Category Archives: India

A flourish of marigolds…the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration

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The marigolds were the last touch. Shanti smiled graciously and handed the delicate blossoms to me, “Madam can help now.” I was pleased. The intricate rangoli was spread joyously on the driveway of our apartment building. Shanti and Kajul had been planning, chalking and decorating the welcoming design since sunrise.

The occasion was Navratri and from first light, our small apartment complex had been exuberant with the spirit that only a festival can rouse.

IMG_0044“First cleaning, then decoration,” I’m told as I venture downstairs to see the preparations firsthand. Boran is busy cleaning the gate and the doorways. By this time, Kajul and Shanti are applying colour to the rangoli at the front gate.

Our apartment manager Anand, and a friend, are just cruising into the driveway, back early from the market. Anand’s motorbike is barely visible. It is seemingly sprouting…with marigolds and banana leaves, with tulsi and sprigs of ashoka leaves. And of course there’s a bundle of food for the blessing, the puja.

Soon a stalk of banana leaf is attached to each side of the gate, garlands and greens are strung in place. Then it’s time to apply the tripundras. The three-striped motifs are streaked across the wooden slats of the gate and on doorways, even the elevators. They are decorative and spiritual, and the mark doesn’t disappear quickly. A tripundra had only just faded into an outer apartment wall from last year’s celebration. Now all is renewed, re-blessed.

Over the next few hours a more intimate glimpse of Kajul, our security guard, is revealed. I am fond of him and it’s a pleasure to see his creative side and his commitment to tradition. He is happily engaged in helping Shanti decorate the rangoli.

“Kajul have you done this before?” I ask, noting one of his fingernails seems purposely longer than the others. It is painted a reddish hue and I watch him wield it like a paintbrush; guiding different shades of kumkum into each petal, into each leaf-like pattern.

“Oh yes Madam. In my village, helping my mother and sister.” There’s a nostalgic look in his eyes and we take photos for him to send home.

Small parcels of vibrant kumkum await on snatches of newspapers. Shanti and Kajul converse in Hindi. There’s artistic planning and some laughter, but also a seriousness to their endeavour. I watch them for an hour or so, enjoying a coffee in the morning sun, savouring the activity of the neighbourhood.

A neighbour from the next-door apartment strolls through the gate to borrow a dash of the white kumkum. Their gardener passes by with lengthy stalks of banana leafs and a hatchet. It seems he avoided the market and fetched his from somewhere in the neighbourhood.

A few people peer-in to admire the evolving work of art. Oh we definitely have the prettiest and most elaborate decorations, I think to myself. If I might be forgiven the comparison, it feels a a little like I’m back home admiring the Christmas lights on our street. This festival does evoke that Christmas feeling: school holidays, time for family, best to do some ‘spring-cleaning’, perhaps a new outfit or two. It’s also time for veneration to the Hindu gods.

Finally, I can’t resist the temptation – that childlike instinct to paint-by-number, to colour. The enfolding array of designs beckon like a colouring book and a newly-sharpened box of pencil crayons.

“Would you like some help, may I help?” I ask Shanti. She looks over to Kajul, both of them are on their knees, delicately positioned between a flower that’s slowly coming to life.

“Oh no, no thank you,” they say shyly. I’m a little surprised. Is it maybe because I’m not Hindu, or perhaps they’re worried I’m not quite as fastidious as they are and will spoil their creation. I chuckle to myself remembering school days when I preferred that classmates did not work on book projects with me. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone ‘messing it up’. Yes I understand.

IMG_0063I go upstairs to refresh my coffee and see that our front door is not being forgotten. Boran is stringing a garland of marigolds then dotting each side of the door with a tilak and also blessing it with the swastika symbol. This ancient religious mark is a symbol of auspiciousness and good luck, it remains that today in India. Boran then proffers the melon and I contribute a rupee or two into its dyed, square ‘collection box’.  Before long, I’ll learn its destiny. IMG_0067
I’m soon called back down to the driveway where Shanti and Kajul are gazing proudly at their expansive creation. It’s a rainbow of colours. A feast of home-spun geometry. A happy mural – childlike, yet intricate and abloom. “Full complete,” Kajul says with a beaming smile.

“Madam can finish,” Shanti says kindly, handing a passel of marigolds to me. I get the honour of the last touches…a flourish of marigolds.

 

Meanwhile there has been a flurry of activity in the underground garage. “Time for puja,” Anand says inviting us down the sloping driveway, into a garage as pristine as a surgeon’s operating room. Cars and motorbikes have been washed. Machines tuned and cleaned. This day is Ayudha Puja, the occasion when traditionally weapons are worshipped, when tools are cleaned and revered, when specific attention to one’s profession and its tools is important. A divine force is summoned for all of them to perform well; here in Southern India it is highly adhered to.

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Babu, one of the drivers, has set things up in immaculate fashion. The cars are festooned with garlands, an altar of sorts offers fruit and sweets. The tires have been marked with the customary three stripes and a lime has been positioned under each front tire. Motorbikes have also been decorated, but I notice a bicycle on its lonesome in the corner of the garage. The guys laugh when I note it has no colourful embellishments and before you know it, they are at its side decorating to match the other conveyances. After all, the apartment’s back-up generator and even the piping has received some attention.

With everything in place, Babu lights small flames and incense. Invoking the god Krishna, Babu holds the sacrificial melon with two hands and slowly circles each vehicle, then the motorbikes. He then smashes the ‘sacrificial melon’ on the floor. It crashes open, coins tumble out and a cheer of some sort erupts. Now its time to offer the sweets to us all. And for the final observance, the time has come to move each car and bike just slightly forward. Pop, pop, popeach tiny lime, now sacrificed under the front wheels…the puja is complete.

It’s known that the most traditional and colourful place to celebrate is in Mysore with its parades and carprisoned elephants. Yet I’m pleased we were part of our apartment’s celebration, here to acknowledge the hard work these people perform throughout the year to make our lives more comfortable. It was special to have seen them in a more personal light and share in their enthusiasm. Yes, it felt like the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration.

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We thought we’d venture out into the streets and decided upon the older neighbourhood of Malleshwaram. It is a quaint lively area, built in the 19th century to accommodate people fleeing the city centre from the plague. Today there’s an excited atmosphere as families celebrate. Ladies are beautifully wrapped in lavish saris. Children delight in a festival treat, maybe an ice cream or a shiny new pinwheel from a passing wallah. 

The streets are alive with marigolds and roses, with limes and banana leaves, and yet more of those melons. We come upon an orange-robed priest blessing a row of motorbikes. We stroll along lovely, well-lived streets. I adore the vivid colour, the whafting of incense and the easy smiles of vendors. Everywhere is verdant, alive and joyful. Here, still more banana leaves are just now being fixed to the corner point of shops, but so many more await to be be part of the festivities. The streets are awash in them. It occurs to us that most of Navratri decorations are natural, organic, connected to the earth.

And there’s more around every corner. More garlands of marigold, more lovingly designed rangolis, and more flamboyantly adorned buses, trucks, tuks – even a cement mixer has received some reverence today.

It is known that India, with its more than 30,000 gods, is a nation of festivals and cultural traditions. To experience these in an intimate fashion, away from the masses of crowds and feeling the spirit of a neighbourhood, is decidedly my preference.

“Madam, please take photo?” I’m asked yet again. The locals are keen to have the day captured.

“Alright, smile everyone,” I say happily. Serendipity has once again rewarded us with a feast of colour and with the gentle warmth of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Monkey Temple…good karma and a mantra

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“I can’t go in there, you two go ahead.” I’m adamant. But all the same, my husband and son try to convince me. “No I’m certain. I’ll wait here with Mohan.”

Mohan is our driver in Jaipur and we’ve arrived at our destination, one that I’d prefer not to be at. He’s driven us about 10 km outside of the city. Manoeuvring on a narrow country road, we’ve threaded through small villages with once stunning architecture. We’ve circumnavigated more cows than I’ve seen possibly anywhere in India. Cow-patties attest to this; large numbers of them bake in the afternoon sun. They’ll soon be used as ‘firewood.’

We’re now parked in front of the gate of the pink-hued Galtaji Temple. Except that I can’t bring myself to go beyond it…this is also a Monkey Temple.

A cow stands patiently at the gate as if wanting to enter. But me, I harbour no such desires despite continued pleading from Bruce and Matt.

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“Believe me, there is nothing I’d rather do less. You saw how afraid I was earlier today with just a few monkeys.”

I’m referring to the scene that morning. A Skype call with my parents on the verandah of our hotel suite, a waiter serving me freshly brewed coffee, his colourful tunic striking a pretty picture against the archways, then…’pop, pop, pop!’

“Goodness, what was that?” mom asked with alarm. Spinning the computer around to the scene of a uniformed security guard aiming his air rifle, I answered rather matter-of-factly, “Oh, just the guards keeping the monkeys away.”

“Really, I’m surprised you’re so calm,” she remarked. They are well aware of my fear – I don’t know where it came from. Nonetheless, it seems today won’t be the day I conquer my pithecophobia.

Back at the monkey temple, I tell Bruce and Matt that I’ll stay in the truck with Mohan. Noting there is nowhere else to go, I wave them off as they disappear behind the dreaded gate.

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Mohan explains how sacred this temple is. “Many people come once per month, very good karma ma’am.” He tells me of his beliefs and then with a bit of coaxing, Mohan chants his Om mantra, his morning prayer. It’s beautiful and evocative of the devotion that infuses this culture. All too soon the mantra comes to an end.

Back to reality, the large red gate with the mark of Om is to my left and to the right? Well I finally dig up the courage and decide to explore…I don’t see any monkeys on this side of the gate.

After telling Mohan it was lovely that he shared his mantra, I suggest we take a small walk. I’m immediately overwhelmed with the smell of cow manure and urine. As we arrived, there had been a group of cows with people gathered around, but I hadn’t realized the significance.

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“Ma’am this very holy too,” Mohan says as I survey the surroundings. One lone tree, a shop with shading umbrellas and a barn-type structure at the far end. “People come to feed holy cows, sometimes before work. Good karma,” he emphasizes once again.

In Hindu belief, the cow is considered sacred and held in high esteem. It is seen as a caretaker, a maternal figure because of its ample resources; dairy products, strength for tilling fields and dung for fertilizer and fuel.

“Feed the cows?” Mohan asks, motioning to a heap of ragi on a cart outside of the shop. You can buy a handful for a few rupees.

“No I’m fine. Thank you though.” I then notice peanuts on display and put two and two together.”

“Ah the guys could have bought food for the monkeys, that’s a shame,” I say to Mohan. Then nodding to the shopkeeper, trying to make small talk. “Monkeys like?”

“Yes good, good,” the peanut seller says warmly. He has a captive audience with the temple-goers having to pass his establishment.

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The Galtaji Temple with its water pools was built a few hundred years ago. Now perhaps some five thousand monkeys call it home. Its environs get even busier during festivals and yet more lively. Curiously, jumping from the surrounding cliffs into the tanks is an attraction.

“Monkeys and people use the bathing, good for soul,” Mohan says as we wander further. Of course the image of communal bathing reels in my mind, but it dissolves as we come upon Saba.

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Saba

“This is cow shed for holy cows and keeper. This Saba,” Mohan acknowledges the man as he steps from the barn. Cows munch on ragi behind him as Saba stands at his gate. He does not smile. His silence speaks volumes.

I wonder if this is a small goshala, there are thousands of these institutions that care for old and infirm cows. With more than three-hundred million of them in India, the highest in the world, some of the luckier cows will finish their life in a goshala rather than abandonment when they are no longer useful.

Most cows are owned in India and traditionally each household had their own. They were part of the family with names and personalities and as with most pets, you would not hurt or eat them. It is now common to see them foraging throughout the day, then making their way back to their owners at sunset. I have seen it often; a string of cows sauntering home just as it gets dark. There’s a saying in India…“If you can’t remember your way home, follow your neighbour’s cow.” 

‘I’ll buy water,” Mohan says as we turn back around to the shop. I notice Saba has made his way here as well, it’s right next door and he seems more at ease now. He orders a chai and the seller asks once again if I’d like peanuts for the monkeys. Politely foregoing the temptation of the ragi and the peanuts, I wander across the smelly, dusty road to strike up a conversation.

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Mohan

A  young man has the deep-orange mark of the monkey god between his eyes. The shades of oranges in Rajasthan are vivid and have great meaning attached to them. The man motions to his mark. “Hanuman,” he exclaims with a proud smile. He doesn’t speak English and Mohan isn’t particularly pleased that I’m attempting a conversation with him.

I finally see my two guys emerging through the gate. At least an hour has passed and they’re effusive.

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The mark of Hanuman

“It was fantastic you should have seen them Ter, swimming and playing,” Bruce says swiping through his photos to share with me. One shows a monkey standing on his shoulder. There’s a video of a baby scampering along his arms and a family frolicking in the pool.

“Come on Mom, we’ll go back in,” Matt says hopefully, like he’s ten years old again and doesn’t want to leave the fun-fair.

“To be honest, let’s get on the road,” I reply, shying away from the photos…and the monkey urine on Bruce’s shirt. It’s mingling with the aroma of cow. Yet I’m pleased to see these two have shared this unique Nat Geo experience. One that I’m convinced will come up more than once around the family dinner table!

“Sure, let’s go. Are you ok Ter?” Bruce asks.

“Oh yes, I had my own little adventure.” I’m thankful I left the safe-haven of Mohan’s truck.

The peanut seller gives me a wave as we pass and I mention that they could have bought peanuts to take to their new friends. “Matt we could go back in and feed them,” Bruce says. He’s only half joking.

“Keep driving please Mohan.” He chuckles. “Yes ma’am not liking the monkeys. But very sacred here.”

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After a quick stop for the two to shower and change, we drive to Nahargarh Fort as its position on a hill over Jaipur is the ideal location to view the sunset. As we make our way along the fort walls to the outlook, monkeys dart in and out of the imposing yet romantic structure. A large monkey sits on a low wall that we have no choice but to pass.

I begin to breathe rapidly and grab Matt’s hand for protection. Shielding my eyes, my body tenses as I rush past the substantial primate.

“Mom I had no idea. You really are afraid,” Matt says slightly bewildered. “You’re ok, we’re past him,” he assures me.

Then calling over his shoulder, he announces to Bruce, “Dad, I don’t think mom would have done well at the monkey temple, good thing she didn’t join us.”

Well now that’s an understatement…

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But in fact as interesting and as sacred as some people believe monkeys to be, the situation in India is one worth mentioning.

Simply, there are too many of them. This is evident on the streets of old Jaipur and apparently the situation is worse in other cities including Delhi, the capital.

Monkeys have habituated themselves to urban living and often terrorize in large numbers. They seize food and other items, they bite and attack with serious implications; ninety percent of monkeys carry tuberculosis. No we hadn’t realized this – Bruce assured me ‘the temple monkeys were very well behaved.’

Yet having no natural predators they are considered by many to be out of control, but the belief that they are the reincarnation of the god Hanuman ensures they are safe from any attempt to decrease their numbers. A quote by a government official further confirms their role in religious folklore, “These aggressive macaques cannot be the incarnate of Hanuman, they surely belong to the evil monkey king, Bali.”

The practice of feeding monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays for good karma contributes to their reliance on humans. Of late, discussions have intensified as fear and destruction continues. When one of the waiters at the Haveli heard we had gone to the temple, he was eager to show us an image of his village’s beautiful town hall. The monkeys keep tearing it apart. “Twice the community has repaired it. These monkeys are most destructive.”

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They also cause havoc on farms as crops are destroyed across the country. I find reports of farmers having deserted their land with no solution on the horizon. The numbers of monkeys rises unabated.

It seems then that designated temples are a good environment for monkeys (and humans), but it’s only a ‘drop in the ocean’ considering the numbers.

The same problem doesn’t exist where we live in Bangalore. I’ve evaded them in a number of parks, but thankfully I rarely see them on the streets in our area.

So for now, a visit to a monkey temple is checked off the list of ‘must-sees’, at least for two out of three of us.

For me, the highlight was Mohan sharing his evocative mantra.

But there have been many special moments in Jaipur. I hope this musical slideshow captures a little more of the ‘pink city’ and its environs…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to romance…to the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur

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Dear Jaipur…

You welcomed us twenty-eight years ago and we return nostalgically to you. There has always been a fondness for the ‘pink city.’ As young travellers you offered us colour and mystery…the romance of a storied destination.

You are much busier now. Your Maharaja-designed 18th century streets are in constant motion; a stream of life and noise, of endeavour and exuberance.

Tuks, camels, cycles and bullocks, strain both people and cargo through lively streets. Monkeys scamper on ledges and peer through stamp-sized shutters. A procession; a swirl of a wedding marches past as a band trumpets, an elegant groom on his festooned horse – to the bride’s house he gallantly goes.

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You still beguile and please with your facades, lattice work windows, your streets washed in soft shades of pinks, roses and salmons.

   The signature Hawa Mahal, Palace of the Winds, is still your calling card. Evoking the richness of Maharajahs and Maharanis, it is a fine blend of Rajasthani and Mughal styles with miniature domes and delicate screens, all nine hundred and fifty-three – modest viewing galleries…for the ladies.

 

 Moghul inspired archways, peacock doors and splashes of frescoes fascinate the eye. They are tributes to your past; of proud Rajput warriors, fairy-tale palaces and flourishing bazaars.

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But your beauty is also in the finer details – bangles upon sparkly bangles, slipper-shoes of soft camel leather, bejewelled textiles and intricate block prints.

And perhaps just the simple – golden pomegranates on laden trees, toys of old newly discovered and heavenly corners to luxuriate within. We find divine comfort in the Samode Haveili…it becomes our haven.

 

It all feels like a past remembered – familiar yet newly captivating. We are entreated from all corners – to ride, to purchase, to visit, to partake, to view the beautiful.

Lemony and saffron turbans wrapped atop weathered faces hint at untold stories. Ladies primp and pose, tradition captured in cautious smiles. Young entrepreneurs bargain a good price and Mr. Chand’s outdoor photo studio recaptures us in monochrome memory. We still have the photo from years ago, we believe it was taken here. “Maybe me or my father,” Tikam Chand contemplates. “Yes still here, isn’t it?”

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 I am coaxed to an astrologer’s chair – this city is known for its mystic vibe of bespoke gems and stones, sage-like astrologers and stargazers. And for me a first. I don’t believe, but still…

“Sunrise and meditation is good for you. Maybe you think too much and please madam, you must wear white on Mondays. But good life, good marriage.

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He doesn’t know that twenty-seven years of marriage has just been marked. Perhaps fittingly, on a postcard of the Hawa Mahal, my beloved wrote… 

We would never have imagined that our journey together would have taken us this far and into so many corners of the globe. ..Thank you for being my travel partner of nearly twenty-nine years – my past, my present, my future.”

And so dear Jaipur, the monsoon rains cooled as we traipsed barefoot on your ancient stone, welcome respite from your desert climate. We soaked up your enduring sites, luxuriated by candlelight and dined on fine Rajasthani cuisine. We weaved through your scented bazaars, climbed the heights of formidable forts and spied peacocks under the shade of ashokas.

Indeed more luxurious this visit – the backpacks have long been put away. Yet it was here those years ago, that our travels sparked a romance and now beckoned us to return. So with a fond farewell Jaipur, you will always be a jewel in our traveller’s souls…

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A train passage to Enchanting Hampi…

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Night train to Hampi – day one

The Hampi Express pulls into Bangalore just before 10 p.m. Hauling a staggering number
of carriages, it almost snakes its way back out of the station as hundreds of people rush at it. Those with general tickets jostle to find a seat; the 365 km journey to Hampi is a long way if you must stand.

We have the luxury of being booked in a four person sleeper. Two sturdy ceiling fans, frayed burgundy curtains and packages of linens await us…Southern Indian Railways bordering their edges. Two long seats below will transform into beds, while above, two bunks are perfectly serviceable for those who don’t toss and turn.

Lulled to sleep by the gentle locomotion, I am awakened through the night by the absence of movement at various stations. At one, I pull back the curtain as the unwelcome light from a platform threads into our compartment. On a station bench a tall gangly figure is wrapped in a shawl, arms on knees, his eyes pierce mine. I modestly retreat behind my drape, but as we roll along through the night I imagine all the people. All of the lives in the small villages that line the track…some seventy percent of India lives rurally.

I peer outside just before sunrise, steel factories loom against the awakening sky. This land is rich in iron ore and I see shadows of families scavenging scattered pieces, tumbled from passing trains and scooped into wicker baskets.

Hampi unwrapped – day two

The cry of a chai wallah from outside our compartment awakes us– an informal announcement that we’ve arrived at Hospete station. We disembark at 7:20 am, two of us rested, one of us groggy. Our senses are immediately heightened as we alight. Carriages disgorge flocks of passengers. Porters proffer their services twirling cloths into mini turbans on crowns of heads, a ready perch for a bag or two. Wallahs announce and drivers implore, tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk?

We have a driver waiting and he is soon maneuvering through traffic along with stray dogs, cows and bulls, wild pigs and piglets…all navigating the lively streets.

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After a quick refresh and breakfast at our hotel, we’re back on the road and the lush countryside welcomes us. We pass bullock cart after bullock cart laden with feed, crops and the fruits of the land. I understand why this site was chosen as the heart of an empire. The Tungabhadra river runs through the valley bringing sustenance to sugar cane and banana plantations, rice paddies and coconut groves. It is fertile and beautiful.

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A few kilometres down the road we come upon Hampi, a richness of deep-red soil framed by massive monolithic boulders. Shades of bronzes and rust, pale pinks and greys offered a natural defence (and building material) for the once mighty Vijayanagara Empire. After waiting for a shepherd and his goats to pass, we enter through the narrow Talavaraghatta Gate. One passes into an enchanting land…

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hampi has attracted settlers, travellers, traders and pilgrims since the mid 1300’s. With ruins that rival those of Rome and Pompeii, accounts from early foreign travellers capture scenes from the past…

DSCF1078“Travelling about three-hundred miles from Goa, we arrived at the great city of Vijayanagara…sixty miles in circumference…ninety thousand men bear arms. Their king is more powerful than all the other kings in India. He takes to himself twelve thousand wives, of whom four thousand follow him on foot wherever he may go. A like number are handsomely equipped and ride on horseback.” Nicole Conti, an Italian traveller, 1420

The lore of Hampi is not only infused with tales of an extravagant and powerful empire, but with the presence of gods, goddesses and heroes – a connection to the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys. We learn this through Basava, our guide throughout the day from Explore Hampi.

“Everyone calls me Hampi Basava,” he tells us. The son of a farmer, Basava grew up hearing tales of the great empire from his grandmother, inspiring him to share the richness of his hometown. As did encounters with archeologists who excavated the site, “I learned much from them, but still learning.”

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The Vijayanagara empire reached the zenith of its power under Krishnadevaraya from 1509 to 1529. Over time the city of Vijayanagara Pattana, became simply ‘Hampi’ and hosted the Pan Supari Bazaar with its daily market and almost one-thousand meters of stalls.

We walk the broad boulevards now quiet and forlorn, but I can still feel and hear the pulse of the people. The clatter of hooves mixing with the slow squeak of a rusty oxen cart. The calling of traders from colonnaded street-long bazaars. Colours gleaming against the scorching sun – gold and jewels glinting. Exotic spices, vermillion, turmeric and sandalwood piling in peaked domes. Sensuous silks and imported Chinese blue and white, hiding in the shade of the columned stalls. A chiseled relief of a fish announcing a nearby water-well. A sign suggesting the courtesan’s bazaar…always held on a Tuesday.

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In 1520 Domingo Paes, a Portuguese horse-trader, wrote…”In this city, you will find belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it was and the many precious stones there…the streets and markets are full of laden oxen.”

We approach the Vitthala Temple and I am instantly mesmerized. The massive enclosure has lofty gopuras (pyramidal temples) to three sides, grandiose protection to Vishnu’s mode of conveyance, the opulent stone chariot. “The wheels were once capable of turning,” Basava assures us. The king, concerned with the long treks the pilgrims endured to the sacred temples, entreated the weary pilgrims…Take the energy of the wheels.

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The nearby mandapas, intricately columned gathering places, are exquisite. Relief carvings depict dancers, drummers, voluptuous courtesans and warriors, royal elephants and sartorial hints of foreign visitors…a fez from Morocco, a cloak from Europe, a turban from the Middle East.

Basava taps on musical stone pillars sending harmonious notes through the open air pavilions. The granite architecture has beguiling lotus motifs with traces of colours that once decorated and hints of Chinese, Indo-Islamic and European influence. We see shrines, sculptured gateways and monuments to a legion of gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha, a god favoured for good luck.

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Nearby at the Royal Enclosure, the queens private bath, the royal stage, the king’s underground shrine and even a stepped water-tank speak of grandeur. The king had admired it else elsewhere and imported it piece by piece, step by step. Numbered and reassembled in its odd- numbered formatting. These are the numbers Indians favour – 1 for a preferred God, 3 for the past, present and future, 5 for the elements, 7 for the days, 9 for the planets.

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By late afternoon the much anticipated monsoon-rain threatens on the horizon. Clouds roll over orchards and palms, and the granite-bouldered sky. It’s been a stifling hot day, the wind picks up and the clouds shower upon us. We don’t mind. It is cooling and refreshing. “Raindrops like lotus buds,” Basava says lyrically. “The farmers will be blessed. Come, we can’t miss the elephant stables.”
The number varies as to how many elephants the kings kept, accounts speak of anywhere from four to nine-hundred. Twelve or so royal elephants resided in the lavish stables. Domingo Paes elaborated…“The elephants are covered with velvet and gold with fringes, and rich cloths of many colours, with bells so that the earth resounds. On their heads are painted faces of giants and beasts. On the back of each one of them are three or four men, armed with shields and javelins.”

imagesWe dash across the rain-soaked grass to the stables with its lofty doomed roofs, surely too beautiful to only house elephants. But these beasts were an integral part of daily and royal life, fitting of an empire that ends…abruptly.

 

IMG_5164I almost don’t want to hear the fate of this once great city. In 1565 the empire’s armies
suffered a catastrophic defeat by an alliance of Muslim sultanates. The great city was captured, plundered, holy Hindu sites destroyed and more than 100,000 Hindus massacred. As with many great empires, its life cut abruptly short…its heart and soul ripped away.

On a mountain side at the end of the day, we stop for a cooling drink of coconut water. The river gently flows below us and I hear a haunting voice, repeating like an ancient mantra. Lost in her own thoughts, a tiny aged woman crouches under the shade of a boulder. The plaintive strains of her lyrics punctuate the day. Quietly I sit, and listen.

 

 

 

A coracle across the river – day three

With the option of a small ferry or a coracle, we chose the latter. The round cane-bound vessels have plied this river since before the days of the empire and though precarious to board, we float peacefully down the Tungabhadra River. Only the warnings of crocodiles concern us…the monkeys play in the temples, the sloth bears and leopards stay on land. Patches of leafy greens contrast the boulders that seem set to topple into the shallow waters. Temples are chiseled from the granite, integrated seamlessly into the chunky contours of the land.

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We walk a kilometre or so along a winding road, through a hamlet and past emerald fields. We pass local teens playing cricket, heaps of sugar cane piled on stout wagons and the shell of an old coracle now tidily protecting firewood.DSCF0802

We reach Anegondi the 3rd century capital of the Vijayanagara empire. Yet even before then, legend speaks of the monkey kingdom here as noted in Ramayana. Local story-tellers refer to Anegondi as mother earth, one of the cradles of dynasties.

After walking through its ancient gate, we are almost immediately upon the town square, a ceremonial ‘temple car’ parked off to one corner. Unlike the stone chariot in Hampi, the elaborately carved wooden ‘car’ can be pulled through the streets on festival days. Rickshaws, town-folk, holy-cows and cyclists manouver a smooth, black-stoned sculpture…perhaps it is the town round-about.

 

Close by, the Gagan Mahal begs to be restored and I picture how stunning the palace must have once been with its lattice work detailed arches and breezy terraces. While I’m peeking inside, Bruce is surrounded by village children. They flip through our guide book and hoist themselves up on the stone wall. I line them up for a photograph and on a whim decide to buy them a drink. Our ‘child’ is back at the hotel recovering from sun-stroke so we’re happy to improvise. It’s Father’s Day after all.

We march the troops across the street and besiege the small shop. The shopkeeper is surprised, perhaps he knows that news travels fast in this sleepy town. Before we know it, yet more youngsters gather and holler out their drink of choice. “Now enough,” the shopkeeper firmly cuts us off as other customers await their turn, not entirely amused by our generosity.

We wander further, the same children pass on their bikes and shout a ‘hello, namaste, thank-you.’ We stroll onwards through the streets.
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Rice shifts and slides from bamboo baskets.

 

 

 

 

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Bangles are offered from a turbaned peddler.

 

 

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Slathers of mandarin-orange paint brighten a simple village home.

 

 

I am happy here, surrounded by shades of pinks, baby-blues and soft greens. It reminds me of those romantic, carefree days of travelling in India from our past…no agenda, no expectations, just the hope of serendipity.

We travel the ferry back across the river, taking the bus instead of a tuk-tuk to the hotel and unbeknownst to us, the next day we’ll hire a car instead of returning home by train. Southern Indian Railways inexplicably cancels our return tickets. We can stand, we can wait five days until sleepers can be booked, or we can see the countryside by car. There isn’t much choice, perhaps it is what I hoped for after all. And my lingering image?

As we leave Hampi behind, a group of nine or so people journey along-side the road. One waves a bright red trianglular flag, each person wears a matching scarf – no bags, no luggage. They are pilgrims.

“Going to the Hampi temple,” our drivers enlightens us, “finding sleep in temples along the way.”

“How far have they walked?” I ask.

“Maybe days are there, or weeks from village.”

For many this will always be a spiritual and magical place.

 

 

 

The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? What did you know of the city before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government to educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

Priya’s story…part two

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has revealed itself gradually; snippets of conversation as we’ve come to know each other in our one year in India. I have known since she joined us as housekeeper, that Priya is widowed and raising children alone. This in itself, could be considered remarkable in India.

It is not uncommon for widows in India to be considered inauspicious and shameful to their family. They can be marginalized, cut off from family property and money, and considered an inconvenience and a burden. Widows can be abandoned with no place to go – simply cast adrift.

Traditionally, widows are expected to wear white, shave their heads and discard their jewellery – essentially renouncing anything that symbolizes womanhood. In some areas of India, social norms still hold to the belief that for a bereaved woman to remain in society, she must have a supportive brother or son.

In rural parts of India, where arranged marriages commit young women (often girls) to marry older men, it is not surprising that widows comprise ten percent of the adult female population, some forty million. Many, widowed at a young age, find that their life is essentially over or irrevocably altered. It can still be considered improper for upper castes to remarry, lower castes often do, ideally to a brother-in-law.

To understand their plight one has only to read about or see images of Vrindavan, a sacred city which has become home to thousands of destitute widows. Begging to pilgrims and chanting bhajan (sharing) hymns for up to four hours a day, earns them enough for one meal and perhaps shelter. For young widows in Vrindavan, poverty may lead to sexual exploitation, a last resort for those already stripped of their dignity. The organization Maitri endeavours to alleviate this, collecting contributions for the purchase of mosquito nets, fresh white linen saris (perhaps now a symbol of sisterhood) and even sewing machines for a widow’s livelihood.

The abhorrent practise of shunning widows is a grim residue of an Indian tradition sati or suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyres which was once (and by some accounts is still) practiced. The perception of woman as chattel is rooted in the patriarchal culture which must change, in step with the values of a civilized society. The women at Vrindavan and other shunned widows represent all women. They were once girls, wives, mothers and grandmothers – deserving respect and dignity.

Within this cultural context, Priya’s independence and resolve is all the more admirable. She has mentioned to me that she is very careful not to acknowledge that she is on her own.

Priya was somewhat distracted this past month as her search for a new home was far more difficult to secure without a man’s name on the lease. Our offer to help negotiate was politely declined and I was relieved that a driver of another family Priya works for was available to help.

Thankfully Priya has found a new home, one with tiled floors and running water, an improvement from her previous house. However, she is not pleased that so many cows wander close by and she worried that her previous landlord might take advantage by not returning her security deposit, “Madam, this is life without a man, not easy,” she said stoically.

Recently as I relaxed, reading on my sofa, Priya eased herself down on the carpet beside me. We had just arrived home from a trip, the house was already clean and I was happy to have some time to speak with her. Priya’s brave and inspiring story flowed forth. With her resilience worn firmly on her face and her engaging personality coming through, her reflections evoked introspection, wistfulness and even laughter.

I use Priya’s own speech patterns. Madam is usually said with a Ma..dam, the last syllable lilting up lyrically as if it is a happy topic. Otherwise, the dam dips down with a tone of seriousness…it is the name she uses for me.

Priya where did you grow up?  I am not from here, from Tamil Nadu. We lived in a house of coconut leaves with mud floor, like a squatter’s village. We had no food, maybe gravy with onions and rice, once at night. I tell my children,”You are lucky.”

Did your father work?  He died, I was five. Preya puts her thumb to her mouth like a soother, indicating that her father was an alcoholic. Four other children, never enough food.

Did your mother work then and take care of you all?  She worked in rice fields, taking the husk. Very hard work Madam, 6 rupees a day.

Your older brothers and sisters, did they go to school?  No, no, no one. Sisters from a convent came to take me, so poor were we Madam. My mother said, “Take her for better life.”

IMG_0124How did you feel, do you remember this?  Oh yes, I was happy. Food was there. The bus ride was far, to Kerala, a convent. Sister Paulina took me. You know Madam, Priya gazes out to the lush rain tree and palm trees beyond for inspiration, coconut leaves were rolled long for lights (torch). Moved back and forth, very pretty at night. And spoons from jackfruit, we eat rice, lots of rice and coconut chutney always there. Priya smiles with the memory of this and I tell her I love this kind of chutney. Oh yes Madam!

Priya what did you do at the convent, did you start school?  Just a little, maybe one month, but no interest. I work, clean, play with children, pick up the coconuts. Madam, then a rich family wants to take me, “Give us Priya,” they said. I was five and a half.

Did you miss your mother, your family?  No Madam, there is nice food, clothes, soap. I go with the family and play with the daughter. I see her go to school and now want to go. I cry to go, but they say no, just housework and playmate for the girl.

Was anything paid to you, or your mother?  Yes Madam, 10 rupees a month. The convent send money to post office, to my mother. The grandmother was nice in the house. At nine, a Sister dies and I’m at convent for a break, but don’t want to go home. Priya works three years in the convent. At twelve years I go to new home. Sometimes now I talk about my family, but they buy me gold earrings, new dress to stay. From five to twelve I don’t see my mother.

Priya, all this time you didn’t study, only worked?  Yes Madam, I’m sorry but what to do, work from five years old. One day I want to see my mother, big arrangement to do this. The sisters ask, “Why Priya, they are still poor.” But I must see my mother, so I go, fifteen day holiday. Madam I don’t know my mother’s face. I go home, my sisters, brothers don’t talk to me. My language is changed. So poor, no study, only playing, no food. Mother work all day. Again I’m hungry. No clean water. Only two days I stay.

Were you sad to leave your family again?  No Madam, only think of food. It’s clear this is difficult for Priya to reconcile. The convent keeps me now to work, mother can come once every two months if want, two long buses away. Madam I like the schedule at convent. 5 a.m.up, church, food, bath and work. Now too old to learn.

For five years Priya’s mother is sent a salary from the convent. They also saved money separately for her dowry.

Madam at seventeen, I’m asked, “Do you want to go to Dehli?” First time for train, happy but a little scared. One sister took me. Delhi very different Madam!

Where did you go in Delhi, to a new family?  Yes, first year was good Madam. A girl there about three, but then the Sir, you know, was slapping my bottom. One night tapping me on the arm, I sleep in the hallway. I tell him, “I will tell!” I cause big problem, no one understands why I want to go back. The Convent comes to get me, three days again Madam on train. And then bad.

What happens Priya?  My mother comes to Sisters and begs for money for my sister’s dowry. She’s old twenty-five, they give my dowry money Madam. I don’t go to wedding, a mess.

Priya that must have been a terrible shock; all those years you worked.  Yes, now the convent says, “Priya go to a convent in Bangalore, Saint Anne’s.” My God Madam, the first time off train there is breath coming from mouths, so cold, like a frozen town. I work Madam like before and now I’m old, twenty-two. Then one day, they tell me rules are change and I must marry.

IMG_9338You didn’t go back home of course, you had no choice but to marry?  No this is my life. I dream Madam and Priya laughs at her own naivety at the time, I can watch T.V, cook for my husband, a good life. Her voice trails off at what might have been…

They find money for dowry, 20,000 rupees, earrings and a chain. Some teachers collect saris for me. And Madam, everybody knows husband is a drunk. Me a good convent girl, no family wants him. And mother too, a drunk.

I’m so sorry Priya. Yes Madam, what I’m thinking, she pauses for some time, I trusted the Sisters. I remember a cleaning lady at engagement party, “The boy is a drunk,” she says and someone says shhh! But too late, maybe sisters know.


Where did you live after the wedding?  
A place Tannery Road, everybody drunk, even now I would never take children there. Fifteen days after marriage, he says, “Go to work,” the mother-in-law, “George B……Why is she sitting there, send your wife to work!” Priya laughs and repeats it twice in a threatening voice. My dreaming is finished. Madam I’m happy you’re writing.

So am I Priya. You are an inspiration, everything you’ve been through. So you went to work housekeeping, what did your husband do?  Worked in a small shop, TV repair but only drank. The Sisters came and talked to him four times, but Madam, what to do…nothing changed.

Priya would quickly become pregnant. A kindly family she worked for allowed her to rest at work, offering her extra food. With no one to collect her from the hospital after the birth, the pattern of neglect and abuse began. Priya was able to take the baby to work with her; she cannot imagine not having had this ‘refuge’. Unfortunately the family moved out of state. An incident soon after the birth of Priya’s second child, left her fearing for her life. She felt she had no choice but to flee from her husband with her two young children – with no money, no job and nowhere to go.

Priya persevered and bravely worked her way through these most difficult times. I am aware of other details of her heart-rending story but much of it is too personal to publicly share. Her resolve, determination, maternal instincts and loving character is an inspiration to me…a poignant emblem of the strength of womanhood.

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Sometime last year, despite being detached from her family for all those years, Priya took her children on the long bus trip back to the village in Tamil Nadu to pay respect to her mother,”Madam, no cross is on her grave, I must do it.”

It says much about her character that she had the charity and compassion to make this journey for a family which has not been a part of her life. I sense that she views herself as the ‘lucky one’ having been given to the convent as a young girl.

When I show this blog to Priya before I press publish, she sees her photos and laughs her infectious laugh, “Madam, to the world?” she asks. I tell her that I do know much of the rest of her story, but it isn’t printed here. “You know Madam?” Tears well in our eyes.

“Yes Priya, you are very brave.”

“Madam,” she says reflectively, “I wasn’t strong then, not like now. I tell my daughter she must study, she must be strong.”

Priya’s story…the cadence of an Indian neighbourhood, part one

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has inspired me to write. To write of her courage of overcoming a difficult past and of capturing the lives of all the hard-working people in our neighbourhood. Allow me first to paint a picture…

It has been busy these past few months; trips to Brunei, Singapore, Bangkok and a road trip in India. Our comings and goings every other week bewilder the staff of our five-family apartment building; a gardener, two security guards, a manager and Priya, our housekeeper. They are very much a part of our everyday life.

“Madam, where going now?” Boran our gardener typically asks when he sees me with luggage in the porticoed entrance. When I tell him my destination, he looks at me quizzically, “Airplane?”

“Yes by airplane Boran, back in seven days. Sir is back in four.” ‘Sir’ is my husband,  in deference our names are never used. Not only is the country which I’m traveling to a complete unknown, so is the fact that often my husband and I leave together, yet return at different times. Or I travel alone, leaving Sir to ‘fend for himself’.

“But who will cook his food?” it seems half of the street initially pondered. This question was reconciled as they saw Sir on the street buying his produce from Raj, our vegetable wallah. When my husband revealed that he could cook his own food, there were looks and mutterings of bemusement. “Sir cook himself?” This is something new…

IMG_1577Boran is thirty-two and like many men who work in Bangalore as gardeners or security guards, he is from the north of India. They are a three-day train journey from home, usually taken only once a year. Working from afar, their families remain in the villages, reliant on monthly remittances.

As Boran watered the plants on a recent afternoon, he was eager to share some news. “Madam, I get married.”

“Boran are you getting married, congratulations! Is it arranged?” I already know the answer to this question; it would be unheard of for him to not have an arranged marriage.

“Yes Madam,” he says, scrolling through photos on his phone to present his bride-to-be. She has a kind, cheerful face and I’m relieved to see she is not underaged, often the reality in India. “She twenty-six Madam, very good. Come to wedding Dec. 26?” Boran asks with his boyish smile. When I explain that we’ll be home in Canada at the time, he’s not too concerned and mentions that our day-time security guard Kajul will return soon with some news. “Maybe he married now,” Boran says with a sly grin.
IMG_1581Kajul has replaced our first guard Rajesh Kumar who, a little tipsy one night, took a topple from his bike. A month in his village to heal broken bones was prescribed, but no sign of him yet – the ‘grapevine’ hasn’t provided any answers.

Where Rajesh Kumar was reliable yet often mystifying to communicate with, Kajul is unfailingly good at his job and speaks enough English should an emergency arise.

He is also ever the gentleman. Meeting me half-way down the street if I’m carrying more than one bag. Telephoning as the cry of a wallah heralds a vendor’s arrival,”Good Morning Madam, today vegetables?” Insisting on standing at my open door should a repair or delivery man be present. “Safety Madam,” he says. I’ve missed Kajul while he’s been on leave for his sister’s marriage.

About the same age as Boran and as the head of his household, it was Kajul’s duty to provide the dowry money for his sister. “Maybe Madam, when I come back I married too. But sister first,” he told me before he left. He wasn’t sure if finances would stretch to allow his matrimony, though his mother had someone in mind. We shall know in a matter of days when he returns.

Kajul has worked in the Middle East, a desired location I learn from some of the security guards who man almost every apartment building, stores of any repute, schools, clubs, etc. The job is monotonous with twelve hour shifts of sitting and waiting…perhaps a visitor, a delivery, a vehicle to open the gate for.

The guards are a club unto themselves and nothing escapes their attention. When Sir recently had to climb down a ladder from our balcony to get to work at 6:30 a.m. (the lock had jammed), he was updated on the state of affairs as he turned onto our road at 5 p.m. The gaggle of guards in front of the jewellery store chuckled knowingly. “Sir, climbing down this morning? Locksmith here, all fixed now!”

On our street of three villas, three businesses, two apartments buildings and a private school, there are never fewer than a dozen guards at any time of the day. We know most of them and are greeted with a wave, a Namaskara, or a chat. “Madam going for lunch?” “Where is Sir now?’ “Sir, have not seen Madam for two days?”

And we learn of their lives. George Fernandez worked for years overseas, “Happy home now Madam, how is it in India?” he asks, peering through smudged glasses. He springs his roly-polly figure up from his chair each time I walk past. He tells me about his children, “some in university now”, the satisfaction radiating from his proud face…years of working away from his family now just a memory.

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Another ‘on-duty’ sits under the welcome shade of a large banyan tree. Vijay Kumar is a tall man with the countenance of a doctor or a lawyer. He also courteously rises from his chair with a greeting. “Good morning Madam, where going?” he asks on a recent morning. I tell Mr. Kumar  I’m on my way to the doctor and a look of alarm crosses his face. Reassuring him it’s nothing serious, I ask about his grandson. “Oh fine, fine,” he replies, pulling out a wallet-sized photo, “And now a name is there Ma’am.”

Mr. Kumar announced last month that he had become a grandfather and also informed us that the baby hadn’t yet been named. Following a Hindu tradition called Namakarama, on the fortieth day a baby is blessed, sprinkled with holy water and given its name at a local temple. It was a proud moment when Mr. Kumar could share his grandson’s name with the neighbourhood and distribute the requisite sweets.

Bidding farewell, my direction is the local doctor about three blocks away. It’s a beautiful spring morning; the trees are erupting with blooms, the bougainvillea bursting with lively shades, jack fruit and coconut are plumping up melon-big…I cross the road to avoid an imagined concussion. Mango trees are starting to bear their coveted fruit.
IMG_0121 (1)‘My’ mango tree which I see from my window will be harvested in July. A barefooted climber will scuttle up its massive branches and shake the mangos loose, dropping them onto a sheet, hoisted up at each corner. One after another the mangos will tumble down.

I had been promised last week by Anu, my neighbour across the way, that I must taste some this year. We hadn’t chatted for a few months and finally caught up Sunday morning IMG_2537around Mangalora’s fruit cart. After hugs from both of the ladies, and an admonishment that I am never here, Anu asked if I’m home now. “I leave later this week again Ma’am, I’m a speaker at a conference and will go home to see family.”

While we chose our apples and papayas, Anu asked what I’ll be speaking of and reveals that she had once been a teacher. The congenial Sunday morning chat ended with a “Safe travels and blessings to your family.” I resolved to make a point of getting to know Anu better, hopefully over some delicious mangos.

IMG_0277On this morning I turn the corner onto Lavelle Road, mindful of bikes, rickshaws and laden vegetable carts. A pony-pulled cart surprisingly trots past. Another unexpected sight greets me in front of Sodabottleopenerwallah, a restaurant we’re fond of. A brass polisher has set up in front to polish the tiffin boxes. The waft of red-hot charcoal infuses the air as the wallah heats, scrubs and buffs the small pots used for curries and rices. The sidewalk serves as the wallah’s work bench, ideal for this vital itinerant service.

The charm of our neighbourhood is just this; the traditional with the modern, the unexpected with the reliable.

As I make my way onto the busy main road, nestled in the shade is the usual chai wallah. His customers are gathered around for a morning tea break. He delights in his photo being taken, but the nearby newspaper wallahs don’t have time for such nonsense. They’re gathering their deliveries from stacks piled on the ground…The Times of India, The Deccan Herald, the Bangalore Times. Once strapped onto the back of their bicycles, they’ll be delivered in time for morning coffee.

When I reach the small hospital another block away, I am the only foreigner and curiousIMG_1280 stares greet me as I pay the 500 rupees (10 dollars) for my consultation. The doctor’s professionalism belies his simple surroundings and when he hears that I write, our conversation meanders to authors and history, to the once sleepy and peaceful Bangalore. “This was once the ideal city, so green with a temperate climate,” the doctor says ruefully, reflecting on his more than two decades in the city.

I leave and walk to my corner-store, Asha’s. I don’t know if it has served the community for twenty years, but I imagine so. About as big as an over-sized garden shed, two people cannot pass through its narrow space at the same time, yet the well-stocked shelves never seem to let me down.

Namaste Madam, what today?” Rafik asks, then pulls the items off the shelves as I call them out. He informs me that he finally has some cheese in stock, I’m pleased with this news but it seems I don’t have enough money with me. “Madam, tomorrow is there,” he says tearing a small recipt from its pad. Each item has been handwritten and it seems I’m 639 rupees short. “Thank you Rafik, I’ll come back tomorrow.” I smile to myself as I leave, knowing that my credit is good in the neighbourhood…truly a local now it seems.

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As I arrive back at my street, a busy scene greets me. Raj’s vegetable cart is positioned half-way down, Arun is cycling up with a bag of laundry in need of pressing and the postman is delivering today’s mail. I don’t get a chance to speak with him, but I engage Arun and Raj.

“How long have you been in business Raj,” I ask admiring the decorative touches on his trusty blue cart. It is well- laden, down to its inner compartment stuffed with greens –spinach, coriander, mint and curry leaves. It requires strength and concentration to maneuver this movable shop along the city’s busy streets.

IMG_0095 (1)“Nineteen years Madam, but the cart is new, 2004. Cost 32,000 rupees.”

“That’s a lot Raj,” I confirm, knowing it’s a substantial investment. “Yes,” he agrees and pats the handle of his cart,”and only one driver!”

We both laugh and Raj hands me the handwritten slip of my purchase. He clicks his tongue and shakes his head when I tell him I must go inside to get some money, “Tomorrow is there Madam.”

Arun unlatches a bag of laundry from his bicycle, just collected from a neighbourhood customer. He and his partner Laurence are iron wallahs and set up most days under the shade of ‘my’ mango tree. This bag of clean garments, along with many others awaiting their turn, will be pressed, wrapped in newspaper and delivered by dusk. Arun’s sturdy Atlas bicycle will roll back down the street with the deliveries.

“It’s a good bike Arun,” I offer, noting the brand.

“Yes Madam, Indian made and old.”

I ask how long he’s been in business and Arun seems chuffed to tell me. “First my uncle for 37 years, then dead. Now mine for 7 years.” I suggest to him that his Uncle would be proud and he smiles quietly.

Arun, as with all the wallahs and guards, no longer appear surprised that we choose to interact with them; perhaps they’re pleased to have some interaction as they work through another long day. The word wallah is Sanskrit for keeper and Hindi for doer, it describes these hard-working entrepreneurs well.

I realize that this is the day I truly feel at ease with my life in India. We’ve just celebrated our one year anniversary in the neighbourhood; it’s home.

IMG_0098Just then Priya walks up to start her three hour shift. “Madam, just home? Where were you?” she wants to know as she takes one of the shopping bags.

We walk up the wide steps, to my apartment where a wooden bench from the Middle East sits against my marbled entrance wall. It has welcomed me home in five different countries. We plunk the shopping down on it as we remove our shoes.

I fill Priya in on my morning, “I was at Asha’s and seemed to speak to everyone in the neighbourhood this morning, Mr. Kumar’s baby now has a name Priya. And I had to go to the doctor before I leave at the end of the week.”

“But Madam,” Priya says, her usual vibrant tone turning melancholy. “So long, over one month away?” she says remembering I’ll be gone longer than usual.

As she ties on her apron once inside, Priya asks ,”Madam, still cold in Europe and Canada?”

“Yes still cold, I must pack warm clothes this time.” With this she smiles mischievously then raises her voice in laughter, “Well Madam, enough clothes are there,” Priya says referencing my closets. This I can’t deny, nor that Priya always manages to brighten my day.

Thankfully, her days are brighter now than they once were….Priya’s story will be continued

Of Magical Mysore…of farewells and re-attachments…

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img_0771Time with family and friends recently in Canada was wonderful – home in the true sense. However my other life in India called.

The world may be my oyster, yet there is a downside to living on different continents. Once back in Bangalore, reality quickly set in.

After four months of a ‘monastic’ existence whilst consumed by a book project and another few months away, I returned to Bangalore feeling a stranger and out of touch. I needed to fit back into a social life.

As in the past with other adopted countries, I trust a time will come when it feels more effortless…

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my first reaction was not to yield to my surroundings, but rather to explore. “Let’s see more of India,” I implored my husband. “I need to take advantage of actually being here.”

The next morning we pack our bags and head to ‘Majestic’, the city railway station. A little more than two hours later, the train delivers us to the city of Mysore. The saying goes that you haven’t truly experienced South India unless you’ve journeyed here. Our first hours in the city hint that this might be so. The streets feel different from Bangalore, but in a way that was strikingly familiar. I am transported back to those enchantingly simpler times we had experienced backpacking in India, over a quarter of a century ago.

img_0819-1Mysore’s streets and broad tree-line boulevards, are lively but less urgent than Bangalore’s. Stately buildings exude charm and a sense of place and history. All reminiscent of our India of old – a fondly re-discovered treasure.

The city is redolent with history, defined by the regal Maharajahs of the Wodeyar dynasty and by the infamous Tipu Sultan. Known as the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu was India’s freedom fighter and revered for resisting the onslaught of British imperialists. His state succumbed only after their fourth campaign. The Sultan is also celebrated as the pioneer of rocket warfare…but more of Tipu Sultan later.

We stay at a former residence built by the Maharajah of Mysore himself, a cozy retreat for his European guests. The Royal Orchid Metrople is that touch of old world charm with its tiled verandahs of potted palms, intricate lattice work and inviting wicker chairs. I enquire who the lady is, proper in a lacy Victorian collar and hairstyle of the 1920’s. Her portrait is handsomely framed at the foot of the lobby’s spiral staircase. With a hint of reverence, the concierge confirms, “We’re quite certain she was our first guest.”img_0765

I conjour a day in the life of this European visitor. I imagine her penning a letter at the writing desk in the Maharani suite – the very one we were staying in – carefully folding the parchment before sliding it into an envelope. Perhaps the correspondence describes a social gathering of visiting dignitaries, the unexpected thrill of an elephant ride or the purchase of fine Mysorean silk. Perhaps the letter addresses the paradox of the writer’s privileged colonial lifestyle, in contrast to the struggles and injustices of many locals. I would tell the writer that as foreigners in India, we try still today to reconcile the inequalities that surround us. We embrace the culture and the heritage, but often grapple with the poverty of the underprivileged.

img_0768Our guest from the 1920’s makes her way down the spiral staircase to the porticoed entrance. She dons a sun hat and the doorman, splendidly attired in the Mysore fashion of the day, bids her ‘Good afternoon’. He summons a carriage and the visitor is conveyed to the Maharaja’s Palace. As the palace draws into view, she is instantly captivated.

As it was then, so is it now. Mysore Palace remains one of India’s grandest royal buildings. The most visited tourist attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, six million visitors a year are transported back to an era of unparalleled grandeur. This is the seat of the Mysore royal family, where the most beloved of Maharajahs, Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV was installed in 1902.

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The extensive palace grounds are lush, shadowed with rain trees and dotted with sacred temples. I’m asked to join groups for photographs and willingly oblige. It is clear we are much more of a curiosity here than in Bangalore. Small children greet me with smiles and a, “Hi Auntie, where are you from?”

We join the multitudes and deposit our footwear before entering the inner palace. Photos inside are not allowed, but then they could not do it justice.

The ‘Indo-Saracenic’ architecture of the Mysore Palace is a mix of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic…and it is breathtaking. With soaring rooflines, mosaic floors, doors of inlaid ivory and displays of gold such as the elephant howdahs, the palace is designed to inspire awe. The durbar (the ceremonial meeting hall of the royal court) is magnificent in both scale and opulence, emphatically projecting the power of the Wodeyars who ruled for almost six centuries.

The much beloved Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV was the 24th Maharaja, ruling from 1895 to 1940. Focused on education, hospitals and religious sites, he worked to alleviate poverty and improve public health and industry. The forward-thinking Raja also built Asia’s first hydro electro project. Nearby Bangalore benefited and was the first city in India to have electric street lights in 1905.

Indeed the strides made during the Raja’s reign, inclined the revered Mahatma Gandhi to remark that the Maharaja was truly a Raja Rishi, a saintly king. His princely state of Mysore was acknowledged to be ‘the best administered state in the world’. But of course the Maharajahs of Mysore (as with other princely states) were also known for their excesses. Doing a Mysore was a phrase coined by Rolls-Royce executives in the 1920’s, code for the purchase of ‘Rollers’ in batches of seven…as the Maharaja Krishna was inclined to do!

The palace is a trove of treasures. Finely detailed wall paintings portray scenes from the Wodeyar’s stately processions and lavish lifestyle. Depicted in intricate detail, the Maharajahs are adorned in the finest Mysore silk and richly bejewelled. They sit atop caparisoned elephants, under the shade of a howdah or upon golden thrones. And they are rich beyond compare. At the time of his death in 1940 at his summer palace in Bangalore, Krishna Raja Wodeyar was one of the world’s wealthiest men.

We emerge from the palace into the expansive grounds. Hawkers gently tickle drums to entice. Cheap bangles, sandalwood carvings, incense and oils are offered – Mysore’s reputation for sandalwood and the finest of silks is undisputed. Brightly painted carriages and their listless ponies invite; more modest echoes of the elaborate carriages that once graced the the streets of Mysore.

img_0918-1The next morning a ‘carriage’ of a different kind awaits us. The environs of Mysore beg to be explored and we jump into a classic ’66 Mahindra Jeep. It’s rugged and basic, it’s a beauty.

Faizan from Royal Mysore Walks greets us affably and promises we’ll enjoy the tour. “You can ask me anything at all,” he says, “but just call me Fez, it’s easier.” As a former tour guide myself, I easily identify with him.

Fez is knowledgeable, engaging and gently puts us through the odd history quiz…perfect!

The drive takes us to the ramparts of Tipu Sultan’s fort in Sriangapatnam, an island formed between two channels of the Cauvery River. Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan’s father, had usurped the throne, then expanded the Mysore kingdom but would be forced, with his son, to defend it in four Anglo Mysorean wars. Fought over three decades, the final and decisive campaign by the British East India Company was in 1799. Even now more than 200 years later, the battlements seem impenetrable and might have remained that way but for one man.

I envision the battle as Fez paints the scene with a wave of his hand. “There was a traitor” he tells us. “His name was Mir Sadiq and so despised is he even today that people throw stones at his tomb.” The general betrayed the Sultan by colluding with the British, opening a breach in the walls that lead to the defeat of the Mysorean troops and to the death of Tipu Sultan, the only Indian king to die on a battlefield.  At a nearby palace, we see the face of Mir Sadiq actually smudged out in paintings, more evidence of the contempt with which he is still held. On the other hand, Tipu Sultan is a national hero; his reputation for brutality is a story for another time.

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That British victory yielded the richest haul of war-spoils from any battle they ever fought. I’m fascinated by this remarkable period, indeed of all Indian history…the Moguls, Maharajahs and the British rule which is both maligned and embraced here. As we leave the ramparts, a simple wooden bullock cart trundles past. Two beasts of burden pull the sturdy cart along a time-worn trail at the river’s edge – a scene unchanged for centuries.

Our Jeep rolls past sugar cane fields, silk worm farms and stands of eucalyptus trees, the sights and smells rushing through the open vehicle are colourful, raw and exhilarating. We turn off the highway and thread across an ancient narrow bridge over a gently flowing river. The Raja Ghat extends either side of us, scenes of ritual bathing and high-spirited play combine; scenes that evoke moments of clarity…I am in India!

img_0860On the side of the stepped ghat, under an ancient stone pavilion, a ceremony unfolds. A young man, bereaved of his father, is in the midst of a solemn ritual. Guided by a brahmin priest, he recites prayers as water is rhythmically dabbed on his wrist. His head is shaved as tradition demands. We listen to the priest’s intonation, a soothing, flowing mantra. We offer condolences to the women witnessing the ceremony, sensing that we have intruded on their grief. Yet they acknowledge us with a nod as we quietly take our leave. On the upper ghat another brahmin priest invites us into his vividly painted temple to witness the ritual about to commence. Inside, the centuries-old place of worship is cool and somber. We sit cross-legged on the stone floor opposite a priest flanked by two men, one an assistant, the other the supplicant.

img_0862The priest leads them in prayer for the well-being of the family. The father takes his cues from the brahmin as his adult son and wife look on. Sanskrit mantras mix with camphor wafting through the still air. Rice and turmeric are sprinkled, offerings in a timeless ritual.

Hands pressed together, and mouthing a ‘namaskara’ to the mother, we again take leave. She returns my gaze, her eyes confirming that our glimpse into this sacred family tradition was welcomed. I am moved by the openness of Hindus, their joy of sharing the living traditions.

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In the mid-afternoon sun, more scenes of communal prayer and family togetherness play out on the ghats. As children splash in shallow pools, the rhythmic slap of laundry beats out a languid tempo on the rocks. Ever-present, sacred cows luxuriate as they munch vegetables in the shade of a mango tree.

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On our return to Mysore, Fez points out stops that we will have to plan for our next visit; sandalwood incense makers, silk farms and even traditional painters of those iconic bullock carts that seem the very essence of rural India. The jeep tour with Fez has offered us insights we would not have had the privilege of seeing.

img_0913South India lives up to its reputation of friendliness, of mystic sights and ancient traditions. This is why, I remind myself. Why this peripatetic life with its farewells and re-attachments, its solitudes and contemplative transition, is worth it. These are the moments to treasure.

I get my bearings back over the next few days and resolve to be contented. I attend a number of social events through the week and feel a little more connected. “Are you free this weekend?” I’m asked.

“I’m afraid not,” I say, “I’m off again.”

As I pen this, my suitcases await at the door for this evening’s flight; it is Singapore and  Australia for the next ten days. Without any children here, I can freely accompany my husband on a business trip. It’s true…I have nothing to complain about…

The Grand Bazaar in Pondicherry and a train passage to old ‘Madras’…part two

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“Bonjour Mademoiselle, ca va?” asks the shallot seller. His smile is radiant, his demeanour peaceful. He shifts and shakes his shallots in a slim basket, removing their skins and depositing them lighter and more saleable into a substantial basket. The shallots are the sellers only commodity this Sunday morning at Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

If you’ve watched the movie Life of Pi, you’ve briefly glimpsed Pondicherry. The narrative begins here, the film sweeps through parts of the old town including the expansive bazaar. Founded in 1827, it’s about the size of a football pitch, and we had been told to not miss it.

Pondicherry’s rich heritage is revealed here; the sellers, the produce, the decorative flower garlands created and sold for cultural and religious occasions. As I experienced in Kazakhstan, a market is where the fabric of a city reveals itself. A place where the murmur of regional languages, the aroma of exotic spices and unfamiliar produce beguiles you. An experience where the cultural thread that stitches a community together heightens the senses – market places are a traveller’s touchstone.

The shallot seller is proud to be of French ancestry, common in this once French port on India’s South East Coast. Pointing to his talika spread across his forehead, he makes it clear that his devotion is for Shiva. The broad stripes, painted or smeared from ash, are worn proudly on followers of the Hindu deity. The seller motions to his stripes and white dot, “Shiva is love,” he tells us in dreamy affirmation. I marvel that he sits, sifting his produce and smiling contentedly, almost in the pathway of the bustling bazaar…in complete serenity.

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Most sellers have a stall, a perch, a ‘hole in the wall’ from which to sell. Many have their own small puja (shrine), a smattering of religious calendars and a hefty ancient scale beside them. Some have a speciality item, others sell it all. Red for apples, tomatoes and luscious pomegranates. Green for coriander and limes, curry and betel leaves, peas and lady fingers…you know them as okra. Purplish eggplant IMG_1117and orange for carrots and mangos.

In Southern India bananas straddle both the yellow and green spectrum, their bunches often sold on thick stalks…ready to be steamed, fried or roasted. Banana leaves are vital as ‘plates and platters’. Practical yet with a side benefit – it’s believed that antioxidants are transferred to the curries and masalas from their thick, waxy leaves.

I feel I’m in the way as burlap sacks of beans, groundnuts and garlic are heaved high on shoulders and humphed past me. I’m cautious underfoot for squashed oranges and smashed corn husks, for the odd rat that darts in and out. I dig my hands into stuffed, rolled down sacks, trickling and rolling rice, myriad beans and lentils through my fingers.

I’m thankful for sincere smiles as I make my way through the crowded lanes, haggling and chatter filling their space. My openness and curiousity is most often met with warmth and returned smiles. The odd person reminds me they are busy trading and understandably, my camera isn’t welcomed by all.

The volume of produce is staggering, it simply has to be sold. This is where the people of India procure their food, not at sterile well-lit grocery stores, but at bazaars, at markets, at roadside vendors.

As colourful as the canvas of fruits and vegetables is, the cultural complexities of the flower and petal stalls are even more intoxicating. These petals of jasmine and lotus, chrysanthemum and oleander, roses and marigolds, are transformed into the dainty, the neck-sized and a variety of shaped garlands for welcoming and worshiping. One might even wrap a garland around an auto rickshaw…yes, they can be bought by the meter. They can reach seemingly gargantuan proportions and be elaborately decorated; they have to be seen to be believed.

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Flower petals are bought cheaply by the bag, both for wholesale and for personal use. It isn’t uncommon to come across ladies sitting on street sides conversing and threading, petals slowly forming a garland. Yet most garlands are threaded at a maker’s stall.

I meet Chandra and his two sons. Their hands are swift and supple as they thread jasmine and roses. “It’s a family business,” I’m told, “my sons are following my foot-steps.” Small businesses such as Chandra’s are the backbone of India. The garland business is prolific.

img_4516They are offered for worship, draped around doorways at a housewarming, a new motorbike or auto rickshaw may be blessed with a garland, a bride and groom exchange them three times during a wedding. They are also woven into a lady’s plaited hair, especially here in Southern India.

I’m told that each Hindu deity has a unique garland: Goddess Lalitha prefers hibiscus, Lord Vishnu wears tulasi leaves, Lord Subrahmanyan likes to be draped in jasmine, whereas Mahalakshmi likes red lotus. Ancient kings appointed keepers whose only role was to tend flower gardens – cultivating precious petals for daily devotions, never to be sold. It is also rumoured that these royal gardeners did not marry.

When I wander to a tucked away lane and find garlands as tall as myself, it crosses my mind to take one to our hotel as a kind gesture. I realize it’s prudent to ask if there’s a special meaning attached to the over-sized creations, “Oh yes madam, those are for funeral!”

The rules for the flower pluckers, the sattarars, is fascinating…and yes I use the word ‘plucker’. In India, the word pluck is always used in reference to flowers. You do not pick flowers –one plucks flowers. It seems the rules for sattarars are rather specific, whether it be for the plucking or the making of garlands.

Flowers should be plucked in the early morning, ideally after having bathed. The flowers or petals should not have been smelled by anyone. They most definitely should not be used if they’ve fallen on earth or dirt. Namajapam or the repetition of holy names should be done while plucking.

While constructing garlands, the petals and other material such as banana tree fiber used as the base, should be kept on a table. Ideally above hip level – a flower for God should not touch the feet. I note that Chandra and his sons were building their garlands above the hip, their creations then displayed above them. I realize I had lifted one gently to my nose to appreciate its fragrance. Did I unwittingly break a rule, or does that only pertain to the loose petals?

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It seems the fragrance of jasmine, the most cherished scent of Indian flowers, is meant to be enjoyed. When their delicate ivory buds are threaded into gajras, not only do they decorate women’s hair, it is believed the scent reduces anxiety, emitting peace and happiness. Ancient Hindu art, chiseled some 2000 years ago, depict goddesses with delicate gajras enhancing their thick locks. And so it is, still today.

I stand close to ladies at a temple and the scent of jasmine lingers. More of those exotic scents and vivid colours that this traveller soaks up. I breath it in and cherish the scene. The images that await me in the coming day, further affirms my love of travel.

We journey back to old Madras (Chennai) by train. Not in first class or in air-conditioning, just the type of train that millions of passengers travel in daily. The kind of train with only bars on the windows and rickety old fans whirling above simple seats. The kind of train that costs less than a dollar to ride 160 kilometres or so.

We are the only foreigners, first aboard, and firmly planted next to the windows. This is important as the bench-seat for 4 will fill to 5, 6, maybe 7 by journey’s end.

img_1418-2Barely ten minutes out of Pondicherry a time capsule awaits. As the clatter of the wheels settle to a rhythmic, soothing pattern, the city gives way to a beautiful patchwork; palms, rice, vegetables and flowers. From these fields come the produce, the bounty found  in Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

Against this verdant backdrop, ladies swish in bright saris as they tend crops and herd flocks. Small villages – simple buildings roofed with palm-fronds and tin, bullock carts trundling down narrow lanes – an old age farming culture stocking India’s bazaars and markets.

The train halts or passes through lyrically named towns like Valavanur, Vullupuram and Vikravandi Mailam. At Tindivanam it gets busy, the 4 seater long-bench is now a 6. A sinewy fellow in a vivid orange lungi asks to borrow the Times of India, a rural family boards dressed in fresh linen and shiny saris – their young daughter toys with a new cell phone, a young professional strikes up a conversation. Might he get a photo for Facebook with our son?

The train screeches to rest at platforms, sellers jump on, plying the aisles…roasted groundnuts, guavas, biscuits and papers. The chai sellers need only to latch their aluminum urns onto a window bar. Tiny cups of sweet chai pass through the gaps; it’s common to treat your fellow passenger. As passengers disembark there are nods all around, perhaps a handshake, we’ve become acquaintances. “Very happy you are traveling the train,” they say.

Temples peek over groves of palm and trees of mango, children splash naked in ponds, water buffalos laze close by. At Melmarmuvathur, dusk settles in and the sultry evening finally offers a cooling breeze.

And the light casts different hues. Green fields deepen to emerald and hills become shadowy. The smell of the sultry air changes.

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Our young friend Anand shakes our hand warmly. The train has rolled into his station, he’s home to visit his recently widowed mother. We regret that we hadn’t exchanged contact details.

The scene changes at Chengalpattu Junction, on the outskirts of Madras. It’s now 7:00 p.m. and crowds of young professionals have left work in suburban offices and await their train into the city.

The fields give way completely to a rainbow of tall skinny homes, to the crush of the city. A milky, full moon dances over the lights of Madras. I close my trusty Moleskin and pack away my travel notes…the images dance vividly in my mind’s eye.

Pondicherry, the once French India…part one

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Colonial architecture in the French quarter

From the time we arrived in Bangalore, we’ve been told to visit Pondicherry. “You’ll feel like you aren’t quite in India,” people say with a twinkle in their eye.

We decide to fly to Chennai (or the once and more romantic sounding Madras), then take a leisurely drive south to Pondicherry. With our driver forewarned to be sensible (well aware of the customary incautious driving), we make our way down the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The mass of Madras gives way to villages and verdant fields stretched along a narrow highway – squeezed with villagers on foot and bike, goats, cows and bullock carts, and then the stream of traffic. We’re all vying for space against the ‘green monsters’ as I’ve dubbed the massive hulks of metal, painted a shade of that pesky green. There are herds of them, public buses that transport millions of people daily throughout India. They stampede the pavement like rampaging elephants, horns trumpeting and wheels trampling – commanding the road as they overtake dangerously, swerving out and back into their lane with only a fraction of space to spare. Your life flashes before your eyes, bend after bend. By the time we arrive in Pondicherry, this passenger is a wreck.

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The welcoming kolam

“I’ll have a gin tonic please,” I plead as we sink into deep wicker chairs at Maison Perumal. We’ve been welcomed with garlands of jasmine and fresh lime sodas in the three-storied courtyard…ironically stuffed with pots the same shade as the ‘monsters.’ “I’m just happy we’re alive,” our son quips as he sips on his lime soda.

Jaison, our host at the Maison explains the intricacies of transportation in India. “The buses are on a tight schedule, they have to move ma’am. Maybe take the train back…that’s the only way to see India.” I make a note to check the train schedule.

Pondicherry, the French interpretation of Puducherry (meaning new settlement), has two distinctive quarters in the old city, the Tamil and the French. We’re in the Tamil quarter, from the predominant population originating in Tamil Nadu, the state that surrounds the Union Territory of Pondicherry. This was once referred to as ‘black town’, settled alongside the French quarter in the late 1600’s.

The Tamil quarter developed around its five Hindu temples, countless small pagodas and the Grand Bazaar. This is where the highest caste of Hindus the Brahmins lived, as well as the businessmen who controlled large-scale trade, the Chettiars. Maison Perumal had been the home of a prominent Chettiar family, the Sunder Iyers, for more than one-hundred years. The family were bankers and cotton traders, and lived in a multi-generational fashion – framed sepia photos line the corridors and hint at their privileged lifestyle.

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Sam John at Maison Perumal

Sam John, the hotel’s manager greets us, meticulous in starched white cotton. He points out the finely carved pillars that elegantly frame the courtyard. “This family traded in Burma and so returned with Burmese teak. This is a large courtyard, sixteen pillars, fitting for a prominent Chettair mansion.”

It seems we’re sitting in the men’s courtyard, the women’s is the smaller one, close to the kitchen. They share similiar architectural features; red-oxide tile flooring for colour and open air wells for ventilation and light. In fact the age-old concept according to the Vaastu Shasta (the traditional Hindu system of architecture), each house must posses an open courtyard to honour the auspicious link between the five elements – the courtyard also bustled with family gatherings.

I ask Sam about the stone bench at the entrance of Maison Perumal, having noticed that the Tamil homes have a street verandah with a lean-to-roof over wooden posts, and a masonry bench tucked in the corner. “This is called the thalvaram. A shady place to give protection for the passers-by and to protect the building from the sun and rain. The benches are thinnai, used to welcome strangers or to chat with neighbours. We like sitting cross-legged on the benches, keeps us nimble, like yoga,” he says.

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Sunday morning thinnai

We experience the concept of thinnai first hand as we’re invited onto a verandah as we pass by a quaint bungalow early Sunday morning. Two sister-in-laws are chatting as they shell peas for mid-day lunch. Like us, one of the ladies is also visiting from Bangalore. We comment on the chaotic streets that we’ve escaped from – we breath in the healthier air of  peaceful Pondicherry.

Sam John mentioned the importance of retaining this low-key way of life when we had spoken. He was passionate in explaining that Maison Perumal is a cgh earth experience hotel, they have a clear ethos.

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A tri-shaw tour

The chain of hotels has non-negotiable principles of preserving the nation by honouring local heritage. Cgh hotels are restored to preserve their heritage and architecture. Sam had told us, “Respecting the past, all the hotels have adopted the local culture and way of life, paying homage to traditional modes of living, nature, architecture and heritage.”

At Maison Perumal, we ‘feel’ the ethos as we appreciate the attention to detail in the restored building, its second story evoking the French style with stained glass windows and authentic furnishings. This was often the case in a Tamil home, the marrying of the Tamil and French style. We enjoy local cuisine and an opportunity to tour on a trishaw. “We’ve engaged locals to do these tours,” Sam said proudly, “it helps support the community.”

One morning during our stay, a kolam is being chalked in the courtyard as we make our way to breakfast. It is a morning ritual for the Tamils (as in other parts of India) to create a design in the courtyard and at the home’s entrance. They are delightful either in their simplicity or in more embellished artistic forms, although decoration is not the main purpose of a kolam. Traditionally drawn from rice flour it welcomes people, small creatures and even deities, not least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.

The patterns range from geometric drawings around a matrix of dots, to free form art work and closed shapes. Folklore has evolved to caution that the lines must be completed so as to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, and thus from the inside of the home.

Such ancient traditions such as these are still a part of every day life for the people in the Hindu enclave. The French quarter gave an entirely different sense of time and place. Puducherry, or Pondy, as the locals now refer to their city, has been a base for trading since the early 1520. Of the Europeans, the Portuguese were here first to trade in textiles; the Dutch and the Danes followed. But it was the French who rebuilt a prominent fortified town and thriving port of call, despite the British (in nearby Madras) razing most of it to the ground in 1761. The Treaty of Paris returned Puducherry to the French in 1763 and they quickly rebuilt. Today its unique charm captures the romance of those early Colonial days; of retreating  from the punishing heat on breezy verandahs after a day of trading those sought after commodities: cotton, indigo, cinnamon and cardamon, coffee, mehe pepper, cowrie shells and Chinese porcelain. They all passed through the warehouses before journeying, east to west.

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The respite of a colonnade portico

The French quarter, home to the French and other Europeans was dubbed ‘white’ town. Their homes and public buildings mirrored the upper-class French style. Imposing gates hinted at the prosperity of the owner ensconced behind high compound walls. They hid lush garden courts and verandahs decorated with exquisite scrolls and floral motifs. Ideally facing the sea breeze, the colonnaded porticos were essential to day to day life as the settlers coped with the extreme heat and humidity –entertaining staved off the sometimes interminable boredom of life in the Indies.

Women of the day visited, gossiped, read and wrote short stories. Tales were told of ‘Indian culture’ as they perceived it to be. Their interaction with the ‘natives’ was restricted to a minimum – mostly to their staff of butlers, gardeners and servants, and punkah wallahs who ensured a constant flutter of air from delicate wicker fans. Every good home also employed palanquin carriers who transported their sir and madam in improbable style. The large box-like contraptions with shuttered windows and a long pole on either end, (handles for the carriers) allowed residents in the French quarter to ‘hide away’ as they made their way through the streets.

We take a tour with Ashok who works with INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Their mission is to preserve heritage buildings, save them from further dilapidation, breathe life back into their storied pasts. We’re told the old town is in danger of losing its unique charm if more treasured buildings cannot be rescued. Along with the beautifully restored we see once-proud homes, shops and government buildings, lingering and neglected in a slow, sad demise.

Ashok leads us to one of the loveliest of the restored mansions. As we enter through the gate to the imposing, white and lemon-hued mansion, there is complete silence despite the presence of countless women. They sit embroidering, the chirp of birds and the rustle of palm leaves their gentle sound track. “This was the French Trading Company office and then the Governor’s mansion,” Ashok tells us. “Now run by the Sisters of Cluny Church, they train and help underprivileged ladies through their embroidery work.” It is an uplifting setting and a noble venture – an example of the practical possibilities of preserving the legacies of bygone years.

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Embroiders at work in a peaceful setting

Deciding to stay a few evenings in the French quarter, we meet a lovely young Parisian. Chandra, along with her cousin Ryan, is the acting proprietor of La Closerie, Bay of Bengal. The guest house is a combination of an old French home and a new annex that melds together seamlessly.

“My mother bought the colonial home about twenty years ago. It was restored and extended four years ago, I’m here to manage it for a year,” Chandra says. She mentions the contrasting pace between Pondy and Paris. “There are quite a few of us French here with Indian roots. It’s a vibrant community, a unique opportunity to spend a year here.”

Chandra is one of many French men and women we meet. When the French left Pondy in 1954, many residents retained Indian citizenship and property, even those who chose to return to France. While some descendants benefited from inherited homes, others found it to be a burden if unable to meet the cost of refurbishment.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself, who in 1947 became the first Prime Minister of Independent India, made it a point to preserve the unique heritage of this once French India. “I want Pondicherry to remain a window of culture.” And indeed through the efforts of INTACH and other committed bodies like cgh, Pondicherry is trying to do just that.

We take a late afternoon stroll along the sea front, joining the locals taking in the salubrious sea air. People linger in groups conversing, or ponder alone matching the brooding sky over the Bay of Bengal. The weathered lighthouse looms over the crowds, once more useful when it guided trading ships into these shores. Sculptured pillars from an ancient fort stand guard over a statue of the revered Ghandi – a statue of Nehru stands close by. The scene is much changed since boatmen and tall ships crowded the jetty, and the more somber history of Pondicherry’s colonial days unfolded– the shipping of thousands of Tamils as ‘coolies’ or indentured workers and slaves.

But for now we leave the sultry beachside with its pounding waves, with its people – French, Tamil and Muslim living harmoniously, where time stands still yet moves cautiously forward. One last time, we cross back into the Tamil quarter…there’s the Grand Bazaar to visit and that train passage to reserve back to old Madras.

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