Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Bangalore, Christmas and so on

Bangalore confuses me a bit. But then, so does India, so that’s probably a pointless statement.

Bangalore is the first place I’ve felt that my scruffy traveler garb just won’t do. As a slightly useless consequence, I seem to be acquiring more clothes than I know will fit into my rucksack when it is time to pack up again, despite a few going the way of cheap Indian bargains (i.e. falling apart) and others having literally worn out with the rigours of my arduous travelling life.

I am now staying in a girly household, albeit one much younger than me, and it’s a great relief to be able to ask where to get a bikini-wax and for it to be greeted as a perfectly reasonable question and not evidence of sexual perversion. I am working out whether it will be possible/workable to stay here for the three weeks or so after the person whose room I’m occupying gets back. I’m hoping so, even if I doubt my abilities to room-share in my grumpy old age. Despite the landlady/neighbour’s dachsun who insists on using the bed I sleep on as a toilet given the slightest let-up in my vigilance, I’m enjoying this rather large and untidy house where I have been cooking again and going all domestic – as much as anything for some relief from the traveller restaurant food which is beginning to all taste the same. The wifi and washing machine are also great additions to my comfort (especially when the dog has her way).

I seem to have moved from scruffy no-make-up traveler circles to semi-expat ones. I cite as evidence my Christmas eve spent impromptu in one of the plushest hotels I’ve ever set foot in. A friend of a friend of my housemates was having a party and I did feel rather an imposter tiptoeing into the Leela Palace as the guard saluted me three times when I asked him for directions (and what a fantastic uniform – straight out of the Arabian nights!). Here I am with my housemate Ashti, on our way to the party:

Having been chauffered home after it, I spent the next morning working out the Bangalore bus system in order to go and spend Christmas day with my friend, Nakula. I love these contrasts, from the sublime to the ridiculous, as I got on the wrong bus, was re-directed and watched various fellow-passengers haul their sacks (of rice?) on behind them. Nakula and I walked in a nearby eucalyptus grove until the resident insects decided I was just too delicious for words. Here are his feet (the only part of him he would let me photograph):

And here am I:

The rest of Christmas day was spent laughing and eating. During my bus and rickshaw rides home, the sun had set and I was able to properly appreciate the churches lit up like Disneyland and the contrastingly subtle paper lantern stars hanging all over.

Otherwise, I’ve done a bit of research for my group piece, again with Nakula, have met with prospective dancers and am trying to get my head round a rehearsal schedule. It would help if I knew the performance dates of course, but this is India and she loves to keep me in suspense. However, I have no one but myself to blame for my procrastination in editing my soundtrack for my solo. (Incidentally, if anyone knows of a studio in Bangalore where I can do a very quick voice recording for love, no money, I’d love to know). The idea is to get all these things done this week, as after much laziness, next week explodes into rather frightening activity of daily teaching and rehearsing. I’m not quite sure how I ended up so quickly in urban-work-mode here and I find it a little unnerving.

I had decided it was all so stressful that immediately after the performances, I would flee to Thailand to recover, cutting short my visit to India. After calmer consideration, I have decided that having gone all the way to the far north, in the interests of symmetry, it would be a shame to miss the far south. Plus everyone keeps telling me how lovely Kerala is. And I want to learn Kalarippayattu (which I sense may be another organisational headache). So now I’m thinking I will head to Kerala for a bit of good physical training (my body is remarkably lazy now, despite the prospective dancing) and from there head to Thailand with a minimum of detours.

But best-laid plans as they say…

The other night, I met up with my friend Nisha, who lives here and whom I met doing the Buddhist meditation course at Tushita. She took me to the Shiva temple in Kemp Fort. It was a delight and confusion all in one. I’ve never been in a country where people love to shove so much as here (though generally not with any aggression) and temples are no exception. Just like an amusement park, there was a long queue to get in and all sorts of shops to tempt us (or not) as we waited. Once in, the crowd was herded round a circuit – again a bit like at an amusement park. On the one hand, there’s a definite prickle as the fire passes over me or at particular spine-tingling spots. On the other hand, it’s really very reminiscent of Great America, minus the roller-coasters but with bigger statues, displays of plastic rocks opening and closing to illustrate the stories of the twelve Jyotirlingas and all.

Here I am with Shiva again:

Thankfully, he got me home safely despite an almighty rainstorm and the only rickshaw driver willing to take me (at a perfectly reasonable price too) smoking a worryingly fragrant cigarette. Still, I got back, wet but whole.

The auto drivers (what most people here call the rickshaws – because they’re autorickshaws, as opposed to the cycle variety you see in London and Calcutta, and the poor-barefoot-human-drawn variety I saw in Calcutta) are somewhat of a mystery. Sometimes I will literally have to go through fifteen of them before I find one who: 1) will take me where I want to go, and 2) who will put it on the meter. I have regularly had auto drivers demanding 100 Rupees for what I know is a 20 or 30 Rupee journey. There is something about being a white foreigner that exacerbates this tendency. When I was in Calcutta, I decided this was nothing but blatant racism as both there and in Bangalore I met plenty of locals who have far more money than I do. So it’s not just a question of the rich tourist; there are rich locals too, and whilst it’s known that the auto drivers also try it on with them, it’s not done with quite such shameless abandon.

But every now and then, an absolute saint comes along. One day, I was at the bottom of Brigade Road (a very busy intersection) and having no luck getting a rickshaw to take me back to the house. I’d tried at three different places and they were all asking for between 80 and 100 Rupees, one of them before even knowing where I wanted to go. Suddenly one pulled up and beckoned me over, put his meter on and away we went. Despite our respective language barriers, his outrage was palpable.

“He want 100 Rupees. On meter it’s 30. If you cheat, money doesn’t stay with you.”

The problem is that in Bangalore, if you can’t direct your auto driver, even if he agrees to put it on the meter, he is quite likely to take you round the houses to as much as double the price it should cost you to get to your destination. And sadly, I’m still completely incapable of directing my auto. I’m in the frustrating position of knowing enough to know he’s pulling a fast one, but not enough to tell him which roads to take. Thankfully, I have generally been getting more honest souls lately.

Anyway, my saintly rescuer proceeded to tell me exactly how I should direct the autos to go the most direct route from the bottom of Brigade Road. Sadly, between his accent and my confusion, I barely got half of it but I was immensely grateful for his good heart nonetheless. The meter came to 33 Rupees.

I have to remind myself not to get het-up about 5 Rupees occasionally, even if it’s 25% of my fare. But when it comes to quadrupling my fare in a bid to fleece me, well let's just say that it's good neither for my blood pressure nor for my karmic load (all that anger isn't likely to lead me to enlightenment any time soon). 5 Rupees is about 7 pence/cents (Euro) or 11 cents ($). But I’m not on London budgets or wages anymore and while of course the amount is still pretty trivial, if it’s multiple times a day, a week, it adds up. I did one day work out that if I let all the people who tried it have their way, it would pretty much double the cost of my stay in India - which over five or six months gives pause for thought...

In general though, I find the universe is much nicer to me if I retain my sense of humour in these situations. So here’s to senses of perspective and senses of humour.

Hope your Christmas was peaceful and happy and the new year will bring you many, many joys,

from Lucy, with love xx

Monday, 14 December 2009

On Weddings and Dances

Well the Bengali wedding was a pretty epic affair. I did manage to get my legs waxed (not that anyone but me was seeing them; this is India, after all) and fitted my trousers with a safety pin and some elastic (first scrubbed in Vanish and hung out to dry. It’s a mystery to me how so much filth can get into an over-priced tailor’s on a Calcutta street). I looked respectable enough and spent most of the actual wedding studying the beautiful silks of the saris. As all conversations not directed at me were in Bengali, this was just as well.

Here is a modern Bengali bride with mobile phone:

And here I am with Anurekha, the bride:

In some ways, it wasn’t so unlike weddings I’ve been to in the UK: lots of people milling around chatting while nibbles were served. In other ways, it was very different. No alcohol for a start (not that I’ve drunk any since I’ve been here, if you discount the two sips of Chang I sampled in Ladakh - a cross between paint thinner and vinegar). First of all, the bride sat on what I can only call a throne upstairs while guests came to greet her and chat. Later the groom arrived with his escort for more greeting and chatting, and he had a throne downstairs (with a water fountain at its back). I didn’t see him actually sit on his throne, but here is a young lad who thought he’d rehearse for his own wedding a decade or two in advance:

Weirdest to me was that as soon as the bride was brought downstairs, walked a few times round the groom, hidden from sight by a banana leaf, I was told: “This bit is really long. Come and eat now.” And so all the guests trooped out to dinner while the bride and groom actually got married! I rather wanted to stay and watch that bit but didn’t really feel I could while everyone else went for dinner. So here’s a moment of what I did see:

When the evening was over, I was invited back to the bride’s family’s house, where about a dozen family and friends (bride and groom included) sang songs until the morning. I’m very fond of a sing-along, but sing-alongs in Bengali are a bit beyond my capabilities. However, when my turn came, I felt it would be more embarrassing to refuse than to oblige, and so sang a song (in English) I dredged up from somewhere. At three in the morning, it wouldn’t have got me my grade 3 merit, but at least it was polite. Everyone did a turn, be it Bengali singing or poetry, and it felt rude to sit there and not join in. Then we all had a lie-down and I supplied dinner to a hungry mosquito. At around six, tea was served and shortly after that, company dispersed.

I was back in the early afternoon for lunch, more singing and the ceremony of the bride leaving her home with her groom:

It was a bit of a shock when I was called on to bless them as everyone else had done (in order of seniority, I believe) and I felt very inadequate and probably went very pink, not being much in the habit of blessing anyone. Nonetheless, everyone survived my clumsiness and here they are, leaving the family home:

The following evening, the groom’s parents hosted another event, this time to welcome the bride into their family. Here are Anurekha and Subroto, on remarkably good form after days and days with very little sleep:

It was a real privilege to be included in all the festivities and I was very grateful for it. However, I have nowhere near the stamina of a Bengali bride. The upshot was that between organising myself and the wedding, I caught a cold and did no sight-seeing in Calcutta at all, not even the Kali temple, which had been the only must-see on my list. Still, as I said to Paul, my librarian-friend in Ladakh, it’s good to have a reason to come back.

The next night, I was embarking on yet another 34 hour journey across India, heading south to Bangalore. My carriage-companions were rather more civilized this time round: no belching or spitting in the compartment, though an unfortunate habit in one of them of chucking his rubbish behind my bag (no wonder there are cockroaches – though at least no large mouse/small rat this time round. The peace of my slumber was rather disturbed after I saw one scuttling past the old lady opposite me and over my bag, too close to my head for comfort, on the second night of the journey to Calcutta – but amazing what you can ignore when you have to).

It was a real treat to have my friend Abhilash and his spare room waiting for me in his flat when I arrived in busy busy Bangalore. Abhilash was a big shock. When I first met him, he was a shy twenty-three year-old who spoke nearly no English and had just started dancing. Eight years later, he is as loquacious as you please (though has difficulty with my accent at times) and regularly jets about Europe in dancer-about-town mode. After ten days or so enjoying his flat and occasionally zipping about town on the back of his bike (which requires a certain sang-froid in the traffic here, even if it’s nearer what I’m used to than what I experienced in north India) I am now room-hunting to make way for his sister’s imminent arrival.

It seems I am to stay in Bangalore longer than I’d anticipated. After two months of wandering, it’s been a bit of a shock (not to mention a bit sore) to turn into a dancer all over again. I have been doing some teaching at Attakkalari, the local dance company, teaching some wonderfully polite if slightly doubtful diploma students. When one said to me about improvisation, “We’ve learnt that already,” I had to laugh (they’ve been studying dance for about three months). Clearly, I have my work cut out for me. Let’s see if I’m up to it!

What will hold me here though is a rather surprising opportunity that has come up at the Alliance Fran├žaise. It seems I will be making and performing two pieces there at the end of January: a solo I’ve been mulling over for a while and a group piece with some local dancers. It feels slightly daunting, not knowing the ropes or the city or the people, and I can’t quite believe all will go according to plan. But as I argue with the rickshaw drivers doing their best to overcharge me, I am grateful, grateful, grateful for the opportunities here, while acknowledging that fulfilling them here in Bangalore will be a challenge.

Oh, and did I say that my computer is finally working again? After going round in circles asking bemused people on the street for what felt like an hour, I finally found the Acer service centre. They completely wiped and reformatted my computer ("Ma'am, you have a dangerous virus," I was informed), which in itself has involved more juggling to restore, but hurray, it is working once more!

So please wish me luck in the smog and the traffic and as I lose myself in roads that all look identical!

From Lucy, with love x