31 May 2009

Then & Now

I came across a beautiful website featuring old postcards of India and other countries in Asia called Images of Asia.

I especially like the old pictures of tradesmen practicing their trade on the roadside. These trades still exist and many of them are still carried out on the city roads and sidewalks.

I went through my photo collection to find more contemporary representations of some of these tradespeople:

A shoemaker (mochi) then

A shoemaker (mochi) now

A fruit seller then

A fruit seller now

A street sweeper then

A street sweeper now

A tailor then

A tailor now

A dhobi (washerman) then

A dhobi (washerman) now

A barber then

A barber now

28 May 2009

Water woes

Photo: M Kumar/AP

Yesterday morning I noticed the water had a murky yellowish colour and a bad smell. This happens sometimes, especially during the monsoon. But it had never been this bad.

I tried out the water purifier, which purifies the tap water so that it’s potable. The purifier has a special 3-stage filter process: the tap water goes through an a micron pre-filter, followed by a silver-impregnated activated carbon purifier, before it is zapped by ultra-violet light. The result is drinking water as good as the mineral water sold in bottles in the shops. But this time, once run through the purifier, the water had a slight yellow tinge and a bad taste. I went up to the roof, opened the lid of the tank and peered inside. The water was so cloudy, I couldn’t see the bottom.

Water is stored in tanks on the roof.

On my way to the shop to get a few bottles of mineral water, I stopped by to see my landlords and ask them what was going on. My landlady told me that her husband is sick, and so are some of our neighbours. Everyone is complaining about the water. She reassured me by saying that they had called someone to come and empty and clean the sump and tanks. Clean water would then be delivered from a private water company.

Whoever said that future wars will be waged over water was so right. During my first weeks in Bangalore I had written about the bandh or general strike that had been called in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Cauvery water dispute. The Cauvery is an important river in South India. It’s one of India’s seven sacred rivers, and perhaps most importantly, the main water source for three South Indian states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. 80% of Bangalore’s water comes from the Cauvery river which is 120 kilometres away. Water is a very precious commodity in India. Shortages are frequent, especially during the hot, rainless summer months. Ads for apartments for rent boast ‘24-hour water supply’ along with other important features like fitted kitchens and uninterrupted electricity.

Luckily we have never had problems with water supply. Water from the corporation (municipal authorities) arrives in the sump. It’s pumped up into tanks on the roof where it’s stored until we turn on a tap. My landlord has to remember to turn on the pump every other day or so, so that the tanks stay full. In other houses and apartments, water arrives via a tanker. Water tankers (painted in bright colours) are a very familiar sight in Bangalore. I regularly see them barrelling down the roads, sometimes with water sloshing from the top or even running over the side! But although our water supply is frequent, as you’ve just seen above, it is not always clean.

Photo courtesy of KeithDM

One of these colourful tankers showed up at our house that same day and we now have good, clean water again. But my landlord is livid because this ‘private water’ is of course more expensive that the murky yellow stuff the corporation gives us. He filled a bottle with the yellowish stuff and stomped off to the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) to complain – to no avail. “They are not concerned. They are corrupt to the core!” he angrily told me. He then contacted The Times of India. He’s saving the bottle of murky water for the journalist who has promised to come and hear his water woes.

25 May 2009

A break in the Andamans

I just got back from a trip to the Andaman Islands. This chain of Indian islands is located in the eastern Bay of Bengal – quite far from the Indian mainland and closer to the coasts of southern Burma and Western Thailand.

The 572 islands of the Andaman and Nicobar islands have a rugged, untouched beauty. Their tropical rainforests, mangroves, white sand beaches, clear waters and coral reefs are what make them a popular tourist destination (though on a smaller scale than other destinations in India).

I arrived in Port Blair on a flight from Chennai and then took a ferry to Havelock Island. Having arrived towards the end of the tourist season and the beginning of the monsoon rains, I found a quiet tropical paradise. The highlight of the trip was snorkelling in the warm waters and discovering the coral reefs and tropical fish which are abundant here. Not surprisingly, this is a popular destination for divers. These islands have a rich flora and fauna, with many plant and animal species being unique to the islands. This is also the home to six indigenous tribes.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands were badly affected by the tsunami, some parts worse than others. Near Port Blair, there are some tsunami-affected areas which are a sinister reminder of the destruction caused by this disaster: a few skeletal houses, headless palm trees and tree trunks poking conspicuously out of lakes which were left behind by the tsunami.

The administration is keen on protecting the islands’ biodiversity. Only some of the islands are open to visitors. Foreigners need a special permit which is valid only for certain islands and a maximum period of one month. The permit also clearly states that photographing tribal peoples is a criminal offence. I didn’t come across any tribes, as they live on the more remote islands.

Being so far east from the Indian mainland but still observing Indian Standard Time, the days have their own rhythm: the sun goes down by 5pm and is up again at 4am the next morning. I also witnessed the onset of the monsoon rains with heavy showers happening mostly in the early mornings. I never thought I’d be happy to experience rain on a holiday, but after an exceptionally long and hot summer, the rain was more than welcome!

12 May 2009

Bangalore bicycle

“I’m a cyclist,” Murali announces. There must have been a few raised eyebrows because he repeats, “Yes, a cyclist,” while making a pedalling motion with his hands.

I was sitting in a room full of IT nerds on a Saturday morning. I was there because I had decided that I needed to brush up on my photography skills, so I signed up for a weekend workshop. I was one of only two women, the only foreigner, and the only non-IT professional in the room, apart from Murali the cyclist.

Later Murali told me why he had arrived late that morning. The doorman of the mid-range business hotel where the workshop was being held had seen him arrive on his bicycle. He had asked him in an unfriendly tone what he was doing there. Was he looking for a job? “I’ve come for the workshop,” Murali replied. “What kind of workshop?”demanded the doorman. The interrogation continued for another 10 minutes before he was allowed to enter the hotel. “You see, Indians think in terms of status and caste,” he explained. It’s true that Murali’s bicycle contrasted with some of the SUVs the other workshop participants arrived in. A bicycle is not a status symbol.

Like Indian society, the roads have their own hierarchy. The bicycle is lowest on the food chain. Trucks and buses rule the road here: they’re the biggest and fiercest and command the right of way merely by their sheer size. Upscale cars and SUVs also somehow manage to impose some kind of authority. Next comes the middle class on their motorcycles and scooters, more vulnerable to the traffic, pollution and weather conditions. Last come the cyclists and pedestrians; endangered species. “Only the poor walk or take the bus,” someone once took the trouble to explain to me.

A versatile means of transportation

When living in Brussels, I would cycle everywhere. This was the fastest and most pleasant way to get around. I would not dare do this in Bangalore. I find the traffic too intimidating, the pollution too choking and the weather too hot. I often read about fatal accidents involving cyclists in the paper.

One of the city's many bicycle repair shops

Murali has been riding his bicycle around the streets of Bangalore for the past year. He cycles 5 to 6 kilometres a day. This is out of choice: “Considering the traffic, it’s a fast means of transport,” he tells me. “It’s also a good form of exercise, it’s eco-friendly and a means of self-awareness.” He’s active in a local organisation called RideACycle Foundation which encourages cycling as a mode of transport and a means of recreation. It also lobbies for the rights of cyclists and for laws to protect them. They are currently working with the government administration to promote dedicated cycling lanes. He was inspired to take up this work after a trip to France where he was impressed by the infrastructure available for cyclists.

Roadside bicycle repair - while you wait!

But Bangalore is still far from a cyclist’s paradise. “Roads are not designed with cyclists or pedestrians in mind,” Murali explains. “Look at the Indiranagar flyover. There are no pavements for pedestrians. People have to walk by the side of the road, putting themselves in danger. Motorists have no respect or patience for slow cyclists. Cyclists have to be constantly aware of what’s happening around them, they have to keep their eyes and ears open. This is how I’ve learnt self awareness,” he adds.

Murali and his bicycle

In a city like Bangalore, are cyclists really an endangered species? I hope not. But if there were dedicated cycle lanes, maybe this would encourage more people to take to cycling. Maybe the eco-friendly bicycle will become the status symbol of a new generation.