Tag Archives: culture


Dani’s twin sisters are in India, along with appropriate significant others. Holger was also in Bangalore due to a business trip a couple of weeks ago, when this story took place. So we all piled into the car and drove to Tiruvannamalai to show them the temple there. It started off well. The drive there is always beautiful, we stopped at the roadside at one point to let the kids collect Tamarind and we had a nice biryani (rice based casserole) for lunch at a restaurant in Tiruvannamalai. Then we went to the temple.

The Shiva temple in Tiruvannamalai is magnificent, as I have said before. We strolled in took in the architecture and atmosphere and went straight to the temple elephant so that the kids could get blessings from it. Shortly before reaching the elephant, a beggar woman approached us. Somehow, we managed to get past her without her following and we reached the pachyderm safely. Charlotte emptied my pocket of coins; giving one at a time to the elephant. It takes the coin, gives it to its handler and then touches your forehead with its trunk in blessing. Sammy was too frightened to try it.

Just as we were about to move on, a man smiled and stepped next to me. He loitered for some time. This is usually the signal that he is the insidious bastard type of tout. Then he started with a song and dance about how he needed 100 rupees to get back to Chennai. I told him to get lost. I loathe professional beggars with the fury of a thousand suns. Any able bodied person who consciously chooses to beg instead work is not a good person in my book. Tellingly, the one phrase in Kannada that I know is to tell such people to get a job.

He left to look for another mark and I continued on my merry way.

A while later, we were lounging near one of the small shrines near the eastern gopura. I stepped away to photograph temple monkeys. Another fellow came up to me. This one was wearing the saffron (orange) dhoti of a devout Hindu sadu. He started to tell me that he lost his pass and needed help. I mentally groaned. “Here we go again. Why won’t these people leave me alone?” Saffron dhoti or no, my patience was at an end.

You would not do this if I was Indian!

I turned and walked away.

He stammered…

I am not a beggar! All Indians are not beggars!

Then he walked away.

A short while later, he returned. I had moved over to the tank (artificial pond) to watch a kingfisher hunt, but the others had remained in place. He pointed to me and said to Holger.

Your friend said that all Indians are beggars! We are not beggars!

He went on accosting Holger for a few minutes. I never said that and don’t think it, so I don’t know where he came up with that idea. As far as I could tell, there are four possible reasons he acted that way:

1 – He was just unbalanced.

2 (the cynical version) – he was just using it as a psychological lever to pull at our heartstrings and do a scam. After all, nobody wants to think of themselves as bigots and people may be inclined to try and prove that they are not under such conditions.

3 (slightly less cynical) – He was trying to scam me, but was still genuinely offended at my gruff response.

4 – He was genuinely the engineer that he claimed to be and genuinely in need of help and had no clue what a riff-raff magnet foreigners are. Middle class Indians are often shocked at some of the experiences I’ve had. I distinctly remember Siva being wide eyed about the guy asking for my socks. If he does not personally know any foreigners, he may be unaware of this and not understand my reaction.

I do wonder what it was.


Charlotte’s Epiphany

Something happened a few weeks ago that I’d planned to blog about, but it slipped my mind. So now I’m playing catch up.

Charlotte confided to me that she was not happy about going back to Germany and that she wanted to stay at Inventure Academy. Now anyone who followed the early posts of this blog might recall that she was the reticent one about coming to India in the first place and was the one who had the roughest initial adjustment the first few days. Now obviously her friend Freya is a factor. Freya is Charlotte’s first really good, close friend. Charlotte is outgoing and charismatic (two traits that certainly did not inherit from her father) and has lots of friends, but she’ll be the first to tell you that they are acquaintances and not real friends the way Freya is.

But there was something else…

There was a girl in her class back in Germany who had gone to kindergarten and first grade with Charlotte. This girl was from a German family, but was adopted as an orphaned toddler from Columbia.

This girl had brown skin.

She was socially ostracized and mistreated by her peers. Charlotte told me that the problem that the other kids had with her was the color of her skin, plain and simple. First graders have not yet learned the art of disguising bigotry with pretexts and justifications. Charlotte told me that they said to her that this is what the problem with her was. Meanwhile, her experience here was completely different. Her school is about 10% expat and light skinned kids are certainly in the minority here, yet she never experienced a single feeling of “otherness”. She made comparisons of the moral fiber of the kids at Inventure and back at Schloßberschule in Rotenberg and it was very much not in favor of Rotenberg. At the tender age of eight, she has already formed her own opinions of provincial bigotry and the people who practice it.

I wonder how much of it is India and how much of it is the international school environment. I know it can’t entirely be the former as the girl who comes for drinking water once thought our driver was Muslim because she did not recognize his name as a Hindu one. It was only after he told her that he was Christian that she became friendly with him and told him that she would not talk to him if he was Muslim.

Nevertheless, Charlotte has grown a lot in this year. Her father is proud of her. I did not learn those lessons until much later.

Welcome to Sandalwood

I’ve always felt like an anthropologist when watching Bollywood films. Mass market films inadvertently tell you a lot about the culture that they originate from. The latest one was similar. Except this was a Sandalwood film. Sandalwood is a term for the Kannada language film industry while Bollywood is synonymous with Hindi. I’d never seen a Kannada movie before and was dying to actually see one. Our driver’s wife works as an extra broker for Kannada and Tamil language filmmakers (and even tried to recruit Sammy as an extra for a shoot once) and I’ve long wanted to watch one. The problem is that they never translate them. They don’t even put subtitles onto the DVDs. Somehow this fits the curious habit that South Indians have of remaking the entire film in other languages, rather than dubbing them or adding subtitles.

So a few weeks ago, I came across a DVD of Mungaru Male, complete with English subtitles. It took weeks to convince Daniela to actually sit down and watch it. She has an inherent mistrust of any Indian film not recommended by Siva. This mistrust is not unfounded as most Hindi films range from godawful to merely not very good and even most of the relatively good ones share the same basic plot layout as the bad ones. To top it off, most Indian films have pointless song and dance scenes that feel like they were spliced in with duct tape; song and dance scenes that get conveniently repackaged as music videos and become the mainstays of pop music. Now there are also genuinely excellent Bollywood films; Being Cyrus and Chak De!, which has joined my pantheon of favorite films. But Chak De! is that rare example of mass market Hindi film (Being Cyrus is English) that does not have a single dance scene.

Eventually I was able to convince her to watch it. After all, Mungaru Male is one of the most famous Kannada films, its outdoor cinematography is supposed to be exceptional and it comes with the bit of trivia that a scene at Jog Falls – one of the highest single drop waterfalls in Asia – has inspired copycat fools to fall to their deaths. Siva, who was over for the weekend and had never seen a Kannada film before, watched it with us.

It was horrible! It combined the worst instincts of a Hindi “romance” with horrible 60’s style indoor cinematography, cheesy fight scenes that derived inspiration from old tradition poorly dubbed, badly acted Kung Fu movies and yet had enchanting outdoor fimography. It felt like a YouTube mashup created by a deranged twelve year old. The hero not only stalked the heroine, but he acted juvenile to boot! The only redeeming feature was that we recognized the places in the Bangalore scenes. Dani only survived half the film and left. Siva had her own opinions:

I wouldn’t even watch a movie like this in Tamil!

(She is a Tamil)

Only Charlotte was glued to the plot.

I need to find more Kannada films with English subtitles. It was so delightfully bad that it was great!

The Ganesh

Something that is incredibly common here is Ganesh idols. If a driver is Hindu, it is almost certain that there will be a tacky plastic Ganesh glued to the dashboard. If offices, you often see pictures of Ganesh hanging in cubicles. Ganesh clears obsacles; which is another way of saying that he is on the dashboard/monitor/cubiclele-wall for good luck.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I acquired my own little wooden Ganesh and stuck it on top of my monitor.

Close up

Close up

Far Away

Far Away

“saffronisation” of education

An article in this morning’s paper struck me

What in the blue blazes is “saffronisation” of education? There is nothing in that article to indicate what it is that the students are actually protesting. They do this all the time in papers here. An article will quote a public official three different ways making an oblique reference to something. That will be the entire meat of the article. If you don’t happen to know what issue that public official is making a vague reference to, you won’t get anything out of it.

I often read papers from many countries. It helps to understand what people in those places think if world affairs. After all, no matter how much pride we take in being critical thinkers; what our papers say does frame the range of thought. But I have to say that Indian papers can be so unbelievably high context that they are almost information free at times. I once read an article that quoted a Pakistani official (about terrorism? Kashmir? The Mumbai attacks?). The whole article could be summed up as:

So and so said something about something

So what exactly does “saffronisation” of education mean?

The Dilemma Ends

The story of our domestic help’s medical bills came to an end about two week ago. It took me that long to get around to actually writing about it as it is a heavy subject and was bound to be a long post. I also have not posted anything else in that time because I felt that skipping this to post light hearted observations of the denizens of the subcontinent would be out of place until I did this.

We won’t be seeing any more of those medical bills. Our maid’s son passed away from cancer at the age of 34. He had a biopsy performed on one of the lymph nodes in his neck a few days before he passed. The result of the test indicated that he had advanced cancer and was too weak for chemotherapy. They could only try to make him comfortable. His breathing was weak and he was on oxygen. As seems to be the custom here, they gave a person on his deathbed something that he liked. In this case, it was whiskey, or some other alcohol. Though euthanasia was not the intention, the alcohol seemed to shorten his suffering and he passed from cardiac failure.

Our maid called Daniela on her cell phone. I overheard her speaking and it was clear that she was being given the news of his passing. Then my cell phone rang. It was sour driver, who had been informed by our maid’s surviving son. Wrenzo and his wife were going over to our maid’s late son’s home for the impromptu wake (they are Catholic). The funeral would already be the next day. We all piled into the car for the ride to the wake in Koramangala.

It was like walking into a different world.

Their incomes are well above the 100 ruppee per had threshold that Siva tells us two thirds of Indians live under. They would be classified as middle class; possibly lower middle class (our driver, with about 35% more income regards himself as middle class). Nevertheless, by the standards that we know in the west, they lived in hovels. That alone was shocking.

They had quickly set up a makeshift tent in the alleyway between apartment block where her son and his family lived and the building across the way; apartments that seemed to be one room manmade caves and had only a curtain for a front door. They had laid down cloth shoots on the ground to cover the bare earth of the alleyway and had strung a large cloth sheet over the alleyway. Someone had acquired (possibly rented) a pair of floodlights to light the alley. In the middle, lay our maid’s son, covered in a cloth with only his face visible. He was resting in a clear Plexiglas box that somewhat resembled a coffin, but was plugged in and had a power switch for some reason. People took turns paying their respects and laying flower wreathes on the box at his feet.

As the employers of the departed’s mother, it seems to be a tradition here for the men of the family to get drunk when a family tragedy occurs. In the case of our maid, that seems also extend to the mother of the departed. She was drunk as a skunk. She had outlived three of her four children; something no parent should ever have to do. Wrenzo has since loudly criticized her for drinking (though only with Daniela, never with me), though I can’t really blame her. We had the sense that though she would normally be the matriarch of the family, her position is actually quite weak within her family; probably due to long term depression. That explains quite a bit about why we had the feeling that our maid’s siblings were not helping. Shrunken matriarchs in search of redemption and acceptance don’t go around asking the family for help. They bring help to the family.

We were also accorded a position of honor. Firstly, we were the employers of the mother of the deceased. Secondly, we were the benefactors who paid for his – ultimately too late – treatment. Someone was always trying to make sure that we did not have to do anything tiring like standing on our own feet and everyone made sure to thank us profusely for helping with his bills.
We left with a sense that our help had been genuinely appreciated.

Indiana Joneses

We took a day trip to Krishnagiri this past weekend. It is a town in Tamil Nadu, about an hour and a half east of Bangalore. It’s main claim to fame seems to be that is sits at a road junction between the superhighway to Chennai on the coast and the half built superhighway heading towards points south.

Lonely Planet does not mention Krishnagiri; not even an “overlooked gem” mention, which Tiruvannamalai gets. They don’t seem to get many visitors there; especially westerners. For example, when I stepped into a shop to see about buying a cola (you can buy Coca Cola and Pepsi in the remotest corners of the world it seems), the elderly proprietor –who was Muslim judging by his white skullcap, knee length white kurda, the fact that an Urdu girls school was across the street and there were women in Burkas on the street – stared at me, slack-jawed. I felt like I was in the presence of an Islamic Gomer Pyle. He did not know any English and I was wondering if going to fetch Siva from the car to have a Tamil speaker present would help. This seemed to be an Urdu speaking pocket and I’m not even sure this guy could speak Tamil. Fortunately, his middle-aged son was not so stunned by the sudden appearance of the green antennaed alien in sunglasses. I asked him if he had cola.

No Coca Cola, only Sprite. You want?

I demurred and bid the slack jawed purveyor of Sprite and his son a good day.

Krishnagiri may not be in the guidebooks, but it certainly is at least as nice as Nandi Hills and certainly worthy of a day trip from Bangalore. The town is dominated by a mountain, on the top of which rests the ruins one of Tipu Sultan’s forts. This mountain is in effect a slightly rounded mesa and the old fortifications ring the outer edge of the table top. The rest is scattered ruins set in wild nature. There were hardly any people up there even on a Saturday afternoon; only some kids taking a swim in an old ritual pool from the Sultan’s time and a few Pentecostals singing the praises of Jesus in Tamil. We could picnic and explore to our hearts content.

This being India, there was a shrine on the mountain-top. Krishnagiri being heavily muslim, it was an Islamic shrine. What struck me was how colorful and almost kitsch it was. (no, I did not take my shoes off and step inside, but it was an outdoor shrine overlooked by a giant rock) Somehow, I was expecting something austere and almost Calvanist as the wahhabist variety practiced in the Arabian peninsula largely defines my stereotypes of Islam. I don’t know if it was a Sufi shrine. To my knowledge, Sufism has a lot of mysticsm thrown in; somewhat resembling the Catholicism of Central and South America.

The mountain top was repeatedly visited by a pair of short toed eagles and I think that Sammy and I found a baby monitor lizard. They can theoretically grow to six feet, but as “Iguana” (a local misnomer for the monitor) blood is reputed to have magical healing properties, most don’t live to get any bigger than a couple of feet long. Oh and don’t let them hit you with their tail! It will turn you into a hijra (transvestite); or so our driver once told Daniela.

Oh and did I mention that we did a lot of exploring? I felt like Indiana Jones for most of the time.