31 March 2009

Monkey business

I was reading the paper at CafĂ© Mocha on Lavelle Road on a Sunday morning recently when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head to see a monkey! He had climbed down from the trees and was stealthily making his way to the table next to mine. Cool as a cucumber, he quickly and determinedly helped himself to the sugar packets in a bowl on the table – taking only the brown-coloured ones and not the white ones! Before I could blink an eye, he had already climbed back up the tree! Moments later, empty sugar packets fell to the ground one by one. He was obviously savouring his loot!

I’ve seen monkeys mostly in rural settings and at temples, but they are also very much part of the urban landscape of many Indian cities. I remember seeing a pack of monkeys crossing the road in New Delhi, with the babies riding piggyback on their mothers’ backs! I have never seen monkeys in my neighbourhood in Bangalore, but I have heard many stories from people who have walked into their kitchen to see a monkey opening their fridge to see what’s inside, or lounging on their sofa helping themselves to any drinks or snacks lying around!

These creatures are fascinating because of their human-like qualities and sharp intelligence. But they can also be aggressive and intimidating. Apparently in New Delhi, monkeys have become a real menace. The authorities have tried using monkey catchers to capture the monkeys and then release them in forests, but they’re not so easy to catch. A monkey even managed to board the metro one day, terrorising passengers before he got off three stops later! The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation took on a new employee since this incident: a langur monkey and his handler are called in to scare away the smaller, pesky macaques whenever they get out of hand!

24 March 2009

Ashwini's wedding

It had taken a long time for my landlords to find the right match for their youngest daughter. They had scanned the matrimonial ads, made inquiries through their friends and family members and even spent 3 months in the US (where their daughter lives) to screen potential candidates. In the end she found her future husband herself: a former university mate who also works and lives in the US. Finally a date was set!

Though I had been invited to many South Indian weddings, I had only attended the reception which was always a bit of a disappointment. What typically happens is you arrive for the reception and join the long line of people waiting to greet the couple. Once it's your turn, you go up on stage where the newly married couple is standing, congratulate them and hand them your gift. A photographer then takes your picture with the happy couple. You then proceed to the dining hall where you are served lunch or dinner (depending on the time of the reception). Then in true Indian fashion, you leave immediately after having eaten.

My landlords had told me the date of the wedding months in advance and asked us to attend all three days of the wedding. Finally I would have the chance to see what happens during a South Indian wedding!

On the first night, there was a mendhi party. All the women have their hands painted with these intricate designs.

On the second day the engagement ceremony was held. Here the bride sits beside her father while her mother stands behind her. The priests chant prayers in Sanskrit. This was an Iyer Brahmin wedding which follows special rituals. During the ceremony I asked the women sitting next to me to explain some of the rituals to me. I didn't get a more detailed answer than: "This is our tradition." Finally she admitted that though she is familar with all these rituals, she doesn't really know the significance of them.

When I arrived for the wedding ceremony on the morning of the third day, I found the couple seated on a swing outside! I was told this was another traditional wedding ritual. The bride's mother wears her sari draped in a special way worn by Iyer women on special occasions.

The father's role in the wedding ceremony is very important. The bride sits on her father's lap, holding a coconut, while the groom stands in front of her.

An emotional moment when the father 'gives away' his daughter to her husband-to-be.

Playing of the nadaswaram during the wedding is considered auspicious. When an important moment of the ceremony was taking place, someone would gesture to the musicians who would speed up the music to a climax.

The groom has already tied the bridal 'thali' (necklace) around his bride's neck. Next they will walk seven times around the sacred fire, after which they are a married couple.

Priests, colourful saris and wedding paraphenalia.

The wedding ceremony took about three hours!

The house was decorated with colourful lights for the three days of the wedding!

15 March 2009

India overland

Above image courtesy of Hans Grimm.

Though I’ve travelled by plane a countless number of times, air travel never ceases to amaze me. You step into an airplane and a few hours later, you arrive in a different city, country, continent. With the convenience of travelling by air and the ease and affordability of communication today, the world seems to be a lot smaller than just a few decades ago.

Today most travellers to India arrive by plane. But during the late 1960s and 1970s, the only way to travel to India was overland! Sure there were flights to India, but most travellers preferred the overland route from Europe, passing through Western then Eastern Europe, then Turkey, Iran, (sometimes taking a detour into Syria and Iraq) Afghanistan and Pakistan before arriving in India and often continuing on to Kathmandu, Nepal.

These adventurers made the 12,500 km trip in converted London taxicabs, fire trucks, double-decker buses, Royal Mail vans, or brightly painted buses and VW vans. Though they often had a fixed travel itinerary, they rarely had any set plans, little luggage and very little money. In 1973, the travel company Intertrek offered a 3 1/2 month trip from London to Kathmandu for £280. In 1974, a one-way trip to Delhi from London cost £50 with Budget Bus while Magic Bus offered a non-stop 4-day trip from Amsterdam to Delhi for $45. A one-way trip from London to Kathmandu with Swagman Tours travelled through 15 countries and took 76 days.

I love to hear about what it was like to travel overland during this time and why young people were so drawn to India. My mother-in-law who was 24 in 1968 loves to tell me about her hippie days so I asked her if she knew of anyone who had travelled overland to India. She said that although many of her friends had talked about it, she had only heard of people who had made the trip. She explained that rejecting a career and travelling to Asia without money was a way for young people to rebel against their ‘bourgeois’ upbringing. “Drugs were also a very big part of it,” she confirmed. My artist neighbour in Brussels told me that in his youth he would spend months at a time in India and Sri Lanka, painting. When I asked him how he used to travel there, he said mostly by hitchhiking and sometimes by bus. Then there’s the mother of my friend Lisa who bought an old taxicab in London and drove across Asia in it!

In a fascinating book by Rory Maclean, The Magic Bus: On the hippie trail from Istanbul to India, the author retraces the overland trip to India made by hippie travellers in the late 60s and 70s. He explains how a whole generation was inspired to make the trip thanks to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the other ‘Beats’, as well as the Beatles. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (published in 1957) seems to have sparked the wanderlust of this generation. A recent book, Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand: The Beats in India narrates Ginsberg’s and some of the other Beats’ travels through India in the early 60s.

With the 1979 Iranian revolution, the overland hippie route was definitively closed. This unique travel adventure was experienced by only one generation. Very few make this trip overland today. Though travelling through Iran is now feasible, this may be more of a challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Some interesting links:

Click here for an account of a 1973 overland trip from London to Kathmandu.

Photos taken in 1975 during an overland trip to India by Hans Grimm.

See also this site: India Overland.

04 March 2009

The Rain Tree

For the longest time, I didn’t know what the name of the huge tree outside my window was. It stretches at least four stories tall and it’s long branches reach almost to either end of the street. This majestic tree seems ancient to me. But my landlady swears that the tree is as old as her house – 25 years. “My house is very old!” she likes to tell me.

At the beginning of the year, the tree loses all its leaves. But before the last leaf has fallen, new ones are already blooming. It always amazes me how quickly this tree completes this annual cycle of regeneration: it takes only two to three weeks.

The tree stretches its branches across the terrace and over the roof as if it had long protective arms which guard the house and shield us from the heat of the sun. It gives the terrace some much-needed shade, and thanks also to the two huge banyan trees just behind the house, the interior is always cool.

In a bookshop, I came across a book on the trees of India. I went through the illustrations and found the description and some illustrations of the tree I was looking for. This tree has a very wide canopy. It grows to a height of about 25 metres and its branches can spread out to a diameter of 40 metres. In spring, it produces pink flowers which look like bristles in the form of a small ball or pompom. At night, its rows of small oval leaves close up, folding together. This also happens when it rains, hence its name… the Rain Tree! Finally I had a name for my tree. I had heard of the Rain Tree before, but I didn’t know it was the tree outside my window.