a walk in the slums.

Karimadon Colony, Trivandrum

It was now several days ago that we had a really interesting lecture on slums in India and theories on dealing with them.  The talk was given by Shylaja, who is an architect affiliated with COSTFORD, our host organization.

Some interesting facts about slums:

-Mumbai’s major slum is the biggest in Asia

-1% of India’s population lives in the slums of Maharashtra state (of which Mumbai is capital city) – India’s 2001 Census

Previous attempts to deal with slums included demolishing them, as was the case during Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” in 1975.

-A slum is established because it has good proximity/access to the kinds of work that people who live in slums tend to do – they’re very central.  It’s all about location.

-A slum is allowed to establish itself in a given place because its land that no one else wants: flood-prone, noisy, etc.

-Razing the slums and relocating their residents not only hurts the people by displacing them, but it also hurts their employers.

A COSTFORD structure inside Karimadon Colony

Based on these facts, the newer ideas center around slum renewal.  Slums end up being a good fit for COSTFORD for a number of reasons: government funding allots only a small amount per building, so the NGO’s “low-cost” technologies get put to the test, for one.  Working with slum communities also fits in with the social mission of the NGO.  To start, they build upon designs started by the late Laurie Baker, featuring stacked apartments that enable all tenants to have outdoor spaces/terraces for their use.  More interestingly, since it’s ideal for all the building to have a common front/meeting space, building apartments on the back sides of these buildings is not desirable.  But when you have stacked apartments, you end up with “dead space.”

COSTFORD then decided that the so-called dead space could be put to great use if it was designated for mixed-use instead, ranging from stores to libraries.   Such space might also attract non-residents of the slum inside, they hope, and the process of interacting there would teach outsiders that the slum-dwellers are not scary alien creatures but actually people.  Novel idea.

Family enjoying their terrace, Karimadon Colony

After hearing about many of COSTFORD’s slum redevelopment projects in Kerala (which they acknowledge are nowhere near the magnitude of the slums in Mumbai and elsewhere in India), we were taken to Karimadon Colony to check out these buildings for ourselves.

The slum community, Karimadon Colony, emerged over time as workers came to this particular area in the center of Trivandrum to “mine” the earth (not sure if that’s the best word) of the soil to make bricks for buildings elsewhere around town.  They came from various places, often brought their families, and settled.  The government provided some housing for them, but it wasn’t enough, so more recently they engaged COSTFORD to contract additional housing.  The government had to bend the rules for COSTFORD a little; some of the work they were doing didn’t quite match up with local ordinances, so Kerala State issued a special ordinance that enables organizations like COSTFORD and Habitat for Humanity to more or less do what they think is best, regardless of current ordinances.

I’ve spent some time in slum communities up in Hubli – my organization collaborated with a student group from USC on a water-related project in a community called S.M. Krishnanagar, and my housekeeper, Durgamba, lived in what would be termed a mini-slum that my roommate and I ran through on our daily run.  Therefore, I was mostly curious about how this place would compare…

We were promptly greeted by squealing giggling children, some of whom dared to come close and talk to us, and others who preferred to observe from a distance.  The bolder of the children had fun asking us all our names, and the names of our fathers and mothers, and sometimes even telling us their ages.  Kerala is known for it’s nearly universal elementary education, which has been a strong focus of the state government for decades.  In fact , heavy investment in education has had a major impact on Kerala’s birthrate (much lower than the Indian average) and all other sorts of awesome Human Development Indicators.  They call it the “Kerala Model.”  Anyhow, these children were very excited about their guests, and a few of us quickly lost sight of the rest of our group while we were engulfed by children.

new friends, Karimadon Colony

As tends to happen, some stuck out more than others.  One adorable girl attached herself to me and started telling everyone that she WAS me (or, rather, “Nasry,” which actually reminds me a teeny bit of people trying to say my name back in Uzbekistan).  Sadly this girl didn’t make it into the photo here, though.  The other girl (in the long pink skirt) was named Shahanas.  They kept insisting the others and I come inside and meet their families, but we noted we needed to catch up with the group.  So they came along with us, one girl clutching each one of my hands.  There were a handful of boys as well.  We made a lovely scene carrying on up the steps to meet up with the rest of the group.  Once again, my friend told everyone that her name was Nasry (which I then had to explain was her way of saying Lesley), which is probably why I can’t remember her real name.  The whole incident reminded me of how it’s almost impossible to travel places in India without a small but loyal band of children following you everywhere.

And then, language got complicated.  These girls spoke only a little English, and I don’t speak any Malayalam (the state language) beyond “hello” and “thank you.”  And of course they couldn’t speak Kannada, not that I remember much.  So to make sure Shahanas understood me, I busted out my 2 phrases of Hindi.  This led the girls to assume I spoke Hindi, and they proceeded to drag me around and introduce me to their mothers and aunties and whoever else (who were quickly able to perceive that I couldn’t actually speak Hindi).  Again I was invited into more homes, but didn’t want to lose the group a second time.  But I communicated with at least one family through a window, and they bestowed several large pieces of fresh jackfruit upon me.

on the roof of a building in the making, Karimadon Colony

This Hindi knowledge was a little puzzling, as I’ve heard that people here mainly speak Malayalam and English.  South Indians as a general rule see the Hindi language as Northern Aggression, thus preferring to use English when Malayalam fails to communicate outside their state boundaries.  My guess is that these girls were not born in Kerala itself and instead migrated here from somewhere in the North when their families came for work…

Another boy insisted that I salute HIS family through a window, and when I did, I was received an enthusiastic Malayalam equivalent of “cheers!” from the man I assumed to be the young boy’s father, hoisting his half-drunk bottle of beer in proper toasting fashion.  A small reminder that despite the happiness and friendliness of the children and people I was meeting in the slum, it still had its problems.  It’s important to keep in mind that alcoholism is a problem throughout the state and by no means limited to slum-dwellers, though.

We crossed from that part of the slum and rejoined our group in another, where workers were in the process of building a new house (left).  Pretty cool to check out.  Members of the community have to pay the government a small portion of the housing cost, since time has proven that without some small investment, people won’t really maintain their property.  Those who want to can pay their share by working on the construction of the building, where they receive the same pay as all the others – 300 Rupees (roughly $6) a day.  Actually not a bad deal compared to what many farmers make.

So, what did I learn?  I learned that slums can raise many questions and highlight many aspects of a community.  Also that perhaps accepting a slum for what it is and working with its residents to create a more positive environment is definitely a positive way to go.  A slum really is a microcosm of a city, after all, in all its myriad parts and unknown corners.

Published in: on January 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

(brief) Reflections on the assassination of the Pakistani governor

The late Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab province in Pakistan, was assassinated earlier today by one of his bodyguards.  I can’t help but be reminded of how India’s own Indira Gandhi was similarly assassinated by her bodyguards on October 31, 1984 (yes, Halloween).  Taseer’s undoing was his open condemnation of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; Gandhi’s was her authorization of the attack on Amritsar’s Golden Temple (the equivalent of Mecca to adherents of Sikhism).


I don’t pretend to be any kind of serious analyst or historian; my knowledge of either assassination and the motivations behind them is mediocre at best.  At the same time, however, I am struck by the parallel between the two countries and reminded once again of their similarities.  Indians and Pakistanis with whom I have spoken seem generally to have no feelings of ill-will against citizens of the other country and often seem regretful that the political situation between the two countries remains so tense, when the people share so much.


Now they share a deep loss in addition to everything else.


Published in: on January 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jai ho! (again)

view of Trivendrum

After what seemed like a really long time in transit, three different airplanes and then long lines in Immigration and baggage claim, I stepped out into the somewhat sweltering sun.  But it felt great – I was back in India.  Not a particular India I’d been to before – Trivendrum (also known as Thirupathnapuram) is the capital of Kerala and further south than any of my prior wanderings had strayed – but for all its differences, India is still India, and I just felt special by being there.  The air smelled of India.

It was good that I was thrilled to be back in the place, since I couldn’t immediately find someone from my organization to pick me up.  I waited, wondering what my next move should be, especially considering I had no idea what the hotel name was.  Luckily, I didn’t have to fully develop a Plan B, as I soon found Jerry, the program leader.  Turns out there was a bunch of confusion with some of the other students who have been stuck in NYC ariports and still haven’t arrived yet.

At the moment, we number 13, although that will increase to 17 sometime tomorrow.  Most of us are grad students, and most of us are NOT students from the University of Iowa.  So we’re pretty much ALL in a similar need-to-get-to-know-everyone state.  I’m the only one of the group who has been to India before (excepting Jerry, of course, who is actually of Kerala heritage and got his undergraduate degree in Trivendrum).  This puts me in the position of knowing more about India, which can be useful/helpful to the others, but also has me worried I’m that annoying “know-it-all” that speaks up about India WAY too often.  I’m hoping that my sincere desire to NOT be that girl is helping me to curb the tendency I have to speak up…but as we all know, I’m a talker.  So we’ll see.

Yesterday was a long haze of wandering about and slowly acclimating.  I refused to nap in the hopes that I could beat the jetlag decisively and early.  Judging from my crash this afternoon, not sure that was entirely successful.  Yet.

The Ladies Hostel (aka dorm) on CDS campus

Today was spent at the campus of the Center for Development Studies (CDS), which was designed by COSTFORD, the local NGO that is our sponsor.  Planners on the international scene know that COSTFORD is the organization started by the late Laurie Baker, an expatriot Brit who achieved great feats of low-cost, durable architecture and who was at one point awarded the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in architecture.  From a series of talks (punctuated by frequent tea breaks), we got a good overview of Laurie Baker’s work, the situation in Kerala and India in general.  Kerala rose to fame back in 1957 when it became the first state (in the world) to democratically elect a Communist government.  This (and their subsequent reputation) had the significant impact of essentially repelling big buisnesses from locating there, where Unions are much stronger than elsewhere in the country.  The positives of their left-leaning traditions, however, include the highest literacy rate in India, lower infant and child mortality rates, higher life expectancies, and smaller families (yay for family planning).  Despite these smaller families, however, Kerala remains a densely populated state (approximately 32 million people) that experiences what they call the “Urban-Rural Continuum,” in which there are very few villages anymore and which general sprawl prevades across the long and narrow state – in some places, Kerala is only 65 miles across!

After lunch, we got a walking tour of the campus, during which many of the techniques that Laurie Baker had employed were pointed out and further explained.  Laurie Baker seems pretty cool for his emphasis on use of local materials, flavor and techniques to develop the best projects at the most efficient cost – never wanting to just insert some project that worked out well somewhere else.

Well, there’s tons more I can say, but I’m too tired to see it.  If you don’t hear from me any sooner Happy New Year!

Published in: on December 30, 2010 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Human Roadblock.

Like everything else that day, the going home was slow. Darkness descended on us after a few hours, lending an eerie blanket to the subdued conversations.

Suddenly, Aaron shouted out, “what was that??” and drew everyone’s attention. Apparently the bus had just passed something on the side of the road that looked like a living heap. Aaron and whoever else saw it with him forced the bus driver to stop, and the small number of guys got off the bus to check things out. Not comfortable with just sitting there, several of us ladies also got off to check out the action.

What we found was a poor man passed on the side of the road. It took some time for people to figure out if he was dead, or just dead drunk. Luckily, it was the latter.

The Indians, like our bus driver and his companion, thought we were crazy for making them stop in the first place and wanted to continue our ride home. However, this man really was passed out in the road, and there were no street lights anywhere nearby. While the headlights from our bus had been enough to avoid hitting him, we couldn’t in good conscience just leave him there for the next car with worse lights to come by.

So we force the bus driver to help us move the drunk man. Arguments then arose about how far off the road we should move him, as the Indians assured us there were snakes in the bush that crept almost entirely up to the road. Death by snakebite or by vehicle?

It was decided to move him mostly off the road, and then we took his things from his bag and make a barricade around him. Satisfied that we had just saved this man’s life, we returned to the bus, triumphant.

As we waited for everyone to re-board, I started to hear something coming from outside. Our drunken man had awoken enough to start singing! I didn’t know whether to laugh or sigh.

In telling my coworker, Chachadi, about this incident the next day, he advised me that we would’ve been better off leaving the man as he was. Drinking is not a part of Indian culture, and those who overindulge like that are seriously frowned upon by the majority. As far as Chachadi (one of the nicest, most genuine and trustworthy people I know here) was concerned, we enabled that man to continue mooching off others—a societal parasite. I guess, also, India just has such a big population that losing the occasional drunk here and there is not of much concern in general. (Honestly, though, you’d probably have similar reactions in the US, though maybe people might be more guarded about whom they profess those thoughts to…) People seem more used to death, too, for the simple reason that, by and large, the average Indian life is harder and shorter than ours in the US and similarly-developed countries. So all the Indians thought it was silly of us Americans to go out of our way for some dreg of society.

I’m not suggesting that we were wrong in our action, and I’m still glad we acted that way, but it does sort of make you wonder about the practice of “development” and well-intentioned people like us coming in and taking a self-righteous stand on issues not thought important by the locals. Of course, unless people on both sides can broaden their world view and approach things from a different angle, nothing will ever change—in a positive or negative direction. It’s just that maintaining that balance requires you already having that wider, beyond-your-specifically-socialized perspective, meaning you have a steeper learning curve while still only so much time.

Published in: on April 5, 2009 at 7:33 pm  Comments (2)  

Jog Falls: don’t go here for a good time, unless ‘good time’ means nonstop harassment from drunken Indian men.

Sunday July 20th was the first scheduled group outing. Deshpande is organizing one such group trip every six weeks or so, which is a nice way to make sure we see some of the important sites in the area. July 20th also happened to mark exactly one month since we all arrived in jet-lagged stupor to our new home (ok, so with the first trip they jumped the gun a couple weeks).

As one girl, Rene, noted with pleased surprise, we hadn’t killed each other yet. There hadn’t been much by way of group drama or anything, besides a number of the fellows irritated by the housing situation and /or jobs. I should say here that while Taryn and I were enjoying our apartment, lacking gas and furniture as it was, a number of the others were still in the hostel, dealing with angry security guards if they were later than 10 or needed to leave before 6 (which happened to Kate once for her work), frequent power outages and pretty much all-around less-than-desirable circumstances.

And while a small handful of us are pretty content with our jobs, the others are not—either their NGOs weren’t sure what to do with an American who is able to complete projects they estimated would take months in a matter of weeks, or there was a “miscommunication” between the organization and Deshpande about what, exactly, they needed an American to do.

I’d like to add here that the group was bigger than just the Sandbox Fellows. We had a handful of students from USC with us, who were working on summer field projects (also made possible through collaboration with Deshpande). One group worked on water and sanitation (you’ll hear more about them later), while the other worked on oral cancer.

ray myers

Ray Myers.

Also in the group for the day was Mr. Ray Myers, a US government employee who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Hubli’s twin city, Dharwad, some 40 YEARS AGO. He had heard about Deshpande’s activities in his former site, and decided to return for a month and see how the place had changed since he left. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer myself, I was pretty excited to see Ray there and also talk to him about his reactions. The idea of returning to my own site in Uzbekistan 40 years later seem s incredible, and also risky—you’d want things to look the same as you remembered them, and either be sad when they weren’t, or happy that they were (while then also sad about the lack of progress…).

Some memories / comments of Ray’s that stood out for me:

  1. Riding his bicycle to Hubli (at least an hour by bicycle, and I’m willing to bet the connecting road wasn’t nearly as well paved 40 years ago) to get a Coke—it wasn’t available in Dharwad back then.
  2. Having to keep a log at the local liquor store of what alcohol you purchased and when, so it could be tracked by the government AND you could look at your list and feel like an alcoholic. (Apparently, foreigners in the state of Gujarat STILL have to do this.)
  3. No one with whom he worked at his old site (he was a college teacher) is still there, and no one seemed to remember Peace Corps much. (I’ll interject here that is different from the reaction I remember getting to Peace Corps when I was in Congo a few years ago—there, a handful of people remembered Peace Corps Volunteers pretty warmly, even though it’s also been years since the country was considered stable enough for the program.)
  4. He felt much better about taking photos this time around—when he’d been living here, he’d felt guilty and not taken many. As a tourist, no reservations.

So, the trip to Jog Falls was supposed to take a couple hours at most. It ended up taking more like 4, especially given that we had to stop in Sirsi to pick up Aparna, and everyone wanted to get out and check out her place. Then, outside one of the main entrances to Jog Falls, our bus driver got busted for forgetting to have his license with him. Jeez.

what Jog Falls looks like in full glory during monsoon season

Jog Falls have the distinction of being the highest waterfalls in India—during the rainy season. Apparently they weren’t all that popular a destination until they were used as the background in a popular Indian movie some 3 or 4 years back, so now they are thronged with picnicking locals and non-Indians alike.

Jog Drizzle.

Jog Drizzle.

Except that we were pretty much the only non-Indians there, which made us a bigger draw than the falls. This was also due to the fact that, since it wasn’t quite yet the season, the 4 falls that comprise Jog Falls were a fraction of their normal size, “Jog Drizzle,” as Rene nailed it.

Beyond looking at the falls (or lack thereof), what remains to do is descend the 1200+ step path to the bottom, where locals were swimming. While several of us were excited by this prospect, all the water people scared us away from this activity, proclaiming the water to be full of giardhia and other unfriendly parasites. Not only this, but getting all the way down was likely to take one hour, and getting back up probably longer, and we only had 2 hours to “sightsee” before we had to begin the trek home. Not the best instance of time management. A handful of us decided to go as far down as we figured we had time for.

Going down...look closely to see how far you really have to go.

Going down...look closely to see how far you really have to go.

Going was rough and slow. As seems to be the case in many places around the world, this wouldn’t have been considered a safe activity according to American standards. Very little to hold onto in some places, unsure footing in many parts. Plus, it was HOT. We all worked up terrific sweats. I didn’t have the best shoes for the excursion myself, but tons of the Indian girls were barefoot. And wearing saris. Insane.

The path was steep, and traffic moved at various speeds in both directions. Often, people were paused in the most inconvenient places, making the going difficult for everyone around them. More annoying, however, were the gangs of young guys reeking of alcohol that felt empowered in such a situation to comment on or yell at the foreign girls who crossed their path. Our sweatiness, the heat and being tired did not make us the most sociable or receptive to people, either. We tired really quickly of the “where are you from?” question, and I started telling people every country imaginable. Mongolia was high on my list…

Taryn and I, somewhere along the route.

Taryn and I, somewhere along the route.

After about an hour or so, we decided we’d made it as far as we were going to and started the trek back up. Now, I actually prefer the ascent, since it seems way more secure to me. That said, I got ahead and separated from the others.

Not the best move, because a lone whitey is much more susceptible to approaches and commentary than a group of them, I quickly learned. After rebuffing a few obnoxious guys, one decent guy noticed I was having trouble and became my surrogate bodyguard, walking slightly ahead and to the outside of me.

Eventually I emerged, drenched, to the great amusement of all the Indians at the top. Those of us who had climbed down were NOT looking forward to another 3 hour journey home. And those who hadn’t descended the path and therefore weren’t as sweaty were similarly unexcited to spend the next 3 hours on the bus with us sweaty messes. So, needless to say, the bus ride home was not so jubilant.

We survived Jog Falls.

We survived Jog Falls.

One of my favorite signs.  It advertizes a gas station.

One of my favorite signs. It advertizes a gas station.

Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 7:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Sugar-Free in the Burning Sun. (Bangalore, concluded.)

The remaining couple of days in Bangalore passed in a pleasant, if uneventful fashion. Kulkarni had discovered that my computer has a datacard, which gives me internet access wherever I am (though of questionable connection). The WKF office on the bottom floor has a computer but no internet connection. So he had no problem waking me up at 6am the next morning, demanding to use my internet so he could check email.

The next day, we went to visit another factory where WKF had installed rainwater harvesting systems. These people were pretty pleased with the work and happy to show us around. I was happy to see this kind of situation, and equally as excited about the Café Coffee Day (an Indian coffee chain) coffee machine in one of the buildings, dispensing coffee for free. And I could get a small (we’re talking, like, 8 ounces) latte with NO SUGAR. I was in heaven, which amused them all greatly.

The ride back, though, was one of those nightmares—on the back of Kulkarni’s motorcycle on the highways and busy city roads, the sun pouring down unmercifully and traffic and exhaust and incessant honking. We made a series of stops before returning to his home.

Meal preparation with Vidya.

Meal preparation with Vidya.

My trip was coming to an end, which was ok. I liked my time with an Indian family, but was also relieved I didn’t have to do it every day. Mostly because of the food. Living there would undoubtedly put serious weight on me. The food was good, but they really don’t take no for an answer when it comes to having more. And then finally you give in, because you have to, insisting on swalpa-swalpa (little-little) and they still pile it on.

After they’ve stuffed you with as much chapatti (flat bread from wheat flour) and veggies as you can eat, then they bring out piles of white rice with some kind of sambar—a liquidy soup that you pour on the rice. I ALWAYS refused the rice and so the family thought I didn’t like rice. I explained to them it’s because the rice is always served last, after I’ve eaten chapatti and veggies.

“If you served rice first,” I told them, “I would eat more rice.”

Pretending to be of use in the kitchen.

Pretending to be of use in the kitchen.

But the (South) Indian way is to eat a sweet first, then chapatti or roti (which is flat bread made with jowar, aka sorghum) with veggies, and then rice and sambar. (Actually, jowar roti is a very specific North Karnataka thing – people don’t eat jowar anywhere else in the country, the only use it as cow fodder.  The main distinction between roti and chapatti then becomes how it was made: chapattis are rolled out before being heated on a skillet or tandoor oven, while rotis are formed by a more complicated series of pounding/patting.  Here, people assign a higher grade of skill to preparing roti, and you wait longer for it than chapatti when you eat out at a place that can prepare both.  Nicer quality restaurants use the terms interchangeably, however…)

I tell you, these Indians can eat and eat. All of Kulkarni’s family is on the larger side (well, his youngest two daughters not so much). As a whole, Indian people are either super-skinny or larger. Being fat is a status thing, because it means you can afford to eat a lot and work less. Many women enter into marriage pretty thin and start putting the weight on. Husbands like this because it shows that they can support their wife so well that she gains weight.  Along the same lines, a good wife will feed her husband well and HE will put on weight, too.  If he doesn’t, his parents may criticize his wife for not being good enough.

Chachadi once told me when I told him that American culture generally appreciates thinner people that, “We (Indians) like this, too, but we don’t practice.”

Roof of a temple.

Roof of a temple.

Our train left in the evening, and so when I was all packed I went with Niwiditha and her aunt who was visiting Bangalore on a photo safari of the neighborhood. I had intended to go to where I ran in the mornings to capture some of the crazy bright houses on film, but first Niwiditha steered me towards another area that was like a small village with a number of temples and things, which was fun to explore.

Amused by the white girl with a camera.

Amused by the white girl with a camera.

Inside a temple.  I like the lotus blossum chandelier.

Inside a temple. I like the lotus blossum chandelier.

Entrance to another temple.

Entrance to another temple.


Amongst my other findings, we entered this special kind of temple that you actually walk in and around.  Its called a Navagraha and is considered fairly rare.  I took a video of my walk through this:

Then I insisted we go to see the bright homes.

I don't think you could live here and EVER not be happy.

I don't think you could live here and EVER not be happy.

Niwiditha outside a more stately home.

Niwiditha outside a more stately home.

Most houses have some form of creature displayed somewhere as a means of warding off bad spirits.  In Uzbekistan we called that the Evil Eye.  Along the same kind of purpose as gargoyles.

Most houses have some form of fierce-looking creature displayed somewhere as a means of warding off bad spirits. (In Uzbekistan we called that the Evil Eye.) Along the same kind of purpose as gargoyles...Though I think this one is kinda cute...

More homes.  Color = good.

More homes. Color = good.

Colorful homes attract colorful characters.

Colorful homes attract colorful characters.

The power went out that night as we were sitting down to a final meal before Kulkarni and I had to leave. In the middle of this, the women started running around and presented me with a sari by candlelight. Apparently, in Indian culture, when you have a guest you are essentially required to present them with something—a sari or at least a blouse-piece for women, and dotis or lungis for men. It’s considered good fortune—karma comes back to you if you treat your guest nicely.

The new sari.

The new sari.

So they gifted me a lovely deep red sari they’d bought that morning while Kulkarni and I were out. Kulkarni’s wife, who is a decent seamstress, had then found the blouse-piece from my sari I’d brought with me and used it as a template to stitch the blouse-piece to the new sari.

Sharadadevi at work.  On my "daybed."

Sharadadevi at work. On my "daybed."

So nice. So then they speedily dressed me in it to take photos before I changed out of it (the photos were my mirror as to what the sari actually looked like, since we were in the dark) and we rushed to catch our train home…

Normally, when Western people come to Bangalore, they go to be in a more cosmopolitan place and enjoy things like good Western food (and even Japanese and Thai as well) and good shopping, etc. But, with my boss on the outskirts, I was only running around a bigger, dirtier Hubli. I didn’t see any sites or indulge in shopping or Western food or movies in English, etc.

Sunset over Amruthahalli, Bangalore suburb.

Sunset over Amruthahalli, Bangalore suburb.

Suresh and Pramod—Kulkarni’s business partners—had appeared rather surprised at the news I was staying with Kulkarni’s family when I told them, and Kulkarni himself confessed towards the end of the trip that he had been nervous that I wouldn’t find his home comfortable enough. So I defied expectations on that end, which made me happy. It was a good trip, but I was ready to just be at home. Being a guest is exhausting.

Published in: on April 2, 2009 at 5:50 pm  Comments (1)  

“Not fully American.” A day in the life of the Indian tourist.

The following day, Kulkarni did the unthinkable: took the day off so that he and his whole family could take me to Mysore, a famous city once ruled by the powerful Wodeyar dynasty that has a pretty crazy palace. It’s about 3 hours from Bangalore by car…

Kulkarni's wife, preparing food.

Kulkarni's wife, preparing food.

The day began at 4am, when the women on the house woke up to start preparing our meal. I mean our lunch/dinner—they cooked everything, down to rolling out and baking chapatti (the bread) then packed it in a number of tins to take with us. Even though I was not participating in these preparations, they’re pretty hard to sleep through.  (Especially when the preparations are going on in the same room.)

Then, of course, came the getting ready. It had been agreed the night before that both Vidya and I would wear saris on our big day out.  Kulkarni’s wife always wears one, but the two youngest don’t really wear them at all. I had brought one of my saris from home in case I needed it (I do like wearing saris) and the women of the house had great fun in wrapping me and then applying all the necessary accessories, such as a necklace and earrings. They also stuck a bindi (the dot thing, often a fun sparkly piece of bling) between my eyebrows and then also applied dots of some kind of colored paint just below and above the bindi.

I felt bad that Kulkarni, while appreciative of me in a sari, was extremely vocal about his less approving opinions of Vidya in a sari: “Sari does not suit her. She is too big. You are slender. You can wear it.”

Tact doesn’t seem to be part of the Indian consciousness: In the same way that Kulkarni is loudly critical of one daughter’s appearance, he also loudly tells me that the middle daughter is his “slow” daughter (not at the same moment). So I guess that each daughter gets their share of the criticism…

We had arranged the day before to rent a car with driver, and the car was supposed to arrive at 7am. Of course it didn’t arrive until 8am. Although Kulkarni was anxious to get on the road, we had to wait while the ladies of the house performed a pooja on the car—a blessing to ensure our safe passage. A garland was procured from a passing flower seller—as were strings of jasmine flowers for our hair—which was affixed to the front of the car. Incense was waved in front of it before being installed on the dashboard of the car where it continued to burn. Finally, we piled in and were off.

Packed into a car with an Indian family, tons of food, incense burning and Indian music blaring. 8am. The day was young.

The gate of the Folk Arts Museum that was closed next to the place where we ate breakfast on the road to Mysore.

The gate of the Folk Arts Museum that was closed next to the place where we ate breakfast on the road to Mysore.

The first amusing thing happened around 10:30am when we stopped for a bathroom break sometime after we’d stopped for breakfast as well as souvenir shopping along the road to Mysore: my boss offered me a beer.

I need to back up here to explain that in a conversation with my Program Manager, Laxmi, Kulkarni had overheard me asking her if my landlord had a problem with alcohol (some do). Laxmi answered, “No,” while Kulkarni started laughing.

“Why does it matter if they allow alcohol or not?” he scoffed. “Women don’t drink!”

I responded that, actually, women DO drink in the US, and that it’s very common and accepted. I guess he remembered that conversation, although we never discussed specific alcohol or mentioned it again, because Night One at his home he gave me a can of Kingfisher beer and had one himself. It was funny because he was obviously NOT in the habit of drinking and admitted as much when I asked him. He looked fairly awkward and burped uncomfortably. I was only drinking to humor him since he’d gone out of his way to be nice to his guest. The next night, when he asked if I wanted one (he was going to send one of his errand boys for it), I declined. He didn’t force me this time, but made sure I knew that if I wanted one, to let him know and he would send one of the boys for me.

So back to the road to Mysore. 10:30am. I guess they needed change for a larger bill, and the place we happened to stop in front of was a bar. He didn’t say anything to me as he was making purchases to get change, but after we had set off in the car again he turns around from the front seat and passes beers to me and Manjunath (Vidya’s husband). I protest that it’s too early for beer (much less a warm one) but he insists I take it. So I do, leaving it in the seat pocket in front of me. This is a far cry from the vodka I was forced to consume in Uzbekistan for sure, but some techniques (accepting the offered beverage but avoiding drinking it) are universal.

On the backside of the entrance building into the temple.

On the backside of the entrance building into the temple.

Our first stop was slightly outside Mysore, in a place called Sri Rangapatnam. This was the base where one Muslim king/sultan and then his son ruled much of southern India during the 18th century, until the British came through in 1799. It’s known for having some cool Muslim mausoleums as well as the above king’s summer palace, but we only went to the famous Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple before moving on. Outside the temple were a number of souvenir booths with very determined sellers. Much of the stuff was the same as the place where we had stopped on the road, but it was all cheaper. This made Kulkarni angry, since we’d all made purchases elsewhere. I had assumed he would know if I was getting a fair price or not, but I had assumed wrong.img_0906

It was funny to watch the family interact as a family—just like a stereotypical family on a road trip. The mother and kids want to shop and buy trinkets and food while the father laments how much everything costs. The oldest daughter and her husband (in the American version, it would be boyfriend) aren’t into seeing the temple and prefer to wander off by themselves, happy in their couple-dom.

Behind the temple.

Behind the temple.

From there we went up to Chamundi Hill,

The steps.

The steps.

which has another famous temple, Sri Chamundeswari, and views of Mysore. The line to go through was fairly long, but Kulkarni and his wife humored me and we went through it. Pilgrims are supposed to walk up and down the 1000+ steps to get there; I guess I’ll have to come back to have the experience (and workout). Halfway along those steps, though, is a 5m high “Nandi” (a.k.a. bull, which is the god Shiva’s transport) that was carved from solid rock in 1659. It’s one of the biggest in India and was pretty cool to check out (and take photos).

Nandi and me.

Nandi and me.

We descended into Mysore and made a beeline for the Maharaja’s Palace. The palace and its grounds are pretty grand, though I remember the ones I saw in Rajasthan as being even more so.

Kulkarni had to go to a ticket booth to purchase entrance tickets, which were 20 Rupees for Indians and 100 Rupees (roughly $2) for foreigners. I told Kulkarni that I would go to the counter and purchase my own ticket; he’d already gone through considerable expense to show me Mysore and he didn’t need to pay my “foreigner” price. He refused to listen to me. After purchasing the tickets, he told me and Vidya that he had insisted the ticket seller give me the Indian price:

“She’s part of my family,” he told them. “She’s with an Indian family, she speaks Kannada and she’s wearing a sari! She is Indian.”

What is amazing about this exchange is that it actually worked, and Kulkarni didn’t have to fork out the extra cash for a foreigner ticket.

Me and my Indian family.

Me and my Indian family.

However, even though you’ve bought your ticket to enter the palace grounds, you have to show it again to actually enter the palace. Kulkarni was ahead of the group and the ticket collector refused to let me pass with an Indian entrance ticket. Vidya frantically explained the situation (there was a growing crowd behind us; we were holding up the line), but the man seemed unflappable.

Unflappable, that is, until I greeted him and introduced myself in Kannada (with the customary hand gestures): “Namaskara. Nanna hesaru Lesley.” He looked at me, shocked, and waved us through, to the giggling delight of Vidya and myself.

The original palace burnt down and the current one was designed by a Brit in the early 1900’s. You can see the British influence in the crazy stained glass. And gaudy, over-the-top is the name of the game when it comes to India as a rule. I was walking slowly through the rooms (as were many of the Kullkarni family), to the irritation of Kulkarni himself.

In front of the Palace.

In front of the Palace.

The disadvantage of traveling with people who have been somewhere before is that they can move through it much more quickly and seem more interested in getting to the next destination than in viewing what’s before them. And I will say that Indians, from my personal experience thus far, are marathon tourists (remember not coming from touring rainwater harvesting systems in villages until after 11pm??), and the family was anxious to show me everything. It doesn’t bother me so much, as I know I’ll be coming back sometime to do things my style…

From there we left Mysore and pushed on to what the Indians call KRS Dam, which is known as Brindavan Gardens in  the guidebooks. This popular, beautiful expanse of gardens and fountains is a popular place for shooting Bollywood scenes.

Relaxing after lunch/dinner.

Relaxing after lunch/dinner.

As it was 4pm by the time we approached, we stopped somewhere outside the entrance near a small dam to eat the large picnic meal that had been prepared 12 hours beforehand. (Once again I was handed a beer, which I drank this time.) After eating, the family chilled for a few minutes and I wandered through an empty temple. Then the family decided it was time to go swimming, since we were next to a dam.

Now, none of

Niwiditha and Manjunath helping Vidya, with other Indian guys enjoying the water.  Yes, that is the traditional Indian version of a bathing costume.

Niwiditha and Manjunath helping Vidya, with other Indian guys enjoying the water. ( Yes, that is the traditional Indian version of a men's bathing costume.)

us had actually brought swimming clothes, or even clothes to change into after swimming. This didn’t bother any of the Kulkarni family, except Sunita. I, however, was not about to risk damaging my sari, much less be the white girl in the water with all the Indian guys who were already enjoying it. In addition, the people in my group who work on health issues are always talking about all the giardia and other scary infectious bacteria that congregate in such public swimming areas… Lastly, I figured I should try not to cross the line between personal and professional. I was with my boss, after all.

Sunita and me in the coracle.

Sunita and me in the coracle.

My boss had no such reservations. He immediately stripped down to his underwear, and we’re not talking boxers. He and the family went into the water (more like walked along the shelf of water) while a boatman took Sunita and I for a spin in this raft of sorts called a coracle, which was pretty cool (and good for catching shots of the others).

Niwiditha, Manjunath and Vidya.

Niwiditha, Manjunath and Vidya.

The rain started just as the family was getting out of the water. They tried to dry out as best they could before we all piled back into the car to reach the real KRS Dam. The drive still took a bunch of time and we had to pay numerous tolls to get there, bordering on ridiculous. Once we actually got there, the rain had stopped, but most of the family was too tired to go beyond the parking lot.

Probably the only picture in existence with Kulkarni smiling.

Probably the only picture in existence with Kulkarni smiling.

Kulkarni and I went in ourselves. (I felt bad about this – clearly we had only gone through the trouble of coming here so that I could see it – but there wasn’t much I could do beyond go see what they had brought me there to see.) The gardens were gorgeous and we stopped in lots of places to take pictures—mostly Kulkarni having me go stand somewhere and taking a picture of me with my camera.

I need to return here to the fact that I was traveling with an Indian family while wearing a sari. I knew from the wedding experience that people get really excited about seeing a white person in a sari, but I had underestimated the reaction. Most places we went that day, I gave the legit tourist sites a run for their money in regards to attention. Several people came forward to tell me things like, “You are looking very well in sari.” On the “photo shoot” at KRS, every time Kulkarni had me go pose somewhere, a crowd would gather to watchimg_0988 me. One girl around my age was so dumbfounded she insisted her husband photograph us together with her cell phone. Families came forward to shake my hand and ask me multiple questions about what I was doing. Some of the people who approached me were from other states, which was a problem as Kulkarni doesn’t speak Hindi and most of them didn’t speak English.

I may be partly Indian, but the full Indians can still pull it off better than I can.

I may be partly Indian, but the full Indians can still pull it off better than I can.

We decided to skip the light and music show that goes down at the main fountain at 7pm to rejoin the others and begin the trip home. Kulkarni was very pleased at how I turned out in a sari. “You are not fully American,” he told me, “You are at least part Indian.”

As we began our return to the parking lot, I commented to Kulkarni on how beautiful the park was, and he agreed. He smiled a knowing smile and said the gardens were very popular, especially with newlyweds. I reflected on this for awhile…

The thing is, here, when people are married, it is the first time they are allowed to visibly be a part of a couple and engage in any kind of PDA. So, even though most of the marriages here are arranged and the couple don’t interact very often before the wedding, they all get into the fact that they can BE a couple, walk around holding hands, pose in pictures with their arms around each other, etc.

Vidya and Manjunath

Vidya and Manjunath

Vidya and her husband, Manjunath, are good examples of this phenomenon. Married in April—an arranged marriage—I was initially rather impressed by how much they seemed to be into each other. Because, of course, coming from a culture that isn’t into arranged marriages, I assumed that they’re awful and not fulfilling and the couple can’t possibly be compatible. Seemed to me that their happiness was a stroke of luck.

But as I’ve watched people here and also talked about it with others, I think it’s just one of those things that’s just different from how we work. Our attitude is that you establish your relationship and love and confirm it by getting married and raising a family. In India, you get married and BUILD your relationship and love through sharing a life and raising a family. That’s not saying that all marriages are a success here, just like at home, and ways out of a bad one in India are, by and large, much more difficult. Divorcees have awful stigmas attached to them, for example.

But for most of the culture to begin choosing their mates, more than just the attitude about marriage would have to change: girls would have to be able to have more social freedoms to go out and actually interact with guys, for one. While this is less an issue in the more urban and educated areas, you’re unlikely to find these norms shifting in the villages any time soon.

Chachadi’s daughter, who is year younger than me, married for love not too long ago. She approached her father and told him, “I know you’re probably looking to find a husband for me soon, and if you’re going to be doing that, I’d like you to consider this guy.” It took numerous meetings between the parents on both sides to agree, but it happened.

On the other side of the coin, Naveen, the guy who runs the Deshpande office in Hubli (he also happens to be Taryn’s boss and is probably in his early-to-mid 30s), recently told me that he married for love in 2004. He added that he and Neelam (who we’ve all met) had been living together since 2001, which is pretty unusual. But, unlike Chachadi, neither set of parents was happy with this behavior. It sounds as though Neelam’s parents have started to warm up to it in the past year or so, though they’re still uncomfortable with inviting Naveen to family events. His parents, on the other hand, are still obstinately angry about the whole thing.

So after the tour of KRS Dam, we began the trek home. By then it was extremely dark out and the rain began to pour incessantly. The car would quickly fog up, so we had to keep some of the windows cracked. And the windshield windows seemed to have problems functioning. I felt awful for the driver—I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have been driving under the conditions. One by one we all nodded off.

I woke up as we were getting closer, and I had a minor feeling of panic when I realized how fast the driver was going. All drivers go fast here. But I was also unnerved by the rain—still pouring down—and the idea that it was late and dark and we’d all been up ALL day, and that I was the only one awake. I was afraid that the driver would himself fall asleep in the silence and lose control of the car. Perhaps too much paranoia on my part, but we were going super fast in awful rain, and even if you trust the driver you have, there’s no accounting for the other crazies on the road. And there’s a distinct lack of road rules here (or at least a lack of adherence to them if they exist). So I spent the last 40 minutes of the ride home in panicked terror.

But we made it.






Niwiditha and mother.

Niwiditha and mother.

Kulkarni humoring me by standing hear a hippo trashcan.

Kulkarni humoring me by standing hear a hippo trashcan.

Running the Stray Dog Gamut.

Running in Bangalore was the first time I felt threatened by stray dogs. They are everywhere I have been in India, but most of the time they seem friendly enough. I should add here that there was NO stray dog problem in Uzbekistan, which was said to be largely due to the substantial Korean population there (and I believe it). But these dogs are everywhere, and you also see dead ones in the street just as often, which is always sad.

pedha in typical nesting mode outside our front door.

Pedha in typical nesting mode outside our front door.

Our house actually has an unofficial pet—a stray that my landlords started feeding, so he pretty much lives here. Taryn has even seen him push the (unlocked) gate to our house open with his paw. The family has never named him; I have named him “Pedha,” which is this milk-based sweet that Taryn and I are obsessed with.  It’s maybe not the best name, since it sounds female, and Pedha is definitely a male, but oh well.  We tried asking our Kannada teacher for appropriate Indian dog names, but Raj seemed way too boring.  And naming a dog after a god or a famous person isn’t socially acceptable, so Pedha it remains.

…I WILL have a pet named Pedha at some point in my life…

He seems to have adjusted to the American guests on his property with no problem, which is good: some dogs here are racist against us white people due to lack of seeing such “fair” skin. I guess it makes sense; I actually made a baby child cry by virtue of being white on this same trip to Bangalore…

Anyway, on this run I encountered a pack of dogs about to get into a fight. I debated what I should do and decided that it was NOT a smart move to interact with them and changed course instead. I’ve noticed since then that Indian people, unlike me, are more often than not fearless about stray dogs and will walk right between two snarling, tails down, teeth-baring dogs and break them up before bark comes to bite. At the same time, Chachadi’s daughter lost a few members of her husband’s family to a rabies-ridden dog about a month ago in a more rural town…

For a few weeks there (after my Bangalore trip), Taryn and I did have this stray dog that was always at this one spot on our run, and he definitely jumped and I was definitely bit in the thigh – not hard enough to break skin, but it was still a bite and unnerving.  Luckily there were plenty of people around to then grab the dog and let us pass.  In later days, we’ve gotten fairly good at yelling “Hutch!” at any dog that looks as though it might get in our way.

But, back to Bangalore…

Published in: on March 31, 2009 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bangalore: Ruminations on the Garden City, Part One.

Kulkarni is dedicated to making sure I see everything that WKF does so that I have a full understanding of its operations. This includes going to Bangalore, where our “Head Office” is located and where we have significant activity in the industrial and urban domestic spheres. Kulkarni’s family also lives in Bangalore; he spends a lot of his time there. It was decided that I would be coming along on this next trip as well.

We left on a Saturday evening. His wife had come the day before, mostly to ride back with us—I think he was a little concerned about the appearance of him and me traveling alone. I’d met her briefly at the wedding, and heard much about her from Chachadi and Jagdeesh in the office. They insist she controls Kulkarni with an iron fist and is the real director of WKF. (I’ve also heard it expressed that this is often the unspoken power dynamic of married life, which I’ll bring up again later.)

Sharadadevi is a smaller, round woman with a screechy voice that is frequently given over to nagging. She speaks virtually no English, but is very nice to me.

on the train.

on the train.

We piled with our stuff into an auto and went to the train station; my first adventure this time in India on a train. In the midst of walking to the platform, I noticed that Kulkarni and I had lost his wife in the crowd. When I alerted him to this, he didn’t seem all too concerned. But when we had gotten onto the train and she still didn’t appear, he went back out to look for her. He returned after a few minutes, unable to find her, and the train began moving.

Suddenly we were faced with two problems: missing wife of Kulkarni and the fact that our seats were occupied. Kulkarni left me with all of our stuff to go search for her, while I got to smile apologetically at the family in whose space I was intruding.

another train.

another train.

He was gone for what felt like awhile. Eventually he returned and said she would be joining us at the next train station stop. I wondered at this, whether it was a good idea to bring her back to a place where we already didn’t seem to belong. But she came. Around this time we started really discussing the seat issue with the family, and pulled out tickets to compare. Turns out that Kulkarni had misread the tickets and had switched the ages (yes, your train ticket has your age printed on it) and the seat assignments. So up with all our stuff to our real seats.

view of my neighbors on the train.

some of my neighbors on the train.

I was pleased to see the Indian train we were on looked exactly like the ones I had traveled on before. We were traveling Sleeper class, but not with air conditioning—there were three industrial fans at the top of each open compartment. Between these and the wind from open windows, it actually gets pretty cold (which I remembered from before). I had also come prepared with a bed sheet, as they’re not provided.

The other people in our train berth were mildly interested in me and what I was doing; luckily for me they addressed Kulkarni.

the aisle.

the aisle.

Once settled in, eating began. Snacks we’d brought—fruits as well as fried snacks, and at one station where we stopped for a bit Kulkarni ran off and brought us all more food and then got seconds for himself and his wife. I declined seconds. So then I had the privilege of having both him and his wife encouraging me to eat more. He thinks I’m funny for not eating as much as they do; he tells people I survive by liquid diet—mostly chai and water. (This is by no means true, but Indian people eat A LOT.)

the fans.

the fans.

What amused me the most was his insistence I eat more snacks with him after I had laid down to go to sleep at his advice (so the other people would have to get off the seat); he insisted that you sleep better when you have a full stomach. (Which is true, but not at all healthy.  I love Indian health theories. You will hear more.)

The train was an hour late arriving into Bangalore, which wasn’t so much a big deal in the long run but bothered Kulkarni considerably. The auto we took from the station to their home took a long time. It was then I learned that they don’t live inside Bangalore proper—more like 11km outside of it, near the new Bangalore airport. Bangalore is as big of a traffic nightmare as any big city in the US. Moreover, the negative parts of it are exaggerated when you’re traveling in the equivalent of a souped-up golf cart on a highway and get all the exhaust from all the vehicles (of course there are no emission standards here) and hear the constant honking of all vehicles that they use instead of turn signals. But more about that later.

the main room of the kulkarni household.  kulkarni and wife.

the main room of the kulkarni household. kulkarni and wife.

Kulkarni owns a duplex that has 3 levels. The WKF “office” is the ground floor and his family lives on the middle one. They rent the top one out. The apartment where the family lives is fairly small—two bedrooms, an open family space and a kitchen. At the time I was there, Kulkarni and his wife shared the space with his three daughters, the eldest of whom, Vidya, was just married back in April, so her husband, Manjunath, was there, too. This is a little odd—traditionally the newlyweds live with the man’s family, but his family is up in a village that neighbors Kulkarni’s home village and he already had a Bangalore job. At this point in time (months later), they have moved into their own place but are still frequent visitors, especially when Vidya feels sick and needs her mother’s care.

Kulkarni gave me the “daybed” that functions as the sofa in the main room for my bed. He originally offered me his bed, but I was hardly about to make my boss and his wife sleep on the floor. I say “daybed” ironically because there was little about it that reminds you of a traditional bed—super hard and uncomfortable. Same for the pillows.



The middle daughter, Sunita, slept on the floor closer to the kitchen. I couldn’t tell whether I had usurped her normal sleeping space, or whether the daybed was normally occupied by Niwiditha, the youngest, who I’m guessing slept with her parents rather than intrude on the newlyweds.

Kulkarni has a son, Naveenachandr, as well, but he studies at a school outside Bangalore called Puttaparthi Sai Baba Trust and lives there. Kulkarni later admitted to me that his wife dotes on their son (although he also said that this was typical of Indian mothers) and that he sent his son away to school so he couldn’t get away with too much.

The school’s namesake and overall Director is a religious guru named Sathya Sai Baba who’s fairly famous here—there are pictures of him everywhere and I guess he’s given lectures in the US. All I can say about him (the famous guy) is he has lots of hair:

So upon arrival we were able to shower—bucket baths again, though with real hot (boiled) water. We were also fed and able to relax a bit for a few hours. Kulkarni was excited to take me around the complex and show, first and foremost, the rooftop rainwater harvesting system he had installed years back. For this he generally installs pipes that redirect runoff water from the roof to his borewell instead of going into the sewage system. He has also configured his home’s water so that used water—excluding toilet water—gets funneled into his family’s borewell, where the filtering system cleans the water. In this way, his borewell has water at only 30 meters deep—a pretty remarkable feat since other neighborhood borewells have to go hundreds of meters deep to reach water.

The WKF headquarters office on the ground floor is an extremely primitive dark converted apartment with one old-school computer and no internet connection. Makes our Hubli office look like Google HQ by comparison (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration). The feel of the place is a dark basement where a terrorist cell would conduct top-secret meetings. One bookshelf is filled with all the various awards Kulkarni has received, and he’s very proud of them.

You know, I feel like India is such a big place with so many people, most people go their whole lives without much recognition—I get a mental picture of a thronging crowd of thousands with everyone jumping up and down, shouting “Me, me!” It seems to drive a lot of people in a way that’s not so easily visible in the States—or maybe just not to a US native as part of the system…

Anyway, so when Indians get recognition for things they’ve accomplished, they’re super proud of them. Modesty doesn’t seem to exist here much. Everyone’s homes are cluttered with the cheesy plastic tokens of appreciation they’ve received for whatever it is they’ve done, and they are on prominent display.



In addition to the dismal appearance of the office was the WKF office staff—a handful of guys of assorted ages who didn’t appear to do much. I later learned that they are the project site supervisors who direct the construction when it happens. But even when there’s no construction to supervise, they still have to come to the office and spend long hours there, doing nothing.

(Kulkarni, like many Indians (from what I hear), doesn’t care so much about the quality of work produced, but you MUST spend long hours in the office—a theory I am constantly trying to contradict…)

A few of the younger guys seemed to function more as errand boys for the family rather than having real jobs. And a majority of them are related to Kulkarni in some way…

I want to change direction here and mention that, despite my criticism above, I was pretty excited to be there, staying with Kulkarni’s family. It was my first real exposure to daily life in an Indian home.  An interesting aspect in Indian homes is Hinduism, the predominant religion. (Islam is the largest minority religion, with 14%–150 million people.) All homes are built with a small prayer room included, which always has some kind of shrine. Some rooms have tiles with pictures of certain Gods on them. My house has a prayer room that was strewn with images of the gods, etc., which we organized and  outfitted in a proper Indian way.

kulkarni household shrine

kulkarni household shrine

People refresh the offerings (such as milk and sweets) every morning, and twice a day (morning and evening) they say a few prayers and light a few incense sticks, then walk around the home and wave the incense sticks around every picture of a god there. Then the sticks burn in front of the shrine in the prayer room. It’s easy to assume not every home practices this ritual, but I would guess that the majority of Hindus do. When Kulkarni is in our Hubli office, we burn the incense sticks in the morning, too.  Most stores and restuarants do the same.

Around 11am, Kulkarni and I were picked up by two men named Suresh and Pramod. Younger businessmen, they both have left (or are in the process of leaving) their respective jobs to help Kulkarni launch his new for-profit rainwater harvesting company, RainWater Solutions (RWS). This company will collect fees for the work they do—predominantly for industries and urban domestic housing. The idea is that hopefully they will profit enough from this work to funnel money back into WKF as a means of sustaining the non-profit work in the villages regardless of external funding. Not a bad idea, really, though I’m worried about maintaining a strict demarcation between the two organizations. I accompanied the group to an upper-class layout (neighborhood) which wants to install rainwater harvesting.

This was the first time I had observed Kulkarni in action outside of a school programme. The thing is, he is a rural man who knows how to talk to rural people: be loud and awe them with stories of your accomplishments and awards, show them your promotional movie and newspaper clippings, and they’ll let you do whatever. But this move into the more professional sphere is a huge step into the unknown for him.

watching suresh and pramod push the sell.

watching suresh and pramod push the sell.

It was funny, these men reminded me of Indian versions of my dad. And knowing how Dad would react to Kulkarni’s antics, I was alarmed. Kulkarni likes to talk and have others listen—he’ll keep you for hours with stories about himself and everything he’s done. But he doesn’t seem to register that other people may have other things they want to do with their Sunday afternoons and want the meeting to be short and to the point.

He also doesn’t understand that guys who want to hire them to do their neighborhood (a) don’t have much interest in the work he’s done with rural farmers in the north of the state, and (b) want very specific detailed explanations of how the work will proceed in their neighborhood, blueprints of what it will physically look like, etc. Suresh and Pramod and I are all hoping our combined efforts will make a difference in this respect eventually. I’m actually very lucky to have them as counterparts in Bangalore—Kulkarni knows he’s out of his league in this new endeavor and listens to the two of them in a significant way. He listens to me for sure, but I think he often dismisses some of my ideas as American and therefore not applicable in an Indian context. Suresh and Pramod have the advantage of being Indian.



The next day I accompanied Kulkarni to a silk factory where he was surveying the grounds to plan a future “intervention” (i.e. installation. Indian English has evolved in a very different way from American or British English…don’t get me started on the use of the word “only, ” for instance…) The main highlights of this excursion were (1) the camel I saw on the road on our way to the factory itself—it was being pulled by a man on a horse, and (2) the small family of monkeys I saw in a tree as we surveyed the grounds. Indians are not fazed by monkeys; they’re like our foxes or possums (at least in my area)—not horribly plentiful but definitely around. Kulkarni was completely taken aback when I told him we only have monkeys in zoos in America.

That morning I went for a run. I didn’t rise for Kulkarni’s 6am “constitution,” but at 7:30 I was rearing to go. This is where the language barrier became a problem. Kulkarni was worried the streets were too crowded for me to run, so he had his wife and Niwiditha take me to some side streets where it would be ok to run. Niwiditha insisted they would walk while I rain, but I wanted them to go home instead of waiting for me. She seemed like she agreed to this until I told her I would be 35 minutes (I time it on my watch). I realized after one or two laps they were waiting for me. Way to feel guilty for trying to maintain an exercise cycle…

Published in: on March 30, 2009 at 4:52 pm  Comments (1)  

“Have you tried the traditional Indian food?”

It’s been awhile, but I wrote this entry on Cultural Assimilation for the Sandbox Fellowship blog, and I thought I might as well post it here.  With perhaps a few additions…

Having been in India now for pretty much 9 months, it’s hard for me to judge exactly how much I have and haven’t assimilated to local culture, since the memories of how new and different everything was have definitely faded. Maybe that shows that I have…

One of my proudest achievements over the past 9 months is my ability to wrap my own sari reasonably well. Though I’ll never physically blend in as a local, people love to see foreigners donning the most traditional of traditional garb and making it their own. (Really, I’d wear saris more often if people didn’t stare at me so much when I do.) It was the day I wore a sari on a day trip to see the sights of Mysore with my NGO boss and his whole family that my boss proclaimed me “not fully American – you are at least part Indian!” This was also after he had successfully argued at a ticket counter that I be given the local entrance fee (10 Rupees) as opposed to the foreigner rate (100 Rupees).

I also have to admit I’ve appropriated the Indian head bobble. More importantly, I UNDERSTAND what it means when other people use it as part of conversation. I probably wouldn’t have even remembered to note this, except that the other week, I watched Rebecca’s father, over-exhausting himself giving free eye exams to villagers on his vacation in India, struggle with the meaning of the head bobble he was getting from his local translator.

“You have to tell me ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” he instructed her. “I can’t understand what you mean.”

I’m on the subject of language, I have to say that Indian English is finding its own special place in my vocabulary as well. I now frequently use “only” instead of “just,” and other phrases such as “out of station” for “out of the office” or “out of town.” There are more, I promise. I don’t think I’ll graduate to asking someone what their “good name” is, or referring to a day as “auspicious,” but you never know – I still have a few months yet.

In regards to food, I have come to value the Indian insistence of having both sweet and savory (salty) snacks on a plate. They DO complement each other. I also would never dream of ordering my coffee or tea until my tiffin (breakfast) is nearly over. I also like having a work day sprinkled with coffee and chai breaks. I wish I had adopted the post-lunch siesta, but sadly my work hasn’t allowed for it.

The whole group of us has whole-heartedly embraced the smearing of cake on the face of the birthday boy or girl. I love Indian food, down to the super salty pickle that bears no resemblance to a Western cucumber dipped in brine. I’ll miss idli in the mornings and all the juice stands. Coconut water. Fruits we don’t have in the US, like setaphils and chikus, and others that just taste better here (or are available more readily) like guavas and papayas.

(I’m lucky that I love the food, as there aren’t really any other options in Hubli.  In fact, I go through spells of complete boredom with the food, since I really like to have variety in my meals. For that reason, a question that continually does ruffle my feathers is when someone asks me “Have you tried the traditional Indian food?” I mean, what else would I eat? If you know of another option, would you please share?)

I’m happy to report I haven’t picked up on some habits, like littering.

I think I’ve picked up a lot of the little habits (including but not limited to the ones I note above), but perhaps not the bigger ones that I genuinely admire. Like the Indian willingness to share everything with their close friends and family.

For example, over the last month, a group of local guys has made a point of ensuring my (male) friend, who they consider to be like a brother, always has a motorcycle at his disposal. Now, back at home you MIGHT loan your friend a car, but more than likely it would be once they asked for it, gave exact details about where they’d be taking it, got approval to be on your insurance, etc. You wouldn’t generally volunteer someone (especially someone you don’t honestly know THAT well) the use of your car. But that’s normal here.

There’s more a sense of sharing (or perhaps it’s really less a sense of ownership). You share all your snacks and food. Families often share one bedroom, or at least the children all share a room. Vehicles are shared, as I mentioned above. Maybe that’s just what happens when there are less items or resources to go around – you have to share. But I prefer to think it’s just a different mentality that exists in this place; that our culture moved away from too long ago to remember. I wish I could say I had picked up on THAT instead of drinking chai. But what to do? At least I notice the difference and appreciate it. Maybe that means there’s hope for me after all…

Published in: on March 26, 2009 at 4:32 pm  Leave a Comment