Sunday, February 28, 2010

Holi – the festival of color

Holi is a festival where people pretty much just go around and drench others with water while smearing Holi “colors” on their clothing. The “colors” are just brightly colored powders that stick terribly to your clothing, hair and face. We celebrated Holi in our apartment complex by first having the typical Holi fight, then all having lunch served by caterers, and then finally having a bonfire this evening.

The first part lasted for a long time, almost 3 hours, and I actually left midway to take a shower, only to be dragged back. I had just thrown an entire water bucket at a boy whose water gun was outrageously large, the entire bucket and water, not just the water. He was angry and was expressing this by spraying me. I felt that it would be safer to retreat to our apartment and call it a day, Holi wise. Later when I was looking for Eliza, I was dragged in into the fight again, but managed to change back into my Holi clothes¹ before ruining a new pair.

These pictures were taken at the beginning of the fight before we were totally covered with Holi colors.

The lunch was fun and followed by most of the female population² of the colony³ dancing. Everybody seems to know the choreography to about 6 dances and they taught us that, while we taught them the Macarena and the Bunny Hop.

The bonfire took place this evening, at around 7:00. Security had set it up very artistically; the logs were arranged almost perfectly symmetrically. We watched the logs burn for a while as people fed them newspaper, then burned incense, and threw popcorn and other stuff into it. Some people walked around the fire and held a cup of water and let it drip to the ground. Many times more than three people held onto the cup at the same time.

¹Everybody wore old clothes because the Holi colors do not come out easily. At the end, you couldn’t tell who you were spraying because everyone was covered in such a thick layer of color and everyone’s clothing was a kind of pinkish-purple color.
²Only girls and women seem to dance
³The word colony is sometimes used to describe your apartment complex.

Friday, February 26, 2010

One Bus Stop Away

I don’t feel like I know a place until I know my way around it. Being such a large city, Bangalore provides me with a big challenge. Most of the people that we socialize with don’t ride buses and are surprised that the bus is my main mode of transportation. I travel around the bus with a Bangalore city map and more detailed maps that I print out from Google Maps. Even when we are in a car or a tuk tuk, I want to follow along on a map.

I caused great amusement in one crowd when I described the location of some place as one bus stop away. Eric was there too, I was wearing an Indian outfit, and the whole situation earned me the moniker of Indian wife.

Tuk tuks are cheaper than taxis and more fun, but the drivers are notorious for not using their government-issued meters. Since even the Indians complain about being cheated, foreigners like me have no hope. Therefore, I mostly rely on buses. I’ve become quite the expert. Here is my how-to guide for riding buses in Bangalore.

1) It helps to know what your destination is and which bus you should be taking. Being such a high-tech city, Bangalore, of course, has a website that provides some route information, but I haven’t been successful with timings (i.e. schedules) even though timings are listed as an option. Don’t be surprised if the bus stop has one name on the website and a different one for common usage. Also buses don’t ply all the major streets. Some of the major streets are too narrow to service buses.

2) If there isn’t a bus shelter, then look for people congregating on the side of the street. They are probably waiting for a bus.

3) Women sit in the front of the bus, men in the back. People usually enter the door closest to their section. Be careful getting on and off buses. Drivers don’t always wait patiently so look for the handlebars for support in case the bus starts moving.

4) Usually a conductor will come by to collect your money. It helps to have small bills or coins. You pay based on the distance and the kind of bus. Air-conditioned buses are about twice as expensive as non-AC buses, but you are more likely to get a seat. The conductor should give you a receipt which you keep for the duration of the ride. If you are due change but don’t get it, look on the back of your receipt. If there is a handwritten mark, you have an IOU for the change, and the conductor will be back shortly with the change. Given how crowded the buses can be, I’m impressed that the conductors can keep all the passengers straight. Occasionally a bus driver is the lone bus employee, trying to collect and maneuver Bangalore traffic simultaneously. In that case, there is usually only one entrance and everyone pays before they sit down but not necessarily before the bus starts rolling.

5) On the bus if you don’t want to stand out in the crowd, then just sit quietly. You may talk to a friend next to you or on your cell phone or you can text, but reading on city buses is not an activity that people do. (I get a lot of reading done on buses. I figure I already stand out.) I have seen a garland maker working while riding on a bus. (See photos.) Neither do people eat on city buses though there doesn’t seem to be any injunction against eating. Sometimes a seated passenger is expected to help carry a schoolgirl’s backpack, no doubt to help relieve congestion in the aisle.

6) If you are getting off at an obscure stop or want to hop off the bus before the designated stop, stand by the door to signal your intentions. If the bus is crowded and a passenger wants to disembark at a designated stop from the back door, the conductor will often blow on a whistle to signal to the driver to stop.

7) When you actually disembark, LOOK LEFT. Indians, like the British, drive on the left side of the road, and two wheelers (i.e. motorcycles) like to squeeze between buses and sidewalks. If the coast is clear, then look straight ahead. Sometimes there are cement ditches between the bus and the sidewalk or service road.

8) If you are changing buses, don’t assume that the next bus you want comes to the exact same bus stop. Think of it more like a subway station, where you are changing from the orange line to the blue line. The station is the same, but you have to travel to get from one line to another.

Being a bus rider, I often consider the location of an establishment before patronizing it. For instance, I have settled on shopping at a grocery store about a 20-minute walk away along a busy street. After I get my groceries, I don’t walk to lug them home. There is no intersection nearby to safely cross the street, but, fortunately, the bus stop I want is on the same side of the street as the store. When I get off the bus, there is a traffic light for safe crossing. A movie theater on the other side of the street provides a different example. We only go to movies during the day because night presents us with two dangerous propositions: 1) not being able to see where we are walking and 2) crossing a busy street without a traffic light to get to a bus stop.

Since taxis are not always available when you want them and tuk tuks will sometimes refuse to go to your destination – what is up with that? – I recommend that Bangalore visitors be open to trying out the bus system.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fire in the TGIF Building

Yesterday afternoon as I was heading toward downtown on the bus, I witnessed a fire. Smoke was pouring out of the top floor of a 7-story building recognized by our family from the TGIF restaurant on the ground floor. The restaurant wasn’t responsible for the fire; instead electrical problems somewhere else started the fire.

Nine people died. Dozens more were hospitalized. As my bus went by the fire, a couple of ambulances were already there. A fire engine was just arriving. Traffic was slow. The fire engine came in our lane toward us and cut over to the other lane at the last minute. Bystanders helped move barricades so that the fire truck could make it through. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators, some of them no doubt having just fled the burning building.

Reports say most of the deaths were due to people jumping out of the building to escape. The front page of The Deccan Herald newspaper showed large photos of two separate people as they jumped to their death. I personally found the photos a bit morbid.

This is the second big fire that I have witnessed in India. The first one was in Madurai in September when we visited that city. It occurred after working hours, and no one died in that fire.

There were several factors that contributed to the number of deaths and one lucky break that kept the fire from being worse. Witnesses said that their first indication that something was wrong was that the electricity went out (and didn’t come back on). The building had backup generators, but they must have been shut off when someone found out about the fire. No fire alarm sounded, and due to a water shutoff the sprinklers didn’t activate. The fire department had to bring water in from a distance to fight the fire. In addition, people didn’t know where the emergency exits (stairs) were and felt trapped.

The lucky break is that the diesel fuel for the generators didn’t catch on fire. That would have caused a massive explosion.

The building is on a major thoroughfare. The crisis led to a traffic jam lasting hours. My bus was probably in the last group of vehicles that made steady progress going by the building. My bridge partner was on a later bus, got stuck in the traffic and had to cancel our game. I was able to find another partner. My original partner finally showed up to bridge 1½ hours late.

The city has launched investigations to find the cause of the fire and to understand the lack of preparedness in handling the fire.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Through Indian Eyes

Weather – The temperature in Colorado and Bangalore has been in the 30’s, but in Bangalore it is measured in Celsius. We had a high for the month today at 34.4° C (93° F). When I really feel the temperature these days is at breakfast. Over the last few weeks the low has increased from 11° C (52° F) to 20° C (68° F). We haven’t put on the AC yet, but the first thing I do when entering a room is turn on the ceiling fan.

Olympics – What Olympics? Cricket is the sport here. Cricket is not even an Olympic sport and certainly wouldn’t be a Winter Olympics sport. Today there were three pages of sports in the newspaper not counting a front page article about cricket. The Olympics got a total of 3 column-inches -- a brief story about an athlete who broke his tooth biting his medal. The Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi in 8 months are getting a lot more press than the Olympics, but nothing can compete with cricket. Cricket is always on TV, but I haven’t seen any Olympics on TV.

Elections – The greater Bangalore municipal elections were to be held on Sunday, February 21. After an appeal went all the way to the India Supreme Court, the election has been postponed so that the state can redo the reservation of wards (meaning district boundaries, I think). The state’s high court has ruled that the election must be held by March 30. The State Election Commission is in a funk saying that they would like to postpone the election for 6 months because school and college examinations are in March and April to be followed by a population census. (We will leave before the exams, but the net effect on our kids is that their teachers will be assigning less written homework in the coming weeks so that students have more time to study. In Eliza’s words: Ka-ching!)

Obama’s State of the Union Address – What do you remember about the SOTU address? Here in India, two parts got top billing. 1) “Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile…China… Germany… India is not waiting. These nations — they're not standing still. … They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure….” 2) “…to encourage these and other businesses to stay within our borders, it is time to finally slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas, and give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs right here in the United States of America.” The Indians were proud of the former but a bit concerned about the latter given all the multinational corporations in India.

Terrorism – Yesterday I met a Spanish woman who had regularly frequented the Pune German bakery recently hit by the bomb blast. She left Pune just three days before the blast. Mumbai is talking about adding expensive extra safeguards to its future monorail because the line will venture near the prison housing the lone surviving terrorist of the 2008 Mumbai hotel blast. Every week I hear about shootouts with or incursions by terrorists in the state of Jammu and Kashmir near Pakistan. There has been violence over the Telangana statehood issue in nearby Andhra Pradesh. The states of West Bengal and Bihar are engaged in deadly fighting with the Maoist Naxal terrorists hiding in the forests and have vowed to eradicate them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mysore: A “New” City in Old Sheep’s Clothing

Mysore was the headquarters of the Wodeyar maharajas whose dynasty ran from 1399 to 1947 except for the latter part of the 18th century when the Muslims Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan were in power. Mysore is about a 2½-hour drive on a modern highway from Bangalore.

From the roof of our Mysore hotel we could see rising above the horizon a couple mosques and three notable landmarks: the Maharaja’s Palace (south), the Lalitha Mahal (east) and St Philomena’s Church (north). Mysore and Bangalore vied for state capital in 1956. While Bangalore triumphed, the maharaja was named the first governor.

For such an historic city the main sites were surprisingly modern. The old palace burned down in 1897. The replacement was finished in 1912 and is well worth a visit. It is lit up on Sunday nights and other special holidays. The Lalitha Mahal (Mahal is Hindi for palace – think Taj Mahal) was built in 1931 to house the maharaja’s foreign guests. St Philomena’s Church is built in the Gothic style with the maharaja laying the foundation stone in 1933. We didn’t go in the Lalitha Mahal, now an expensive hotel on the outskirts of town, but the other two sites were all the more impressive because they were modern.

Our guidebook praised Mysore as a walkable city. If you know any blind people that want to visit India, Mysore is the place to go. In Bangalore and Delhi we have to constantly watch our step. There are holes, ditches, loose blocks of cement acting as sidewalks and, as the cuts on my palms and knee will attest, the occasional low-to-the ground pole to trip over as you try to cross the street. Mysore had some narrow streets without much in the way of sidewalks, but there were huge swaths of town with walkable sidewalks, or pavements, as they are called here.

Mysore seems to be part of the tourist circuit. In fact, our friend Greg saw some people he recognized from his side trip to Mangalore (which is not part of the tourist circuit). He and I also ran into a Spanish couple that we earlier met in Bangalore’s premier park, Lal Bagh. The wife can really carry off wearing a sari. I haven’t seen any other foreign woman able to do that.

Mysore is also a much smaller city than Bangalore. We kept running into Mysorean auto rickshaw drivers that we had seen before. There are some tourists who take a day trip from Bangalore to visit Mysore. Mysore (population: ~ 1 million) isn’t that small in my opinion. We spent 3 ½ days away from Bangalore, and we didn’t see everything there was to see. Fortunately, we were able to fulfill the Eric’s wish to climb Chamundi Hills south of Mysore where he got his picture taken in front of a statue of the demon that Mysore is named after. Chamundi is the goddess that defeated the demon Mahishasura.

On the way to Mysore we also satisfied the girls’ main wish to take a boat ride and see crocodiles at a bird sanctuary on the Kaveri (Cauvery) River. The sanctuary is near Srirangapatna, which was our first stop on the way to Mysore. Srirangapatna is an island in the middle of the Kaveri River. Tipu Sultan was killed there when British troops with the help of some of Tipu’s traitorous commanders breached the fort. Tipu Sultan had been considered the biggest threat to English dominance in India. After he fell, the maharaja was “returned” to power.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Parcel Or Having?

Hindi and English are the two official languages of India. You might think that English would be as common in India as it is in the US, and it is certainly common on signs, in stores, etc. However, many Indians on the street and in the buses do not speak English very well…. Meanwhile, my daughters would tell you that they know a fair number of Indians at their school who do not speak Hindi very well.

Even people who do speak English speak it in a particularly Indian way. For instance, today I bought a little savory pastry and the clerk asked me, “Parcel or having?” (American translation: For here or to go?)

Every morning over breakfast I read the newspaper. In the US, words printed in a different language are often italicized. In the Times of India newspaper here, an entire phrase in Hindi, titles of movies and, notably, the word “allegedly” are printed in italics. Other words are just printed as though they are standard English. Below is a list of some of the words that appear regularly in the newspaper along with what I think the words mean more or less, maybe less.

bandh (a protest. See dharna.)
bunk (to skip, as in bunk classes)
crore (10,000,000, often written as 1,00,00,000. See lakh.)
dharna (a sit-down strike or protest. See bandh.)
goonda (gangster or mobster)
jawan (soldier)
lakh (100,000, often written as 1,00,000. See crore.)
manoo (a person, perhaps more specifically a citizen -- often used as Mumbai manoos)
neta (a politician)

The Indians seem much more comfortable with language ambiguity than Americans. There are many people in Bangalore who didn’t grow up in this region and therefore don’t speak Kannada. They often don’t completely understand other Indians, but it doesn’t seem to faze them much.

In September Eric and I were watching English news on Indian television. Suddenly the reporter cut to an interview with the Minister for Human Resource Development. The minister proceeded to speak rapidly in Hindi but threw in a few English words like post-doctorate and research. I don't remember the exact words and didn’t record them. Eric and I just stood there with our mouths open.

Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. Urdu and Hindi are mutually intelligible in conversation, but the alphabets are entirely different. Eric told me that because of increasing Indo-Pak (Indian-Pakistani) tension there is a concerted effort to stop using Hindi words that came from Persian and Arabic. If a word is not pure Hindi, i.e. derived from Sanskrit or another Indian subcontinent language, one solution is to substitute an English word for the impure word.

Recently there has been a big uproar in Mumbai (Bombay) about language. In January the state’s chief minister suggested that all new cab drivers should be fluent in Marathi, the local language, but has since retracted that suggestion. The local Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) parties are based at least partly on a “Mumbai for Mumbai manoos” brand of politics. Recently the Indian National Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi (son of Rajiv and Sonia, grandson of Indira, and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru) responded by saying that Mumbai belongs to all Indians. The big Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan has voiced similar opinions. Mumbai is not only the largest city in India; it is also the film and financial capital.

Shah Rukh Khan leads me to another feature of English in India – abbreviations. Many people refer to Shah Rukh Khan as SRK. Almost every town has a Mahatma Gandhi Road, better known as MG Road. I was on CMH Road, and my host didn’t even know that CMH stood for Chinmaya Mission Hospital. Banashankari neighborhood is known as BSK, etc., etc., etc. Many Indian names are so long that people go by initials and last names. The full names are not even printed in newspapers. My first bridge partner here is known as RV.

Another language difficulty is that many names have officially changed, but habits die hard. Many city names have changed, e.g. Bangalore to Bengaluru, but the English name is still used at least in English conversations. Another example: To go to the central Kempegowda Bus Station, ask for Majestic. More frustrating is that street names have also changed. I haven’t found street signs to be standard fare here so I’ve learned to read the addresses listed at the bottom of store front signs. (See photo.)

The moral – Come to India to experience English like you never have before. Warning: You might want to give yourself several weeks to learn the little language tricks.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Michael Jackson and Sports Terms

I’ve been long overdue for a blog entry, but now I will tell you more about the playground kids.

I noticed some boys singing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” while swinging on the swings tonight, so I brought down the iPod speakers and rotated between Michael Jackson for the boys, and Taylor Swift for some of the girls. It was really fun and we pretended to be the singers, singing and air guitaring wildly. Some passersby, usually adults returning from work, gave us weird looks, but one grandmother brought her infant granddaughter and we danced with her. Some of the Michael Jackson fans were so passionate that I had to draw a line around the five-foot radius of the iPod speakers so they didn’t press their ears against the speakers. You might not know this, but half the eight-year-old boys out there are just Michael Jackson waiting to happen. I wish you could have seen some of the moves!

Usually, nights after I finish my homework, I go play soccer with the under tens, (which doesn’t work too well because they all want to be on my team), then go up for dinner at around 7:00, then play with the little kids for a while longer, until about 8:00, when the other older kids come out. Then I get to play the kind of soccer where I don’t have to go easy, explain the hand ball rule six times, or break up arguments about who can be goalie. This is really fun until about 8:30, when Dad drags us upstairs to shower and go to bed.

Some sports vocabulary is different here also. Obviously, they call soccer football, but there are other differences as well. Goal keep is goalie, table tennis is ping pong, and “area” is when you don’t clear the ball when playing half court basketball. We don’t have basketball at our apartment complex, but we do have table tennis, pool, and a gym in the clubhouse.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Life in the Complex: from Recycling to Swimming Pools

For years back in Colorado our family had trash and recycling. Last year we acquired compost. After that I felt like I could never go back. I realized how much I had been wasting before. The apartment complex we now live in has neither recycling nor compost, although my dad thinks that the trash is sorted once it's outside the building. It’s really hard for me to throw away a banana peel or a cardboard box. Our school here has recycling and so do some other public places, but for the most part recycling is not yet a common phenomenon. I have yet to see a compost bin. I haven’t even seen that many in the US.

Our apartment complex is fairly new, and when it was built many young couples moved into it. Therefore, there is now a tremendous number of little kids. Out of the kids my sister and I have seen, only about ten are in fifth grade through tenth grade. I’d say we’ve seen about twenty kids aged four through ten and about fifteen infants. Mind you, these are only the ones we’ve seen. There is a smallish sort of sand box in the courtyard with various different kinds of playground equipment, and I’ve never seen it empty between 9 am and 8 pm. The little kids look up to me in awe, but they absolutely worship the ground Sophia walks on. Almost every night, there will be either be a phone call or a knock on the door asking Sophia if she wants to come play. Usually she will say yes, unless she has some more homework to do, etc. We have played many games, but the more common include football (soccer), freeze tag, and spud.

I’ve noticed a few differences about life in an apartment complex as opposed to a house. For one, you only have to walk downstairs to get involved in a conversation or a game of football. There is more neighborliness. When my mom wanted to borrow a rolling pin to make roti, she simply waltzed on over to her friend’s apartment. A few weeks later, that same friend taught her how to make saag paneer. As well, usually when I introduce myself to another kid, I mention my name and grade/age. Here you introduce yourself with your name, grade/age, and apartment number. For example, “Hi, I’m Eliza. I’m 13 and I live in X123.”

In our courtyard there is a lovely swimming pool surrounded by thick and quite beautiful foliage. My sister and I have taken a dip in it many balmy weekends. Here in Bangalore we are 13 degrees away from the equator so even in January it can get up to 85°F in the middle of the day. On one side of the pool there is a coconut tree, although my friend informed me that no one eats the coconuts; partly because no one owns a knife large enough to cut one of them up and partly because no one wants to climb up to get them down. I guess that coconuts don’t just fall off the tree like in stories or maybe our tree is just different.

Some of the foliage surrounding the swimming pool. Overhead, on the opposite side of the pool, you can see the coconut tree.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chitra Santhe, an Art Fair

Today Sophia and I had our picture in the Bangalore Mirror. I couldn’t find the picture online, but I took my own photo of it. We were photographed at the Chitra Santhe, a once-a-year event in which painters line Kumara Krupa Road displaying and selling their art. We went to the event with Eric’s Indian grad school buddy and his family. From reading the paper every day I get the impression that newspaper photographers like to take photos of foreigners at Indian events. One of the clues that I’m a foreigner besides my skin and hair coloring is that I wear sunglasses. I do see some Indians wear sunglasses, but they stand out.

Because a couple of photographers took pictures of us at the fair, we suspected that we might be in the paper. I checked the papers at the dining hall this morning but didn’t see our picture. Sure enough though, the photo of the art fair in The Times of India had a foreigner perusing the art. Later I was walking through the complex gate returning from grocery shopping and the complex guards were quite pleased with themselves; they had found my photo in the Bangalore Mirror. I put the groceries away and went back out and bought 5 newspapers. Newspapers are cheap here. The 5 newspapers together cost me only 7½ rupees, about 17 US cents. The Times of India, a national newspaper, is twice as expensive.

The friend we went with told us that the fair is usually at the end of December, but because of a lunar eclipse on Dec 31, 2009, the fair was moved to the end of January.

At the fair Sophia had her portrait drawn. She is holding it in the photo. I bought a Madhubani painting and Eliza got a Warli painting.

Madhubani is a town in northern India in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. The painting was traditionally done on mud walls, but now it is done on cloth and paper. A special nib – cotton wrapped around bamboo -- is used for applying the colors which are made from plants. The black outline is kohl, also used by women as eye makeup. A distinguishing feature of Madhubani paintings is that the entire canvas is filled with figures or designs.

Everyone tells me that Warli paintings are from Maharashtra, the state in western India which contains Bombay (Mumbai), but some research indicates that the Warlis spill over into a couple of other states too. The Warlis are an ST (scheduled tribe). [Along with SCs (scheduled castes), STs are specifically recognized by the Indian constitution, and efforts are made to safeguard and improve their welfare.] Warli paintings are traditionally white rice paste painted on a reddish mud background though we were shown a brownish cow dung background also. The paintings depict daily life. The people and animals are primarily constructed from triangles and circles. A circular folk dance is a prominent feature of many paintings. Here you can see the dance and a bullock cart plowing the fields.

Ganesh was probably the most popular painters’ subject at the art fair. We already had a glass painting of Ganesh (below) made by the mother of a colleague of Eric so we didn’t feel that we needed to choose from among the many Ganesh options in order to fill a void. You can see a mouse in the painting below. A mouse is Ganesh’s vehicle. Every Hindu god or goddess has a vehicle. A vehicle is much more than just an animal or a means of transportation, but I’m certainly not the one to ask about the deeper symbolism.