25 December 2008

Christmas wishes

Every Christmas eve, sand sculptor Sudarshan Patnaik creates a giant sandy Santa Claus out of the sand of Puri beach in Orissa. The morning paper had a photo of his current creation.

Wishing a very Merry Christmas to my readers!

(Photo: PTI c/o The Hindu)

17 December 2008

Train to Chennai

Indian trains are as stratified as Indian society: there’s unreserved seating for those who can only afford the cheapest ticket, reserved air-conditioned seating for the middle classes who like their comfort but don’t want to pay too much for it, and first class air-conditioned seats for the upper classes who like to travel in comfort and style, and for whom money is no object.

I chose the middle option. When I found my seat it was empty. I was surprised because usually there is always someone already in my seat when I find it. The person occupying it usually explains that they would like to sit with their wife/husband/daughter/sister-in-law and would I mind taking their seat instead? They would kindly direct me to the seat that was allocated to them. When I would find it, someone would already be sitting there. I would then again be politely asked if I wouldn’t mind taking their seat in the next car… There was no need to play this game of musical chairs this time. When I found my seat, it was empty and waiting for me.

As soon as I had settled in my seat, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Didn’t we meet on the bus to Pondicherry?” an older woman asked. I remembered her: an Indian woman who lives in the US who was travelling with her husband. We had chatted over a quick cup of coffee during a stop on the way to Pondicherry, and they had told me that they go to Chennai every year for the music and dance festival. I had told them that we may meet again because I’m also a regular. Now they were sitting behind me! To my right there were two police officers dressed in their distinctive khaki uniforms. I wondered if this was a new security measure. To my left an Indian man was travelling with his family to Chennai. His children’s American accents gave them away as ‘NRI’s (non-resident Indians).

The chorus of food vendors started.






It’s impossible to go hungry on Indian trains. The vendors in their checkered shirts and matching caps filed in and out of the car tempting passengers with their breakfast offerings. As the journey wore on, other snack options appeared:


And then later: ‘BREAD OMELETTE…!’ and ‘VEGETABLE CUTLET…!’

Followed by ‘SWEET POLLI…!’, and finally ‘BISCUITS…!’.

There had been a delay leaving Bangalore but somehow we rolled into Chennai Central right on schedule. The porters in their red shirts and lungis rolled up to their knees were already on the train before it had come to a stop, pulling at suitcases on the overhead racks and carrying them out on their heads.

I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the midday heat of Chennai. The crowd of passengers made it’s way along the platform towards the exit where it dispersed into waiting cars, buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws.

(Image: The Times of India)

15 December 2008

Musical nights

The festival season is also a time when many music and dance festivals take place. Last weekend I went to Pune to attend the Sawai Gandharva music festival. Given the current security climate, I had wondered if the festival would suffer the same fate as the Bangalore Habba, but luckily it did take place as planned but not without some security arrangements in place.

This annual festival was started 56 years ago by renowned classical singer Bhimsen Joshi who was honoured recently with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. The programme is a who’s who of the Indian classical music world, featuring some of the most celebrated musicians of Hindustani (North Indian) music as well as notable young up-and-coming artists and some established musicians of the South Indian style of Carnatic music.

What surprised and impressed me most about this festival was the sheer size and enthusiasm of the audience. Every year, 15,000 people attend! It takes place outdoors under a huge tent and runs for four days. The music used to go on all through the night but this changed when the city authorities imposed restrictions on noise after 11pm.

I missed the opening day, arriving only on the second day of the festival. When I enquired about seats, I was told that the chair seating and more cushy (and expensive) sofa seating were already sold out. The only available option (also the least expensive) was ‘Bharatiya Baithak’ which was translated for me as ‘Indian seating arrangement’, in other words: seats on the floor! At first the thought of sitting for 5 to 6 hours on the ground didn’t seem like the most comfortable option – but I quickly found out this is where the true spirit of the festival lives. It was like taking part in a huge picnic! A vast area in front of the stage was corralled off for the floor seating. Though I had arrived an hour before the concert was to start, three quarters of the space reserved for ‘Bharatiya Baithak’ was already taken, covered with a hodgepodge collection of colourful blankets, rugs and bed sheets, where the young and old were reading, sleeping, drinking chai, sharing snacks and chatting, patiently waiting for the show to begin.

The music started at 4pm sharp. The crowd of spectators now stretched to the back of the tent. At first there was enough space to stretch my legs but as the concert progressed, more and more people managed to squeeze in and join the crowd already seated on the floor. In India, there’s always room for one more and progressively there was less and less space until each person’s knees were touching those of the person next to them! Little boys stepped gingerly through the crowd selling paper cones of roasted peanuts.

While there were security arrangements in place, with metal detectors at the entrance and armed police, I looked at the makeshift fences separating the floor seating from the long rows of plastic chairs and couldn’t help imagining a scene of complete chaos in the event of an emergency. There was only one entry/exit to the venue and no emergency exits. As the evening wore on, people kept arriving and joining the crowd, putting down their sheets and blankets on any available space on the ground. Others were standing in the wings. With thousands of people crowded into a small space, any emergency could easily result in disaster.

I put these thoughts aside and turned back to the music. It was 8am on Sunday morning, the last day of the festival. The air was a little too cool and I wished I had remembered to bring a sweater. Ronu Majumdar had just started his concert and was elaborating the nuances of a morning raga during the alap. The huge crowd was quiet and attentive. The only other sounds were muffled coughs and the mynah birds calling to each other in the distance. As the morning progressed, it got increasingly hotter. The dozens of ceiling fans suddenly whirred in action, adding a din to the background noise and some fresh air. By noon when Pandit Jasraj took the stage to enthusiastic applause, the air felt heavy and hot.

No festival or event in India is complete without food. Behind the huge tent, a series of makeshift food stalls made brisk business selling coffee, tea and all kinds of snacks. Other stalls offered 2 for 1 deals on music CDs and DVDs. A TV crew was following the handful of foreigners around, asking us if security concerns had made us think twice about coming to the festival and who our favourite Indian musicians were. There was an exhibition of photographs of Bhimsen Joshi, as well as his beloved 1965 Mercedes on display.

Everyone was expecting Pandit Joshi, now 86, to make a surprise visit to the festival and perhaps even perform for however short a time despite his ill-health. He did indeed make an appearance on the 3rd night of the festival, pulling up close to the stage in his car (another Mercedes). Everyone stood up and clapped, knowing instinctively who this surprise visitor was. He didn’t get out of his car but spoke to the crowd in Marathi to enthusiastic cheers from the audience. In this city of music lovers, Pandit Joshi is regarded as a god, and the festival he started 56 years ago in memory of his guru is the biggest event of the year.

Photos courtesy of desiknitter.

10 December 2008

Sounds and colours

With the festival season still in progress, this has been another noisy and colourful week. The main road which runs parallel to my street is decorated with red and yellow Karnataka flags and colourful garlands of lights which hang down in a vertical pattern across the facades of the shops and buildings. Next to the Hanuman temple, an image of Hanuman the monkey god has been outlined in colourful lights and the words, Hanuman Jayanthi – this is a holiday which celebrates the birth of the god Hanuman. I remember this being celebrated a few months ago… sure enough some Internet research revealed that this festival was already celebrated in April this year. I don’t know why it is being celebrated again… perhaps any excuse for a party is a good one?

This morning there was a huge crowd in front of the temple so today must be the pinnacle of this festival which started over a week ago. Of course there were the usual noisy processions with loud frenetic drumming, bursting fireworks and the more soothing sound of temple priests chanting in the early morning hours.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the stationery shop and came across a colourful and noisy procession of camels, people wearing colourful masks and costumes, men on stilts wearing tall hats, followed by frenetic dancers being worked up by the energetic street drummers, and a float pulled by a tractor which carried a female deity covered with garlands.

I asked the shopkeeper what the fuss was all about. He told me it was to celebrate Kannada Rajyotsava (the founding of the state of Karnataka), a holiday which was already celebrated on November 1st! This left me even more confused… Anyway, whatever the occasion was, it was celebrated with much pomp and fanfare and as I write this, I can still hear the drumming! I was able to film some of the noise and commotion happening outside my window – well, around the corner… Have a look and experience some of the sounds and colours of India:

05 December 2008

Security concerns

I was looking forward to the Bengaluru Habba, an annual dance, music and arts festival which was due to start yesterday and run for the next 2 ½ weeks. I and my dance friends were excited about the excellent line-up of dancers who were due to perform this weekend, beginning this evening with a performance by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. But I was surprised (and disappointed) to read in this morning’s newspaper that, only hours before it was to start, the festival had been postponed indefinitely. The reason cited is security concerns. It appears that the State government has asked for a postponement of mass public gatherings until December 15 because of threats of terrorist strikes.

In light of the recent events in Mumbai, airports around the country have been put on high alert. This is also in anticipation of December 6th, which is tomorrow. Every year on the 6th of December, security is tightened in airports, bus and railway stations, and other public places all over the country. This is the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque 16 years ago which had sparked off deadly riots.

Security had already been on everyone’s mind following the bomb blasts here in Bangalore this past July. The tightening and enforcement of security measures since then has been very noticeable. When we go to movies for example, there’s always a long line to get into the parking lot. This is because security personnel inspect the trunks and back seats of each and every vehicle, while a mirror on wheels is slid under the car to check the undercarriage. To enter the mall, each person has to pass through a metal detector and bags are searched at the door. Then, before entering the cinema, cinema goers are asked to step through another metal detector before being frisked and having their bags searched a second time. A night out at the movies resembles a trip to the airport!

All this extra security means long lines, and lots of tedious waiting… people try to be patient because they know that unfortunately such measures are necessary given the current climate. But it seems like our patience will be further tested now that additional security measures are being put into place. Hopefully, life will continue as usual with no unexpected incidents and the Bengaluru Habba can happen soon!

Image © The Times of India

27 November 2008

A Gloomy Day

I woke up at 5:30. It was pouring rain. I decided to skip kalari class and go back to bed.
The morning paper was soaked. I logged onto The Times of India. “It’s War on Mumbai” the headline screamed.
I turned on the BBC. It reported on nothing else all day.
I turned on the lights and put on socks, a sweater, a scarf.
The rain continued all day. Cyclone Nisha is hitting the Bay of Bengal.
I made a hot cup of tea and soup for lunch.
The cats slept all day.
A gloomy day.

(Above: A painting by Raja Ravi Varma)

06 November 2008

Ode to the elephant

The temple elephant at the Kamakshi temple in Kanchipuram.

On the bus back to Bangalore, there were no unscheduled flower stops (see previous post). But on the road that winds through rice fields we did come to a sudden halt to let an elephant pass! It was almost as high as the bus, with its mahout riding on its back. The elephant poked its trunk through the driver’s window. The driver stretched out a coin which the elephant quickly scooped up, handing it to its keeper before tapping the window with its trunk. We continued on our merry way, having receiving the elephant’s blessing for a safe journey!

The elephant is a revered animal in India because it’s considered to be a representation of the god Ganesh who has the head of an elephant. Elephants are often found at the main gates of temples, and are also often part of festival processions.

Here are some of the elephants I’ve come across in my travels:

The temple elephant at Meenakshi Temple, Madurai.

At the gateway of Tanjore temple.

Taking a dip at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

An elephant and mahout at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

During the Pongal festival in Tiruvannamalai.

Lakshmi the temple elephant in Pondicherry.

04 November 2008

Auroville daze

The smell of flowers everywhere.
Waking to the sound of birds.
The bliss of riding through the red dusty roads on a bicycle.
Organic food, baguettes and croissants.
Where the sign at the State Bank of India also says: Banque de l'Etat de l'Inde.
Being randomly addressed in Russian and Italian!?
Peacocks at the doorstep!

Where else but in Auroville? It’s nice to be back.

01 November 2008

Bus to Pondicherry

I couldn’t find platform 25 at Bangalore’s Kempe Gowda bus station (known simply as ‘Majestic’ by locals – I’m not sure why), so I asked a tea vendor. He asked me something in Kannada. I assumed he was asking my destination. So I replied 'Pondicherry'. "Straight and left," was his answer. I eventually found a platform '25C'. "Which bus?" asked another tea vendor. He directed me to the end of the platform, where the newspaper man asked me if it was the Volvo bus to Pondicherry I was looking for. He told me it arrives at 8am opposite the platform. I crossed over to where some people were sitting and waiting. A man with a pile of boxes confirmed that this was the place to wait for the Pondicherry bus. I watched as one bus after another went by with the conductors standing at the doorways calling out destinations.

At 8:30 the bus arrived. The luggage was loaded into the hold and the passengers got on. We finally drove off a half hour later with the radio blasting the latest Kannada film hits. As we winded through the morning traffic, we passed city buses stuffed full of people on their way to work which contrasted to our air-conditioned Volvo bus only half full of passengers.

At Hosur, the bus suddenly pulled over to the side of the road where 2 vans piled with boxes full of flowers were waiting. The bus driver and conductor got out and started emptying the hold of our luggage which was then carried into the bus, filling the aisle. Somehow I felt this flower break was not a 'scheduled' stop. This was confirmed when I saw the driver being handed a few bills. Bunches of flowers were also loaded inside the bus in the overhead compartment.

After this delay and with the smell of flowers filling the bus, we were back on the road. Ten minutes later, we stopped again - this time to pick up a consignment of fleece blankets! And then somewhere in Tamil Nadu, another halt – this time to load a huge sack of jasmine flowers. I was beginning to understand how lucrative it is to be an inter-state bus driver!

The interstate road was newly paved and work was in progress to widen it. Signs along the way warned drivers of the perils of reckless driving:

"Fast drive could be last drive"

"Don't learn safety by accident"

"Lane discipline gives you long life"

"Destination is reward for safe driving"

And the more ambiguous: "Death is nature, you don't cause it"

At some point, we turned off onto a narrower road which took us through rice paddy fields which were a brilliant post-monsoon green. We passed workers making bricks out of the red earth. In every rural market town there were statues of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dr Ambedkar who was often conspicuously painted entirely in blue.

We arrived at the Pondicherry bus stand only half an hour late - not bad considering the two tea / bathroom breaks on the way and all the unscheduled stops!

25 October 2008

Diwali preparations

I've been watching the city prepare for the upcoming Diwali celebrations. Little clay pots called 'diyas' are for sale everywhere, heaped in big piles. These are placed inside and outside homes, filled with oil and lit on the night of Diwali. Buildings are being decorated with garlands of bright lights. The shops are full of shoppers buying jewellery, new clothes and sweets to give as gifts to family members and friends.

Diwali - or Deepavalli as it's called in South India - is the most important Hindu festival. This festival of lights celebrates the triumph of good over evil when Lord Krishna destroyed the demon Narakasura under whose rule people suffered from many hardships. This is also a time when the goddess Lakshmi is worshipped.

During this festival, homes are thoroughly cleaned, including all metal pots which are filled with water. On the day of the festival, new clothes are worn after a ritual bath. Gifts and sweets are distributed to friends and family members. At night the clay lamps are lit and firecrackers are set off - making this perhaps the noisiest Hindu festival!

Happy Diwali to everyone!

22 October 2008

Morning in India

I love mornings in India. There’s something magical about the first hour just after sunrise when everything is waking up and the air is fresh and cool and the noise of the day hasn’t settled in yet. I love waking up to the sound of the birds that nestle in the huge tree in front of the house. Less pleasant is waking up to the sensation of my toes being nibbled by Squeaky who is awake and active as soon as the sun is up. I try to keep her out of the bedroom by keeping the door closed but she makes such a ruckus that I give in too easily.

Twice a week I get up just before sunrise to go to my Kalaripayatt class. Not even the cats are up when I drag myself out of bed. When I leave the house, the sun is already up. I walk to a friend’s house nearby from where we take an auto rickshaw together to class. During my walk, I witness the city waking up. I see the milk sellers and newspaper boys on bicycles making deliveries. Early morning devotees are already at the Hanuman temple on the main road offering their prayers. I cross 80 Feet Road easily because there’s very little traffic compared to during the day when crossing this road is a nightmare. I walk through the block between 80 Feet Road and 100 Feet Road known as Defence Colony. Here I come across people walking dogs (usually this is a chore for domestic staff and not the owners!). I pass the walker’s park which is already a scene of activity with walkers dressed in track pants and running shoes making their rounds around the walkers’ path at a fast pace. (You never see anyone jogging in India!) The stray dogs are still curled up sleeping in sheltered corners, often in groups. I also see auto drivers asleep on the backseat of their auto rickshaws. For some, their vehicle is not only their means of livelihood but also their home. Maids are busy sweeping the road in front of houses and drawing beautiful kolams.

Many yoga and meditation classes are held early in the morning, around 6 or 7am. This is because early morning is considered to be an auspicious time, especially between 4:24 to 6am which is called Brahm Muhurath. This ‘ungodly’ time, an hour and a half just before sunrise, is actually very ‘godly’ as it’s considered to be the best time for spiritual practices like prayer, meditation or yoga.

The trip to class which is in central Bangalore takes only 15 minutes at this time of day when traffic is light and there are not too many vehicles on the road. However, on the way back home an hour and half later, the scene is very different. The roads are clogged with cars, motorcycles, buses and auto rickshaws as schoolchildren head to school and people are on their way to the office. The magical hour has passed!

14 October 2008

A long weekend in the Western Ghats

India's landscape is as diverse as its people. The Western Ghats are a 1600 kilometre-long mountain chain that descends down the western coast of India. They erupt in the north-western state of Gujarat and descend straight down along the western coast of the Arabian Sea through the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala, ending at the southern-most tip of India in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu.

The dense forests, lakes and rivers are home to many bird and animal species, as well as a variety of plants and flowers not found anywhere else in the world.

I spent four days in the Chorla Ghats which border the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. Arriving on the tail end of the monsoon, the hills were a rich, lush green with many rivers and waterfalls gushing through the dense landscape.

The 70-kilometre trip from Belgaum in North Karnataka took 3 hours through very rocky, post-monsoon pot-holed roads! Once we crossed the border into Goa, the roads improved considerably:

The road in Karnataka:

Just a few metres away, over the border in Goa:

Some photos from a long weekend in the Western Ghats:

08 October 2008

Dasara days

Like last year, my landlady insisted I come see her puja room which she has specially decorated for Dasara. Every year on this occasion, she brings out all her painted statues of gods and goddesses and proudly displays them for 10 days in her puja room. She explained that she has had these statues for the past forty years: “These are antiques!”, she told me proudly.

The small puja room was crowded with the full pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. The Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva had their prominent places on one shelf, while the Dasavatar (10 reincarnations of Lord Vishnu) occupied a whole shelf underneath, jostling for space with Lord Venkateshwara and Princess Padmavati from Tirupati who were observing the whole scene. The goddesses Parvati, Saraswati and Lakshmi were also there, showering their auspicious blessings on the whole household and ensuring success in spiritual fulfilment, learning, and wealth and prosperity respectively. There were also two black statues. I don’t know who they represent but she told me they are ‘very important’.

Today being Ayudha puja, she had also laid out her husbands’ tools and children’s books so that they could be blessed and continue to bring their owners success.

Before I left, she gave me a few bananas and put a tikka on my forehead with red and yellow powder and made me promise to send her the photos I took of her puja room to her email address so that so that she can send them to her daughters who live in the US.

Tomorrow is the last day of Dasara and a public holiday. Happy Dasara to everyone!

25 September 2008

New kitty on the block

At one point I was feeding four stray cats who would come and visit my terrace regularly. There was sweet little Todi who decided to move in with us and then was unexpectantly called to cat heaven before her first birthday. There was her mother, who would have a litter every few months and who I planned to get spayed but she disappeared before I could. There was a wild black and white tomcat who would keep the whole neighbourhood up at night with his loud, screeching meows. He has also since disappeared. (Perhaps he’s not as missed!) Fluffy Tail Cat is still around. It took some time to get to know him but I appreciate his quiet and reserved but affectionate nature.

And now there’s a new kitty on the block! On a Sunday evening just over a week ago, I was on my way home and was passing a very loud Ganesha procession (it was the last evening of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival). My eye caught a small scurrying animal dodging cars and stray dogs. It was dark and at first I thought it was a rat, but when I got closer I saw it was a small scared kitten. I picked her up and took her home. She was so thin I could feel her ribcage. Once home she settled in almost immediately and now seems happy to have a new home where she is safe from all the hazards of street life. She must be just over 2 months old. She doesn’t even have all her teeth yet! She spends most of the day sleeping or playing with whatever she finds around the house. She also likes to play with Fluff who is very gentle with her and happy to have some company again.

Meet Squeaky:

And this is Fluffy Tail Cat:

I noticed that 95% of Indian cats are ginger-coloured. I mentioned this to a friend who remarked that this is not surprising, considering that everything is so colourful in India!

19 September 2008

End of the monsoon?

Above: another view from my kitchen window

August was an unusually wet month in Bangalore. Though rain is expected during the June to September monsoon season, the city received double the expected amount of rain in the month of August: the average is 147 mm. This year the city received 309.8 mm, with August 26th being the wettest day with 66mm of rain.

It poured rain almost every day, but mostly during the night, which was convenient. Of course this was very inconvenient for those who experienced flooding in some parts of the city – luckily my neighbourhood was spared. Though the flooding was inconvenient for some, it was no where close to the devastation experienced by some parts of North India during this monsoon season.

Though the monsoon is always enthusiastically welcomed in June, come September and many people are looking forward to ‘winter’ and the dry, sunny days ahead. For the past week or so it hasn’t rained at all and the monsoon seems to be waning now. Daytime temperatures are climbing back up to the 30s and though the sky is still mostly covered with cloudy patches, there are longer sunny spells throughout the day. The plants on the terrace need watering, the garden furniture can be taken out again and the laundry dries quicker!

10 September 2008

A happy end for Ganesh

Above: Ganesh on his way to Ulsoor Lake

Ganesh Chaturthi is one of the most popular festivals celebrated in most parts of India with much noise and fanfare. For the past week, colourful and noisy processions have been taking place every evening through Bangalore’s streets in honour of the elephant-headed god Ganesh.

For weeks before the festival, colourful statues of the god in all shapes and sizes are sold in the streets. Huge Ganesh statues are erected in each neighbourhood where he is decorated with flowers and worshipped by the locals before they hoist him onto a tractor and take him to one of the city’s lakes for immersion.

The Lake Development Authority has run a campaign asking people to only buy idols made with natural colours to avoid the unnecessary pollution of the city’s lakes with toxic chemicals. Many of the statues are made of clay or mud which dissolves easily once in contact with water. At various points around the city, huge bins of water have been set up so that people can come and bring their idols for immersion. A priest is on hand to perform the final puja before the elephant god is dunked. The idols are then disposed of instead of being dumped in a lake.

Should devotion lead to destruction? Think about it! declares an ad in the paper:

05 September 2008

Too much to bear

Above: the view outside my kitchen window.

The morning of September 1st was cloudy and grey. A typical monsoon morning. It had rained heavily during the night.

I was sitting working at the computer when I heard loud crying coming from behind the house: a child and some women. I looked outside my kitchen window which looks onto a small community of modest housing where many labourers live. These are people who work as maids and drivers in the neighbourhood or at the marble works next door or as manual labourers. This community is made up of a few rows of small concrete houses with corrugated irons roofs squeezed between the main road and the road I live on. When I looked outside my kitchen window, I saw a group of people huddled in front of a corner house, crying. I didn’t know what was going on but I understood that something terrible had happened. I thought of the woman who comes to clean my place who has been sick for the past month and hoped that there wasn’t some sort of epidemic running through the community.

Later on I went up to the roof to put out the laundry to dry. I looked over behind the house and saw a man lying on the ground, in the narrow lane between two rows of houses. I knew I was looking at a corpse. His arms were lying unnaturally straight along his sides and his legs were also ramrod straight. His head was cocked to one side. Then I noticed the end of a sari tied around his neck.

His neighbours were busy emptying his small house which measured maybe 2.5 by 4 metres, like the other houses in this community. They brought out a small wooden table, a reed mat which had probably been his bed and a few plastic water jugs (these houses have no running water, only a common well). A man emerged with the other end of the sari and casually threw it on the body. Another carried out a bundle of clothes and a blanket which was used to cover the body. A few men arrived with a stretcher and carried him away.

I wondered what led him to take this extreme step. Illness? Debt? Despair? A few days later, I read in the paper that Bangalore has the highest suicide rate in India. 25,000 people take their lives every year in this city. On the day following the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, the morning paper announced that four persons had taken their lives that day. The man who lived behind my house was not one of them but maybe his story was similar.

The Hindu, 5 September 2008. Bangalore: Four persons ended their lives in separate incidents by hanging themselves in the city on Wednesday, when Vinayaka Chaturthi was celebrated.

Gali Venkatappa (45), a bar bender, committed suicide at his residence in Uttarahalli. The police said he was suffering from stomach ache for many years. Unable to bear the pain, he took the extreme step.

In another incident, a 17-year-old girl ended her life at her residence. She was identified as Sridevi, a resident of Gowdayyana Palya. As an assistant, she had worked for a few telefilm production companies. She had a quarrel with her parents on Wednesday. When her parents went to a temple to offer puja, she hanged herself, said the police.

Another 17-year-old-girl and a first PU student committed suicide in the limits of Mahadevapura police station. The police gave name of the girl as Pavitra Murugesh who was studying in a college in Prakashnagar.

A 26-year-old woman ended her life in Krishnananda Nagar. Rajamani, wife of an autorickshaw driver, was a native of Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu. Four years ago, she moved into the city with her husband Mariyappan. On Wednesday night, she took the extreme step, the police said. Based on the complaint lodged by her father Rama Gounder, the sleuths of Nandini Layout station have arrested Mariyappan on charge of dowry harassment.

23 August 2008

Krishna Jayanthi

Statues of Lord Krishna for sale in my neighbourhood.

The festive season continues. Another day, another god is worshipped. Today is Lord Krishna’s birthday, another hugely popular god in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. Krishna is much loved because he is one of the most ‘human’ of the Hindu gods. He’s depicted as a cowherd, playing a flute, with a peacock feather in his hair, surrounded by admiring gopis or milkmaids. He also takes the form of a baby or a small child who loves butter and milk – so special sweets made of ghee (clarified butter) and milk are specially made today. Children dress up as Lord Krishna and music is played to celebrate his birthday. Interestingly, this feast is celebrated today in South India – starting at 11:55pm – while in North India it will be celebrated tomorrow.

20 August 2008

Time Out Bengaluru

Something happened while I was away. Time Out Bengaluru was launched! For a culture buff like me, this is great news. I picked up a copy yesterday and read it from cover to cover. It seems to have the most comprehensive listings of what's going on in Bangalore. This is good news because previously I had to check several papers to find out what was happening around town.

The magazine seems to have launched its own campaign (amongst others) against the death of Bangalore's nightlife. Some background: following an incident on New Year's Eve (no one seems to know what exactly happened) the government banned dancing and live music at all of Bangalore's clubs, bars and pubs. 8 months and a new government later, things haven't changed. Protests are getting louder but the authorities don't seem to be budging.

Time Out's Nightlife section starts with a black page marked 'Obituary', and declares: "Bangalore's nightlife, once vibrant, died at 41. According to Rule 11 of the Karnataka State Excise Licence General Conditions Rules, 1967, 'no dancing, no get-together and no feast shall be allowed in clubs, bars and pubs'."

For now, 'nightlife' is restricted to drinking and listening to music, but no live music and no dancing. This is a shame, because a few months ago I discovered a great place that plays retro music - but the dance floor has now been transformed into a lounge area. The only public place where dancing seems to be allowed for now is in dance class!

16 August 2008

Raksha Bandhan

I think India has more festivals than days in the year. Yesterday was Independence Day but also Varalakshmi Puja dedicated to the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. The festive spirit continues today with Raksha Bandhan. This festival celebrates the relationship between brothers and sisters.

Today sisters will be trying a thread or bracelet (a rakhi) on their brothers' right wrists to wish them good health. Brothers then take on the responsibility to protect their sisters and give them a small gift in return.

If a brother lives far away, no problem - his sister can easily send him his rakhi in a special tear-proof and water resistant Rakhi envelope available at the post office.

Happy Raksha Bandhan to brothers and sisters everywhere!

15 August 2008

Independence Day

Today India celebrates 61 years of independence. Indians are very proud of their country, and I think they have lots of reasons to be. I don't know any other country as culturally and linguistically rich as India. This is what fascinates me about this country.

This week in The Times of India, Shashi Tharoor made some interesting reflections on India's linguistic diversity. He described how 12 years ago when India was celebrating its 49th year of independence, the then Prime Minister, HD Deve Gowda, made a speech in Hindi. This was nothing remarkable, as such a speech happens every year, but what was unusual was that this Prime Minister, coming from Karnataka and having Kannada as his mother tongue, didn't actually know how to speak Hindi. So how did he do it then? The Hindi script was transcribed for him in the Kannada alphabet which he then read out to the nation. "...which of course made no sense," Tharoor concludes.

Tharoor reflects that such an incident "represents the best of the oddities that help make India India. Only in India could a country be ruled by a man who does not understand its 'national language'. Only in India, for that matter, is there a 'national language' that half the population does not understand. And only in India could this particular solution be found to enable the prime minister to address his people."

He describes Hindi as "the language which we have all learned to refer to (though the term has no constitutional basis) as India's 'national language'," and confirms that "No language enjoys majority status in India, though Hindi is coming perilously close." He then describes his linguistic reality which may be the reality for many Indians: "... I was a typically Indian child: I spoke Malayalam to my mother, English to my father, Hindi to our driver, Bengali to our domestic help and Sanskrit to God."

Indians seem to learn languages by some strange process of osmosis. Many people speak 3, 4, 5 languages. When I ask "How did you learn Tamil?" I get the response: "Oh, I had a Tamil neighbour." Or "How come you speak Telugu?" "I had a Telugu friend at school who taught me." In the west, a person who speaks many languages is held in awe and considered to be highly intelligent. In India this is commonplace. The lady who comes to wash my floors told me she has never been to school but she speaks four languages: Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. English is not in that list, so how do we communicate? Between my six words of Kannada, eight words of Tamil and numbers in Hindi up to five, and her ten words of English and some sign language we manage to understand each other!

Tharoor concludes his column by 'singing the virtues of pluralism': "It is a reality that pluralism emerges from the very nature of our country; it is a choice made inevitable by India's geography, reaffirmed by its history and reflected in its ethnography. Let us celebrate our Independence on August 15 in a multitude of languages, so long as we can say in all of them how proud we are to be Indian."

Above photo © The Times of India.

Listen to the Indian National Anthem performed by some of India's best-known classical musicians:

11 August 2008

Back to Bangalore

The new Bangalore International Airport

After five weeks in Europe, I’m now back in Bangalore under its monsoon skies!

My landlady has given me a full update on what I missed while I was away: “We had rain for a full week,” and: “One day last week we had a power cut that lasted six hours!” I certainly hadn’t missed the power cuts and I had had enough monsoon-like rain during my first two weeks in Belgium.

She wanted to know what the spanking brand-new Bangalore International Airport is like. “My friends told me it’s just like in Western countries!” Yes, Bangaloreans are proud of their new airport and it’s everything you would expect in an international airport, complete with designer shops and even an Illy cafĂ©. The only problem is the distance… while the old airport was just an easy 10-minute drive away, it took me an hour to get to the new airport which is 35 kilometres away. The same journey could take 2 to 3 hours during daytime traffic.

Arriving in the middle of the night, I learned that the pre-paid taxi system has been replaced by a fleet of brand new air-conditioned ‘city cabs’ which run on metres. In no time we were speeding along the near-empty multi-lane road which had been specially-built to provide access to the new airport. I was wondering if I had somehow landed in Dubai instead, but soon the new road ended as we approached Bangalore city and the familiar beep-beep of road traffic woke me from my reverie and I realised that I was back in India after all!

30 June 2008

Another window elsewhere

I'm looking outside another less colourful window for the next five weeks so my blog will be temporarily interrupted. Please visit again soon!

28 June 2008

Read the sign!

Outside a temple in Chennai.

The garbage here won't I throw.

Hmm... despite this, people garbage throw the here!

Yet someone always seems to be sitting here! (Mylapore, Chennai)

Senior Citizens Park, Defence colony, Bangalore.

'ONLY' is a favourite word in the Indian vernacular. As in:
"I'm from Bangalore only." or, "I came this morning only."

At the Tibetan monastery in Bylakuppe.

The Laughter Club meets here every morning from 6:30 to 7:30 (only)!