Blasting to Bangalore and Prelude to India

Saris and spices, monkeys and maharajahs, gurus and curries and cricket – here they all come!  In one month I will board a Thai Airways flight for the psychedelic fairy-tale land of India.  A 13-hour flight on Saturday 6 October, overnight in Bangkok, then four hours further to Bangalore where I’ll touch down in the subcontinent for my very first time.

They say India has 300 million gods.  If mundane averages applied to divinity, they would have a mere three or four worshippers each.  But if said deities pooled their devotees, there would be over one billion and counting, a population set to soon overtake China’s.  India is already the world’s biggest democracy, has the second biggest Muslim population (after Indonesia), and third most English speakers (after USA and UK).  It’s also the third biggest, and much the cheapest, publisher of English books, which may increase my aircraft’s fuel consumption on the return journey.   India has 18 official languages and over 1600 minor ones, with English the lingua franca, as Hindi is only widely spoken in the North.

Since November 2006, Bangalore is officially Bengaluru, following many Indian cities in reverting from English to precolonial names, much as Mount Egmont in New Zealand is again called by its Maori name of Taranaki.  Bangalore is the capital of the southern state of Karnataka (population about 55 million; official language Kannada), due west of Madras/Chennai (see India map here).  The temperature should be bearable: October-February is the cool season in India, and at 920m, the “garden city” of Bangalore is less hot than elsewhere.

Bangalore is now “the Silicon Valley of India”, an international hub for call centres and computer software.  With many expats and engineering students, it’s also India’s pub capital, with the most bars per head of any Indian city.  The population (and pollution) has doubled over the last two decades to about 6 million.  Of India’s biggest 6 cities, 1-3 are further north, but I’ll probably see 4-6 in the South.  For those who like stats (from www.world-gazetteer.com):

Colonial English “New” Indian Approx. pop.
1 Bombay Mumbai 20 million
2 Delhi Dilli 18 million
3 Calcutta Kolkata 15 million
4 Madras Chennai 7 million
5 Bangalore Bengaluru 6 million
6 Hyderabad Haidarabad 6 million

So what, you may ask, am I doing there?  I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Theology last year, and am now considering post-graduate study options.  Via an Indian contact of Auckland University’s theology HOD, I’ve been invited to the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) in Bangalore for a one-month course on Indian culture and religions.  After that I’ll explore southern India for 3 weeks, and check out a few of Bangalore’s 20-odd Bible/theology colleges as possibilities for future study.

Hinduism (82% of Indians), Buddhism (0.8%), Jainism (0.4%), Sikhism (2%) began in India, while Christianity (2.3%), Islam (12%), and Zoroastrianism have been present for centuries.  On the program we’ll have lectures on all these faiths and visit their places of worship. Here is the official “Aim and Objective of the Course”:

  • To give a first hand experience of the Indian Society, its heritage, culture(s), faiths, politics, economics and context.
  • To obtain a meaningful exposure to the Indian Faith Based Organizations – their philosophy, theology, history, worshiping places and to learn and participate in the spiritual celebrations of India.
  • To learn and reflect on the Pluri-faith living expressions and the role of the Organized and Unorganized faith based Communities (Religions and faiths) towards Social Amity.
  • To understand Globalization and its impact on the Indian Society.

The course is run for St. Olaf College, a private Lutheran University in Minnesota, USA.  Between black-haired, brown-eyed Indians and blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans, it’ll be a double culture shock – I’ll be the only one who speaks English properly!   Last year’s report describes how the group was “welcomed with tender coconut water in a creatively decorated form” on one field trip, and the American students exclaimed, “Oh…it was a blast”!

To brace myself for the explosion, I’ve been reading Indian history texts, cross-referencing Lonely Planet for what’s still there today, and discovering the culture through Indian English novelists with their lyrical, innovative English and variegated settings.  (Recommendations for fellow bibliophiles: Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, Gita Mehta, V S Naipaul, R K Narayan, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie.)  I’m tracking current events from websites of English daily newspapers (e.g. www.timesofindia.com, www.indianexpress.com, www.hindustantimes.com), collaring Indian acquaintances and attending Hari Krishna scripture studies.

India has been called an “assault on the senses”.  Some fall in love and extend their visas; some book the first flight out and swear never to return.  I plan to drink only bottled water, but most tourists still get sick.   I’ve heard most people are friendly, but with nearly one third below the poverty line, there are reputedly countless beggars, hawkers and pickpockets.  So I’m feeling both excited and nervous and will appreciate your prayers!

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