, pay or accept a dowry payment in India. Yet this practice, like many of India’s other greatest social evils which have been outlawed (like child labour and the caste system), still persists. The payment of a dowry at marriage is a great financial burden on parents and this is one reason they are reluctant to have daughters. Sex determination tests for pregnant women are against the law – but illegal ultrasound tests are available. Female foetuses are then aborted. Female infanticide is also a persistent problem: half a million baby girls are killed in India every year.

Simone de Beauvoir said that women are the ‘second’ sex. This is generally true but especially poignant in a country where girls and women have little value: unwanted female foetuses and baby girls are aborted or left to die, and women are burnt alive by greedy husbands and in-laws.

14 August 2007

The Gulmohar tree

In April and May, at the height of summer, Bangalore was painted red. The city’s Gulmohar trees were in full bloom, with their bright red flowers transforming every street into a tapestry of colour. Towards the end of summer, the flowers fell to the ground and covered the roads with brilliant carpets of red petals. The red blossoms are all but gone now – the last few washed away by the monsoon rains. I didn’t think of posting any pictures at the time, but I’ll post them now since the sun has come out and it feels like summer again. But I'll have to wait until April to see the red blossoms again.

06 August 2007

Vaasthu Shastra

Vaasthu Shastra can be described as an ancient Indian architectural science which is somewhat (though not entirely) similar to the Chinese principles of Feng Shui. The principles of the Vaasthu Shastra are found in the Stapatya Veda – an ancient text which describes the effect of the earth and planets on construction and design. These principles are applied to the construction of temples which are built according to the strict ‘rules’ of Vaasthu. Many people also consult Vaasthu experts before building a house or other buildings like offices to make sure they follow the principles and as a result bring harmony, health, prosperity and happiness!

According to Vaasthu, everything in the universe is made up of the five basic elements – or the pancha boothams: Space, Earth, Water, Fire and Air. It is believed that all living beings are made up of these five elements which also support life and nature. According to the Vaasthu Shastra, the delicate interplay between these elements and the precise positioning of each room can influence the positive and/or negative energy of a dwelling or building and as a result affect the health and prosperity of the inhabitants.

For example, according to Vaasthu principles, the kitchen should be located in the south-east corner of a house (to catch the early-morning rays of the sun and avoid the winds coming from the south-west), bedrooms are best placed in the east or south, and the dining room in the west (to promote good digestion). Toilets should be placed in the north-west or south-east. Money is best kept in a north-facing room and the puja (prayer) room should be in the north-east (also to catch the early rays of the morning sun when prayer time is considered to be most auspicious). A courtyard in the middle of the house ensures good ventilation.

A column in Saturday’s The Hindu paper featured readers’ queries related to Vaasthu answered by Niranjan Babu, a Vaasthu consultant. Here are some of the questions and their responses:

Q: I have placed 100 bonsai, about 10 species of crotons, and about 25 varieties of thorny cactus on the terrace of my residence. My wife says that both bonsai and cactus are bad for Vaasthu. Her Reiki guru told her that all these transport only negative energy… Due to family problems, I had to sell a two-acre plot. Please tell me whether the plants had created a negative atmosphere and led to family quarrels. Should I get rid of all the greenery for having a peaceful life?

A: Vaasthu, while speaking of the importance of the primary elements, tells us that if we go with nature, nature takes care of us. There is no need to get rid of your bonsai and cactus plants. However, proper placement of plants, in their compatible zones, can contribute to happiness and health. Herbal plants in the northeast sector, thorny (cactus included) plants in the southeast sector, heavy and leafy plants in the southwest sector and flower plants and lawn in the northwest sector are normally recommended.

Q: My open kitchen has a north entrance and has a platform and stove in the south. There is only a window in the east which lets in good breeze. My friends told me that having the fire element in the south and placing of the microwave in the same direction are wrong. Where should the sink, cooking platform and the window be? Do mixer and microwave also have specific areas of placement? Please give me a detailed answer as all of us at home have acidity problems.

A: Place your microwave and do your cooking on the eastern platform of your kitchen, more to the south side. You can have the water element activated by having your aquaguard fixed to the north wall of your kitchen, more to the east side. Colours can also contribute to better digestion and minimise acidity problems. Have orange curtains on the windows and doors of your dining area and an orange top for your dining table. This apart, avoid spicy food and take proper medication from your family doctor.

Q: …My first daughter has a hormone problem from birth. She is normal enough to go to work and look after herself… I lost my husband to a kidney problem. I donated a kidney but things didn’t work out for him. My house is peculiarly constructed. We have a south-west facing gate (more leaning towards west) with the whole site shaped like a trapezium… kind of irregular. On the west corner we have a septic tank, and next to that is the Corporation water sump. The main door is facing the south, kitchen is in the north-east, with the same north-east corner being a clothes and vessel wash area. Almost all the intersecting meridians have bathroom/toilets i.e., north-west, south-east and north-east… Please advise me with regard to the toilet and bathroom placements.

A: Vaasthu texts generally recommend properly-shaped sites and orientation to the cardinal directions. Bathrooms and toilets in the north-west and south-east sectors are in order. North-east, referred to as Eashanya or God’s territory and ruled by Jupiter, contributes positively or otherwise to one’s health and one’s general happiness. I suggest you have this area pollution free. Right habitation can also contribute to better health. I suggest you move your elder daughter to an east or north-east room that has enough morning sunlight into it.