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.

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