Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Green India

You have to be here for a while before you realize just how little waste, how little environmental load there is per Indian citizen. When you first arrive from the US or North America, you see traffic, dust, smoke, and for that reason you can miss what’s really going on.

Sensible high-rise design: Bangalore unfortunately has a few wall-o-windows high-rise buildings, which must be a nightmare to keep cool here within 14 degrees latitude of the equator. But more recently constructed apartment buildings have come to a better understanding of their environment. Our apartment building, like most of recent construction, has a sort of staggered façade, with lots of balconies and terraces and protruding horizontal and vertical slabs of concrete. The balconies are nice in their own right, a place to sit or hang laundry, but the main effect is that almost every window in the building is shaded between 8:30 and 3:30, which makes a huge difference in comfort and A/C use.

Commuting: Most high-tech companies facilitate or indeed subsidize a sort of carpooling, running seven-passenger SUVs over regular routes to apartment buildings and neighborhoods where the employees live. My company main building is on a side road about 500 meters back from the public bus stop out on the main road. Not a huge distance, but just the sort of thing that could tip the scales towards someone’s taking their own vehicle instead of the bus. My company runs the minivans continuously to and from the bus stop during peak commute hours. Buses run all over town, on most routes at only three or four-minute intervals.

“Smart-grid”: So-called smart-grid and smart-meter technology is coming to the US eventually. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not always perfectly matched to the instantaneous demand. Yes, one can “store electricity” to use during peak periods but that can be costly. It will likely be easier to instead modulate demand, by charging more or less during the day, and by offering consumers incentives to use their high-power devices only when green power is plentiful. Much of that is already happening in Bangalore, albeit in a rough-and-ready way. There’s not much by way of renewable energy here, but many apartment buildings do have two sources of electricity: expensive, dirty power (diesel gensets) and cheaper, cleaner power (utility-provided electricity). The utility isn’t able to meet demand at times, and we fall back on the expensive back-up gensets. Our relatively modern apartment is wired with three different circuits, for AC and hot water, for other high-current devices, and for lights. When the utility is overloaded, it institutes rolling blackouts around the city, and when our apartment complex is hit, our diesel genset turns on automatically and its power is allocated to different circuits in the building depending on the level of demand. In the morning, everyone wants to heat hot water, so if the utility dumps us then, we certainly don’t have enough diesel power for hot water. In our apartment, we do a sort of manual smart-grid. Some nights before I go to bed I run the electric water heater for 15 minutes, and then turn it off. In the morning, if the power is off, I can use the still-warm water in the heater for a shower which is, if not piping hot, at least plenty warm to start off a day that will likely top 35 C anyway. With a “smart” hot water heater talking to a smart grid, and better insulation on the heater, we’d basically never notice that the power was out. I anticipate that eventually most US residents will be moving electricity demand around in a similar way.

Low-waste: It’s rare to see food left on trays at my company cafeteria. One is strongly encouraged to take only what one can eat. Posters on the wall chart the cumulative kilograms of food wasted (left on trays to be scraped into buckets by the dishwashers) over the course of the month. Can we do better next month?

Most hand-washing areas don’t have paper towel. Where I work, there are paper towels, but I’ve never seen anyone take more than one to dry their hands. Many men in any case by habit ignore the paper towel and reach for a clean handkerchief kept in their pocket for exactly this purpose. Others just give their hands a good shaking to get the water off -- it dries in few minutes anyway. When there’s no paper towel, the shaking’s what I do, but I often surreptitiously use my pant leg to help with drying, just like I see the Indian guy leaving ahead me do.

Recycling: No, as upper middle class consumers here in India we don’t separate our trash stream. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get separated. Recycling is happening in locations which are, from our point-of-view, behind the scenes. It’s driven not by “green conscience” or government mandate but by profit motive. It’s made possible by low labor costs or more precisely by the very high ratio of the cost of raw materials to the cost of labor. You see it all going on out of the corner of your eye. As the maid is heading out the door of your apartment with the trash, she is already pulling out the plastic bottles. On the roads around town we see flat-bed trucks with huge bags of crushed plastic bottles lashed to the back. They weigh hardly anything, so the truck can carry as much as the trucker is able to lash on – the load towers high over the cab and bulges way out over the edges of the truck bed.

Compostables: the maids don’t seem to mess with that stuff, but someone does. Here is what I observe: here at the very edge of Bangalore, we live in a neighborhood of apartment complexes interspersed with vacant lots filled with scruffy dry weeds. In patches in the middle of these vacant lots, piles of organic refuse, (peelings, stalks, cobs…) appear and gradually get bigger over a period of some days. When I first saw this, I thought “ew, we live next to a garbage dump.” But they aren’t random piles – in some cases their boundaries are marked out by cinder blocks. About once a week or a little more often, a small herd of cows appear. The cowherd tethers them to the cinder blocks at night but lets them wander over the vacant lot during the day. The cows don’t have much use for the weeds but they love the kitchen refuse. The cows reprocess the compostable stuff into milk and manure. I’ve seen the cowherd milking the cows into a bucket, but I’ve not been able to follow the process from there – does she sell it to consumers, or to a milk processor? The milk we buy here at the supermarket, ultra-pasteurized and plastic-bagged, did it first spend a few hours in a pail in an urban vacant lot? Every morning I have a bowl of home-made yogurt at our little restaurant. It was thoroughly boiled of course before it was set out to curdle, and is completely safe. Did the chef buy the milk from our neighborhood cowherd? As for the manure, yep, I’ve seen people collecting the cowpies as well, whether for fertilizer, fuel, or paint, I don’t know. I wonder how the economics of all this work. Does the cowherd pay the trash collector to sort out and leave the kitchen waste in the vacant lot? Does someone in the employ of our apartment complex sort out the garbage so that we residents can pay less, for a smaller volume of trash collection? Are the rights to collect manure from this herd also sold, the neighborhood cow-dung franchise?

On the topic of cowherds: Last week I saw five cows being herded from one vacant lot to another by a teenaged boy on a bike. I had to stare at the scene for a moment to understand why the bike seemed to make so much difference. Then it came to me – a cowherd on a bike is a mounted cowherd, and a mounted cowherd isn’t a cowherd at all, but a cowboy, a major step up the social ladder, or so it seems to my American mindset.

By the way, here in Bangalore, if you happen to be willing to do your own waste-stream separation, more power -- and money -- to you. We’re told that if you are willing to take the time to separate out and bale and twine your used newspaper, a guy will stop by your apartment to collect it and actually pay you for it.

As our stay in India comes to an end, an unanswered question in my mind is, can a country like the US, where average salaries are much higher compared to the cost of raw stuff, ever do as well as India does in terms of having a low environmental load per person? The professional motivation for my sabbatical here was explicitly to learn about technology related to sustainable energy. In many ways, that's been a big success. I know much more about the nitty-gritty of heat transfer, for instance, than I did three months ago. But both in India and now back in Colorado (as I get ready to finally post this we've actually been home a few days now) I found myself thinking a lot also about money.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gods, Godmen and Gurus

I can’t speak for the rest of India, but to my foreign eyes, it sure seems like Bangalore is full of religious fervor. Just yesterday midmorning in our courtyard I met a group of young girls all dressed in festival finery heading off to do puja (worship) at various aunty and uncle’s homes where they would collect presents afterwards. My girls didn’t have the day off from school so I don’t think it was a major holiday. (Meanwhile my girls tell me that a lot of people aren’t going to school these days because they are worried about exams; they can get more studying done at home than at school.)

Hinduism is a very diverse religion with tolerance for different ideas. Generally speaking there are three primary gods: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer of evil). In practice, most families are either Vishnu or Shiva adherents. There are only a couple of Brahma temples in India. In addition to the three main gods and their avatars (or alternate identities – e.g.mother, daughter, wife, teacher, patient and customer may all describe the same person), each god has a family. For example, Ganesha (the elephant god) is the son of Shiva and Parvati.

Most families have a small shrine in their homes where they do puja. A foreign company planning to build apartment complexes in India was told they needed to redo their architectural drawings to include a space in each apartment for the shrine. In our family we also have a collection of dolls – oops, I mean iDolls. Oops again – “idols” is the proper term used in India. We have a portrait of Ganesha (as seen in Chitra Santhe), a Nataraja (dancing Shiva), a Balaji (avatar of Vishnu – see #3 below), a Saraswati (wife of Brahma and goddess of learning), a small portrait of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and a placard with the philosophy of Sathya Sai Baba.

Darshan is a common word in India. It means the beholding of a deity (usually an idol), a revered person or a sacred object. Because the viewing is considered to be reciprocal, the human receives a blessing. Here are some of the touted religious sites to see in and around Bangalore if you want to perform darshan.

1) Shiva Mandir. Mandir means temple. Below is a photo of its immense Shiva statue. Eric compares this temple to Disneyland. It has a frolicky, commercially-magic sort of atmosphere rather than a serious, holy atmosphere.

2) ISKCON Temple. ISKCON stands for International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas. The ISKCON followers believe that Krishna is the prime god. (Other Hindus believe that Krishna and Buddha [!!!] are avatars of Vishnu.) ISKCON’s Indian founder was told by his guru to go to the US because the US was the cultural mover and shaker; if the US would adopt the beliefs, the whole world would soon follow. A FOLK (Friend of Lord Krishna) proudly told me that the ISKCON temple in Bangalore was second in south Asia in visitors and collection of funds after the Venkateswara Temple in Tirupathi. I’m not very surprised. After a short visit to the main hall at ISKCON, you have to wind your way through about ½ kilometer of vendors selling wares and temple workers asking for donations. There is also a display of the new, grander temple that ISKCON plans to build although the current temple already seems quite adequate if not over the top. At the end whether you have given money or not, you are invited to partake of prasadam, a savory porridge served from a huge vat, because the founder believed that no one within ten miles of an ISKCON temple should go hungry. The standard salutation at the temple is “Hare Krishna.”

3) Tirumala Venkateswara Temple (aka Tirupathi). This temple is 250 km from Bangalore in Andhra Pradesh. The temple is also called Balaji Temple. This is the most popular pilgrimage site in the world. It is more popular than Mecca, more popular than the Vatican. Sleeper cars on trains are booked weeks in advance. It gets 40,000 visitors a day on average. It has 12,000 priests. We didn’t actually make it to Tirupathi, but we did go to Chikkatirupathi (small Tirupathi) in Karnataka. We visited a government school, not the town’s main temple even though it was across the street from the school.

4) Sathya Sai Baba’s summer ashram. Sathya Sai Baba is a godman who claims to be the reincarnation of the famous Sai Baba of Shirdi and preaches that there is one God which is present in all religions. His 6 million followers are not expected to give up their personal religion. (See photo below of the emblem over the ashram gate.) His most common miracle is the materialization of ash from thin air. I was given some ash during my visit to the ashram. The godman hadn’t arrived at his summer ashram yet so the place was fairly quiet. Sai Baba is now 83 years old and in a wheelchair. I get the impression that his popularity has peaked, but he has done some wonderful community service work including providing free health care at his hospital near the ashram. The standard salutation at the ashram is “Sai Ram.”

5) Art of Living Foundation headquarters. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a Bangalore native, is the founder of this United Nations-accredited humanitarian organization with centers in 140 countries. Sri Sri was recently named one of the 25 most powerful people in Bangalore. He encourages healthy and spiritual living through yoga and meditation. Like Sai Baba, he doesn’t demand that his organization’s workers and volunteers belong to a particular religion. Sri Sri has also focused on disaster relief and conflict resolution especially in the Indian subcontinent region.

For a different taste of religion, you could follow godman Swami Nithyananda’s travails. A sex scandal developed recently when a videotape of him with a Tamil actress was made public. Charges against him were filed in Bangalore. He has an ashram in Kerala, a neighboring state, and also one 40 km outside of Bangalore, but I never heard of him until the scandal broke.

If you tend towards Christianity, there are several Christian churches in downtown Bangalore, many built by the British. Winston Churchill used to attend Trinity Church which was the military church.

If your religious tendencies veer in other directions, here are some other local opportunities for darshan.
1) lions, tigers, bears, elephants, deer and butterflies – Bannerghatta National Park
2) science – Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Heritage Museum (zoom in on the photo below) and the Vishveshwarya Industry and Technological (VIT) Museum (good for kids)

3) art – Chitrakala Prarishad (a school and museum) and the Venkatappa Art Gallery. I preferred the former.
4) food – Malvalli Tiffin House (MTR) near Lalbagh Park

I recommend darshan, no matter what your preferences are.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Democracy Is Not

On my first trip to India, which lasted only a week, I was struck by the religious diversity, especially within Hinduism. (Think of the diversity within Christianity or within Islam for a small sense of what I mean.) After staying here for a longer time, I’m struck by how my understanding of democracy has changed since I have been in India.

India is the world’s largest democracy. The online Oxford English Dictionary defines democracy as “a form of government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives.” All fine and good. However, I previously thought of democracy as comprising a country’s entire lifestyle or infrastructure, if you will. I expected the Indian government to be more like the system in the US. Let me tell you the ways it is not.

Democracy is not capitalism. The prices of many food items, fertilizer, and petroleum are controlled by the central government. (Where we would say “federal,” India uses the term “central.”) There have been many demonstrations and much political campaigning in reaction to what opponents see as lack of action by the central government to control prices.

Democracy is not freedom of speech. For example, a member of the high court feels compelled to speak out in his official capacity when a Bollywood star discusses her love life in a little too much detail. Universities are instituting policies to contact parents if students are found kissing on campus. (Keep in mind that Desperate Housewives, Friends and other American shows appear regularly on television here.) Even more drastic – on Valentine’s Day vigilantes were marrying young couples found together who weren’t related. In the art world M F Husain (also spelled Hussain) left India so that he could paint what he wished without having to show up in court to defend his choice of subjects. My impression is that a fair number of Indians are very sensitive about certain moral and religious issues. In general, Indians try to avoid conflict, but once Indians are aroused, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere nearby. If there are enough angry people, the result is too often a deadly riot.

Democracy is not justice. We complain in the US about court cases dragging on for months or years, but in India a delay of a decade or more is not uncommon. (M F Husain is in his nineties so some of his cases have actually been resolved.) Eliza’s class had a long, depressing discussion about it. I hope the younger generation in India can take action to improve the justice system.

Democracy is no guarantee of honest officials. We know about this problem in the US also, but allegations of corruption in the US often lead to a politician’s downfall. Maybe that happens here, but I have only seen cases of politicians continuing in office despite allegations of corruption. Perhaps the delays in the justice system are partly to blame. Today the Times of India newspaper’s front page reported that the local JD(S) leader saying the party would field candidates with a criminal past as long as the party leaders thought the candidates had a chance of winning.

Democracy is not laissez-faire. At the local level in Karnataka some representative slots are reserved for the “backward castes” or women or both, and there is an attempt to extend the current reservation system at the national level to include women. The proposal has passed the Rajya Sabha [similar to our Senate, but more like England’s House of Lords – some members are appointed rather than elected] but the Lok Sabha [House of Representatives] has not yet voted on it. In the US a primary tool for promoting diversity in representative bodies is district boundaries; the resulting demographics give minority candidates a good chance to succeed in some districts. In India, on the other hand, residency in the district is not a requirement for election. In addition, the proposal at the national level would rotate the reservation system so that each district would have to elect a woman every third term. Some people say that the result will be mostly women in government. The thinking is that, once elected, a woman can run as an incumbent and win against male candidates. Meanwhile the next-door district will have to elect a woman per the reservation system. Can you imagine a government with a majority of women?

If you have never been to India, I hope you can now imagine a different style of democracy from a western-style democracy. I, for one, have had my preconceived, all-encompassing notion of democracy corrected. I now have a much more precise idea of what democracy actually means.

Monday, March 22, 2010

MTR - Less Ambience, More Flavour

During our first week in Bangalore we bought a great many different things to stock our kitchen, including various spices. We were advised to buy the brand MTR. Later European tourists as well as one of dad’s colleagues recommended the restaurant called MTR or Mavalli Tiffin Room. He said that you couldn’t come to Bangalore without eating there. Last Saturday we had an opportunity to go.

Comprised of about four undecorated rooms, MTR has an atmosphere of efficiency and assembly lines. There was no waiter smoothing gliding over with glasses of wine to ask you what you would like to eat. There was no soft clink of polished cutlery blending with the equally soft voices of the clientele. Instead everybody in the room was given a glass of water, (similar to many Indian restaurants, you could request cold or room-temperature water) an aluminum spoon, and an aluminum tray with about seven little compartments. Lungi-clad men (lungi – an informal tube-like piece of cloth worn around the waist) toting slop buckets sloshed the food unceremoniously onto your plate. Everybody got the same food, but what food! A dozen toothsome things soon covered our plates and as Dad put it, “Everything tastes different; it’s not all sort of muddy.”

MTR is not only known for its food, but for its no-nonsense attitude. We heard horror stories about people getting there a few minutes late and finding their reservation given to someone else. The waiters gave you the food even when you shook your head. It reminded me of school cafeteria workers. One thing that did work was saying “selpa, selpa” (Kannada for “a little”) upon which you received a smaller ration.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bharata Natyam

Recently, I went with Mom to see an Indian classical dance performance by one of my classmates. It was located in a Kannada cultural heritage center in central Bangalore. All of the signs were in Kannada and I realized how spoiled we had become living in a foreign country where English is very commonly spoken.

Indian classical dance, or Bharata Natyam, is usually performed by one person and the style includes lots of stamping feet and forming arms and hands into complicated positions. It is set to devotional music, often singing without very many instruments. The costumes that the dancers wear are flashy; with vibrant colors, flowers in their hair, and sometimes bells attached to their ankles that ring when they move. In the performance that we went to, there were four musicians sitting on pillows off to the side. One woman was singing (devotional songs in Kannada), one woman was clashing together small metal cymbal-like things, and there were two men: a drummer and a flutist.

Every dance is centered around one story. The very first dance that we saw was about Ganesha, since he is the god of beginnings. (See Beginnings and Political News.) The singer in the background tells the story and the different gestures the dancer act out the story. I bet if I could understand Kannada, I would be able to follow the story line very well and see how the dancing and the words are connected. However, Mom and I can’t understand Kannada, so after the performance my friend explained what a few motions from the dancing meant and how they connected to the story. For example, Lord Shiva has three eyes. Two of them are normal eyes. The other one sits in the middle of his forehead. Normally it is closed, but when he is very angry he opens his eyes and fire shoots out, burning everything he sees. In the dance, this was symbolized by flicking two fingers in front of her forehead (showing the opening of the eye) and moving them forward while waving them back and forth (showing the fire shooting out). To see an example of Bharata Natyam go to:

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tibetans Are Welcome in Karnataka

On the way to the Coorg rainforest we stopped to visit the first ever Tibetan exile settlement at Bylakuppe. Karnatakans tell me that Bylakuppe is the largest Tibetan refugee settlement in the world. Dharamshala, the seat of the exiled Tibetan government in north India, is more famous, but the Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe is well worth a visit if you are in the area.

The monastery is best known for the Golden Temple. (See photo.)

I was impressed by the beautiful buildings constructed in the last 50 years and by the Tibetans monks going about their daily routines. As the picture of the monks fetching water indicates, there is a large, active community here.

I visited Tibet in 1988. There was palpable tension between the Tibetans and the Chinese. I did not get any similar feeling during my short visit to Bylakuppe. In fact, the Dalai Lama claims a special personal relationship with his adopted country of India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

P.S. Sophia said to make sure to tell you that if you visit the Golden Temple, you should eat at Shanthi’s Family Restaurant.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ugadi = No Newspaper

Tuesday was Ugadi, the Hindu New Year. Schools were closed, but there weren’t any big public celebrations unless you count the cricket game. Families mostly celebrate the holiday at home with special food.

I thought everything would be back to normal on Wednesday so I was quite surprised when I went to read the newspaper and heard that there weren’t any and none were going to be showing up. It turns out that the presses don’t print newspapers the day after Ugadi. The newspaper workers get a day off for Ugadi. I was told that there are two other holidays which are also press holidays: Diwali and Ganesh’s birthday.

In the US I often hear about the demise of newspapers. Imagine the rumors if there were a press holiday!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

An Amateur’s Guide to T20 Cricket

There are at least three kinds of cricket games. The classic game is called a Test game and can last up to 5 days. Another kind is ODI which stands for One Day International. The shortest version is called “Twenty20” and lasts about 3 hours.

Yesterday we saw the Royal Challengers Bangalore team beat the Punjab Kings XI (called XI because there are eleven players on a team). The owner of RCB also owns a beer company (and an airline), but beer sales were severely restricted if allowed at all.

There are two halves called innings in T20. Each team bats (and scores) only during its inning. At the end of the first inning Punjab’s score was 203-3 meaning 203 runs and 3 batters out so RCB needed 204 runs to win. Like in the last inning of a baseball game, as soon as RCB got 204 runs the game was over. But, rather than report the margin of victory as one run, they seemed to calculate it by subtracting the winning team’s number of outs from the number of balls (roughly, a ball is an “at bat”) remaining when the winning team surpassed the other team.

In T20 the inning is over when 10 batters are out or when 20 overs have been played. Each over consists of 6 valid balls (at bats, or also “pitches”) so an inning consists of 120 valid balls. At the end of each over, a new bowler (pitcher) takes over, but the same bowler can return after resting an over.

Cricket seems to be primarily a contest between the bowler and the batters. There are 2 batters who run back and forth between the two bases. Either batter may be put out by being beaten to the base by a defender with the ball. If a fly ball is caught, the current batter is out. A batter plays until he is out. Not many cricket players got a chance to bat in yesterday’s T20.

The batter can score up to 6 points on each ball (pitch). If the ball goes out of the boundary on a fly, the batting team gets 6 runs (but unlike baseball the batter needn’t actually run). If the ball goes out of bounds on the bounce, the batting team gets 4 runs. Many people held cards with a big 4 on one side and a big 6 on the other and waved them when either 4 or 6 runs were scored. Triples are very uncommon. Even doubles are unusual. The batters were not aggressive runners last night. True, they had to run with their cricket bats. It’s possible to get zero runs on a ball, and it’s possible to run even if the batter doesn’t swing at a ball. There are also things called free hits, but now we are getting out of my league.

Unlike baseball, when the ball goes into the stands, the fans are expected to return the ball. The game only gets a new ball at the beginning of each inning. The degradation of the ball is supposedly an important factor in the game.

We noticed that the announcer seemed to be cheering for the Punjab team quite a lot during their inning. This seemed very strange to us, but I think I understand the logic. First of all, the game seems to be primarily an offensive game. The fielders didn’t make many amazing plays which the crowd could applaud. The bowler is the primary defensive player but his actual bowling time is very short and there aren’t really strikeouts. If the announcer didn’t cheer for the visitors, the stadium could be very quiet. That might not be a problem except for the second factor – for a stadium to be quiet for an entire inning (about an hour and a half) while the visitors bat would probably break some sort of rule about stadium volume at modern sports games. It seems like sports stadiums are supposed to be loud, and last night’s cricket game certainly fulfilled those expectations. Most of the music we heard were snippets from Bollywood songs, but at one point the PA system blared “Tonight’s Going to be a Good, Good Night,” a song often played at Rockies games. Except for that song, we wished we had earplugs.

Another contrast with American sports stadiums was the wave. In Bangalore the wave is called the Mexican wave. The announcer starts the wave with a countdown. The wave starts in a certain section and goes in the designated direction. It’s not a grassroots effort like in the US. On the other hand, the execution is very efficient and there is a lot of participation.

Many aspects of the game were similar. There was the same atmosphere of excitement before, during and after the game. There were roving vendors, but they didn’t yell about their wares, just politely standing nearby and occasionally asking directly if you wanted any of their products. There were little promotional items thrown into the crowd -- in this case, long stick-like balloons that people would clap together. There were cheerleaders, including some blondes, wearing the skimpiest outfits I have seen on people in India. On the big screen a Bollywood star catching the game waved to her adoring fans. She wore an RCB shirt like many of the other fans.

It was a good game, and people were very excited with the RCB’s win at their first home game of the season. To find out more about the league, you can go to

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rainforeat Retreat

We have been on four trips here in India: one to Delhi and Agra, one to Mysore, one to Puducherry, and one to Madikeri. We got back from the trip to the coffee plantations of Madikeri yesterday. Madikeri is a one of the three parts of Coorg. Coorg is a region in southern Karnataka, which is the state that Bangalore is in.

We set off right after school on Friday, and drove¹ for three hours to Mysore, where we stopped and checked into a hotel. Since we had already explored Mysore we just stayed at the hotel. The next morning we drove for three hours to get to Madikeri.

Mom was interested in checking out some local culture because her guide book said that Coorg had never been captured by the British, but the one museum we found was pretty pathetic. Then we drove up some mountains to reach our hotel, named Rainforest Retreat, which is a cardamom, vanilla, and coffee plantation where I want to someday honeymoon, retire, or vacation. The owners are biologists and have a completely organic plantation.

The hotel part of it is just a rainforest with three or four cabins, a few tents, multiple hammocks, a badminton court, ping pong, and a pavilion where you could buy spices or check out books hidden in it. Everywhere there were canals, filled or unfilled, with logs that you walked over to get to the other side. Because it is pretty far out of town, they give you all three meals at another covered space, and provide entertainment in the form of treks, plantation tours, and the chance to help out with the plants. While I was there, we did a hike, tour, and picked tea all in a day. (See photo.)

The plantation tour was fascinating. If I hadn’t had a tour and was just walking down the plantation by myself, I wouldn’t have known it was a plantation because there are so many weeds and it was so untamed. The owners of the hotel have owned the place organically for 15 years. Many people believe that when farming organically, you must allow pests to take over your plants, but what these people did was really cool. They took the example of one such pest who has a name I can’t remember. These bugs like to live inside cardamom. The owners tried to find a natural agent that would repel the bugs. They mixed many different plants and sprayed their juices over one of these bugs. Some juices killed the bugs and some just made the bug want to go away. They sprayed the latter over the cardamom plants. The bugs then wanted to move somewhere else, and the farmers provided that somewhere else by letting weeds grow everywhere. Then the spiders and pest-eaters could eat the bugs because they could get into the weeds and not the cardamom. Due to this new food source for the pest-eaters, they multiplied and ate even more pests. After a while the owners stopped spraying the plants with the natural and organic agent, and the bugs moved back² but in a smaller quantity than before. That way, the plants weren’t damaged but you didn’t destroy an ecosystem of rainforest life.

If you ever go to India, a trip to Coorg and the Rainforest Retreat is definitely worth it, and I say this as someone who gets carsick in a stationary vehicle.

¹Foreigners don’t usually drive here because many Indians drive so crazily. The remaining options are to hire a driver to take us to Madikeri or take the bus. My stomach usually gets sick on buses so we chose the first option.

²Remember: no bug is a pest unless there are large numbers of them

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Government School

Today I visited the Indian equivalent of an "inner-city" government school in Hyderabad. As part of its community service activities, my host company for my stay in India, a large engineering firm, has adopted several of these schools. In most cases my company kicks off its relation with a new school by installing reverse-osmosis water filters (you can't learn when you are sick, as it was explained to me) and then gradually fills in other necessities.

In a previous visit the company had given each student a backpack. Each backpack came stuffed with notebooks, a writing board, pens, and a school uniform. The latter is a source of pride for the students, as every private-school student wears a uniform but many government-school students can not afford them. Today I noted that many of the students were in uniform and almost all still had their backpacks, looking dusty in most cases, but still serviceable. And what about that "writing board"?

The k-10 school consists of ten small classrooms organized in two tiers around a dusty central courtyard. There are 1150 students attending the school. That number is not a misprint. At any given time, about half the students are outdoors in the courtyard. Strips of carpet are laid down in rows, and can be moved around to define separate "classrooms" within the courtyard, and to keep as many children as possible sitting in the shade of several large trees as the day progresses. The students sit cross-legged, knee-to-knee along the carpet strips, with their small writing boards on their laps. Teachers stand in front of each "classroom" and speak over the sound of horns from the street. It's quite loud and seemingly chaotic. In the indoor classrooms, the scene is much the same. None of the classrooms has desks or chairs. There is no glass in the windows nor doors in the doorframes but it's still hot in the crowded rooms.

I had been told that one of the draws of the government schools is the free lunch served to each student at midday. My first thought on seeing the overstuffed school was that the lunch must be the main point here -- surely no real learning is going on. But after I had walked around for a bit,I realized my first impression was entirely wrong. In one kindergarten class (held in one of the indoor classrooms) the children were learning the letters of the Telugu alphabet. Under the watchful eye of the sari-clad teacher, the little children came up one by one to take their turns leading the class in call-and-response, pointing at the various letters and calling out the respective phoneme. To go upstairs, I had to edge past a class of sixth graders, sitting in two orderly rows all the way up the stairs but leaving me space along one side to get by. They were taking a social studies exam. I couldn't read the questions on the handouts, but they evidently all could, and were tidily writing their answers in the rune-like Telugu script. Obviously by sixth grade every child had attained more than just rudimentary literacy.

The purpose of my company's visit today was to distribute a free tenth-grade text book to each of the hundred-odd advancing ninth graders. (other than the books we brought, there were very few books in evidence at the school.) The all-in-one text book we handed out is inexpensively printed on thin paper, and each is the size of big-city telephone book, with separate sections on each of the subjects they will study in tenth grade, and sample questions to help practice for the all-important after-tenth-grade college board exams. I watched each student carefully as he or she came up to get a book. At least half of them took the book hungrily. I don't think I am imagining the slightly fierce look I saw in their eyes, a look that said "I am going to learn every last thing on every last page in this book and then so help me I will crush those board exams next year." I wouldn't bet against at least some of the students doing just that.

Elsewhere, in a very different India, more and more private schools are equipping each student with a laptop computer in a wi-fi enabled classrooms. But if conditions are right, you might learn a great deal, sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor of a government school with a writing board on your lap. Conversely, from a high-end laptop computer it's no sure thing that you will learn anything but fluff.

Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women’s Day – March 8

India’s national parliament planned to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day by passing a law requiring that 33% of the members of parliament (MP) and the state assemblies be women. Some male MPs conceded that they would be voting against their self-interest; they could vote themselves out of a job after the next election. Coalitions were announced last week. Today pandemonium ensued. The coalitions fell apart. The parliament will try again tomorrow. Sonia Gandhi is a big supporter of this proposed law. Her husband pushed it when he was alive.

Most (all?) elected officials in India need not reside in the district which they represent. In Bangalore our wards already have quotas for women as well as for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Some districts are designated for women, others for SC/ST, yet others for women who are a member of an SC or ST. (The greater Bangalore municipal election, 4 long years in the waiting, was recently rescheduled from Feb 21 to March 28.)

In the judicial branch the Supreme Court of India consists of the Chief Justice and up to 30 other judges. No, they don’t all hear every case. There are a couple of openings on the Supreme Court, and there is talk of Indian President Pratibha Patil (first woman president) appointing women to fill those slots. There have been a handful of women on the Supreme Court in the past. The Supreme Court judges must retire at the age of 65.

India’s population is about 70% rural, but the iconic image of a rural woman balancing a heavy load on her head is not uncommon in Bangalore either. The women wear colorful saris as they work in construction or carry a load of wood home for cooking.

A female doctor friend of mine wears a sari to her office every day. I’ve never seen her wear a sari though. She prefers to wear a salwar kameez when she is not working. If she were to wear a salwar kameez to work though, people would think she was an intern or an assistant instead of the doctor. (See Blackouts for a photo of a salwar kameez.) Another woman who eats breakfast in the dining hall with us wears jeans every day at breakfast and then changes into Indian clothes for going to the office. Eric’s female engineering colleagues don’t seem to have to follow the wear-a-sari rule, but they often wear a dupatta (long scarf). I personally find wearing a dupatta a hassle. I also fear for all the women wearing saris and dupattas while riding motorcycles. Some motorcycles marketed to women have a special sari guard.

Most marriages in India are arranged and work out fine, but honor killings and dowry deaths are far too frequent. The story often told to cover up for a bride burning is that there was an explosion in the kitchen while the woman was cooking.*

I hadn’t seen any (noticeably) pregnant women in India for the first two months in India. Then I saw two in the space of five seconds. It turned out I was in front of a maternity hospital. When I asked some Indians why there were no pregnant women, they said that from the 6th month of pregnancy on women will often stay at home and not go out.

There is a saying in India, “We Two. Ours One.” (See photo.) It means “We two – mom and dad – with our one child.” It used to be “We Two. Ours Two,” but I guess India is trying harder to reduce the population growth. Among the families that we know, having one or two children is common. Siblings tend to be spaced several years apart. There is also a disparity between the number of boys and girls born in India though I haven’t noticed it. Ultrasounds for gender identification, although illegal, are reputed to be popular here, followed by abortions if the results are not satisfactory.

“Housewife” seems to be a common profession here. Along with not working outside the home, some women don’t do much (house)work inside the home much either. Many hire a cook and a housecleaner. There are some daycare centers for working parents, but the preference seems to be having a female relative watch the children.

I’m playing housewife here too, but I feel more like a tourist. I’m exploring Bangalore and playing bridge and not really living the typical life of a Bangalore woman. People are amazed that I go out by myself to explore the city. Sometimes it is nice to be a foreigner and “break the gender rules.”

*Depressing footnote – Most children’s accidents are poisonings involving kerosene. The kerosene is used for lamps. It is clear and children mistake it for water. Poisoning is also common among farmers committing suicide; the bills come due, the harvest hasn’t cooperated and lethal fertilizers are nearby. Students commit suicide because they don’t do well on their exams.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Heat, heat, heat, it grows inside of you as the day grows on and never lessens. The next day it has not grown any colder but still rises in heat. It can be easier with a swimming pool, some ice cubes and a high powered fan. But it never disappears.

This morning I was running at the gym in our complex and had to stop because of the heat. Later, my mom saw some ladies going there in tracksuits. Even though the average temperature here is about 90° Fahrenheit, women are not supposed to wear shorts. Traditionally wearing fewer clothes meant you were from a lower caste and so men also did not wear shorts, but now some do.

At school I used to play basketball during lunch. Now I sit in the fanned library. I go swimming every day on the weekends and sometimes after school. Even girls’ bathing suits here are much more modest and have sleeves and shorts. The only women I have seen swimming so far, (and that’s only 3), have worn a complete set of regular clothes, albeit those that dry easily.

The lack of altitude isn’t the only factor. We are only 13° north of the equator. In this weather, however, I don’t sit around contemplating why it is so hot because my brain doesn’t function normally in this heat. Seriously, I could never live someplace this hot. I need snow.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Craving Beef or Pork?

Non-vegetarian restaurants in Bangalore often offer chicken, mutton and fish. Beef and pork are much harder to find. If that is a problem, we have a solution. Go to Puducherry (aka Pondicherry). There is a convenient overnight train leaving Friday nights. Spend Saturday eating in Puducherry and hop back on the return train on Saturday evening. The 3-tier AC sleeper train is known as Garib Rath (poor man’s chariot) so the tickets are affordable. You rent bedding for 25 rupees (~55 cents) and sleep the trip away.

There is plenty to do in between meals. Pondi is a former French colony so check out the French flavor of the city.

If you want more than beef and pork, try the croissants, crepes and coq au vin available in numerous restaurants.

Admire the police in their képis hats.

Dip your feet in the Bay of Bengal.

There is also a famous ashram that seems to be the main item on most visitors’ to-do list, but we didn’t feel the need to do more than go by it.

If you crave bicycling, this is also your town. There are only 200,000 people in Pondi and the streets in the French quarter are relatively quiet. I think cycling in Bangalore is a dangerous mode of transportation, but not in Pondi’s French quarter, though we didn’t see much advantage to bicycling since the area is fairly small.

Puducherry, like Delhi (and similar to Washington, D.C), is a Union Territory of India rather than a state. It actually consists of 4 separate regions “in” 3 different Indian states. We went to the largest region, also called Puducherry contained within the state of Tamil Nadu. The girls made sure to alight from the train at a stop before Puducherry and touch the dirt so they could say they had been to Tamil Nadu. Puducherry (all 4 pieces) became part of India after India became independent. The smallest region, Mahe, is located on the west coast surrounded by the state of Kerala, and I was amused to learn that there is an overnight Garib Rath train that travels from Mangalore in Karnataka (the state we live in) through Mahe all the way across southern India to Puducherry.

At first we were disappointed that our only option for taking a direct train to Pondi was to spend just over 12 hours there, but everything worked out very well. We all enjoyed the sleeper train. Sophia who doesn’t usually take well to transport motion of any kind actually looked forward to the return trip. A plus for Eric was going to Pondi before the heat in March. And, as you can tell from the girls’ blog entries, they were delighted to get back in time to celebrate Holi with friends in our apartment complex.

Holi Demographics

First of all: an introduction to Holi. Holi is the celebration of the defeat of the demoness Holika. That is why there is a ceremonial bonfire on the evening before Holi. Symbolically, the bonfire is burning up Holika. On the day of Holi, we celebrate her death by throwing water and coloured powders, known simply as colours, at each other. Hence, Holi is also known as the Festival of Colours. (Note – in order to glean full understanding from this entry, the following definitions should be noted: Uncle – the term used by kids for an adult man who is not one of their relations. Auntie – the term used by kids for an adult woman who is not one of their relations.)

One of the things that I noticed about Holi was how different groups of people used the colours and water in different ways. The small children and at the beginning the larger children mostly just squirted each other with water guns. Some of these were exactly like a water gun that you would see in the US, but some were rather like two foot long syringes. Large plastic buckets provided filling stations. When filling your gun at the same time as someone else, it was necessary to fill it as quickly as possible, since the first person to finish invariably squirted the last.

At the beginning the larger children (that includes me) also used water guns, but we soon fell back on other methods. We filled buckets full of water and mixed liberal amounts of colour in. We weren’t particularly exclusive and sometimes the water would end up a muddy brown. After deciding whom to target, we snuck up behind them and dumped it on their head. At least that was the idea. Once while we were creeping up behind an uncle, another uncle behind us upended the bucket on us causing general hilarity.

The uncles smeared the colours all over each other until it looked like they were wearing masks. It got so that you almost couldn’t tell them apart. They also manned the hoses. Sometime during the celebration someone had wisely brought a few hoses out and they helped in the efficiency of the fun. Whenever somebody wanted a bucket filled, the uncles obliged.

The aunties all held plastic bags full of colour. They anointed everyone while wishing them “Happy Holi!” Later on once the smaller children had tired, the aunties sat and watched them. This immobility made them prime targets for the older children’s buckets. However, anyone actually holding a baby was off-limits. One time my mom saw my friends and me zeroing in with the bucket. She quickly grabbed baby Purna from her friend Kiran and we had to retreat amidst general cries of “No fair!”