31 July 2010

Namma Metro dreams

The ongoing metro project means a lot of dust, traffic disruptions and noise. For the past two years, Bangaloreans have been ‘adjusting’ to the inconvenience and anticipating the day they can take a ride on the metro.

I’m not sure if the work is on schedule but it does seem to be progressing very quickly. First I watched the trees being chopped down on CMH and MG Roads and whole blocks of buildings being razed to the ground. Then came the iron rods poking out of the ground. These then became concrete pillars. Then huge pieces of concrete were stuck together to become a viaduct, which each day would slowly make progress, metre-by-metre, across the cityscape. The skeletons of the metro stations are already there.

Work goes on around the clock, day and night, with workers putting in 12-hour shifts. There are over 3000 workers working on the metro project. They have come from all over India but most are from the states of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. I see them carrying iron rods, operating equipment and tottering on shaky scaffolding wearing yellow hard hats. Some look very young. They are here far away from their families and stay in the temporary accommodation provided for them. They earn 12,000 rupees (200 EUR / 163 GBP / 266 CAD / 257 USD) a month and probably send most of their money home to their families. They work on day shift for 15 days followed by night shift for the next 15 days, with a holiday after 30 days of work.

There’s a metro carriage on display on MG Road. People can go inside, sit on the seats and imagine what it will be like to travel on the metro.

Since Chief Minister Yeddyrappa announced that the first stretch of the new metro line will be operational by the end of the year (I’m not sure how optimistic this is), I no longer see the traffic snarls and construction sites as a nuisance. Instead, I see a bridge in the sky and I see myself flying above the treetops from Indiranagar to MG Road in air-conditioned comfort, with no traffic jams to slow me down. I’m far away from the choking exhaust and sound of car horns and sputtering auto-rickshaws. Down below I see a long line of auto-rickshaws, and their drivers standing on the road in their beige uniforms begging people not to take the metro but to use their services instead. They’re even offering a 10 rupee discount with a smile and a promise to go wherever the passenger desires to go... But people are walking past them, without giving them even the slightest sign of acknowledgment... because now they have Namma Metro.

Photo by Birashis.

20 July 2010

A morning with the dhobis

When we got a washing machine our neighbours asked why we didn’t get the household help to wash our clothes – or send them to the dhobi (washerman). While many households do have washing machines, some still use the services of the dhobi.

Dhobis used to go from door to door with a donkey, collecting dirty laundry from their customers and rolling it up in a huge bundle. With the donkey’s help, the bundle would then be carried to the nearest dhobi ghat. Here the clothes would be washed and ironed before being returned to their owners one or two days later.

Yesterday morning, with a few people from my photography class, I visited one of these dhobi ghats. Every neighbourhood has one. These open-air laundries have rows of sinks with stone slabs and long lines of clothing stretched on clotheslines to dry in the sun.

The dhobis were leaning over their sinks where they soaked the clothes, rubbed them with bars of soap, scrubbed them with a brush, and then whacked the laundry loudly against the stone slabs. Many were making a whistling sound as they slapped the clothes on the stone.

Considered to be a man's job, there were very few women here: only two or three.

This is very physical and tiring work. This may be a trade which is dying out but the dhobis seemed to have a lot of work. I noticed quite a few silk saris lying around, and telltale dry cleaning tags hanging from some hung up to dry – which makes me suspect that the dhobis get a lot of business from the city’s dry cleaners…

Ravi starts his work day at 5am and finishes by 1pm. He works every day, Sunday included. "Don't you have any time off?" I asked him. "I take a day off once in a while if I need to," was his reply.

At 9am, the chai wallah arrived. The dhobis took a short break. Just the time to drink their cup of tea.

Then it was back to work!

09 July 2010

Bears being bears

As the jeep passed through the gates of the enclosure we were met by a whole gang of black sloth bears. They knew it was snack time. They bounded up to the jeep, following it. More and more bears appeared out of the forest and raced each other towards the jeep. It stopped suddenly and the two men in the back jumped out and distributed the morning snack: watermelons. I expected the bears to bite into the melons to get to the fruit inside but they used their long claws instead to claw open the fruit. In seconds they gobbled up the red juicy flesh leaving behind only the rinds.

As we drove along through the enclosure more bears happily bounced up to the jeep and each got a watermelon as a treat. Dr Arun told us their names. “This is Raju. He is very naughty!” Raju stood on his hind legs as if to get a better look into the vehicle to see who the visitors were.

I was at the Bear Rescue Centre at Bannerghatta National Park on the outskirts of Bangalore. This is the home to 90 sloth bears. Here the bears spend their days exploring the forest, playing on the swings and platforms specially built for them, hunting for the treats the bear keepers hide in the trees, sleeping and generally living a bear’s life. But these bears did not always live so carefree. The 90 bears at the rescue centre spent the first part of their lives working as dancing bears.

Dancing bears used to be a common sight in India, especially in popular tourist centres. As cubs the bears would be trained to dance and perform tricks. But first their canines would be smashed with hammers (that’s why they couldn’t bite into the watermelons!) and their muzzles would be pierced with a hot iron so that a rope could be passed through the hole. The life of a dancing bear was one of slavery and misery.

Dr Arun and his team of vets show us around the centre. There are a few holding cells for bears who are sick or under treatment. In one of the cells, Shankar sways back and forth from side to side. The vet explains that this is typical behaviour in caged animals. Shankar was locked up in a small cage for years. His owner had lost the key. He’s having a hard time readjusting to a life of freedom. He’s afraid of the other bears and can’t keep down food. The vets are trying different treatments to try to help him recover.

Bear kitchen schedule

Bear dancing is being eradicated thanks to organisations like Wildlife SOS, who run this bear rescue centre and three others across India. Their approach is not only to rescue and rehabilitate the bears but also provide assistance to their former owners. The Kalandar community have been making a living thanks to these bears for generations. When they agree to surrender their bears they get 50,000 rupees in compensation. They also receive training in a new trade and education is provided to their children.

Some of the members of the Kalandar community work at the rescue centre as bear keepers. We asked them how their families make a living. Many now work in agriculture, tailoring, handicrafts or have opened small shops. Their children have been able to access higher education. Two are studying engineering.

Bear food (not the cat)

What was touching was the affection that the vets and the bear keepers obviously have for the bears. They told us about their different personalities and the antics they get up to. I had never wanted to go to Banngerghatta National Park because I had only heard about the miserable zoo and the dreary safaris on tourist buses. But the Bear Rescue Centre was an inspiring place. No longer forced to dance or perform tricks for a few rupees, here the bears can finally be bears!

Dr Arun with two other vets and a volunteer

Photos courtesy of Anuj and Susmitha.