28 February 2009

Keeping cool

For the past week, the weather has been hotter than usual. We really have fast-forwarded to summer! Temperatures have reached the mid-30s and it’s only February. Such temperatures are expected in the peak of the summer months of April and May, but not in February!

The city is noticeably quieter in the afternoons because everyone prefers to take shelter indoors with fans and air conditioners working non-stop. This extra demand for electricity means the daily power cuts are back with a new vengeance – up to four a day.

On the streets, watermelons are for sale – big piles of them stacked by the side of the road where they’re sold for 10 rupees a kilo. Vendors selling tender coconut water and sugar cane juice also have lots of customers. It looks like it’s going to be a long hot summer!

15 February 2009

Phantom India

When I was in Europe last summer, I came across a collection of documentaries by the French filmmaker Louis Malle called ‘L’Inde Fantôme’ or 'Phantom India'. This collection of eight documentary films were made in the late 1960s. They offer a fascinating glimpse into different aspects of Indian life and society at the time. What strikes me watching them 40 years later, is how much India has changed and how some things haven’t changed at all.

Malle filmed this series of short films as a detached observer, offering the spectator glimpses into moments frozen in time. At times he runs a commentary on certain aspects of Indian society, but most of the scenes have no dialogue – they are just short glimpses of different scenes he comes across:

  • A wedding party procession in a rural village. They spot the 3 foreigners with a camera and stop in their tracks. They silently observe them for a few long moments and then continue on their way.

  • A demonstration by post office employees in Kerala.

  • Women drawing kolams on their doorsteps.

  • Vultures devouring an animal carcass.

  • The temple of Konark where they meet two French hippie travellers who travelled overland to India without money, luggage or real direction.

  • Manual workers making bricks or working on a construction site.

  • The rituals you see in a temple performed by priests and devotees.

  • I was also interested to see dance classes going on at Kalakshetra in Madras, when it was still on the grounds of the Theosophical Society and the clips of BKS Iyengar teaching yoga in Bombay.

Phantom India was broadcast by the BBC in the early 1970s. The Indian government was outraged by the film and demanded that they be taken off the air. When this didn’t happen, the BBC was banned from India for many years. Why such outrage? Maybe for the same reasons as some of the reactions to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Malle had captured India as it was (at the time), filming instinctively and without judgement whenever something interesting caught his eye. The footage of the slums of Calcutta and Mumbai and the lepers’ colony in Calcutta did not seem to please the Indian government. The hierarchy of the caste system is a theme he picked up on repeatedly as well as the ‘westernization’ of India.

There are some clips of the film on YouTube:

09 February 2009

Sleepless nights

Winter has already fast forwarded to summer and it’s too hot to sleep with the window closed. But in my sleep I hear a constant tap, tap, tap and a whistle being blown outside my window. It’s the night watchman making his rounds!

Security seems to be an obsession in India. All the houses have metal bars across the windows and often balconies are also closed in. Apart from feeling like I’m in a prison, I’ve often thought of the potential fire safety issues of being caged in like this. Apparently this is to deter thieves and monkeys. I’ve never seen monkeys in my neighbourhood, but I have in other parts of Bangalore, so this seems plausible.

Our landlords strongly encouraged us to put a lock on our front gate when we first moved in. With two locks on our front door, we didn’t think this was necessary, but every evening they carefully lock their own gate with a chain and padlock as an extra precaution.

Security guards are conspicuous in India and are probably never out of work. Every building, business and shop has a security guard stationed at the door, day and night. Every apartment building also has one. I can’t visit a friend without being asked to fill in a register with my name, address, phone number, reason for my visit, time of arrival and departure. Perhaps this is sensible given the current security climate but of course with increased security comes less privacy and more hassle.

Some households have their own private security guard stationed permanently outside their home on a chair or sometimes in a small shelter. Walking home at night, I often see these security guards fast asleep on their chairs!

In my neighbourhood, a collection of households each pay a small monthly fee which is pooled and paid to the night watchman for his salary. He starts his shift around 10pm and roams the streets until sunrise, tapping a wooden stick on the ground and blowing a whistle… protecting us and our property from thieves and external menaces.

I hear the tap, tap, tap and shrill of his whistle in my sleep without it disturbing me too much. But my poor husband spends many sleepless nights thanks to the night watchman we are paying to protect us. He complained to our landlord who is in charge of ‘supervising’ the watchman. He told us that other neighbours have complained that they don’t hear the watchman! Which led us to wonder what the point of the whistle and stick is… Is it to deter potential thieves? Or is to let us know he is there and doing his job?

In the end we asked the watchman not to blow his whistle when he passes our house. This works for a while but then he forgets, or another watchman takes over who has an even better pair of lungs. Maybe if we pay him a little extra he’ll remember?

Above photo courtesy of Ravages.

03 February 2009

India Coffee House

Like the Calcutta Coffee House, Bangalore’s own India Coffee House on MG Road is one of the city’s historical landmarks. It’s part of a nation-wide chain of coffee houses run by the Indian Coffee Workers Co-Operative Society of which the Bangalore chapter was established in 1957.

As part of my personal protest against coffee chains like Café Coffee Day and Barista, which remind me too much of very similar chains in other parts of the world, I try to frequent independent cafés which usually also happen to have more character and ambiance. The India Coffee House definitely has lots of both and stepping through its door is like stepping into the Bangalore everyone reminisces about. Though I have visited it several times since I’ve been here, I haven’t gone as often as I would have liked to. If I had known that it wasn’t going to be around forever, I definitely would have visited much more often. Now that there’s news of its imminent closure, I’m truly sad that this Bangalore landmark will soon disappear into dust and probably make way for one of those horrible glass structures which are slowly taking over the city’s landscape. The face of MG Road is also changing at a fast pace… in the past few months many old buildings have been torn down and trees have been chopped down to make way for the metro which will permanently scar this major artery.

I was at the India Coffee House not too long ago… on a Sunday morning in December. The downstairs section was full as it often is, so we headed upstairs via the narrow outdoor passage and stone staircase. From the front window I had a good view of MG Road which is almost treeless now. There was only the trunk remaining of one of the huge trees and a worker was busy sawing its last remaining branch… A sad sight.

Inside the café, patrons were busy having breakfasts of omelettes and dosas. The waiters serving them were dressed in their trademark India Coffee House turbans and uniforms, elegant but completely filthy. I sipped at my coffee and nibbled at my dosa and remembered that I don’t like their coffee or their dosas – you can get better South Indian filter coffee and crispier dosas at any of the city’s many sagars and darshinis! OK, so the coffee actually isn’t great, the café is more than a bit shabby and the toilets are definitely a no-go area, but all these things do not matter. These are just minor minus-points which I’m willing to easily overlook because I don’t go to the India Coffee House for the coffee. I go for that old-world ambiance and to get a feeling of how Bangalore once was, in a place that probably hasn’t changed for the past 50 years.

There are reports that the lease has now expired and the café will be either renovated or demolished by the owner of the property. It may move to another location if a suitable one is found, but of course the original atmosphere and setting will be difficult to recreate. The India Coffee House will close its doors at the end of the month. I think many of Bangalore’s inhabitants and visitors will mourn the loss of this favourite haunt.

Photos: India Coffee House.