Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tipu Sultan and his Palace: Tiger Organs and More

Bangalore is a city not overly-endowed with history. It's a recent place, built up mostly by the British to serve as an adminmistrative center with a lovely climate, and it does not possess the wealth of historical attractions or flashy Raj era architecture that Delhi and Mumbai can boast. There are only a couple of palaces of even vague historical interest, and one of these is Tipu Sultan's.

The palace itself is underwhelming. It was built in 1790 to serve Tipu as a summer palace and dutifully nick-named "Rashk-E-Jannat" or "Envy of Heaven", but this obviously hyperbole. It housed English administration offices up until 1868, after the Sultan's 1799 defeat, and has been kept up as a somewhat half-heartedly administrated tourist attraction since.

Painting detail on the wall.

All the stuff has been moved out of it and dispersed, and what remains has not been well kept up. There's some praiseful and mostly acceptable displays on Tipu inside, though little in the way of actual artifacts - those have all been sent to England.

Some more nice work.

Even in the palace's hey-day, one suspects that it was not exactly a show piece - not compared to the incomparable and extremely nearby palace at Mysore. Tipu Sultan's Karnataka capital wasn't located at Bangalore anyway. His personal capital was Srirangapatna, which today lingers on as a small village nearby Mysore. But what is interesting about the palace is Tipu Sultan himself, the cantankerous and independently minded soul who built it. Tipu is worth talking about.

Tipu was the Sultan of Mysore, nearby to Bangalore, from 1782 to 1799. Most Indians disliked or distrusted the British East India Company, but Tipu's adversion to the invaders of his homeland was both single-minded and mildly pathological. Tipu devoted himself entirely and with ferocious energy to the defeat of the ferangis in his midst. Tipu was a Muslim, and his powerful father had turned Mysore from back-water to formidable ruling state from 1762 onward.

Tipu's reign was marked by the Four Mysore Wars, ferocious battles fought against the British for control of Southern India. Tipu experienced remarkable success against the British in the First and Second of these, and his nationalist resolve, powerful and organized army, and general ferocity put a serious dent in England's notions of invulnerability. It is even thought that his kingdom invented the world's very first war rocket, using a solid fuel system, and deployed with remarkable effect against the English in the Mysore Wars.

Tipu wanted to establish an empire as large and as powerful as that of the Mughals. Although he was unsuccessful, he certainly made his Deccan Plateau homeland one of India's most powerful - and wealthy - regioins. He was instructed in battle tactics by French officers in the service of his father, Hyder Ali, and he apparantly took their lessons to heart. His first major engagement was in the Anglo-Maratha war of 1775 to 1779: his martial career would go on to dramatic effect until 1799. In the Second Mysore War, Tipu got to dictate terms to the English: this would be the last time an Indian king would get to do so in recorded history.

Tipu was a surprisingly intelligent and sensitive sort of warlord, with a penchant for new inventions, reading poetry, and learning different languages. He is famous for his psychedelic and intensely odd "Dream Book," which features a series of hallucinations, harangues, and observations supposedly lodged by Tipu in his sleep. The full text is here.

By way of example, here is what he entitled "The Story of the Strange Cow":

On the 7th of the month Ja'fari, of the
year Shadab, 1217, from the birth of
Muhammad, while encamped at Salam-
abad 1 , preceding the attack upon the
entrenchments of Rama Nayar, 2 after
the Maghrib Prayers, I invoked God in
these terms: "O God, in the hills the
unbelievers of the land of the enemy have
forbidden fasting and prayer; convert them
all to Islam, so that the religion of Thy
Messenger may gain in strength." In the
course of the night, and towards the morn-
ing I had a dream: It appeared to me
that after traversing the forests and high
hills the army of the Ahmadi Sarkar had
encamped. On the way and near the place
of encampment I saw a cow with its calf,
in semblance like a big striped tiger;
its countenance, teeth, etc., looked like
those of a tiger; its forelegs were like those
of a cow; it had no hinder legs at all;
its forelegs were in slight motion; and it
was causing injury to the best of its ability.
Having closely examined it, I reached the
camp and directed several persons to
prepare themselves and accompany me.
I said to them: "God willing, on arriving
near this cow which looks like a tiger,
I shall with my own hand cut it along
with its calf into pieces." Having said that,
I reviewed my household stud and gave
orders for two grey horses to be quickly
saddled and brought. At this moment the
morning appeared and I woke up.

Well, all right then.

Tipu Sultan was not a warm and fuzzy man. Many Hindus accuse him of being a religious bigot with a penchant for massacring non-Muslims at the slighest provocation: others believe that these rumors of religious extremism, deportations, and general antisocial behavior are largely the invention of over-enthusiatic British and Hindu historians. (In Indian history, I am afraid, as with all human history, it is usually best to assume the worst.) He was most definitely anti-Christian, and is known to have destroyed 27 Catholic in his domain. He encaptured almost the entire Mangalorean Catholic population - nearly 60,000 people - and force-marched them through the Western Ghat range, where 20,000 are reputed to have died. Those that made it were usually forced to convert forcibly to Islam, and the women and girls were forced into marriages with select Muslim men. Tipu was even known to forcibly convert his British captives: in one memorable rumor, he is said to have forced British drum boys to wear women's clothing and entertain the court as dancing girls. The successful Second Mysore War may have been a clever prestige play, but it was poor indeed economically: the expense is rumored to have impoverished the country, and 12,000 children were reputedly stolen as slaves from Tanjore during this time period.

His power was noticed by the French - Napoleon had plans to link up with Tippo against the British after his planned conquest of the Middle East and Egypt. The British should feel lucky that this unholy alliance never actually went off.

Tipu finally perished at British hands in his capital of Seringapatam in 1799. The British supposedly noticed a short, fat, and ferociously angry officer discharging appropriated hunting weapons with a small group of servants about him. He was shot at some point in this battle, and obviously took no pains to make his identity clear to those around him.

Though his character was, to say the least, debatable, Tipu stands as one of the most aggressive and effective Indian nationalist fighters. His palace at Bangalore may not be particularly impressive, but his career certainly was.

Tipu had in his possession a curious mechanical toy - a life size wooden effigy of a tiger mauling a British officer which is a prized collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Tipu got this toy specially made in 1795 to satiate his hatred for the British. This wooden apparatus is a musical instrument. The sounds are produced from an organ with a row of keys installed withim. As one turned the handle attached to the body of the tiger, sounds of the roar of a tiger would be heard. The handle also simultaneously woul lever the hands of the soldier as if crying in despair. Tipu used to keep this toy in his Ranga Mahal.

The design of the toy is believed to be inspired by the news of the death of Hugh Munroe who was killed by a tiger. Tipu had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Munroe in the past.

Although the apparatus was made in India, the mechanism is attributed to the French. In 1990 the Victoria and Albert museum prepared a video to demonstrate the mechanism."

Video of the toy in action.

The tiger was captured by the British on December 22nd 1799, on the date when Tipu was finally overcome in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war.

The Governor General's Aide de Camp had this observation to make on the device:

“In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition. The whole of this design was executed by Order of Tippoo Sultaun. It is imagined that this memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty of Tippoo Sultan may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London.”

Tipu was mad for tigers, and this tiger-toy was just one expression of his fondness for India's most iconic beast. It is not difficult to imagine why: what better symbol of a rampant and potent native India can be found then her very own Bengal tiger? Tipu painted images of tigers mauling Europeans on the walls of his residences, kept a number of live tigers in his cities, and was rumored to have thrown subjects who displeased him into tiger pits.

Tigers are an extremely common symbol in Tipu's downright trippy "Dream Book," a Persian journal in which he recorded his various fantasies, aspirations, and hallucinations. (More on that in a second). The tiger-organ also possessed a dreadful sort of symbolism for the British: the tiger himself (Tipu) was pissed off, powerful, and entirely ready to wreck vengeance on the oppressor. He was nicknamed the "Tiger of Mysore," after a (probably aprocryphal story) in which he supposedly despatched a tiger with a dagger at close range. Further, Tipu was inordinately fond of new technologies, gadgets, and other mechanical toys. The synthesis of the two in his Tyger Organ must have pleased the bloodthirsty and curious Sultan inordinately.

The tiger was taken to the East India Company's museum in 1808 and quickly became a favorite with blood-thirsty Londoners. The tiger was allocated to the V&A during the dissolution of the Company 50 years later, and has been on display ever since. It features in Wilkie Collin's beloved novel "The Moonstone" and was the subject of one of the largest paintings in the world. It was featured in spectaculars, magazines, and broadsheets.

Even John Keats took notice of the curious thing, ruminating upon it in his satire "The Cap and Bells." Thinking the emperor is snoring, he writes...

Replied the page: “that little buzzing noise….
Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor’s choice,
From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys''

Andhra Food: A Spicy Bone of Contention

Andhra food is a matter of pride. Every Hyderbadi I know defends the food of his or her native land with zealous and slightly insane pride. It is deadly to mention that you have partaken of biryani in a Hyderabadi's presence. "What kind of biryani?" they will ask as they move in closer to you, a look of growing insanity in their eye.

"A biryani biryani, with meat in it," may seem to be the correct answer. But of course, it is not.

You must reply "Hyderabadi biryani," and furthermore, the biryani must have hailed from a reputed restaurant or source of such. (They may be found overseas, but they are rare).

If the biryani is not Hyderabadi, or not vetted - well, so much for you. "How can you eat hat crap?" your Andhra friend will say. "We have got the best biryani, the best food in India, the world, and you subject yourself to that swill? What kind of a fool are you anyway?" After the verbal abuse, the Hyderbadi will inevitably whip out a pen and paper and write down the names of at least four or five places in which one can find real Hyderabadi biryani, and will cluck a few times in sorrow and horror. And then they will send you on your way.

And the people of Andhra Pradesh really do earn their bragging rights. There is the vaunted biryani, of course, but there is more to Andhra food then that. The cuisine is extremely sophisticated, has a long history, and involves a profusion of excellent local ingredients, including fresh dairy, fresh seafood and vegetables, and tons of blow-your-face-off hot green chilies. Andhra food today is a synthesis of local food - not dissimilar to that of the rest of South India - and the Mughlai food brought by the old time rulers of still predominantly Muslim Hyderabad. Rice and lentils are the main carbohydrates on offer, although papad (lentil crackers) are also popular. In Telgana, Western Andhra Pradesh, people even eat uppudi hindi or broken rice, a dish more commonly associated with Indochina. Pickles and chutneys come in a bazillion different forms and are considered entirely integral to a good Andhra style meal. The people of Andhra's coast lines prefer coconut and sesame oils to ghee and palm oils - it's a flavor that's pretty easy to detect in many of the region's speciality foods.

My favorite expression of the region's culinary genius comes in the form of Andhra "carrier meals."

A carrier meal is exactly what it sounds like. You are given a banana leaf, and a bunch of little thali dishes, composed of some form of vegetable and dahi and ghee and sambar. Then, a man comes around carrying a few metal pots, in which are contained the day's dishes. These are usually some form of rather bitter daal, a stir-fried vegetable, and something involving potato. Another man comes by to provide you with papad (lentil crackers), roti, and rice, with a dollop of liquid ghee to top it off. To supplement the meal, most non-vegetarians order some spicy (and bright red) fish fry, or perhaps a fish curry, or maybe even some of Andra's beloved fried chicken. The food keeps on coming until you tell it to stop or keel over, whichever comes first. Andra restaurants are usually busy and social establishments, with a mix of businessmen and women, families, and random hangers on (like myself), all eating ferociously with their right hands and shouting happily at each other over matters of great import. The carrier meals at lunch are usually scandalously cheap. 200 rupees is pushing it.

Asha Building,
Ground Floor,
31, Church Street,
Bangalore - 560 001

Bheemas is located on Church Street, and is a favorite haunt of Bangalore's umpteen downtown IT Professionals (whatever that means). Like everywhere else in India, it is a deserted ghost town until about 1:00 sharp, wherin it almost instantly fills up with the famished and highly paid. Like all Andhra style food, Bheema's serves up its veg carrier meals on a banana leaf - and eating with your hands is pretty much mandatory.

I ordered the carrier meal. Everyone orders the carrier meal. It's 225 rupees for a constantly-replinished spread of Andhra dishes, and it's even (theoretically) somewhat healthy. The stir-fried vegetables are tasty. The daal was a bit bitter for me - I like Nagarjuna's version better.

Buttermilk and curd served with a little bit of chili, salt, and onion. It's amazing how refreshing buttermilk can be in hot weather. There's also a sweet dessert of vermicelli with milk and lots of sugar. Papad and rice are mandatory. You can get some liquid ghee drizzled on the rice or not, your choice.

Apparently this is not sambar but is in fact charu, which is...pretty much the same thing. Don't ask me.

I also ordered aloo gobi, which turned out to be both excellent and not needed considering the amount of food already on offer. Still, a lovely representative of a dry dish that is often man-handled.

Nagarjuna Residency

Nagarjuna is an institution in Bangalore. The firm runs at least four or five other restaurants and a hotel besides, and it's attractively outfitted dining rooms turn into total nut houses around lunchtime. The guys carrying the carrier-meals look harried, but the food is totally worth it, featuring spices ground fresh daily and obviously intensely fresh dairy, vegetable, and fish products. This is definitely Andhra food at its best, and you're missing out on an essential Bangalore culinary experience if you don't make it over here. I love the tomato-sesame oil prepared chutney that's served with the veg and the daal here a lot . It's probably awful for you. Whatever.

I wanted the roast fish but they didn't comprehend this madness and brought me fried fish instead. Which was excellent, so much the better. No bones here, just tasty and perfectly cooked meat in a spicy and crispy filling. Excellent.

If you ever wondered where they get the banana leaves, the bug fuck insaneBangalore central market may provide an answer. They're purchased in bulk from various leaf sellers, who probably keep up banana leaf plantations somewhere or another in the tropical countryside. I like to think they are scrupulously washed prior to use. It's nicer that way.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thippasandra Road Redux, Treat Restaurant, et all

Church street by night, Oh, Bangalore.

2008, Spring. I used to live on Thippasandra Road. It's a little lane in Indiranagar, in the classic guise of most cramped, tight, Indian streets. A shop of every variety is up there - all the buildings are two levels and most contain at least five separate establishments in postage stamp sized surroundings. There's cows on the street, stray dogs, and the usual Indiranagar combination of rich folks driving their Mercedes through the commotion, street people selling crap on the street, and mid-level people just trying to get by, usually by means of tiny 10 minute photo booths, cellphone sales emporiums (everyone has one, no exceptions) and real-estate offices and travel agents a plenty.

I counted four different gyms on that stretch. I joined one, briefly, back in 2008. The weight room full of steroid-afflicted men with enormous thighs, eager to show you how to do a pullup, and then the women next door, doing half-hearted aerobics to Bollywood musics. Signs on every lamp-post advertising services to help you Gain Or Lose Weight, your personal choice, no one is adequate.There's lights hung on the street at night, everyone stays up late, and the vegetable man wakes you up with his shouting at 6:00 every morning (throwing rocks at him won't stop him, give up now). There's potholes in the street, but less then in most other parts of Bangalore, and there's street kids, but less of them. Thippasandra is up-market.

The stray dogs get to know you when you're there for a while, for good or for bad. One dog on the street seemed to hate white people, especially blondes. He'd raise himself up and bark and chase me sometimes. I'd come home at night, to Thippasandra 5th Cross, and the street dogs would follow me home. I'm wearing spike heels and I'm drunk and a little high and the dogs are click-click-clicking behind me, and I click faster myself, and they speed up too, and then I'd slam the metal door behind me and stare at their yellow eyes for a moment. The dogs, all smiles and wagging tails, now that the chase was over. Bastards.

I went down to the Katary Villa on 5th Cross, this visit, 2010. I used to live there. It's a guest house catering to volunteers and interns from the Western world. It was nice for a while, to have partners in crime and people who had been in India for a while and knew the ways of rickshaw battles and angry dog avoidance. I came back here from Delhi, after I'd been in India for about three months and decided to stay longer. It was kind of a mistake - I had adjusted throughly, and the guesthouse devolved (as these things are wont to do) into drama. Still, it was a good sociological experiment, I guess. India stresses a lot of people. It freaks them out. The food bothers them, they find their volunteer jobs at orphanages horrifying (so many beatings!). The seams of the Villa started to show, too. You'd hear the woman who ran the place shouting late at night at her "girls."

The girls, as we figured out, were actually India's modern variant on indentured servitude. Poor girls from rural areas, dead or indigent parents, sent to Bangalore to work as house-servants. Katary did seem to be giving them access to education, and a better life then they would have had in backwater Tamil villages. The primary emphasis seemed to be on finding them a decent husband. They weren't really allowed outside the house sans supervision. The younger girl would sneak upstairs and raptly watch hyperactively violent Tamil movies on the upstairs television, when the afternoon was quiet and she wasn't needed around the house. She'd shush us when we walked in (so she wouldn't get caught), or she'd pretend to be doing some mundane cleaning when Katary would shuffle lugubriously up the stairs (she was very fat, and lame) once or twice a day. She'd often ask to use our cell phones to call her family, back home in the visit. All of this was done carefully, as subterfuge. Katary, it seemed, knew all and saw all. She was a devoutish Christian - hangings of the Last Supper were strewn around the place, and an American evangelist channel was playing often on the downstairs television. I wondered what the girls thought about the beer and whiskey bottles we left strewn most days around the table, if they wondered about the constant reek of hash and cigarettes that emanated from our living quarters. I shall probably never know.

I went back to Katary. It was night-time, and Bimbo, the house dog, was not in evidence. A light was on in what used to be the old boy's bedroom. They had built a new rain shelter up on the roof. No one was coming in, or out, and no noise emanated from inside. I peered up at the house and almost began to tear up. It was a strange moment.

I did not knock on the door.

Treat Restaurant
3047, 80ft Rd, HAL 2nd Stage,
Indira Nagar,
Bangalore - 560038.
Tel : 5282137

Treat is located on Bangalore's 80 Foot Road, only a convenient block or two away from the entrance to Thippasandra. It's a two level establishment - there's an affiliated Chinese restaurant upstairs- but I only ever ate at the Punjabi bit of the business. And it's excellent Punjabi food at reasonable prices. The dining room is quiet, clean, and serene. The servers are friendly and unusually subtle by Indian standards. The tandoori items are delicious. I've ended up defaulting to Treat after a long or tiring day more times then I'm entirely sure I want to admit. I love sitting in the upstairs room and watching the night traffic go by, and eating with my hands. It is so delightfully quiet.

They do great tandoori murgh here. Good old tandoori chicken, marinated in yogurt and spices. They get good chicken, and the meat is tender and carefully spiced. Nice when eaten with the pickled onions and mint-yogurt chutney provided at the table. You can eat with your hands and gnaw at the bones and the servers will regard this as par for the course. Eating customs are among my very favorite aspects of India. Get the lamb chops or the boti (lamb chunks) kebab here as well.

Tandoori gobi (cauliflower). I love this stuff. I have had a life long love affair with fibrous vegetables. Especially when marinated in yogurt and roasted. They also do good tandoori baby corn here.

I can personally suggest the bhindi (okra) masala. The restaurant is a particularly bad offender in what I call the Roti Upsell. The Indian mind finds the notion of a meal sans roti or rice completely unbelievable and untenable. I don't usually have bread with meals. They always look at me after I've finished eating, with big concerned eyes. "But madame, this is a gravy dish. You will not take roti?"
"Rather not, thank you."
"But madame. It is a gravy dish." (His eyes getting bigger, his face more astonished).
"I know it's a gravy dish. I's perfectly all right. I will take no roti or naan."
"But madame...."
"It's fine. Really."
(He walks away, convinced the foreigners are insane.)

There is a reason Atkins has made no inroads into India.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bangalore: Commercial Street, Plastic Dogs, Emgees, Paneer

So, we went to Commercial Street. Tom was leaving that evening on a wheelchair-buying junket in Chennai. I just wanted to go out and see The Real Bangalore (whatever that is). Commercial Street makes for a wonderful entree into such. Basically, it's where the hoi-polloi in B'lore go to buy stuff. M.G Road is for the wealthy and the aspirant, the venue where one purchases Levis, designer electronics, European chocolates, and other status-symbol goods. Commercial Street is roughly five minutes away by rickshaw but encompasses the other stuff. There's Levi's outlets here too, of course, but there's also umpteen thousand sari makers, fabric stores, pashmina outlets, wedding jewelry huts, places where one can buy freshly slaughtered animals of every make and model, and much much more. It's crowded, dirty, and has a startling amount of dead animals on the street at any given time. There's women in full hijab everywhere, there's usually no tourists anywhere in sight, and you're often forced to fancy foot work to avoid stepping in a gigantic mound of cow dung. Welcome to India. I think.

Bangalore is filled with incredible murals like these. I don't know who's doing them or funding them, but two thumbs up. Gorgeous.

Bartering and arguing over prices is part of life in India, and it's especially the case in shopping areas like Commercial Street. There's a ferangi tariff for foreigners, and it's upon you to bring it down to something manageable. Many European or American tourists come to India (or other developing countries) with noble ideas vis a vis bargaining. They feel that these Indian guys are making exponentially less money then we do, and thus, it's a bit of a dick move to bargain incessantly over what is tantamount to a $1.35 to us decadent Westerners. Philosophically, this seems like a legtimate and reasonable stance. In practice? Yeah, that lasts for about a day. Then it becomes a matter of honor. No one likes being screwed over on a daily basis, no matter what the philosophical and moral underpinnings of the thing are. And so you begin to bargain, more and more and more, and the longer you spend in India, the more intense you get about it. Still, that doesn't mean it has to be a serious and unpleasant death match. Bargaining can be a hell of a lot of fun. Everyone has different tactics.

I particularly liked Tom's take on bargaining. He'd address the sellers in perfectly correct, colloquial English. "I'm looking for a tiger belt buckle, with a particularly nasty expression on its face. No, not the gun one. That's a bit too violent. I'm thinking something with more panache. (as an example)." This served the dual purpose of confusing the seller (who often cut the price lower out of sheer bewilderment) and amusing the hell out of Tom and myself. I've adopted this tactic over the past few weeks, and it really works.

A lot of people don't know that Southern India has a significant Christian population. There's Catholic churches, schools, and cathedrals all over Bangalore (and even more in Goa and Kerala). This is St. Mary's Basilica, consecrated way back in 1882. Holy Father Pope Paul VI himself elevated it to Basilica status. The Virgin Mary inside is, needless to say, draped in a saree every day instead of the usual robes.

I like this leaf Ganesh.

Tom was hunting for a Ganesha figure to round out his collection. You know Ganesh. He's the portly elephant-headed guy. As the story goes, he was the son of Parvati, who longed for a child. Shiva, her husband, wouldn't give her one, so she took the second-best option and crafted a child for herself out of clay. This child grew up extremely quickly (as all Indian deities seem to do) and was devoted to his mother, so much so that he guarded her door against all comers. One day Shiva came to be with her, and Ganesh dutifully blocked the door to him. Shiva lopped off his head. Parvati was, understandably, a bit put out by this, so Shiva replaced his head with the nearest available replacement: an elephant's. But of course that's just one story.

Every South Indian seems to be honor-bound to keep a statue of him on the dashboard of their car.

We found a man selling extremely nice hand-painted Ganesh statues out of his workshop, most of them featuring electric-neon colors and inordinate amounts of glitter. "For the discriminating consumer," Tom said.

The seller nodded. "Ah, you think it is special. You are from the USA, also special. We are from India...not special."

"Oh, no, no," Tom and I said in unison. We looked at every Ganesh statue the guy had, and they were surprisingly high-quality. Getting a fragile clay statue home, though - yeah, that's the trick. We decided to pass. Tom acquired a bronze cobra instead. I was still in that liminal (and occasionally eternal) state of "comparison" shopping. Tom was debating buying one of those eminently sparkly "men's" kurtas they sell down here.

"There's nothing wrong with being a gay Indian," I said. "It's perfectly all right."

"Hmph," he said.

Bangalore and South India, especially on the backstreets, has an almost Mediterrenan feel to it. It's the dry heat of summer, and the ultra-blue sky, and the pastel colors of the houses. It's the palm trees and the birds up ahead.

Then you see a chopped-up rat in the road or someone thwacking the head off a chicken and are reminded.

We saw a splat of water on the ground with six mostly-dead and gasping cockroaches in it. Cockroach explosion? Did we really want to know?

We headed back to the M.G Road area, and ducked into the Cottage Emporium Store. Every major town in India has a Cottage Emporium outlet. They're set up as clearing-houses for local crafts, craftworks, textiles, and other stuff. They usually have mid-range prices, but on the plus side, they're fixed (saves you the bargaining), the stuff is always high quality, and the staff seem profoundly uninterested in you. This becomes a wonderful thing. Indian service philosophies tend more towards the "bug the hell out of you and drive you out of the store" rather then towards American's preferred "be unobtrusive and let me decide what I want, goddamnit."

They had these life-size, plastic, unnerving German shepherds on sale. "Only 4000 rupees," I said to Tom.

"Wow. That's a lot of freaky looking dog for the price," he said. "What a deal."

"I should snap them up."

#73, M G Road, Next to Gangarams

For lunch, we headed over to Emgee's, which is on MG Road in the Shelton Grand hotel. (There's an entrance on Church Street, too). Their tag-line is Veggie Veggie Healthy. This always used to amuse the snot out of my friend Chris, back when we both worked in Bangalore. Well, I can kind of see his point. The place was aggressively air-conditioned, and that's what we really cared about.

It is, I have discovered, totally impossible to take a palatable picture of palak (spinach). But this stuff was delicious. They somehow managed to make it taste delightfully smoky, without adding any meat products. Yum. Also: saag is always used to refer to spinach dishes in the USA. In India, it's always palak. Here, saag refers specifically to a Punjabi dish made with mustard greens and served with parathas, called sarson ka saag. I suspect this is because the vast majority of Indian restaurants in the USA are run by Punjabi immigrants. But don't quote me on that.

Tandoori gobi again. I think by the end of this trip I will be able to put together the world's preeminent photo essay concerning tandoori gobi. This was good, though not great.

Paneer butter masala. A classic. And delicious. Will kill you early, but you'll die happy. Indians love it too. Everyone loves the goddamn paneer.

Vegetable jalfreezi, which is a spicy curry made with a variety of vegetables. Honestly, many places vegetable curries taste exactly the same to me. This was quite good, though had too much ghee for my taste. Tons of ghee translates as high quality to the Indian palate, but is a lot to handle for someone from California (though you'd think New Orleans would have beaten that out of me by now).

Emgees also has an impressive juice menu, usually has a buffet of some sort of regional vegetarian food (Karnataka stuff this month) and a nice selection of chaats, served from a cart outside. It's definitely reliable -and spotlessly clean.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Brief Ode to South Indian Food, Annapoorani

Southern Indian food is one of the primary delights of time spent in Karnataka. It's completely unlike the heavy, oil rich, and meaty food we commonly associate with USA and English Indian restaurants. That's the food of the Punjab, that's the food of the Mughals - the sort of stuff that originated in Northern India and was disseminated the world over by opportunistic immigrants. But Southern Indian food has stuck closer to home, and has therefore been largely overlooked by many residents of the West. Shame, shame. What's better then a masala dosa (a savory rice and lentil crepe filled with spiced potatoes) with coconut chutney for breakfast? How can you go on living sans sambar (broth with tamarind and daal), avial (vegetables cooked with coconut), Avalakki bath (flattened rice prepared with coconut and curry leaf), and fish moli (fish cooked in coconut milk? Sucks to be you if you haven't had this stuff. Even better? The coffee in Southern India is actually drinkable.

Thankfully, Bangalore has plenty of excellent Southern Indian restaurants. B'lore is a city that runs on dosas, vadais (savory doughnuts) and idlis (rice cakes), and almost every restaurant serves up some variation on the theme. Most of the working-dude class restaurants don't even have seats. Everyone stands up and goes at lunch or supper or snack-time with their fingers. You never see women in these places, of course. Impolite.

My guesthouse was located on Cambridge Road, a remarkably convenient location from a little eatery called Annapoorani.

Annapoorani is one of the finer Southern Indian restaurants in the city, and does a cracking catering business as well, via Moulis Catering. It's a simple joint, but it features a surprisingly extensive selection of speciality food items, and the dining area is spotlessly clean. Further, it's dirt cheap, the coffee is good, and they'll keep on replenishing your sambar and chutneys until you explode. I ended up eating there quite often.

The menu has a variety of tiffins - dosas, vadais, and the like - but I always ended up ordering the set meals. Here's a brief and not particularly well-informed introduction to South Indian cuisine.

This is a mini masala dosa, served with various accompaniments. The dosa was thicker then the norm and had a very flavorful filling - spot on. I liked the green chutney on the side. Tasted like a coconut chutney infused with more cilantro and more interesting spices. Below it, there's a spicy dip, which tasted almost exactly like the famous Turkish harissa.There's the usual delicious tomato chutney in the far right corner. The rice looking stuff is lemon rice, which is a remarkably refreshing and comforting combination of rice, milk, and some very subtle spices, cooked for a bit -this would be great for soothing a pissed off stomach. The red soup beside it is the aforementioned sambar, a lovely combination of slow-cooked vegetables, chili, dal, and tamarind. It's extremely tangy, and the standard accompaniment to a good dosa. The light brown stuff beside it is a sort of sweet, cinammon flavored soup. The white cakes are "gunpowder" idlis, a kind of fermented rice cake. I find their flavor to be remarkably innocuous, but again, they come in handy during episodes of sever stomach upset.

Sometimes, you just gotta eat chapatis. They are, simply enough, an unleaved flatbread exceedingly similar to tortillas, and are usually made of wheat, often referred to as atta. They're extremely good for you. This was served with the usual tomato chutney, which is made with tomato, green chilis, mustard seeds, methi seeds, a smidgen of dal, sugar, and a couple other things. There's also the usual sambar and a dry vegetable preparation. Dry vegetable or subzi preparations are roughly as numerous as stars in the sky in India. Almost all are good. South Indians are paticularly partial to food prepared with drumstick, a kind of vegetable pod with a superficial resemblance to okra. Personally, I find the stuff stringy and hard to digest, but it is theoretically quite good for you. Huh.

This is an adai, or a lentil crepe prepared with masala spices, onions, and some other tasty stuff. There's pachadi (vegetables cooked with coconut) second from the top left. The round thing is a sweet ball with nuts inside of it. Moving clockwise, there's curd rice - a very subtle flavor indeed. The yellow rice is Avalakki Bath, which is beaten rice cooked with a variety of spices. The red stuff was some kind of heavily tamarind inflected veg dish - I believe it had drumstick. Gotta have drumstick.

The centerpiece of this meal is appam, a fermented rice pancake. On the left, there's a sweet short-bread type foodstuff up top. Below that is coconut milk. Apparently, you're supposed to put the vegetable curry at far right on the appam and dip it in the coconut milk for maximal deliciousness. I was happy to find that this was indeed the truth. The beigish looking stuff is pachadi, a slow cooked vegetable stew made with yogurt. The yellow stuff is vermicelli upma, small rice noodles cooked with plenty of turmeric, spices, and nuts - it's slightly sweet.

All these meals come with Indian style filter coffee. It's good, strong coffee, albeit served with enough sugar and milk to give a horse cardiac arrest. A happy horse. I love the stuff. Black coffee drinkers may need to learn a little Kannada or Telugu to get by around these parts.

Conclusion? South Indian food is delicious. Seek it out wherever you are. I found a spectacular South Indian restaurant in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky, so I know it's at least possible.....

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The India Readjustment Period (And How I Did It Anyway)

Bangalore Got Many Malls. and bikes.

I came back to India, and for the first day, I thought, "Why in the name of God am I here? What was I thinking?"

I am told this is not an unusual reaction from those who return to India. It is, as you can imagine, an even more common reaction from first-time travelers. A couple have (or so I am told) reached their hotel room, called up a nearby travel agency, and booked the first flight again. The cab ride through Old Delhi was more then enough for them. Jai Hind.

My reaction did not surprise me, of course. India is a slap in the face, a kick in the groin, a lascivious nudge on the sidewalk: India is something you cannot just step off the plane and wham-bam readjust yourself to. The experience is there, and the memory is there, of course. But they do not come on automatically, at the flick of a switch. To get these faculties back, the ability to Survive in India, that is a process and a matter of timing, a matter of patience.

You have to gain the ability to block out 89% of the sensory information you receive on a daily basis. You have to regain the ability to pay rapt, intense attention to the other 10%, because that is information that you will save you from being ripped off by rickshaw drivers, pillaged by gypsy children, and mowed down by Punjabi long-distance truckers. You have to regain situational blindness, the ability to un-see, the ability to look through and ignore and totally disregard most everyone you meet on the street - of particular import for the solitary female traveler. These are things that are possible, and instinctual if you have been before, but they are not easy, they are not easy to regain.

Abandoned house (and car) in Bangalore.

I was interested to find how guilty I was, how embarrassed I was simply to be seen there. I had just come from the ultra-modern paradise of Singapore, and before that, had spent two and a half weeks in the wealthy and incredibly quiet environs of Perth, Australia. And here I was in India, bypassing rabid rats and kids missing essential body-parts, and thinking to myself, "And I'm here to look at this, why? I'm not helping anybody. I'm not here to save anybody's life, console the sick, build schoolhouses, or feed the hungry from the largesse and generosity of the Mighty West. I am, all things said and done, on a holiday."

After all, those of us who reside in nice and quiet Western countries very rarely find ourselves questioning our presence, our existence, where we are and where choose to spend our time. We feel we have a right to be wherever we want, doing whatever we please: we exist in a state of extreme comfort. Even in a dangerous area in the USA - say, in my adopted home of New Orleans - I feel a certain amount of legitimacy. Someone may fuck with me, true, but they're fucking with me in a place we share, and in a culture we share, and makes me doubly indignant and pissed off if and when it happens. In India? There's a small twinge in the back of the mind. I'm an interloper. What if I deserve to get screwed over, for intruding, for staring, for ogling? What the hell am I doing here?

I had to learn how to cross the street, again. Crossing the street is by far the most nerve-wracking and personally distressing experience one is likely to have on a regular basis. Many third-world travelers like to say, with a tone of wonderment, "The traffic does look awful. But I've never seen anyone get hurt or killed. It must not be all that dangerous."

This is a classic logical fallacy.

The Bangalore palace grounds.

In fact, the traffic fatality rates are worse then you could possibly imagine. A person who crosses the street in India is playing live-action Frogger, and there are no extra lives. I relearned by crossing in packs - waiting for groups of people to gather, then shuffling across with them. Easy enough.

I had to learn how to look through people again. This behavior is considered incredibly rude and snobbish in the USA and in most parts of the Western World. It's basic survival as a foreign female in India. Men - be they horndogs, beggers, or touts - are not supposed to approach strange women in traditional Indian culture. It is perfectly within your rights to remind them of this on a regular basis. Same goes for female beggers and con-women as well. You've got to look right through them. Pretend they're not there. Don't even flick an eyelash. A lot of foreign travelers make the mistake of saying "No thank you" or "Well, not today," or even "Fuck off or I will kill you and your family." All of these phrases translate, in the Indian begger/tout/horn dog mind as, "Oh, please, would you follow me for the next mile and a half and refuse to leave me alone? Please please would you?"

This is also a bit like saying, "Oh, yes, I am indeed a walking ATM! So terribly clever of you to have noticed."

No, you have to look right through them. Thankfully, this comes easy to me. Everyone who knows me is aware that I'm something of a prodigy in the "ignoring stuff" department. Some of us are more talented then others, right?

Chaat corner I used to frequent, back in 2008.

The guilt, that was harder to shove away. I wasn't here for any reason, really, other then my own curiosity. Sure, I had a blog, and was doing some private research on Hampi and the Vijayanagara Dynasty. I was doing food blogging, and making an effort to seek out interesting local foods and food-sellers for the somewhat hazy benefit of the General Internet. But I wasn't there to fix anything or help anybody, like Tom. I was an ogler. Charity's never come naturally to me, anyway. I'm an observer and a speculator. I make comments, usually wry ones. I'll walk into any bug-fuck insane place and I'll wander through any bazaar and I'll eat anything put in front of me, but getting involved? Nah, that shit is scary.

So I walked down the street self-concious, for the first few days. People stare at you all the time in India, unabashed and astonished staring. I was in Bangalore - a generally gentle Southern city with a lot less edge then Northern hot-spots like Delhi or Agra - and people almost always left me alone. But the sensation of sticking out, of being so obviously The Other. That's hard to readjust to.

And it's necessary to experience. I think all white upper-middle class people from the USA or Britain or Australia (or any majority Caucasian country) have got to do something like this, just to have a little taste of what it's like to be the Freaky Minority of the week somewhere else.

I had a discussion about this with the lady who ran my homestay.

"Indians stare more then anyone else, and at everything, but especially at you guys, you white people. It's horrible. I don't know how you foreigners handle it, the constant staring, all that looking."

"To be honest I get to a point where I stop noticing it. It's just part of life in India. Sort of like feral dogs, sewage pits, and evil auto drivers. But I'm not sure Indians are the only people who stare."

"Would people stare at a foreigner like that in your city, in California?" she asked, obviously incredulous.

"Probably not. We have pretty much everything in California. Even the bad stuff. But, trust me. If a woman wearing a sari, like you, walked into a small town in a place like Nebraska...well, Nebraska, it's like...the Bihar of the USA, right? Middle of nowhere, backwards, empty, very few people. You'd get stared at all day long. People would point at you and giggle, and follow you around, and take photographs. You'd stand out like a sore thumb."

She was shocked. "Even in the USA, people would still do that?" She hadn't really thought about it, of course. For her, the USA was a cosmopolitan place, mostly defined by the hyperactively diverse opposite coasts. But there's that whole giant middle to consider. My Indian friends would be freaks from Planet Hind there. I'm the giant freak from Planet New Orleans here. Same, same, different different. It's good for both of us, I think, to get a little taste of it.

I'm writing this from Old Delhi, about three weeks later. Of course all that initial anxiety and worry and guilt went away. It took exactly five days - I was curious about how long it would take for the tension and uneasiness to melt away, if it would. I woke up on the fifth day, walked into the street, got into a shouting match with four rickshaw drivers until I met one who wasn't actively evil, bargained for a couple pineapples on the street, and ate a masala dosa with sambar at a local South Indian joint. Everyone in the place was staring rapt at the Pakistani Cricket scandal unfolding on the TV screen above us, including me, and I was drinking lots of local filter coffee, and it was raining just a little bit outside. I stopped noticing, for about an hour, that I was in India, and then I stepped outside, and remembered. And it was "Oh, okay. India. I can do this." And that was that.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

First day in Bangalore: Ice Cubes, Dosas, and More

This is M.G Road in Bangalore. Yeah. Stole the photo from here. Going straight to hell.

I had, thinking I was clever, purchased a direct flight to Bangalore. But this was Air India. Air India does not care about your petty human plans. India Air can cancel your direct flight and route you through Mumbai if it damn well feels like it. Which, it did. Boom.

I made the best of it, I suppose. The Mumbai domestic terminal happens to be lovely and new, and my flight from Singapore - though it left very early - was a pleasurable enough experience. Everyone else on the plane was an under 5 foot tall Indonesian Muslim woman on some sort of religious pilgrimage. They all had headscarfs and identical Reebok bags and giggled whenever they looked at me. I was just pleased to have an entire row to myself.

I devoured a surprisingly good dosa from the outlet in the airport, then went to get a beverage of an adult nature at the bar down the way. Therein I ran into two American businessmen. Wherever I go, I run into friendly American businessmen, friendly American businessmen who are more then happy to buy me adult beverages and keep me company. I suppose it is all thanks to my sparkling personality!


The new Bangalore airport is out in the middle of nowhere. When I was last in Bangalore, back in 2008, the newspapers were vibrating with controversy over this. The old airport was small and old, but it was smack dab in the middle of town, and terribly convenient. Now, the airport is over an hour from the city center, and is often more, considering the horrifying state of Bangalore traffic. Executives fume. I was, at least, not in a hurry. My reservation at the Sumanjay Homestay was not going to vanish. The ability to relax and roll with things is about 99.9% of surviving in India.

I found a pre-paid taxi (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT, POTENTIAL INDIA TRAVELERS) and hopped in, just as the skies opened up and I was reminded that,yes, the monsoon season was still in action. We puttered along uneventfully for about 3 KM, until the taxi's windshield wipers gave out. In the middle of Bangalore's evening rush hour in a driving rain storm, you want your windshield wipers functional and your view clear and unobstructed. You want it bad. We didn't have this, of course, so I spent most of the journey plastered against the back of my seat, convinced that death via a giant sparkly Punjabi truck was impending at any second. I was oddly philosophical about this, though. Giant Punjabi trucks wait for no man.

Much to my surprise, the driver (and me) survived and made it to Indiranagar, where I had booked my homestay. I decided to avoid the tender and incredibly dramatic embrace of the Katary Villa, opting instead for an unknown (and cheaper) quantity. This turned out to be the right decision, as I will relate later. The Sumanjay's turned out to be a remarkably charming family. The house itself was entirely basic , but also suited all my needs - there was a couch, a bed, a warmish shower, and an ethernet jack. I was set.

Bangalore (Indiranagar) two years ago. Hasn't changed much.

I walked in through rain, dumped my stuff off, and quite quickly made the acquaintance of one Thomas Oliver, who was staying there as well. "Oh, he's from California!" my land lady said. "Just like you! You should be friends." (This is universal across the world. If you're from the same place, You Should be Friends).

"Where in California?" I asked him, as I unpacked my bags with brutal efficiency.

"Well, you know, Norcal, the unsexy part..." (The same qualifications I always make, vis a vis my hometown. I could see it coming). "Sacramento."

"I'm from Sacramento myself. What part of town?"

"Really? You know, Arden.."

"Yeah, yeah, I live by Jesuit."

Turns out we had attended the same (largeish) high school at the same time, knew many of the same people, and lived less then half a mile away from one another. Naturally, we would only meet at a homestay in Bangalore.

Tom was in town to sell wheelchairs for Intelligent Mobility. Special, inexpensive wheelchairs, which his brother, himself, and some of their friends had thought up at Caltech (and other places). They're designed with mountain-bike wheels so they can be used in rough environments, and are collapsible for easy storage and movement from place to place. The wheelchairs are cheap enough and easy enough to produce that they can be gifted to a far wider segment of the population then old school models - and Tom and his group are attempting to bring their wares to disabled and elderly populations across the world. He was recently selling the chairs in post-earthquake Haiti, and was now looking for a manufacturer and distributor in South India. What a cool project. I am officially feeling inadequate now.

(Tom, feel free to correct me on any details if you're reading this...)

I was aching to go out to M.G Road. M.G Road is Bangalore's Times Square equivalant, and is littered with Levi's stores, Kashmiri junk emporiums, shiny new American fast-food outlets, child-gypsy-beggers, stray dogs, overly fashionable Thai gangsters, and everything else you might want in Bangalore. It's Bangalore Ground Zero, basically. Full of confused looking tourists and businessmen who have been released by their IT handlers for the night. I like Church Street best - that's where all the good restaurants are.

I dragged Tom along with me. The rain had stopped, and we went out to the street. I was even aching with anticipation for the First Sorty with a rickshaw driver. As everyone who has been to India - and especially Bangalore - knows, autorickshaw drivers are actually incarnations of pure malovelent evil. Smell like B.O. and hatred. Always overcharge the snot out of you, are essential to everyday life (the bastards). I grew to love arguing with them over prices on a daily basis, though. I think it's because I'm a natural pain in the ass, and an American lifestyle doesn't offer too many outlets for douchebag behavior on a daily basis. Rickshaw drivers provide that for me. I can sally forth. I can laugh in people's faces (for quoting me a fare about five times what it oughta be). It's good for the soul. Still, I was just back in India, and my mojo wasn't workin'. I wussed out and let Tom handle it.

M.G Road hasn't changed much - in fact, not at all that I could determine. I recognized some of the beggers. I even recognized some of the stray dogs. The same guy was selling depressed looking guavas on the corner. "You have to realize what deja-vu this is for me," I kept on repeating to Tom, almost as a mantra. It's hard to believe you're actually back, some places. M.G Road, like it had been preserved in aspic for the past two years, just for me. A fallacy, but pleasant all the same.

I ended up eating at the Coconut Grove, on Church Street. It's one of my local favorites. Authentic Kerala food, and it's a lovely space - set back from the road with an open dining area and plenty of palms and greenery. I don't know why Kerala cuisine hasn't taken off in the USA yet. I think of it as a beautiful, beautiful hybrid of Thai/Malay food and Indian food. Plenty of fresh tropical ingredients, plenty of spice (but less in-your-face then North Indian food) and plenty of interesting flavors.

I had a spicy fish curry, made with some sort of local mackerel. Quite nice, and not as spicy as the bright red gravy makes it look - it's mostly a tamarind based sauce. They use some interesting spices and mixes in the South that deserve some further coverage on this here blog. Will get on it. Eventually.

So, can't remember what this is. You ever looked at the Keralan spelling for stuff? Jesus! It was a dish of mixed vegetables and lentils, with coconut, curry leaves, and some other spices. Quite a nice comfort-food dish. Could have used a bit more of a spice zap, but I wasn't complaining.

After the Coconut Grove, I kept on walking (almost in a fugue state) and found myself at the Tavern at the Inn, at the end of Church Street. Ah, did I ever remember the Tavern at the Inn. It's located in the Museum Inn, and is among the more civilized spots in Bangalore to get a drink in quasi-English surroundings - mood lighting, muted neon booze signs, floors not covered in miscellaneous goo. They play classic rock, deliver moderately stiff pours, and cater almost exclusively to local Indian professionals and their bored looking ex-pat friends. The air conditioning is extensive. I always liked the Tavern at the Inn.

I ordered a Royal Challenge whiskey. Three ice cubes. Tom regarded me curiously when they handed me the drink. "Whoa, fortune favors the brave."

"Huh?" I said, sipping.

"Ice cubes, man," he said.

Aw, fuck. I had completely forgotten about the ice cube thing. I looked at the bar. Well, the ice cube maker seemed clean and hygienic. (I didn't end up vomiting out my brains that night. Maybe fortune does favor the brave.

I slept like a rock that night - the Sumanjay's lived on a startlingly quiet street for Bangalore, which meant there were only a couple of noisy feral dogs, and the neighbors engaged in a minimal and polite amount of late-night domestic abuse (compared to most).

I love Bangalore.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Happy Krishna Janmashtami (Here's Why)

Indian holidays are pretty much entirely incomprehensible to me. As is, I'm afraid, most of Hinduism. My knowledge of Hinduism pretty much extends to a couple of over-view books I've picked up in my free time, being in India and possessing a somewhat absorbent personality, and a habit of reading the spirituality bits of the local newspaper. My friend Raj is fond of saying (in a thick Indian accent) "Oh my various gods!" and we all find this hilarious.

As I am in India again and will doubtless be back, I feel a need to fix this state of affairs. So. I bought a copy of the Gita. I am asking my Indian friends a lot of stupid questions.

Krishna sporting with the Gopis. Yowza!

Tonight is Krishna Janmashtami, a holiday celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna. You probably know him as The Blue One, as he is usually portrayed in Indian art and mythology. Krishna Janmashtami, insofar as I can determine, is rather like a Hindu variant on Christmas: there's a holy child, there's a lot of nativity scenes running around, and there's midnight services for the particularly devout (or those looking for a good excuse to stay up late).

Hindus celebrating the holiday fast, or engage in upavasa. Many culture uses fasting as a way of moving closer to the Supreme. Me, I'd just get hungry and nasty. The fast of Janmawshtami does not mean eating nothing at all, though - devotees take milk and dairy products, as these are thought to be a favorite of the child Krishna. You're not really supposed to use salt either, though there's apparently a special kind of salt now that is mostly okay. Chanting is also a big part of Janmashtami - these are usually mantra and shoklas which are supposed to make the lord happy. Krishana is supposed to be exceptionally keen on sweets, especially those involving dairy, so people merrily consume large quantities of desserts at this time. (Again, Christmas parallels). In Gujarat, women celebrate the holiday by chucking all their usual house hold responsibilities, instead spending the day gambling with cards. I like it.

The holiday involves the usual array of ceremonies, rituals, and traditions. Dahi Handi is a ceremony that gets a lot of play on Indian television this time of year. It's a re-enactment of the impish child Krishna's attempt to steal butter from a pot suspended from the ceiling of his home. Participants fill an earthen pot with ghee, milk, and dry fruit, then suspend it from a ceiling - 20-30 feet high ensures extra fun times. Young men then attempt form human pyramids to bring down the pot, while onlookers chuck water at them to make their lives more difficult. Celebrants hang silver coins along the rope to provide an extra incentive and a prize for successful human-pyramid climbers. Seems like a lawsuit ripe endeavor to me, but hey, this ain't America! Oh, the broken pieces of the pot are supposed to keep away mice. In case you were concerned about your vermin problem.

American Pediatric Society might have something to say about this.

Sheila and I headed to the temple nearby Khan Market today. She was feeling a bit under the weather and decided to opt out of the midnight scrum, but we had a look at the decorations and the preparations for tonight's fun. There were a number of "Jhanki" tableau - these are hand-made statues and paintings that strongly resembled Christian nativity scenes. Indians and Americans share a similar love of light up, sparkly, religious kitsch. Those seeking particularly good favor with the Gods donate clothing or jewelry items to the tableaux.

Krishna going to war. It's in the Gita. Okay, okay, I'll read it. Sheesh.

Pooja ceremonies are performed throughout the day of Janmashtami. The devout will bathe Bal Gopal's idol (get yours today) with ghee, water, honey, and curd. They'll also dress it in nice new clothes. Extra points for yellow. "Bhog" or food offerings are also offered -56 seperate dishes is an especially impressive assortment. Finally, the Krishna pooja is performed - this usually involves rocking a cradle containing the God's idol, blowing a conch, and singing songs or reading out the multifarious names of the lord. Some people break their fast after this is achieved (at some point in the evening). The more hardcore wait until midnight, considered to be the approximate time of Krishna's manifestation.

Rasleela perfomances are also a not-uncommon occurrence at this time. These are performed by young Brahimin boys and document important events from Krishna's life. Must be totally mortifying for the poor little nippers. I support this practice whole heartedly. It's meant to symbolize Krishna's sporting with the milkmaids.

I don't know if I'll make it to a temple tonight or not - my plans for the evening appear to be more along the lines of "go to a nice nightclub" which doesn't really depress me - but watch this space.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

India Again

I've been to India before.

I came to India for the first time in 2008, when I was 19, although I had had India instilled in me far before then. My grandparents best friends are Indian and reside in New Delhi, and the two couples spent much time together trekking throughout the subcontinent, having adventures of a sort that (they will reassure you) are completely improbable and impossible today. Travel in India was an entirely romantic and mostly 1wonderful affair: conducted in private train cars, conduced by pack pony's over Kashmiri passes, long evenings at Moti Mahal and safaris conducted on the backs of elephants. My mother went to India, too, when she was my age - Srinigar houseboats, enormous languar monkeys outside the Himalaya guest-house, dead bodies beside the ghats and accidentally hallucinatory nimbu-paani. Of course my ass was going to India. Everyone else's did.

India was by no means a disappointment. I was 19, as previously mentioned, and coming out of an academic year where I had managed to do a through job of driving myself completely insane: a third world accented release into something larger and mroe formidable then my own location seemed like just the thing. (This, too, an American construct. A country of a billion people, serving as a source of therapy and renewal primarily for yours-truly). I ended up half-heartedly "interning" at a profoundly dysfunctional Bangalore music magazine, run by a coke head half-American desi. I spent the majority of my time exploring Bangalore's streets, perfecting the fine points of verbal pissing-matches with rickshaw drivers, and delving further and further into the magical world of Bangalore's night-life. All the Bangalore clubs had to close at 11:30, that was the law, but there were after parties, there were models (male and female) and business tycoons and aspirant actors, there was pretty much everything a stimuli hunting teenager could possibly ask for, it was all there. Everything was cheap, too. I could live the life of a mid-range high roller off my small-time savings from working at the local art supply store and hoarding my Christmas money. A dream, un-deferred. I deferred very little, at that time.

I spent two and a half months in Bangalore, and then I decamped for Delhi. I met Auntie Sheila and Baldev for the first time, another experience: walking into their house like a parallel universe of my own grandparents, expensive whiskey and scratching the block-head of the family Labrador retriever, comfortable as anything. I got dropped off at the Chadwni Chouk and was told the car would come back for me in two hours: I was, as I recall, wearing a sundress, and I could see the beggars coming at me from roughly half a mile away from the steps of the Jama Masjid. It is hard to imagine the other world that goes on in the stalls and backallies of Old Delhi if you have lived as I have, but it is good to walk into it. (An indication: that this India did not exist primarily for the purposes of my therapy, that it was larger then me, immense even, and capable of crushing me, and did not care in one way or another).

I then spent a little over a week in Mumbai, visiting Aneesa and her sisters and her family there. I had met Aneesa at the Bangalore guesthouse: she was raised in London and possessed an extended and friendly family throughout Greater Mumbai. She, her sisters, and her cousins (especially Saleem, my evil Indian twin, my counterpart) showed me the city in the most pleasant way conceivable - bundle me into the back of taxi cabs and showed me the good places to eat, introduced me to my very first encounter with the overawing and largely benevolent primacy of Indian male protection. Never had that much fun before in my life. Kebabs on the hood of a car at 3:00 in the morning, terrorizing the Taj hotel wait-staff at 4:00 in the morning, endless taxi rides through late-night rain, Chowpatty Beach and the roofs of international hotels, on and on and on.

It's hilarious that I am writing this and looking back at it all with such a sense of nostalgia and general aged and grizzled malaise: I was 19 then, I am barely 22 now, God only knows how I will feel about all this, about right now, when I have actually attained something approximating age.

I was going to go back to the USA, and then the airplane caught on fire. Not a big fire, of course. More of a puff of smoke. I camped in the airport in Delhi overnight, being stepped over by Ethiopian stewardesses. I met a woman who had really done the ashram thing, was going back home to Scotland for the first time in 20 years. I said I didn't want to go back to the US, not really. "Well, there's no harm in staying," she said. I saw the logic in this: I pushed back my flight for two and a half more months. My money would mostly hold out. I knew some people.

Back to Bangalore. Fell for one of my house-mates, with the expected humiliating results. Got rejected from all my transfer schools due to a clerical error. Got more and more involved with the party scene in Bangalore, and began doing more of it - it was an endless progression of people-to-meet and parties to attend and was of course the most interesting thing in the entire world. I began to entertain thoughts of flipping the eternal bird to the USA and staying here and making something of myself. If they did not want me (at least in their top-shelf universities) I could just as well not want them.

Began drinking to excess. This was less out of spiritual or psychological need and more out of a sense of symmetry, a sense that this was what writers and artistes did when things did not go our way, we develop a reasonably poetic and easy to maintain addiction, the kind that allowed us to stay both attractive and fun-loving. ( i feel this is a bit of a theme in my life: doing things more for their aesthetics, less for the pleasure of them). A lot of us young first world travelers are, I think, afflicted with this third-world travel dream of attractive and slightly dangerous degeneracy, of debauchery. We are out seeking adventure, and are more then happy to run across it, as long as it does not frighten us too much.

It's a long story short: I got into Tulane University, with a scholarship thrown in. I came back to the USA and I moved to New Orleans and I got a BA and I made a lot of friends. Mumbai was savagely attacked by Lashkar A Taiba and Saleem was on his way to the Leopold Cafe at the time but did not actually go, and I watched the whole thing rapt in front of the television, wondered if it would ever be the same, if everything had changed. I wrote about India a lot for my nonfiction class because it was a subject that could not stop being interesting. I found myself relatively happy and content with my life, which is actually not a mean feat for a liberal arts major in her early twenties.

I got a job in Cambodia and was thus accorded the chance to go back to Asia, which is what I wanted to do and insofar as I could figure, what I had to do to be able to live with myself and look at myself in the mirror at a later date. That brings me around to here. So, back to Bangalore, game-set-match.

I wondered why I was going back to Bangalore for a while there, which was actually after I booked the ticket, there was that little conscious thought involved in this.

I guess we (as humans, as the nostalgia-bound such as myself) have to go back to the scenes of our old formative life experiences and sniff around their perimeters some. Has it changed much in our absence? Did we change it any ourselves? Are our memories correct or growing faulty and stale as time goes by?

There's only one way to find out.