Category Archives: Bangalore

Schoolboy Souvenirs: Poster Children of India

I go back to school, learn how diverse India is and how to keep it neat and clean; I swot up biology, geography, history, and find 17 reasons to return.

sagar-stationery-bangaloreA few hours before my flight to Malaysia, I crouched at the entrance of Sagar Gift and Fancy Stationery.  I was sorting through a stack of school posters, all dusty from the street.  With rows of pictures captioned in both English and Hindi, they made excellent language practice and a wonderful cultural souvenir and were only two or three rupees each.  I purchased several dozen.

poster-children-of-indiaOn the “Children of India” poster, schoolboys from 17 different states or religions pose in characteristic dress.  Casual Kerala is in bare feet and bare head with a bunch of bananas and a cross around his neck: doubting St Thomas likely landed in this south-west coastal state.  At the country’s other extreme, a northeast tribal Naga boy has earrings and a headdress of feathers like an American Indian.  The lad from Himachal Pradesh in the sub-Himalayas wears long sleeves and trousers, with shoes and a walking stick.  A Sikh boy strides smartly to school in tie and collared shirt, socks pulled up and a leather satchel on his back.  The poster demonstrates how India more resembles Europe than a single nation, as do posters of married couples and dances from each state.  As Winston Churchill said, “India is merely a geographical expression.  It’s no more a single country than the equator.”

poster-community-cleanlinessSeveral posters teach these lads and their sisters how to be good citizens.  “Community Cleanliness” shows a girl tipping rubbish into a dustbin in a village that looks unbelievably litter-free.  Nowhere in India, alas.  Smiling pupils show how to “keep the school clean” by polishing desks and wiping the blackboard, and “keep the village library neat and clean”.  Women carry water in bulbous red jars from a village well that’s also “kept neat and clean”, before a warning against “drainage of sullage and sewage into fields”.  This poster reminded me again that, although India has some of the planet’s biggest cities and that’s where I’ve mostly been, around two thirds of the population still lives in rural villages.

The predictable exhortations on “Road Traffic Signs” made me laugh when I thought of Indian roads.  “Always Stand in Queue at the Bus Stop”, “Always Walk on Foot-path”, “Always Keep Left”, “Always Obey Traffic Signals”, and “Never let any part of your body outside the vehicles”.  As we Kiwis say, yeah right!  Few students pass these tests.  “Driving rashly through the heavy traffic is dangerous”.  Don’t I know it after three months here.

poster-indian-snacks“National Symbols” teaches children, and me, that India’s national animal, bird and flower are the tiger, peacock and lotus.  Posters for geography class show rivers and dams of India.  For biology there is “Beaks and Paws” of 20 birds (most colourful is the Copper-Smith) and 16 trees with their fruit.  Historical posters cover gods and sages in the Hindu period, then Moghul emperors and monuments like the Red Fort and Taj Mahal, then chubby-faced British colonial rulers, then 24 Freedom Fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, before Presidents and Prime Ministers of independent India.  In a patriarchal society where far fewer girls can read and write than guys, it was good to find two posters featuring 32 great Indian women: from Moghul princesses to Mother Teresa, Gandhi’s wife to Prime Minister Indira, astronauts to novelist Arundhati Roy.

poster-means-of-recreationFor once school is out, there is “Means of Recreation”.  This is a curious poster, drawn in a different style, with English children, not Indian.  A dog sits straight up beside a boy fishing, his arm around his little sister, in an idyllic vignette that looks like a biscuit box picture.  There is a rollercoaster at an amusement park, a merry-go-round at a fair, and a stage magician in tails, who looks quite Victorian.  An earnest young gentleman plays billiards.  A curly blonde lass points with glee at a black and white clown on TV.  On the beach, a white woman in yellow bikini with champagne glass suggests an American dream of California.  I’d have guessed it was an old Western poster, a collage of pre-war advertisements perhaps, except for the Hindi script and a single caption below kids playing in the snow: “Hill station”.

poster-festivals-of-indiaPosters of spices, snacks and sweet dishes helped me identify what I’ve eaten and remember what I’ll miss: Paoo-Bhaji and Chole-Bhatore, samosas and dosas and laddoos.  My favourite poster has 20 Festivals of India that showcase the country’s religious diversity: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, as well as a secular parade of tanks and helicopters on Republic Day.  I’ve only been here for Diwali, Dussehra, and Holi, leaving 17 more reasons to return!

See collections of Indian School Posters online here and here.  (I want to find the Moral Stories series next time!)

Batting, Baking and King Chilli Pork

I’m inducted into the creed of cricket and cringe as bandits attack; I’m thanked with pink icing and farewelled with pork.

As well as power cuts and oppressive heat, summer brought the 76-match IPL cricket series.  The Indian Premiere League is apparently the second-highest paid sporting association after the NBA.  Players earn on average US$4 million per year and teams have been sold for over US$300 million, some to Bollywood stars.  I’ve read that 80% of cricket’s global revenue comes from India.

I’m at sixes and sevens when it comes to cricket, but many Indians have said I resemble NZ’s cricket captain Daniel Vettori.  I wouldn’t know.  I hadn’t heard of him before I came.  There’s even a Kiwi or two on the IPL teams.  I thought I should experience the Indian obsession before I leave, and I can almost count it as religious study.  Cricket is practically a creed here.  When Sachin Tendulkar came to visit one front page screamed, “GOD COMES TO TOWN” – only at a second glance did I see the small font “cricket” that came first.  So I joined the boys to watch the gods play live on TV several evenings.

Cricket must be one of England’s most enduring gifts to its former colony and it’s been called an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British, but the IPL hype recalled American football more than leisurely British reserve.  Teams have names like the “Delhi Daredevils”, “Pune Warriors” or “Deccan Chargers”, with logos of roaring lions, a snorting bull or a mounted spearman.  Cheerleaders in miniskirts dance with pompoms.

india-ipl-cricket-teamsMy students taught me the rules, or tried: as one writer said, “baseball is to cricket as simple addition is to calculus”.  I understood enough to share their excitement as the Chennai Super Kings took out the Kolkata Knight Riders with a six in the very last ball.  I savoured the accent of an Aussie commentator, and was surprised by eloquent outbursts from the junior cook, whom I’d thought did not speak English: “Catch, catch, come on… very good, very good catch – three wickets out!…  Oh beauty, what a six, yeah!”  Phrases from years of cricket-watching, I presume.  I shared the frustration when lights and TV died – praying for power to come back, beseeching someone to switch on the diesel generator, texting friends for updates.  At 9 pm, someone from the North replied, it was still 45oC in Delhi.  I’m glad I’d escaped to down here by summer.

I enjoyed the adverts as much as the game, for their snatches of Hindi and humour.  A car drives through a rocky desert on a dark and stormy night.  It is forced to stop where a tree trunk blocks the road.  A gang of fierce bandits swoops down.  Driver and wife quail in terror.  The bandit chief, with a wicked grin, taps on the car window with the butt of his gun.  Electric window slides down a crack.  With an even broader grin the bandit asks in an eager wheedling tone, “What is score?”  Camera zooms in to the built-in TV on the car dashboard. Batsman strikes and crowd erupts and bandits group around to watch: it’s the latest feature of car model X.

One morning in the last week of English teaching, as the wives and children of students arrived for the coming semester, I found a baby bat trembling on the curtain of my classroom.  It flew off once gently bumped onto the windowsill.  For our farewell party, the lady teachers baked peanut brownies, chocolate chip biscuits and cupcakes with pink raspberry icing.  The smell reminded me of home.  The class presented us each with a hand-made card and a group photo with warm thanks, although some admitted of our Kiwi accents that: “the first few days I couldn’t get much because of adjusting pronunciation.”

kiwi-cookiesIn the final days of teaching, I had a little Bangalore belly, my only sickness here.  The other teachers covered my classes while I studied the tiles of my bathroom and made occasional excursions to bed.  I’d read that Indians love to play doctor and it seemed to be true.  For my stomach, one student prescribed gulab jamun, a desert made from balls of milk powder soaked in sweet syrup, or maybe lemon juice.  Another said that sleeping under a fan with a bare stomach is bad for digestion – I always do!  A third recommended I try bananas and avoid jackfruit.  Several expected me to be dosing up on drugs.  I took my own prescription of dry crackers or toast and Marmite, with glasses of the orange-flavoured rehydration mixture my Auckland doctor had prescribed – almost the only item of my medicine box that I used except for daily malaria tablets – and a day later things were looking up.

On most weekends students from the Northeast states prepared their chilli pork special, so hot it made their own noses run.  On my final evening, I helped Worchihan cook it in the male students’ kitchenette.  For chefs among my readers, here’s the formula:

Ingredients: pork, onions, garlic, ginger, salt, turmeric, and chilli powder from local markets.  King chillies and fermented bamboo shoots from the Northeast.

Instructions: Peel and slice onions, garlic and ginger, then crush with mortar and pestle.  Combine all ingredients and cook for an hour or two.  Do not add water.

In the cramped room, in long sleeves with trousers tucked into my socks to keep off mosquitoes, it was sweaty work. While we peeled and cut and crushed, Surendra entertained us with his guitar – Amazing Grace et al. – and with music on his phone.  “This is when we have fun”, said Worchihan once the pot was bubbling away: time to relax and chat, shaking the saucepan every five minutes to mix and avoid burning.  They helped me identify words in Bollywood songs and Hindi Christian choruses, before dancing to the Back Street Boys and Justin Bieber’s “Baby Baby Baby”.

chilli-pork-specialThen up to the TV room for the interstate cricket semi-final of Delhi vs Chennai.  The last Delhi batter went out around 10:30pm and we trooped back down for pork and rice.  The spicy pork was a slight gamble with my recovering stomach but too good to miss, and despite my contribution it didn’t disappoint.  Except for Kevi, who complained that we’d only added four king chillies: there’d be a better taste with eight.

Biblical Power Plagues: Sweating in Suburban Bangalore

I find churches of every persuasion, marvel at Bangalore’s IT boom and measure its electrical bust; I’m as hot as James Bond but wet as a frog when it comes to catching snakes.

The surrounding suburb seems like the Bible Belt of Bangalore.  I’ve found no mosques, though heard a distant prayer call at night and passed the Masha Allah Chicken Biryani Hotel, so there are Muslims around, and I’ve only seen a few small Hindu temples which are mostly closed.

temple-entrance-gateThe 1.5m high granite slabs lining the road are painted with arrows to Christian organisations like Home of Hope – a rehabilitation center, Prison Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, Union of Evangelical Students.  On an advert for “Nazareth Inc. UPS”, glowing electric blue stars radiate from an Uninterruptible Power Supply – something you can’t do without here: there’s a sermon illustration!

bangalore-biryani-restaurantWithin 15 minutes’ walk are Bethel Brethren, two different Assemblies of God, a large Church of South India (roughly like Anglican), Roman Catholic convents, a sign pointing to “Christ the King Church”, and the Infant Jesus Children’s Home.  Further along, past Omega Christian Books and the Galilee Fish and Chicken Center, a tall poster proclaims “Jesus, I trust in you”, with rays of light like red and blue sari fabric streaming from Christ’s heart.  The St Lourdes Grotto mimics the pilgrimage shrine in France with a small alcove of stones set in concrete beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary.  Murals depict the Nativity, life of Christ, and ascension of Mary.  A row of tea lights flicker as a tearful woman prays.

bangalore-catholicFor a software developer like me, Bangalore is a notable town.  In 1906, it became India’s first city with electricity.  It now has the country’s second highest literacy at 83% (after Mumbai), and the most engineering colleges, as well as the most pubs and the highest proportion of smokers (34%).  In the last two decades, it has become India’s IT capital.  The inventor of Hotmail grew up here and many Americans have been “Bangalored”, losing their jobs due to outsourcing.  Foreign IT campuses are self-contained cities, enclaves of America with first world facilities.

There are still open fields nearby, even a few with cattle, but my brief run before breakfast or dinner also passed new buildings covered in wobbly-looking bamboo scaffolding, while a construction crane overlooked the flat roof where I cooled off.  The civic infrastructure can’t handle the rocketing population.  A billboard over the entrance to the Ajantha Hotel where I stayed in central Bangalore showed a woman wielding an electric iron bigger than her and read:

Excessive power consumption in one home leads to darkness in ten homes.  SAVE POWER.
Let us do our bit.  Avoid ironing clothes during peak hours between 6 and 9 in the morning and in the evening.

I experienced this darkness in my own home here.  My flat is equipped with battery backup light, candles and matches on the desk.  Gas rings to boil water when the electric water filter and jug won’t go.  On top of the Samsung fridge is a heavy object shaped like a flying saucer with red “input” and “output” lights that went off and on every day: a V-Guard Electronic Voltage Stabiliser.  For techies, the specs read, “Output voltage: 200-240 V, from input: 170-260 V.  Low and high voltage cut-off: 145 V and 270 V.  Time delay: 2 to 4 ms”.  Wished I’d brought a pocket multi-meter to measure the mains variation, and graph it against fan rotation frequency.  My students could have used their new vocab to describe the plot, with plenty of “sporadic fluctuations”, “imperceptible lows” or “fitful spikes”.

bangalore-potboilerThe spasmodic vacillation became more predictable and more vexatious in the final weeks when classroom fans stopped around 3 pm, just as the temperature climbed to the mid-30s.  Without the breeze, mosquitoes buzzed by my ears and little bugs flew at my eyes.  At 920 m above sea level, Bangalore used to be pleasantly cool, but is heating up as trees and lakes are replaced by buildings and pollution – which makes the sky glow red at night.

Magazine articles like “Sunny Side Up!” or “Bangalore Potboiler!” said, “You can no longer look smug when friends from Chennai and Delhi complain about the heat in their cities”.  The whiteboard markers dry out almost overnight, and I never use my shower heater.  I sometimes wake sweating with itchy arms: the fan over my double bed has stopped, dropping my shield against heat and mosquitoes.  After dark I feel like James Bond, padding around my flat bare-chested with a wet flannel cooling my back and a Maglite for his Magnum stuck in my waistband.

bangalore-sunnyAs well as heat, we’ve had dramatic thunderstorms and downpours, when drains overflow and traffic crawls as windscreen wipers are overwhelmed.  In 1961 Bangalore had 262 lakes, but all except 80 have now been filled in, which makes the flooding worse.  My salt shaker proclaimed “remains free flowing even in the rainy season”.  One night – without power for six hours – lightning strikes were so frequent I set my camera to ten seconds exposure and let nature’s flashbulb illuminate the garden outside my window.  After the rains, small frogs hopped around, providing, I was told, tasty meals for snakes – so look out where you walk.  It wasn’t idle advice.  Our driver stopped short of the gate one night for a cobra to cross the road.  A stray dog fled.  Campus boys were thrilled to find a snake under the house of teachers Dennis and Barbara, who were somewhat less delighted.  Our students were unperturbed.  One informed me that snake tastes something like chicken neck and said, “You catch; we cook!”  I said I’d prefer, “You catch and cook; I eat!”  In the words of Christ,

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake?”  Luke 11:11

bangalore-galilee-fish-and-chicken

Prophet’s Tooth and Sarasvati’s Lute: Chasing Calendar Icons

I visit mosques of the world and unearth relics of Mohammed; I collect a pantheon of cartoon gods and choose a winning goddess.

In between my encounters with fruits, flowers, and primal colours that make even Disney look tame (see previous post here), I found a vendor of Muslim devotional items.  When I asked if he had calendars, he strode off.  I almost lost him around a maze of corners, before reaching the Naaz Book Depot.  It had racks of calendars, many designed by the owner on his PC.  He bemoaned the decline in Arabic calligraphy.  Few people have the patience to spend hours or months doing by hand what computers can print in minutes.  When I said I was teaching English, he asked whether I taught calligraphy: he’d be my student.  I admitted my ignorance of the art – Dad once compared my writing to a drunken spider staggering across the page – and asked which of his calendars sold the best.

muslim-calendar-2012-meccaI bought two, both arranged by Western dates with the Muslim lunar days in small letters.  My birthday this year was Rabi-ul-Awwal 30.  Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals are marked in Hindi, English and Urdu scripts.  One calendar shows mosques on each page.  January has an aerial night-time photo of Mecca.  The concentric white rings of praying figures reminded me of raked sand in a Zen garden.  Other months show an old khaki façade in East Turkistan, a bland concrete box in Canada, a mosque in Jakarta with blue batik patterns, and the “floating” mosque in Borneo.  December gleamed with the Crystal Masjid in Malaysia, a fantasy of metallic domes and spires.  The collection of shots gave me a sense of the worldwide community of Islam.  On the rear of each page are the five daily prayer times in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore.

The second calendar has quarterly pages and is less orthodox.  Instead of mosques it has pictures of relics: a rough-edged parchment letter written by Muhammad, the Holy Mantle of the Prophet Mohammed, the “protective case of the leather sandal of the Prophet Hazrat Mohammed”, and, in a lump of black granite, the footprint of Mohammed.  The sword of Mohammed lies alongside its jewel encrusted sheath; jewelled reliquaries contain the tooth of Mohammed and soil from Mohammed’s grave.  Something like black wool in a glass cylinder with golden caps is labelled hair from the beard of Mohammed.  (Will anyone care to save my whiskers?)   By way of variety, one page had a box and blouse from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, with two items of clothing from the Shiite martyr Imam Hussain.

muslim-calendar-muhammad-relicsEach page has a saying of Mohammed from the Hadith.  “One should be scared of death, so stand up when you notice a funeral”.  “That nation will never be benefited which is owned and governed by a woman”.  I didn’t ask my new acquaintance what he thought of Prime Minister Indira or Sonia Gandhi.  But I shouldn’t mock, for “Backbiters will not enter Paradise”, and “those who do not show Mercy to others, Allah will never be Merciful to them.”

The centre of each page is a circular swirl of colour and calligraphy.  I suspect one page is the 99 names of God; page 4 resembled a Tibetan Buddhist Mandela.  I was intrigued by the promises appended to Arabic invocations, which struck me as more superstitious than Islamic.  “Whoever recites this Darood 80 times after Asar prayer on Friday his 80 years of sins are forgiven by the grace of Allah.”  Christ said he could call on 12 legions of angels (Matthew 26:53) or 72,000 in Roman military terms.  With a few repetitions you too can engage a similar count of heavenly aides.  “Reciting this Darood Shareef prompts seventy thousand angels to register virtues for the person who recites it up to one thousand day.”

7-secrets-from-hindu-calendar-artEquipped with Muslim calendars, I went in search of the Hindu equivalent. I’d seen garish calendars of gods hanging in shops, offices, hotels, and houses and had just bought a book that explains their meanings: Seven Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art.  I drew a blank on calendars, but around another corner two men were mounting pictures of gods in gold-painted frames.  Larger reproductions were embossed with glitter.  I asked to buy one of each smaller, non-sparkling print, which gave me 18 vivid icons of the most common gods, as bright as Walt Disney cartoons and spunkier than American superheroes.

hanuman-posterMonkey-god Hanuman, green as the Incredible Hulk, strides across a mountain meadow.  One hand wields a golden mace studded with rubies and emeralds; the other holds a forested hill aloft like a waiter carrying a plate.  (He had been dispatched to get a certain healing herb that grows on this sacred hill.  His botanical knowledge falls short of his strength so he brings the whole mountain instead.)

Elephant-headed Ganesh sits on a yellow lotus, belly bulging beneath his trunk.  His right tusk is broken off.  He was the scribe of the epic Mahabharata and his nib broke as he was writing it down.  Dictation continued so fast he had to grab this tusk for a pen.  His mouse crouches at his feet and nibbles on a sweet.  Ganesh is the son of blue-skinned Shiva, who sits on a Himalayan glacier with a trident, a cobra coiled around his neck and the river Ganges cascading from his knotted hair (see my post on Shiva here).  The god Vishnu reclines on the multi-hooded cosmic serpent, or poses in his incarnation with a lion’s head (see my post on Vishnu’s avatars here).

Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, sits in the lotus position on a pink lotus and pours out a shower of gold coins – businessmen love her.  My set lacked the gory gals who are favourites with feminists: Durga riding a tiger with abundant arms waving fearsome weapons, or black-skinned Kali with a necklace of skulls, tearing out a man’s intestines.

ganesh-lakshmi-postersOf all the female deities, whether sexy or scary, my babe would have to be Saraswati.  She’s the goddess of learning and the arts and I did get a picture of her.  She wears a red blouse and modest white sari.  One hand holds a book, a second fingers meditation beads, while her other two arms play the stringed veena, a sort of long bulbous lute.  For a portrait of Saraswati that’s less garish and Mickey Mouse, I bought a card at a Bangalore art gallery.  Ravi Varma was influenced by European painting, and he seats Saraswati in an impressionist scene of lotus blossoms on a pastel lake (1896).ravi-varma-1896-Saraswati

Olfactory Overload and Market Mélange

I breakfast on spicy crêpe, follow my nose to market, and cook up Indian aromas; I practice Hindi and bypass heatstroke, dodge dentists and float through floral fantasies.

mavalli-tiffin-rooms-waiterI began my penultimate Saturday in Bangalore at the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, where steam from metre-wide vats of sambar clouded my camera lens as I entered.  It’s been a popular spot since 1924 and the walls are lined with black and white photographs.  It was the first fast food eatery to serve 21,000 customers in seven hours, and I had to put my name down to queue for one of the faux marble tables.  I ordered the classic South Indian breakfast of masala dosa: a thin pancake – sometimes over a foot long – wrapped around a yellow potato-onion curry, with side bowls of cooling coconut and spicy red chutney.

I made way for the next customer, stepped outside, and traversed a very different suburb from my previous weekend in the swept-up city centre of Nike and McDonald’s.  Here in one block were Birla Tyres and Raja Tools, the Hanuman Auto Centre, Sagar Radiators and Sita Tractor.  Hindu deities meet greasy mechanics.  I passed the Eastern Compressors and Pneumatics, Citizen Clutch Center, and Motor Cycle Shrinagar.  A poster over Studds Helmets and Accessories showed a rider performing a handstand and motorbike wheelie, while the Automotive Sales Corporation rhymed, “If you are making a bus, you will definitively need us”.  It was tempting, but I decided not to build a bus just now and moved on towards Bangalore’s City Market.

bangalore-mechanics-streetAlthough I carry map and compass, I could have just followed my nose.  Deepening piles of rotting produce spelt paradise for goats and cows.  A barefoot holy man with dreadlocks reverently touched one cow, then brought his hand to his forehead.  A kitten meandered past with diseased eye and missing patches of hair.  I stepped aside for a woman sweeping rubbish onto sackcloth.  Something didn’t seem right and I took another look: her sandaled feet each had six toes.  Further up the road, I squeezed between a stone wall and a truck delivering vegetables – the driver said he came every day from outlying farms.  Tomatoes were piled into stacks of square plastic crates and the ground was slippery with red pulp.  A front-loader cleared a path through the refuse.

vege-deliverySome months ago a friend asked for a sample of the aroma of India.  After endless experimentation, I have created the Titheridge Smell India At Home recipe, patent pending, to share such experience.  First assemble the following ingredients behind an old car or lawnmower with a dirty-burning engine: matches, perfume, a stick of incense, fragrant flowers, dry leaves, rotting compost, a fresh steaming Indian curry, a fresh steaming cow pat.  Then start the motor, spray the perfume, light the incense stick and burn the leaves.  Swallow a handful of curry, close your eyes and breathe deeply.  Voilà!  You have the olfactory mélange of an Indian market, without the cost of an airfare.  For that extra dash of aromatic authenticity, first go for a run so your shirt is soaked in sweat, then smash open a coconut and pee on the ground.

bangalore-market-workersWhat you won’t experience at home is being so often hailed “Your country, sir?  Your name?” that it’s hard to note your surroundings.  So many people asked for photos I feared my battery would run out.  One guy posed with a Jurassic Park T-shirt and cane basket on his head; two reclined on sacks of onions under a red awning.  A skinny bloke with a short lungi cloth wrapped around his waist leaned against boxes of Kashmiri Fresh Apples, while others sold emerald capsicums or lime peppers, mottled green-orange mangos or small sweet bananas.  Shiny scale pans were balanced by rusty hexagonal weights.

As the heat increased I also feared my water would run out, far from middle-class tourist terrain and 7-11 superettes.  I needn’t have worried.  Akbar was so delighted I knew of Emperor Akbar the Great he gave me a bottle of Indian “Fanta” from a friend’s shop.  He refused payment, proving that the study of history does have pragmatic value.  I passed a woman ladling cold drinks I wouldn’t trust from bulbous clay jars on a cart, then a guy in a singlet soaping and sluicing down his pavement.  He grabbed my hand, pulling me aside.  “Wait!  Wait!”  He sat me on a chair and shot off.  I’d just wiped off the soap suds when he reappeared with a bottle of Thumbs-up, the local Coke.  I don’t much like its liquorice tang.

In a shady side lane with more solitude, flowers were strung over apartment doors.  Drying saris rippled down from balconies like crimson and emerald waterfalls.  I sketched the kolam patterns on the step where I was sitting, traced out by women with a fistful of rice powder after sweeping their threshold at dawn.  These ones resembled a white Celtic knot; others are like multi-coloured flowers.  Most show a mathematical symmetry, like drawings from the Spirograph cogwheels I had as a boy.

A slim young chap with black beard sat on a scales platform – the LED display read 53 kg.  He invited me over, and was excited to find I could speak some Hindi.  Even a little makes a lot of friends.  A Muslim himself, he introduced his best friend, a Christian, then Hindu comrades, showing off his country’s inclusiveness.  He joked that one friend was the “Shaitan” (Satan) of Bangalore, drumming on the bare belly of a corpulent mate.  Another brandished an iron hook with a cow-horn handle, which he said he used to carry sacks weighing up to 150kg.  At last their chai-wallah pal arrived with a stack of glasses and thermos of steaming tea, for my third complementary beverage that day.

For lunch, I cooled off under a fan with my favourite Muslim dish of mutton biryani: spicy yellow basmati rice with tender meat, and a bowl of purplish eggplant-and-tomato curry.  I amused myself while waiting by identifying menu items in the “culinary reader” of my Lonely Planet phrasebook.

outdoor-market-dentistBack outside was a stand of pirated DVDs: the vendor offered me “Nauty Movie: English Romantic Video”.  Other stalls flaunted photos of dentists holding open their victims’ mouths, and vampire-like close-ups of jagged incisors in blood-red gums.  On their counters were neat rows of molars in glass cases, assorted pink dentures and torture instruments laid out for road-side extractions.

A man in a long purple shirt was combing his chest-length black beard near a booth with shelves of Muslim caps and perfume bottles.  The owner dabbed some on my shoulders and lapels.  I watched a woman praying at a small Sufi shrine, the tomb covered in red cloth and white jasmine with scores of small padlocks fastened to the green bars of the gate.  She held an open padlock and I wondered what she was asking for, but I gave up waiting for her to fasten it on.  Then back through the market farmyard – its aroma overpowered the perfume on my collar.  Pyramids of apples and oranges and limes, then a stack of pomegranates, the top row cut open like stars or flowers.  I declined a grubby handful of the crimson seeds, and entered the breezy but gloomy market building.

tikka-powderCones of powder as bright as a baby’s toys in yellow, pink and red.  I was nervous I’d jostle them in the crowd.  Pedal-driven sewing machines.  A shop of farming implements displayed scythes and sickles, then two wooden coffins leaning against the wall.

bangalore-flower-market-making-garlandsMen and women on the floor were pulling petals or stems off flowers of all colours, threading them into chains or tossing them into baskets.  Some were arranged on frames of lettering with wedding felicitations, or into a deity’s outline, or onto papier-mâché shrines.  A man announced I was from NZ and a young woman rose from the knee-high drifts of blossoms to tug my hand, saying something like “take me with you”.  I was startled.  A middle-class woman might shake hands, but I’d never been touched – or hardly addressed – by one in the market, except for beggars pulling my sleeve.

bangalore-flower-market-sellingEscaping the flirtatious florist, I moved towards the market’s inner sanctum.  Indian idols are often smothered in thick floral garlands; some are all of the same flower species, some have alternating stripes like blown-up football scarves.  In the central courtyard, lit by sunlight through the plastic roof, garlands were coiled in cane baskets a metre wide.  Salesmen drew them out to measure arm-lengths for customers.  Seen from the balcony above, each basketful resembled a huge blossom, or a giant pin cushion, or perhaps a pot of gluggy paint.  On the ground, swimming through the ocean of colour, it was a camera battery-flattening visual overload, the same vibrant explosion I experienced here in 2007 (see here).

bangalore-flower-market-above