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Walking around Bangalore

11 July 2013

Last night we experienced our first big rain, the full experience enhanced by many of us forgetting to bring umbrellas, forcing us to dodge rain drops as well as traffic (fortunately successful at the latter at least) as we crossed the street from our bus to UB City, a fancy, modern mall with expensive stores and an eclectic group of restaurants, including our destination, a Rajasthani restaurant called Rajdhani serving a sort of Indian version of tapas.

We dried off as best we could, more so from the air of our laughter than from the thin stream of hot air that emanated from the blowers in the rest room (I trust the similar description of the blower in the ladies’ room on the authority of my colleagues, since I am the only one in our party who visited the men’s room).

Our good humor comes from the metaphorical deluge of information about India and the state of Karnataka we have been provided over the last two days. Several presenters have emphasized the diversity of this country, which often comes with an admission of its seemingly chaotic nature.

This lack of monolithicness continually frustrated the British and continues to frustrate and astound visitors and residents alike. But thanks to presenters like Chiranjiv Singh and Arun Pai (a good profile of home appears in The Economic Times here), I feel I have a better handle on it.

In the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), we have a rather specific list of rules (with specific consequences and reward), a specific place to worship, and specific days or times (the call to Fajr, the Muslim pre-dawn prayer, is ringing at my window as I type). The Indic religions, particularly Hindu, according to Pai as we stood across the street from a thousand-year-old temple, have none of that. Hindus have a smorgasbord of gods from which to choose, temples that are open for worship at whatever time you please, an afterlife which is more of a do-over in this world rather than a reward or punishment in another one. While Jews, Christians, and Muslims dispute which text forms the one sacred book that best expounds on God’s commandments, Hindus have two books—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—less a set of commandments than epic narratives. Basically, Hindus go through the chaos of life in their own individual ways, as best they can, according to whatever they were put in this life to do.

This is why it’s difficult to get India all on one page. When describing such difficulties, many give a wan smile and shrug, as if to say none of us humans are ever on the same page.

Pai’s walking tour continues to resonate in my mind. I don’t want to give too much away about his tour, because his stories are his business and, well, isn’t a great walking tour all about experiencing something you can’t through reading? I’ll just say he promised to take us across time as well as space because, as he put it, “India lives across different time zones.” Bangalore was mainly a small town that the British came to use as a military base, and there are still several colonial era homes and churches just off M. G. Road, the main drag. Gradually, these homes will probably be bought up for office buildings—we passed by a Citibank and our program hosts gasped because the last time they had passed by on this tour it was the site of a colonial home. The historical, Pai pointed out to us, is not something that is preserved in India. The dead are burned, no memorials are put up, no museums ensconce past relics. History is lived out in the present, and when a piece of it ceases to be useful, it is cast aside as garbage, to be touched only by the lowest (that explains why there’s so much garbage lying around).

The pavements of Bangalore are frighteningly uneven, the slabs seeming to give way under your weight, the curbs higher than a normal step up a ladder, the puddles random and of indiscernible composition—each step a precarious one across both space and time. We appreciated our little victories: learning the connection between where we were and, say, the War of 1812 or Churchill’s political and personal development, crossing a road together. There are no marked crosswalks, but—as in many municipalities—there are rules, most of which aren’t written down or policed by an authority beyond the honk of a horn, the scowl of a driver, or the feeling of reward for making it to safe harbor on the other side of three or more intersecting roads.

We also were guided through a very poor neighborhood, where, paradoxically enough, the people seemed much happier, coming out of already opened doors to smile at us dodging motorbikes and cows on their narrow street. Nearly all the homes greeted us with a chalk-powder design, hand drawn earlier that morning after the wives had washed down the doorsteps. One home was especially well decorated, an extra bit of wooded scaffolding festooned with flowers and what looked like palm branches. The man of the house told us his daughter was getting married (she was at the temple at that very moment) while his wife beamed next to him. We offered congratulations and best wishes. Immediately in front of us, a young man meticulously maneuvered his motorbike back and forth, back and forth, making short turns each time, until he could successfully launch himself from where he was parked to his destination down the road while avoiding a cow that was urinating profusely.

Those who could speak English asked us where we were from. A man ran to our tour leader with joyous news: a cow had just given birth to two calves, down that way, one street over. He promised we would come by after taking a more circuitous route around the block. We stayed together pretty well, occasionally spread out by taking photos and idiosyncratic attention stoppers. Only once were we worried about one person becoming detached from our group, caught up in a conversation of as much gestures as words, threatened only by being invited in for some tea and a bite to eat.

We keep saying “Thank you,” but in India there is no response. Ambassador Singh told us there is actually no word in Hindi that translates neatly. The dictionaries give dhanyavad, but Singh told us that’s not really what the word means. He said that if, for example, a grandfather asks a child to bring a cup of water, when the child brings it, the grandfather raises his hands, palms facing downward toward the child. It is a sort of blessing because the child is fulfilling his dharma—his innate nature, his duty, the purpose of this life at this time—to bring water to the old man, and helping the old man fulfill his dharma.

We have been blessed.

Image Retired Ambassador Chiranjiv Singh performs the formidable task of explaining the culture of India to us in 90 minutes.

Image Ambassador Singh wrote his name in five of the official languages of India. The top is Hindi; the second (I think) is Punjabi, Singh’s native tongue; the third is (if I remembering right) Kannada, the language of Karnataka, the state of Bangalore; the fourth I won’t pretend to remember; and the bottom is Urdu, written like Arabic from right to left.

Image Arun Pai stops at a colonial house in Bangalore on our walking tour.

Image The two calves here are about one hour old. No information available on the age of the motor scooter or its rider.

ImageImageImage Ulsoor marketplace. The yellow sign in the bottom image (reading “R. B. A. N. M.”) indicates a private English-medium school. Even the poor will try to scrape together a few rupees to send their children to a private school where English is the medium of instruction. English is seen as the key to entry into the rising middle class of India.

Image Hindu temple, said by our guide, Arun Pai, to be a thousand years old.


From → India travel log

  1. Great shots! Are the colonial homes still used as residences?

  2. Dr. Shipe permalink

    Yes, they are. We were allowed to walk in the garden (i.e., yard) of one or two because the tour guide knows the owners. But he was sure that in the future they would be sold. When they were built, they were quiet houses on a quiet road; now they are in the middle of office buildings and metro stations. I would say the road, M. G. Road, those houses are on is a four- to six-lane road, but that’s a bit of a misnomer because the “lanes” aren’t well marked and seem to be optional! The road is VERY noisy because drivers use the horn frequently, mainly as a sort of I-am-here message.

    Yesterday we went to two schools on the edge of Bangalore and traffic was bottled up a couple of times by a cow crossing or standing in the road.

  3. Beautifully composed and enlightening–I love seeing the world through Shipe eyes.
    Keep ’em coming.

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