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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



Pushing through the Surf and Bracing for Take-off

I pump up my phone, poison my shirts, and ponder what books to pack in my case; I count my southern blessings and brace for psychic assault.

A friend compared the pre-departure chaos to getting the boat through the surf as you launch out into the deep.  Or planning an extended tramping trip, wrestling to fit gear in your pack and weighing up what you don’t need and worrying about what you’ve missed, before the sigh of relief as you step out on the trail, the die is cast and decisions are left behind.

I’ve spent the last week crossing off multitudinous “to do” lists.  Loading Dad’s classical music collection, Hindi learning videos, maps and Lonely Planet India onto my new phone; last weekend’s Times of India news onto my Kindle.  Training Mum on computer tasks, and installing remote access software to help her from overseas.  Purging my filing cabinets and cupboards, filling bins with expired clothing and notes.  Sorting out Dad’s wardrobe with Mum to find cool shirts for English teaching in the heat.  Donning gloves to impregnate my mosquito net and travel shirt with permethrin to kill bugs on contact.  Getting hair and beard trimmed to remove excess insulation.

I’ve been googling internet security: had my gut been as infected as my USB stick was in 2007, I’d never have left the bathroom.  I’m higher tech this time, and the bad guys will also have upped their game.  I’ve confirmed accommodation contacts, and been invited to a wedding in Bangalore – with 2000 other guests!  Weighing up books versus clothes in my case.  For a list of physical (versus electronic) books I’m taking, see here .  I’ve re-read cards received during the year and am taking a couple to cheer me up in hard moments.

And of course I’m farewelling friends and counting the blessings I will miss.  Familiar faces.  Hokey-pokey ice cream.  Jogging along Auckland’s waterfront.  Spotting the Southern Cross; soon I’ll be navigating by the North Pole Star!  Turning on the tap for a glass of water; I’ve got purification tablets (dissolve and wait for 30 min) and an ultraviolet Steripen lamp (submerge and stir for 40 seconds) if I run out of safe bottled water.  I may desperately miss the public and university libraries, a few minutes’ walk from my office, but at least Bangalore and Delhi have good bookstores!  (I listed things I missed about New Zealand in India during 2007 here.)

In the words of writer Shashi Tharoor, India’s civilisation was “the birthplace of four major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, 85 political parties, and 300 ways of cooking the potato”.  With such diversity, it’s frequently said that for any statement about India, the opposite is equally true.  It’s a land of contrasts, where even a steady stolid phlegmatic may become manic depressive, swinging between ecstasy and excrement.

I’ll probably be troubled by crippled beggars; yet India reportedly has the most billionaires of any Asian country.  India has around 40% illiteracy and standard women are far worse off than men; but few years pass without an Indian novelist shortlisted for the Booker prize – and many are female.  Earthquake-potholed, rubble-strewn Christchurch streets reminded me of normal Indian roads; but after the pumping commercial sparkle of Bangalore’s malls, Auckland’s central Queen Street feels like a drab small town.  Even the time zone is ambivalent and eludes the usual schedule: India is 7 ½ hours behind New Zealand.  So if my reactions range from delight to despair, I hope no Indian readers will take offence.

My next missive, God willing, will be from offshore: tomorrow I fly!

Rail Rage and Hindi: India Take Two

I battle to book grumpy trains and incensed hotels, I’m insured against mad dogs and bone up on strange scripts.

Friends, relations, colleagues,

For those who haven’t heard, I’m going to spend most of 2012 in Asia!

On Tuesday 28 February I fly with Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur for three nights, then on to Bangalore in southern India.  I’ll leave my suitcase there, and fly on 5 March with local airline SpiceJet to Delhi for a month in northern India.  From Easter I’ll be back in Bangalore, joining a team to teach academic English to theology students for seven weeks.  On 27 May, I’ll return to Kuala Lumpur for 5 to 6 months, continuing my current web development work for the University of Auckland on line, before coming home for Christmas.

I spent two weeks in Malaysia in 2004 and two months in southern India during 2007 – you can find my India reports here.  Now these countries are drawing me back.

Last week I battled to book trains.  With 63,000 km of tracks and around 6900 stations, the Indian rail network is the third longest in the world (after Russia and China – one guidebook said 109,000 km of tracks, making it the second longest).  7500 locomotives transport 13-20 million passengers per day.  It’s the world’s largest utility employer with 1.5 million staff and has a massive booking system, which, I have found, is massively overloaded.  The third-party website I used (www.cleartrip.com) was elegant and fast but mostly failed when interfacing with the national system.  Its upbeat messages were amusing at first, but grew stale after four or five readings, exasperating after seven or eight, and infuriating by the time they reached double figures:

“Oops! We weren’t able to process your payment.  Your payment has been declined by your bank. .. We know this sucks but it happens at times…”


“Just like people, our system sometimes has a bad day and gets grumpy.”

Yes, it sucks, and I too became grumpy – to put it mildly – when getting these errors at all hours of the day and night; after typing my credit card details until I knew them by heart; after five long calls to my New Zealand bank made no progress, and bad lines plus strong accents rendered the Mumbai helpdesk incomprehensible (though high marks for courtesy and effort to both countries); when about one reservation per day succeeded, as I watched trains I wanted book out two months in advance and I began to wonder if I’d ever make it on board…

As well as the impressive stats above, 400-500 train crashes occur per year in India, I read, killing 700-800 people, making it the most dangerous rail network in the world.  Do I really want to get on board?  Here I am fighting Indian infrastructure before I even get there – why on earth am I going back?!

After a week that threatened premature baldness, I now have almost all trains and accommodation confirmed:

  • Two weeks in New Delhi with side trips to the pink city of Jaipur and perhaps the Taj Mahal.
  • A homestay in Lucknow, centre of the 1857 uprising against the British – I hope they’ll be more welcoming to me.
  • Two days at The Leprosy Mission’s Vocational Training Centre in Faizabad.
  • A week at Allahabad Bible Seminary – might I possibly teach there in the future?
  • Several days in Bhopal, site of the 1984 chemical disaster, from where a most welcoming e-mail provided some relief from railroad rage:

Dear Sir,
It is with special pride that we invite you to be our honored guest at Bhopal, Splendidly we introduce to you our New venture HOTEL SONALI, …
….  We Offer you the following exquisite facilities…
Our endeavor would be to provide you the best service, comfort and Convenience. So we hope during your next visit at Bhopal, you would surely Give us a chance to serve you better. We assure to make your stay a pleasant And comfortable one.  (sic)

We will see whether reality matches the rhetoric!  It is a good sign that the manager monitors travel website www.tripadvisor.com.  To the latest review on 27 January:

“Far too much incense is constantly being burnt in the lobby. When we entered the hotel it was like stepping into a cloud.”

He replied in three days:

We will take use of incense stick down immediately”

I’ll let you know whether I’m asphyxiated upon arrival!

As second and third classes were fully booked, I just had to go first-class for 15 hours overnight to reach Hyderabad by Good Friday.  (See a map of my trip here.  Click on any city for my dates there and information about it.)

Medical visits have also provided respite from the rail: my optician for an updated lens prescription; my dentist for my first filling ever L; my doctor for a typhoid booster, three rabies shots at $120 each, and so many pills he joked I’ll resemble a walking pharmacy.  (I had most other vaccinations in 2007.)

Rather less costly and significantly more stimulating is some great reading on Indian culture and history over the past months, and digging into Teach Yourself Hindi.  Of India’s 1 billion inhabitants, around 10% speak English, and 40% Hindi, the biggest of 23 languages recognised in the Constitution.  I can now slowly read the Hindi script and know some simple phrases with basic grammar.  Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up newspaper headlines and introduce myself after the month in Hindi-speaking northern states.

All in all, 2012 promises to be a rich mixture of travel and teaching, language and learning, culture and computing.  A time of growth and discovery and challenge, exploring options for my future.  I’m both effervescent and apprehensive, especially about the first month of solo India travel.  And later looking for a flat among the 7 million residents of Kuala Lumpur!

This will be my longest time away from home and family so a new season of life for me, and likewise for my mother, learning to live alone after Dad died one year ago.

And the Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you.”  Genesis 12, c. 2000 BC

If anyone asks for me, tell them I’m off on an adventure.  I’m lost on purpose, to be found by love.  John of the Cross, 16th century

Sati and IT: Social Stats and the Bangalore Boom

Mobile phones and infant mortality, American call centres and drought-dead farmers, software outsourcing and burning wives: ironies of India’s growth.

Several classes of the course introduced socioeconomic issues.  In 1991 the Indian economy nearly collapsed when the Gulf War drove oil prices up.  This forced rapid liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, which led to dramatic growth.  Standout stats I’ve heard: from 1991 to 2006, foreign reserve increased from US$1.5 million to $220 billion, and annual software exports grew from US$150 million to over $31 billion.  From 1997 to 2007, Telecom subscribers increased from 15 to 225 million.  From 2000 to 2005, mobile phone users grew from 3 million to over 100 million.

These figures are impressive, making India one of the emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China), but India’s social problems remain huge.  “India’s economy offers a schizophrenic glimpse of a high-tech 21st century future amid a distressingly mediaeval past” (Edward Luce, 2006).  The country is still almost three-quarters rural.  Villagers often struggle to survive and over 10,000 drought-stricken farmers commit suicide annually (see Wikipedia here).  India has an average life expectancy of 63 years, 5.7% infant mortality, and 46% of kids under three years old are underweight – one million die of diarrhoea every year.

Living standards for the poor are increasing, but not as fast as for the rich, so the gap is growing.  In 1991 there was a single TV station.  In 2006 there were more than 150, bombarding the disadvantaged with advertising images of upper-class luxuries they’ll never afford.  This can fuel resentment.  I’ve heard compound fences in some parts are growing higher.

Another lecturer praised the high role of women in the earliest Indian religion, compared to their subservient status since.  Male children are strongly preferred because the bride’s family pays a high dowry, and a son must perform the funeral rituals.  Without these the parent’s soul cannot be reincarnated and becomes a “ghost”.  Female foeticide is rife, although many hospitals refuse to do prenatal gender testing and display a “no sex determination” sign.

India has 933 women for every 1000 men.  The paper reported the Northwest state of Punjab has only 739 women, so they are bought in from other states.  A woman costs about 3000 rupees.  A buffalo costs 30,000.  Baby girls are often abandoned in parks, trains, garbage heaps.  Sikh leaders have ordered Punjab gurudwaras to place cradles at the entrance so parents could leave “those innocent children at God’s door, not death’s”.

The custom of Sati, where a good widow is expected to burn herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, is of course illegal, as is honour killing of women who have shamed their family by supposed immorality or bringing an inadequate dowry.  In rural areas, however, a remarkably high number of women are burned in “kitchen accidents”.

In our final class on Friday, an HR consultant talked about Bangalore’s rapid IT boom, especially since Y2K computer panic in the USA increased the need to outsource software.  Call centre workers typically work night shifts, are given English names, learn Western accents, and earn more than others, so they expect Western lifestyles ­– as seen in the many brand-name outlets lining the Bangalore’s Brigade Road (header image above).  As well as IT, many Western doctors and lawyers have their dictated notes transcribed in Bangalore.  In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (2005) Thomas Friedman wrote:

It was somewhere between the interview with the Indian entrepreneur who wanted to do my taxes from Bangalore and the one who wanted to write my software from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to read my x-rays from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to trace my lost luggage from Bangalore…  I was realizing that, while I had been sleeping, while I had been off covering the 9/11 wars, I had missed something really fundamental in this globalization story. I had lost the thread, and I found it in Bangalore.

A few weeks ago the newspaper reported that traffic through Bangalore’s airport increased 40% over the last 12 months and that every day 500 new vehicles enter Bangalore’s streets (fewer than 963 per day in Delhi).  It wasn’t for nothing that in 2006 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said:

Bangalore is a brand the world identifies India with. It is also the single biggest reason why India has become such a hot investment destination.

But of course this growth has a cost.  Last night in town I had to queue one hour to get an autorickshaw, which then took nearly one and a half hours to get back.  Both we and locals curse the boom time traffic!

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!