Friday, August 23, 2013

इंद्रधनुष Indradhanusa (Rainbow)

     We sit on the cheap squeaky metal chairs in the main room of the service center, waiting for at least twenty minutes for the repair worker to tell us if our purchase of a replacement LCD screen was the right solution to our currently out of service tablet.  “I’m hungry.” I say, and fiddle with my camera settings out of boredom.  This is the second time we have visited the Asus service shop on Lalbaugh Main Road.  Last week, Sanjeev’s GPS led us in circles through a Muslim ghetto in an attempt to lead us there.  We ended up having to park on the side of an adjacent main road in what was also an area populated largely by muslims.  I had walked down the filthy road observing the crows, goats and chickens scraping for food amongst the garbage thrown on what would serve as the sidewalk.  Women walked by in their burkas, and I kept myself from making eye contact with any of the men.  I hate these parts of the city, even if I only come across them occasionally.  Bangalore as a whole is a dilapidated place, but the muslim ghettos are its worst representations – serving as real life models of what the world would look like after an apocalypse.  Odd man out is the Hindu that walks through these areas.   

     This visit however, we managed to avoid the ghettos and parked in the visitor parking lot of the still-in-construction building that contains the service center.  The friendly and smiling security guard directs us where to park, and the inside layout of the service center reminds me of a small hospital waiting room.  Except for the low speaking voices in Kannada and Hindi, it’s too quiet inside, and I hear saws going off in the empty parts of the building. 

     After waiting for a good half hour, we decide to head up the street a few blocks to have our lunch at the MTR restaurant. Today, the company is known for its high quality ready-made food mixes and spice packets available everywhere, but its original and quite dated restaurant in Bangalore still keeps its doors open.  I was hesitant to eat there considering the run-down state of the area, but it is the only place within walkable distance, and it’s supposed to be very good food.  Down the main road, the muslim to Hindu ratio appears to have evened out, but I am still in a defensive mood.  The lower level of the restaurant is crowded with patrons, and a passing waiter makes a sort of grunt and motions with his head to take the stairs to the second level dining area for seating.  At the first level of the stairs, I see a colorful mirror portrait of Krishna playing his flute, and I immediately relax when I see that everyone eating here is Hindu.  A waiter motions for us to follow him and pulls out two red plastic chairs for us to sit on at a large marble-topped table.  There are three separate elderly married couples already sitting at the table, and I feel rather puzzled that he is asking us to sit here when I see other tables in the room are completely open.  I don’t want to refuse his request though, and we both quietly slide into our seats.  Next to me an old uncle, neatly dressed in traditional white cotton South Indian attire patiently waits for his food.  Next to him, his wife sits quietly; just as nicely dressed in a pressed green and pink silk sari, gray hair smoothed back into a neat bun.  Directly in front of us sit an aunty and uncle in their late sixties.  They are more causally dressed in their ethnic wear and chatter in Kannada between themselves.  We order dosa and chai and quietly murmur to each other.  Though the elderly couples are polite in acknowledging my presence, I feel awkward.  Sanjeev sits in his best polite stance, back straight, hands folded in his lap, and I know that he feels the same.  We sit in silence for some time, and I feel as though being inside this restaurant, I have stepped back in time a good thirty years.  The layout, the seating, the people, everything inside this place seems to be reminiscent of an older, much different India. 

     A waiter brings each of the couples their orders.  Every individual is served a plate of idli (steamed rice cakes) and steel bowls filled with sambar, and coconut chutney.  The dish is complete with the addition of a tiny bowl filled with ghee.  The aunty and uncle in front of us happily drizzle their fattening ghee on their idlis and skillfully use two spoons to break apart the idli and dunk it in the chutney and sambar.  We wait, trying not to look at them all eating.  After what seems like forever, our dosas are placed in front of us.  I feel compelled to eat with my right hand in the presence of elders, and manage to tear apart the dosa and scoop up chutney without making a mess.  The food here is traditional Tamil style, and perfectly spiced.  In a gluttonous mood, I decide that the dosa isn’t enough for me, despite that it’s thick and cooked with too much ghee.  We order two plates of dahi vada (curd with a spiced doughnut).  In the meantime, the aunty and uncle opposite us start on their second plate of food, a bowl rice and dal in a spicy sauce; a dish I have eaten myself but fail to recall its name.  The server finally brings us our chai, served in good-sized silver tumblers.  He gives us each two tumblers, one filled with chai, the other empty.  I sit for a moment somewhat self conscious about the task that is before me.  The two tumblers means that I will have to perform a stunt with very hot tea without burning myself or carelessly spilling it in my lap.  Traditional tea in the South is served with sugar spooned into the cup without stirring.  Mixing the tea and the sugar is done by pouring the contents of one tumbler into another repetitively; effectively mixing the sugar and enhancing the taste of the tea.  People accustomed to doing this can pour the tea from a foot above the other tumbler without spilling a drop.  I however, have only done this a few times.  I manage to mix my tea without burning my fingers too much, and I only make a small spill.  It’s made with the cheap residue tea available everywhere, but it is prepared in a wonderful way and reminds me of side stand tea from the chai wallas in Delhi.  We finish our tea and overfill our stomachs with the dahi vada.  For some reason Sanjeev gives the server a large tip, who makes sure to ask Sanjeev twice if the amount is really for him.

     As soon as we exit the building it begins to rain, and we dodge traffic to cross the intersection, running down the sidewalk to find shelter from the downpour.  I cover my camera with my kurti and skillfully avoid the cracks and holes in the sidewalk as I run.  We find a store with an awning and take our refuge next to three other men.  I wipe the water droplets off my camera and sit on the entrance’s marble ledge while we wait.  A few minutes later, the coast is clear.  Sanjeev tells me to go back to the service center and wait for him while he crosses the busy street to use the atm.  I walk back down the brick laid lot and lean against the entrance wall.  Across the long glass wall, a security guard with chiseled features who looks to be either Nepalese or Assamese directs the random cars and people to their respective places.  I notice the appealing architecture of the building’s complex in front of me, and the neatly maintained shrubs and plants.  I fidget with my wet hair, attempting to smooth and reshape my limp curls.  Three middle-aged women, clad in traditional saris walk by me, each giving me a sweet smile that I return.  As they pass me by, speaking in Kannada amongst each other, Sanjeev comes around the corner.  I know that they are speaking about me, so I ask him if he heard what they were saying.  He replies that they were impressed with my appearance being fully immersed in Indian culture, complete with my mangal sutra necklace.  As we walk back into the large building I can’t help my smile knowing that the women approved of me.

     Back in the service center waiting room, we are told that the new LCD screen has not fixed the problem and that our tablet is still not working.  He informs us that it is most likely a video chip in the motherboard that has gone bad, and that it would cost more than the tablet is worth to replace it.  We pay out another $100 for the extra screen and spare part and pack up our useless tablet.  On the way home through the obnoxiously loud traffic jams, I vent out my frustration about the death of our hardly used tablet, and the waste of invested money in an exaggerated, breathless ramble that keeps Sanjeev laughing the whole ride.  I swear off buying useless electronics and pout the rest of the trip. 

     Back home, I retrieve a squealing Bubby from his bedroom and take the elevator downstairs.  Outside the entrance of my block, I see fresh puddles in the uneven brick layout, and know that it has rained in this area as well.  The sun is getting low in the sky hidden behind the rain clouds, and the evening light is tinted a beautiful pinkish orange.  I let Bubby pee and decide to make him take a round in the complex.  Coming around the corner of another block, with Bubby behind me doing his speedy spider walk, I begin to see the edges of a rainbow in the South.  Around the bend, I see its true brilliance, colors vivid and distinct, its wide arch peaking high above me.  I stop and admire it for a minute, deeply breathing the moist cool air, and finally head back to my block.  I don’t ever recall having seen a rainbow in India.  Perhaps it is a sign good luck to come.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Raksha Bundhun

     Today August 20th, is Raskha Bundhun (knot of protection) – a festival celebrated across the whole of India and better known as Rakhi. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     On this auspicious day, sisters tie a red thread bracelet (a rakhi) onto their brother’s right wrist as a symbol of the bond between siblings.  Traditional belief follows that the tying of the rakhi will offer protection and good luck the brother, while also reminding him of his vow to protect his sister from all that is evil.  The historical roots of Raskha Bundhun stem back to the times when India was ruled by kings.  Folklore has it that a queen of a Hindu empire offered a rakhi to the ruler of the Mughals as a peace offering and symbol of friendship. 

     In modern India, Rakhi continues to be celebrated each year during the Hindu month of Shravan. Weeks before the festival, handmade rakhis numbering the tens of millions flood the streets of India’s cities.  Rajasthani families who are well known for owning radiantly colorful little knick-knack shops always maintain the most elaborate displays of rakhis.  Last Rakhi, I remember walking down a street in Koramangala and being drawn to the vibrant presentation of rakhi bracelets that had spilled out of a Rajasthani store and onto the sidewalk.  A makeshift display board with bracelets dangling hung from a large tree, and tables full of rakhis lined the entrance.  All of it so carefully placed out so passersby could quickly buy a bracelet and perhaps be lured to into the colorful and warmly lit store downstairs. 

 © Rebecca Delekta
     While the sisters are responsible for procuring the rakhi and to also provide her brother with sweets, it is customary for brothers to show their dedication to their promise of protection by giving gifts to their sisters.  Sanjeev told me that when he was little, he used to joke with his four sisters that Raksha Bundhun was intended to be about the bond of siblings, but is instead just another festival that grants permission for sisters to loot their brothers for gifts.  Sanjeev and his sisters still maintain their traditional celebration, and over the past week, packages have come from Delhi and Gujarat filled with soan papdi sweets and greeting cards, each one containing a unique rakhi bracelet inside.  Like the year before, I taped each card and its bracelet to the refrigerator.  Last night we were informed that the package to Delhi containing the salwar suit materials for three of his sisters arrived, each one delighted with our choice of design.  In Gujarat, Renu was also pleased with the gift and money for the tailor.  At nine a.m. this morning, after two hours of sleep, Sanjeev is already on the phone with his sisters wishing each one a happy Rakhi.  I wake up to his voice, and find him in the kitchen amongst the cards performing a modified version of the Rakhi ritual in his sisters’ absence.  He takes his shower, dresses, and ties all four Rakhis on his wrist.  I cut off the loose ends while he mixes a tiny rice pack with a pinch of vermillion powder to create the auspicious tilak on his forehead. 

     I have witnessed the celebration of Raskha Bundhun in Bangalore three times in the last four years.  Although the nonexistence of my own brother requires me to only observe Rakhi rituals from the sidelines, Rakhi remains to be one of most interesting, fun, and light-hearted Hindu festivals simply because it is another day that joyously celebrates life and the bonds of family. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Chain of Events To Help A Lost Soul

     In a city of almost ten million, Bangalore evokes a strange sense of awareness about time and all the small coincidences in life, how they string together as events in the lived experience.  This awareness essentially makes you realize how your life, each day and moment, can be dramatically altered by one event, determined by it even.  We can live one day in a million ways.  Today, I felt particularly aware of time and this connection of events. 

     We round the corner on the bike, coming to the final bend that leads out to Hosur Main Road.  Sanjeev swerves the bike somewhat and immediately pulls over to the side and stops.  “We have a tire puncture,” he tells me, “get off.”  That’s interesting.  Just an hour ago we had amazing luck by narrowly missing our bike being towed for illegal parking in Electronic City.  I was just sitting down on the bike to leave when a tow truck abruptly pulled up, stopped in the middle of the road, and let out two guys who walked around our bike and us and began hastily removing the other three bikes parked on the side of the road.  Just 30 seconds later, and we would have been attempting to bribe the tow guys to give us our bike back.  As we drive away from the tow truck and the men, I tell Sanju that Shiva must be watching over us, and we laugh about the fact that someone is actually enforcing laws in this city.  

     But now, our luck seems to have run out.  I get off the bike not at all surprised that we have a flat.  About a half hour ago we were driving along what has got to be the worst road in all of Bangalore.  A four-foot high pile of broken bricks lay in the middle of the road, and to avoid driving through the water filled massive lengths of potholes, we instead drove over a patchwork of fist sized jagged rocks.  The second trip through the rocks probably did the trick.  It is amazing at all that we manage to keep our vehicles intact and running for all the beatings they take from the roads of this city. 

     The crater road stunt was done all in an attempt to find an adequate place to eat our skipped breakfast.  I felt like South Indian and was in luck to find that a chatt restaurant was serving a well prepared Southern variety lunch, a big steel plate filled with enough small bowls of different subjees, sambar, rasam, and dahi to fill up even the hungriest of souls.  Sipping cardamom tea after food, I helped Sanjeev fill out the greeting cards to his sisters, stuffing a 500 rupee note in each one.  August 20th is Raskha Bundhun, better known as Rakhi – a festival acknowledging the relationship between brothers and sisters.  Days earlier, Sanjeev and I took forever to pick out unstitched salwar suit materials for each one of his four sisters to send them in celebration of Rakhi.  Finding cards for them was an almost unattainable goal, but after asking around at a couple of small stationary stores in the area, we found ourselves in the hot and unventilated second floor of a grocery store, with apparently the only greeting card display available in the city.  The card stand looked like it has never once been organized, and we spend roughly 15 minutes sweating and searching for relevant cards in the mess.  On the short ride from the grocery store to the restaurant (and over that nasty road) I somehow lose one of the cards.  Not wanting to waste valuable time to get another, I forfeit the “friends” card with two ugly little dogs on it that I had bought to send Kristie. 

     Cards filled out, and tea finished, we start back toward Hosur Road to visit the courier’s office and send it all out.  The sun manages to peek out of the clouds after four full days of nonstop rain.  I feel unexpectedly light as it warms my back.  It would have been even more enjoyable if we didn’t get a flat and have to walk the bike to a service shop on Hosur.  We walk for about five minutes before we see that the first puncture shop is closed (it is mid-day after all).  An auto guy with a backseat full of happily waving kids stops and tells us that there is another puncture shop further up the road.  At this point another man approaches Sanjeev speaking in a language I cannot identify, though it is clear that he is asking for help.  Like most people from his poor class, he is utterly too thin, clothes hanging off him, looking as though they haven’t been washed for some time.  His hair is thick and jet black, I take him to be in his early thirties, but his face is worn and deeply sad, and it is hard to look away from him.  Sanjeev listens to the man but wants to dismiss him as a drunkard, another one of the men living in this state that have fallen prey to drinking away what little money they make.  We continue walking, and he follows us persistent to ask for help.  I tell Sanju that I feel bad and that I want to give him some cash, but I can see that he doesn’t believe what this man says, and I catch the word police in Sanjeev’s reply to him.  I try my best not to look perturbed.  Living here, you have to learn to ignore beggars, especially if you’re white.  Giving money to everyone that asks would leave you broke, and people can and will take advantage of you if you let them.  I have had kids beg from me and then get angry and argue when I refuse to give them cash but offer to buy them something to eat instead. Somehow though, I feel this guy is different.  The look on his face reflects his hard lot in life.  I know however, that it would make Sanjeev angry to give him the money, and we would essentially repeat the same argument we always have over giving away money.  The guy continues talking and Sanjeev makes another reply that stops him, a hurt look on his face.    

     As we put distance between him and us, I look back, and ask Sanjeev for better clarification about the event that just happened.  The guy was speaking Tamil (a language Sanjeev knows very little of), and he explained that he works as a cleaner but was left behind in Belgaum after his trucker friend and him had a fight.  He traveled the 508 kilometers (315 miles) from there to Bangalore on foot.  Sanjeev however, doubts his story and tells me that he’d be probably be visiting a liquor shop with any money we gave him.  I drop the issue for the moment and wait as Sanjeev stops and asks two more bike repair shops if they do puncture work.  Both are a negative and tell us in rambling Kannada and pointing arms to continue further down the road where another place is set up.  We walk for another five minutes and I joke when I see that we’ve reached our courier office.  We are in luck because a few shops down there is a small workshop that clearly does puncture work if the stacked up and hanging used tires outside its entrance are anything to go by.  It’s miraculously open and we walk our bike under the awning.  Sanjeev asks an old muslim guy sitting inside if they can fix our tire.  He nods and disappears somewhere when I look back and see that the Tamil guy has stopped someone else.  We leave the bike and walk back to the courier to finally relieve me of gift bag I’ve been hauling around all over the place.  The Tamilian is close to the store and before we turn to go inside, Sanjeev stops and tells me he is reconsidering helping the guy.  I am not sure what has changed his mind and I watch him walk over and converse with him on the side of the road.  After a few minutes of impatient waiting, I join them, and observe their conversation in broken Tamil and some random English sentences.  Sanjeev finally breaks his conversation and turns to tell me that the guy wants to get home to his village outside of Chennai in Tamil Nadu.  We agree that we will first send out our gifts, and that he will take him on the bike to the interstate bus station back in Electronic City.  I will take an auto home.  He tells the guy to sit and wait outside the courier office while we finally get those packages out. 

     Inside the stuffy office, we wait for the workers to finish their lunches.  I pace a little and glance out of the glass doors at the Tamil guy sitting on a concrete block.  He looks so worn, desperate even.  While Sanjeev busies himself with filling out the addresses of the packages, I see an elderly woman wrapped in a faded sari approach the window.  See knocks on it once to get my attention and asks me for money by bringing her hand to her mouth in an eating gesture.  The only kind of beggars I never ignore are the elderly, most of whom have been abandoned or widowed, and have most likely had an unimaginably hard life.  I walk over to the gap in the glass that serves as the exit and hand her a 100 rupee note.  She thanks me silently by touching the money to her heart and walks off.  When I rejoin Sanjeev, he tells me he thinks we got a flat tire so that we could help the Tamil guy.  I think about the events that led up to this point.  The fact that we didn’t go out to get the gift task done the last two days because of time and the rain, that we couldn’t use the car today because Akilesh is home, that we left when we did, drove over that road, and got a flat where we did.  I agree with him, we both believe in fate leading you places and sending you signs.  We stand around sweating for another ten to fifteen minutes, waiting for the cashier to finally finish charging us entirely too much for our package to be sent out and reach Delhi by the 20th.

     Back out on the street, Sanjeev tells the guy to continue waiting as we go back to check on the progress of the bike.  A young kid no more than twelve who sports the look of a hard working mechanic tells us that our tire tube needs to be changed, and we watch as he removes the tire off the back of the bike and begins dismantling it.  The kid speaks in Hindi too accented for me to understand more than a couple of words, and I watch them discuss which replacement tube to use.  Next to us, metal shop workers loudly hammer their current project and solder joints without protective glasses.  Trucks roll by with deafening horns blaring, and after idle standing for a few minutes Sanjeev asks me to walk back and check to see if the guy is still waiting.  I do, and motion for him to follow me when I see him.  He catches up to me and asks me in halfway decent English where I am from, I tell him America but pronounce it in an Indianized way he can understand – Amareeka.  We walk to the entrance and I strain to hear him speak to me over the sounds of the traffic and horns on the street.  He asks me for an American coin, and I tell him I don’t know if I have one, but search in the coin pouch of my wallet for the change I left in there from my last trip home for the expressed purpose of not disappointing another person who asks for a small token from my country.  I dig out a quarter, a dime, and a penny carefully placing each one in his palm and explaining to him what they are called and worth.  He thanks me and I say that I hope it brings him good luck.  He tells me, somewhat like a child, that he has come across a one-dollar bill and has kept it.  I ask him if he is native to Tamil Nadu and he tells me he is but that his family is very poor.  He says it took him seven days to walk to Bangalore.  When I comment that it was sad that no one helped him he replies that it was difficult because most people here don’t speak Tamil.  He again begins to look like he might cry and I tell him not to worry, that we will help him get home.

     The mechanic kid finishes his job and Sanjeev again joins us.  Having thought his trip over, the Tamil guy asks us if we can help him to the train station instead.  He holds out his right palm and draws with his opposite finger an imaginary map for us to describe how close his mother’s home is to the train station in Chennai.  We agree to get him a train ticket instead and start walking down the road to the bus stop just within sight.  Sanjeev parks the bike and asks him go sit on the bench on the other side of the street.  While Sanjeev looks up the varying trains and their times to Chennai on his phone, I go inside a little snacks shop and buy a bottle of water and a veg puff for the Tamil.  I walk across the side road and give it to him, and he feels compelled to show me his education credentials paper that he keeps folded in his front shirt pocket.  I notice that the well-to-do people waiting for the bus are staring at me, and I open the heavily creased paper, attempting to separate the Tamil script from any printed English.  I see that his name is Satheesh and I say it out loud to him.  He smiles approvingly that I have pronounced it right and I tell him my name.  He speaks it several times, with heavy emphasis on the R.  I hand the paper back to him and tell him to wait again while I check on Sanjeev’s train progress.  There are no more trains he can catch tonight but we agree that it is best if he gets the ticket himself for the 6:30 am train tomorrow.  We speak with him at the bus stop, waiting people curious and eavesdropping on our words.  We give him five hundred rupees ($10) for the train ticket and food, and 20 rupees for the bus fair to the train station.  He thanks us and holds out a small packet of locally harvested raisins for me to take.  I argue with him to keep it for himself but he tells me it is for the food and water I gave him.  I hesitantly take it and while we walk away, he boards the bus. 

      Before we drive away, a rather large guy who had been eavesdropping on the situation tells us in Kannada that we were fools to give Satheesh that money, because he is probably a drunkard.  It is true of course that Satheesh could be lying to us.  It is difficult to separate the truthful people from the deceitful ones.  Whether he takes that train to Chennai tomorrow morning and arrives at his mother’s home, and finally feeds himself, or uses it to drown his sorrows with cheap liquor, we cannot know.  I’d like to believe that he was honest; the despair on his face was genuine.  We both agreed that we did our part, whatever the outcome.  Driving home the last couple miles, I notice that the sky has suddenly turned dark again.  Five minutes later, back in the comfort of our apartment and changing out of my ethnic wear, I watch the sky open up and pour outside my bedroom window.  We both admit that the weather managed to be nice just as long as we needed it to.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Independence Day


Photo Courtesy of The Hindu (2013).

    Today - August 15th, is India's Independence Day, celebrating 67 years of freedom from British rule.  For weeks, Indian pride propaganda has been available on the streets.  Women and children sell small flag trinkets at red lights, shop owners display orange, white, and green hanging lights.  With the upcoming elections drawing closer, political talk of a new India is all the rage.

     It's another dreary monsoon day where the rain just doesn't want to stop.  As a national holiday, most everyone is home and enjoying the day off, and the streets of Bangalore lack their original buzz of life.  As I sit in my spare bedroom, I look out the large window that gives me a wonderful view of the city.  The sky is covered in a monotone of gray and the rain has picked up again.  Just then, I see a goods truck driving along the Hosur's highway overpass with a full size flag waving from its roof.  You gotta love the enthusiasm in this country, all but the muslims are full of Indian pride. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Fancy Dinner For Two

     Sanjeev’s phone GPS tells us that our restaurant is off to the left on a side road, but looking around, I am starting to get suspicious.  The restaurant we are searching for is a pizza joint, quite terribly named Big Slice – a place we’ve been meaning to visit (since the day we got married) as a thanks to a friend of a friend who, having never met us, agreed to be a witness at our marriage.  Six months ago I remember the guy swearing that their wood fire pizza is made with authentic mozzarella cheese.  At the time it was quite impressive since pizza and its cheese in India tend to be awful.  The only pizza I trust in the country is Dominos, which quite amazingly, is able to remain true to America’s “under 30 minutes guarantee” even in a shit-hole driving city like Bangalore. 

     Our Tuesday night out was a celebration for us having been married for 6 months.  I was quite excited for a nice dinner instead of our usual eat-outs at restaurants with questionable sanitary methods.  Last week at the mall, we stood at the counter of one of our frequented Indian restaurants in the food court and laughed as we watched a cook quite thoroughly contaminate Sanjeev’s dosa with his bare hands.  But tonight, tonight was going to be different.  I was picturing the scene of a high scale Bangalore restaurant – a low lit and nicely decorated place, no mosquitoes, and a relaxed ambiance.  Maybe I would order a glass of wine.  It was all to be a very romantic anniversary evening.  Tonight we were going to pay more than $3.00 for a meal, yes indeed. 

     In our borrowed car, we wrestled our way through the thick evening traffic down a side road that contained far too many speed bumps and potholes.  I was shuffling through the roughly 2,000 songs in my IPod connected to the car’s stereo system, searching for a song I’m not sick of.  Tonight it’s damp and chilly after having poured in the early afternoon and drizzled all evening.  The monsoons should have receded by now, but apparently, like everything else in India, they will move on from Karnataka when they are damned good and ready.  The side road that wound through a haphazardly developed colony has led us to some main road I’ve never seen before.  It’s buzzing with people finishing their days and returning home.  Every empty space is filled with stores large and small.  Outside the brightly lit department stores and despite the cool wet night, all the small scale business people are out hoping to earn some money from the evening crowd.  Farmers sit out with their produce under their makeshift tents with blue tarps held up by wooden poles, or stand out in the open with a large wooden cart displaying the last of their fresh foods.  Flower wallas stand in their tiny metal stalls, varieties of flowers displayed in metal cans.  A pirated movie merchant squats low on a plastic stool, his ripped off DVDs conveniently packed in plastic sleeves complete with movie label print-outs, and piled up on a tiny fold-up table.  Chatt stall guys stand in the muddied edges of the road, handing out little paper bowls full of pani puri to customers who are willing to risk getting ill.  It’s the kind of area that lacks Bangalore’s cosmopolitan side and most definitely is not an area where you’d find an upscale restaurant.  Put simply, the food options in this area are likely to give you a serious case of food poisoning, parasites or both.  (Granted, this area is a thousand times better than the area we visited yesterday, where I counted far more white hats than I care to admit to.)

     We turn down the road the GPS woman tells us to take, slowly driving down it, we peer out the driver’s side window looking for our destination.  I spot the unlit awning sporting the name of the place, and see that it is attached to a restaurant the size of a matchbox.  Brightly lit with florescent lights, its walls are white and quite grungy.  We drive past and I see that there are cheap wooden tables with plastic chairs, and no door.  The absence of a door means a lot in India.  Many restaurants here operate with an open entrance, effectively exposing their restaurant and food to the dirty, dusty, and polluted atmosphere outside.  The absence of a door is in essence a red flag which alerts me that sanitation is also most definitely absent.  It’s the kind of spot where a dingy South Indian restaurant would set up shop to sell poorly made food to the local workers who can’t afford better.  At this point, I am ready to abort the entire dinner, even Sanjeev appears to be shocked that the restaurant is not at all what we imagined.  But earlier in the day, Sanjeev had told our friend we were finally making that visit, and we came all this way, so we have to try it. 

     We park in a no-parking area that is deserted and make our way to the restaurant.  I feel thankful I didn’t get really dressed up, though the stares at my Eastern/Western outfit are evident.  The guys working inside all seem shocked that they have customers when we enter.  It is empty, and the three tables they have available are occupied only by flies.  We sit down and wait several minutes before someone thinks to give us a menu, giving me time to observe my surroundings.  The walls are even grubbier looking up close and the décor is objectionable.  Two small square plaques with artistic sketched images and quotes from Michael Jackson and Al Pacino are propped up in the one big window.  About ten dated, random and totally unrelated black-and-white framed photos are hung on the wall I face.  I see Sanjeev staring at the wall behind me with a puzzled look on his face.  I turn around to look at the wall I am seated backed up against, and I realize it is decorated with bright red three-foot-long egg racks, complete with about 5 dozen real eggs that have been emptied and glued to the vertical racks.  They are dusty, and look old, gross, and just plain weird.  Behind the counter, and about ten feet away from us is the wood fire grill.  It’s the only attractive thing in the place, because it gives off a comforting smoky smell that reminds me of our wood stove at home.  Sanjeev stops a young waiter walking by us, dressed up in typical North Eastern pop culture attire with thick wavy hair that looks like it hasn’t been washed in days.  Speaking in Hindi, he orders a margarita pizza – just cheese, and we wait.  I distract my disappointment by using Sanju’s phone to search for Independence Day deals on ethnic wear at one of my favorite online stores.  Another server brings us plastic glasses full of water, Sanjeev automatically sets them off to the side – neither of us will touch unbottled water.  The waiters nervously drift from backroom to the main room; I never actually see the pizza get put into the oven.  In roughly twenty minutes it is served to us, and surprisingly it is quite good, even superior to other pizza I’ve had in India.  The cheese is scant, but that’s because it is in fact mozzarella, imported, and therefore very expensive.  Sanjeev wolfed down four slices before I could finish two.  It’s no Salvatore’s of Long Island, and the atmosphere is terrible, but the pizza is worth the trip.  I finish the last of my slices and Sanjeev calls for the bill.  I am expecting it to be outrageous, but the charge is only 180 Rupees, less that $4.00.  They (not surprisingly) don’t accept cards, and I am the only one with cash.  The waiter hesitates when I hand him over a 500 rupee note (less than $10.00) because they don’t have change for it.  We tell him it is all I have, and he leaves the restaurant to get change from a local vendor.  Upon his return we give him a tip and leave, saying our thanks to the servers, each guy looking utterly relieved that we liked the pizza.  

     Sanju says he’s not sated so we agree that we will splurge even more and get dessert.  We walk to the busy street, carelessly stomping through the mud to avoid the steady stream of cars moving past us.  The amount of lights and bustle is disorienting even in the dark.  We see a rather large Spencer’s food market, and curious to seek out its contents, we decide to momentarily deviate from our dessert plans.  At the entrance, cardboard boxes are laid out to reduce tracking in the mud.  I find cranberry juice (elusive and expensive in India), grab some fresh bread, and finally pick out that clothes iron I’ve been waiting a year for.  Sanjeev wanders over to the tiny Daily Bread side stall, famous across India for their high quality baked goods. He appears to want to eat our dessert there, so we pick out small slice of cake from the little windowed display.  I pay 82 rupees for it, and we stand at a wobbly table and eat.  It’s not delicious enough to want more of, but not tasteless enough to stop eating.  At the register, I get a pack of a weird cotton candy kind of bubble gum and stuff the whole thing in my mouth while we wait for the cashier to complete his fifteen-minute process to check out our seven items. 

     Back out in the chilly night air, and navigating the busy crowd, we walk to our car relaxed and joking.  As I blow big bubbles with my tasty and way too big piece of bubble gum, I tell Sanju that I enjoyed tonight, and I am just going to chalk it up as another interesting experience in India where nothing is predictable.  At least I was right in my determination to spend more than our average $3.00 meal – we spent $5.00. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Bangalore Rhythm

    It’s August, the monsoons are waning and the weather feels like spring.  It has been two full months since I have returned back to Bangalore from my month-long break in the U.S.  I have come to India on five separate occasions now.  My passport pages are filling up and I finally have a spouse visa – a full five years of access to India as my second home country.  It is so strange how each time I have returned here, I have gone through a roughly two-month time period of culture shock – an intense struggle with living in a foreign country so completely different from my own.  I struggled with depression and anxiety during that time, felt this immense sense of my being out of place, of being alienated from this world.  I would shut myself in, bitch and moan about things, and even pull my American bullshit ethnocentric prejudice by making it a “me against them” situation.  (It’s all textbook symptoms, really).  My personal culture shock was always like a small bout of insanity: everything is relative, nothing makes sense, I am completely lost.  And then something inside me would change.  This shift I could actually feel happening – this blanket of darkness being lifted from me.  And it all no longer seemed so foreign to me, actually it felt like my home away from home.  And what’s this? – I would begin to feel happy again?  The motions of the day that once made me angry and melancholy would suddenly begin to fit my life.  Each time I returned, it got a little easier.  This time, my adjustment took a week, a sort of peace settling over me as I fell back into my rhythm here.  I realized after my quick readjustment, that I had essentially – finally and fully – adapted to my world here.  I have let go of my lifestyle in America, and traded it for a simpler life, that despite its Indian mundanity, brings meaning and understanding to me.  I view life here differently.

    Most people in the “Western world,” American or otherwise, don’t realize that the perception of life and the pace of life, is immensely different in the various countries of the world.  India is one place in particular that has a slower pace of life.  Things appear to happen when they are ready; life moves forward on its own accord, people do nothing to force it.

    Bangalore especially is considered lazy; noticeably more laid-back than other cities in India.  I like to make jokes about how in Bangalore, if you want to give somebody business, you have to wait until it is convenient for them.  Restaurants open and close twice a day – leaving an up to four-hour gap in the middle of the day where people apparently just don’t feel like working.  Being late in getting anywhere in the city is always expected, and no apologies will be given.  Men and women in my community leave for their jobs as late as 10 am.  Mid-day naps are quite common; there is apparently no reason to feel guilty for enjoying life slowly here.  Maybe Bangaloreans are onto something. 

    The laziness factor in this city is perpetuated by the lengthy and frequent power outages that occur most everyday.  When I used to live in a more rural area of Bangalore – J.P. Nagar, power outages plagued me daily.  This time around, I happen to live in an upscale locale, conveniently equipped with two massive back-up generators that retrieve power for its residents in less than a few minutes.  Yet I am continuously reminded of my luxury of a mostly constant power source when I am out in the wild wild world that is Bangalore.  More than three years from my introduction to this city and country, I take the time lag quite well; I can’t allow such things to piss me off too much anymore.  They are a part of life here, unmovable and unchangeable by me.  Patience is the highest of virtues in India, and it is my saving grace in this city. 

     It is in my opinion that all this laziness has perpetuated in me, a more enjoyable approach to life.  In adapting to the experience of a Bangalorean life, I have learned to become aware of and enjoy the little things.  Having my morning tea with a good book as I listen to the city come to life is the most coveted part of my day.  To sit in the sun after days of dreary monsoon clouds, and feel a cool spring breeze has the ability to calm me to my core.  Watching the world move outside my apartment, above it all from my ten stories up, makes me feel like the entirety of India is before me, stirring creativity and rumination.  To live outside of the constant push / pull society that is America has become a blessing.  I have embraced simplicity, and I will admit that it is more beautiful than I ever thought it would be.