The lyrical calls of the wallah echo through our tiny street…fruit, vegetables, papers, knife sharpening, and the call for tea…chai! These vendors, with well-stocked wooden carts and bicycles, are still part of the fabric in this traditional neighbourhood.
Our move was only days old when I first heard this chant. As I lingered with my Sunday morning coffee, I heard the rising pitch of a female voice. The words were unclear yet the entreaty to ‘come buy’ unmistakeable.
“That must be a wallah!,” I said expectantly, rushing to gaze down to the leafy street.
The vendor was wearing a vivid red sari, contrasting her laden, deep green cart. Hurrying to the street, I meet my new fruit seller, Munglora. She greets me by removing the tiny red dot, a bindi, from her forehead and placing it just between my eyes, “welcome,” she says with an engaging laugh. Despite the language barrier, I can tell she’s a character.
I gather strawberries, melons and pomegranates for ‘a song’, yet discover that like an excited child, I had only rushed down with a few rupees in my hand. “Ok, ok,” says Munglora and jots down the amount owing in a faithful ledger. She’ll be sure to see me next Sunday this way.
A few of the neighbours make their way from their aging villas. Their friendliness is matched by their curiosity about this new couple on the street, “Where are you from and do you have children,” they want to know. It seems a little more acceptable that we’re so far away from our sons when I tell them they are studying and that by co-incidence, our landlord’s son went to the same university/college as I had in Canada. “What a small world,” we all agree pleasantly.
Munglora has parked her cart near the tall school gate at the end of the street and the impeccably uniformed school guard soon introduces himself. It’s obvious he takes pride in his long service to the Bishop Cotton Boy’s School. Built in the 1860’s, it’s one of the oldest institutions in Bengaluru and I gaze beyond the gate towards the Colonial style buildings with their terracotta tiled roofs. Oh how I hope I’m offered a tour of the grounds one day!
These authentic encounters validate our decision to not live in the confines of a walled compound. After much deliberation, we chose a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city. It’s unexpectedly modern with cooling marble floors and generously spacious for this urban location. Best of all, our terrace is shaded by a canopy of massive rain trees, impossibly tall coconuts, mango and bamboo.
They shelter the headmaster’s garden below, its calm interrupted twice daily by the passing flow of students. The morning security guard motions to school children in starched white uniforms to hurry, hurry, as they jump out of a car or auto- rickshaw and rush the gate, late for class. Mothers wave their student goodbye as they disappear into the lush grounds…phew, made it just in time! I hear cricket games in the distance, the national anthem and school announcements…all a pleasant ‘commotion.’
We soon discover the school has also given us a music studio…serenades drift up to our terrace, strains of Adele, jazz and snippets of Indian folk. It blends with the headmaster’s menagerie of ducks, honking geese and a very plump turkey who fans his plumage and makes his presence known with long, squeaky honks. Thankfully, pleasant birdsong and chatter of hawks, pigeons and parakeets soften the soundtrack.
“Monkeys pass through about twice a year,” my landlord tells me as we appreciate the vista from the terrace on the first day. He laughs as I recoil, my lifelong fear of monkeys revealed. We’ve had a comfortable rapport since I first viewed the apartment and he’s obliged us with window treatments of our choice and painting in a shade complimenting my Indian inspired decor of lanterns and silk cushions in gorgeous hues of duck egg green and soft blues.
I feel further spoiled when I realize that an iron wallah sets-up in the shade of the doctor’s garden across the street. The first day, I take over five shirts to be ironed “50 rupees,” Laurence says, shyly glancing up from his coal-powered iron. I ask how long the coal stays warm in the hefty contraption. “Two hours,” I’m told and when I attempt to tip an extra 20 rupees, Laurence returns it to me. Five beautifully pressed shirts for about $1, his rate the same for all. There is help of every nature in the neighbourhood and I understand that it is both our pleasure and an obligation to avail ourselves of these services…it’s expected.
“Anything, anything at all you need, you go to Anand,” the landlord insists. Part of the small ‘family’ we seem to have adopted is this young man with a ready smile and his finger on the pulse of it all; cleaners, internet hookup, pest control, repairmen. Anand is the acting boss of the other ‘family’ members of this five apartment complex including the maintenance and sweeper fellow, the drivers and the security guard who is never far from his post at the gatehouse.
Every time my husband passes our guard, Rajesh Kumar, he is given a quick salute. Our Rajesh isn’t as well turned-out as most of the guards, but he is always gentlemanly, insisting on carrying my shopping up the short flight of stairs to our wide, welcoming front door.
At one end of our short street stands the Bishop Cotton gate, the other intersects with a tree-lined road dotted with bars, restaurants and older villas that stand defiant against the onslaught of development. They contrast a handful of nearby hotels where one can disappear into storied luxury; where doors are opened by resplendently attired doormen and vases of eight-hundred roses welcome in sparkling lobbies. Where one is welcomed with a Namaskar and approached with a tray for the tilak.
This is the welcoming ceremony of dotting a small dab of vermillion or sandalwood on the forehead, just between the brows. This is believed to be where the spiritual eye resides…the place of latent wisdom. And unlike Munglora’s self-adhering bindi, these are more ‘permanent.’
Close to all of this is the ‘lung’ of the city, Cubbon Park with ample walkways, jogging paths and bike trails shaded by silver oaks and Cook pines from Australia. “If they were to ever diminish this park, there would be riots in the streets,” a fellow park enthusiast tells me. I believe I’d join in – it’s imperative that Bengaluru safeguards its dwindling greenery.
We visit the Bangalore Club built during the British Raj for the pleasure of ranking officers and officials stationed in this former cantonment area of barracks and regimental head quarters. This club is redolent with history and after a swim or game of tennis, one can quench one’s thirst with a sundowner in the ‘Men’s Lounge’ (women now allowed) where Winston Churchill still has an unpaid bar bill and a stuffed leopard recalls the pursuits of hunting and gaming…it’s as if you have stumbled upon a movie set.
We continue to explore this past weekend and just a short auto-rickshaw ride away, we find ourselves a little further into the cantonment area. Whether you agree, or not, with this period of history, iconic vestiges of it remain. From 1806 to 1881, this area comprised the largest British Raj cantonment in southern India. We seem to find the old residential area. We peek behind crumbling stone walls where once stately bungalows are strangled by overgrown gardens and telling shop signs cling to redundant buildings.
We’re welcomed into the superbly maintained St. Andrew’s Church and our eyes are drawn to wall plaques that reveal the history of church members in the late 1800’s. People from England, Scotland and Wales, either stationed or chose to make their life here. Some having met their demise from malaria, dengue fever, leopard and tiger attacks…sad reminders of the perils of life in tropical climates.
With that thought in mind, we make our way to Commercial Street to buy mosquito coils and see this lively shopping district first hand. Other than the odd modern shop planted in the maze of crisscrossed streets, we’re transported back to the India of our backpacking days. It is still here; the intoxicating blend of colour, aromas and noise…the stamp of an authentic Indian street. Holy cows hold up traffic, vendors offer an array of goods and artisans inhabit impossibly small spaces creating stunning craft pieces.
We chat with rice and salt merchants, their archaic sign and ‘ancient’ scale an indication of their long standing business. The sellers willingly pose for a photo as does a nearby vendor of saris, an artisan stitching delicate mirror triangles onto brilliant pink silk, a lime juice vendor, a rice grinder, an antique dealer who details the merits of a brass Hindu collectible to me; all friendly and proud of their wares and talents.
We are lucky enough to meet Deepa as she sits with other women on the steps of a Marathi community hall, a long way from their traditional Mumbai origins. They’re celebrating a Hindu festival and after a friendly introduction, Deepa insists on taking us to the neighbourhood temple. Once there, yet more women are sitting quietly in the cool of a small temple and smile a welcome as we enter. A private puja, (prayer alcove) is opened for us to peer at the garlanded God and once again, a touch of vermillion is dabbed on my forehead.
“Come back with me,” Deepa insists, “it’s time for the festival lunch, you’ll eat with us.”
We stroll back through the congenial neighbourhood…circumventing cows recumbent on the cracked sidewalks and nodding ‘hello’ when Deepa is greeted by yet more people she knows. Once we’ve returned to the hall, we find ourselves seated cross-legged on the floor, a hand-stitched banana leaf plate before all two-hundred or so of us.
Deepa’s young daughter sits just behind me and practices her English. Her brother-in-law gives helpful instructions on eating with one’s fingers and the young lady next to me plies me with questions. We are the only foreigners, yet made to feel welcome and I sense they are honoured (and a little bemused) that we are enjoying this festival lunch with them.
Suddenly, it’s all hands on deck as barefoot young men in sleeveless t-shirts and longhis serve from slender metal buckets. One after another, a plop of rice, masala, vada, raita,dosa, more rice…all eaten with only your right hand. I ask for another popadom as the rice is too hot for these uninitiated fingers.
“Your husband has finished everything,” Deepa tells me as I look over and see his plate wiped clean. Not surprising, it’s the best food we’ve had in the first six weeks in India!
“Did you like it?” our hostess asks as we bid farewell and exchange numbers. “Anything you need at all, you call me and we’ll get together.” We thank Deepa and tell her how much we’ve enjoyed the experience.
It has been that way, so many welcoming people from expats, to locals, to transplants from other parts of India; we couldn’t feel more embraced these first weeks.
After the busy weekend, I meet a new friend and neighbour for coffee and I’m pleased with yet more unexpected ‘luck.’
“You know there’s a roof-top yoga studio I practice at. It’s just on the other side of your apartment,” Camilla says, knowing that I’ll be pleased.
It’s too good to be true, literally next door…yet another wonderful discovery of this neighbourhood.
And there will be much to experience and discover once we’re fully moved in, when our shipment arrives from Canada; it seems to be on a world-wide adventure all of its own.
We’ll then wander and embark on trips outside of Bengaluru, into this enchanting land of India.
First, however, I have a book project in another magical country, Malaysia. You’ll find me in Penang the next few weeks..wish me luck!