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Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT

Trains and tunnels, ketupats and kampungs, fasting and food and forgiveness.  I take the Kelana Jaya line across Kuala Lumpur, rediscover the city, and learn how Malaysians celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Light Rail Transit and the Ketupat Challenge

Three years ago in Malaysia I was charmed by the Muslim fasting month.  The array of Ramadan greeting cards in the supermarket, some with Arabic calligraphy swirling around lamps and mosques, others with comic cartoons in Malay slang I hardly understood.  The vibrant colours and aromas at the evening Ramadan markets, where I’d wait with hungry locals for the prayer call to sound at dusk so we could eat.  And the displays at the entrance of each Light Rail Transit (LRT) station for Hari Raya, the Malay celebration at the end of the fasting month that’s elsewhere known as Eid.  Evoking both spiritual values and the rural life of yesteryear, some reminded me of nativity scenes and Christmas.

Now I’m back in Malaysia, again in Kuala Lumpur during Ramadan, and thought it could be fun to visit and photograph each station’s Hari Raya decorations. I thought it must have been done, but Google found surprisingly few shots of said station decorations.  The challenge was on!  What better way to reacquaint myself with the city’s geography while learning more about Malaysian culture?


The Kelana Jaya line begins at Gombak to the north-east (terminus photo above), soars over roads and rivers on elevated rails for eight stations, dives underground beneath the CBD for another five, then re-emerges for more great views past 11 more stations before it terminates at Kelana Jaya to the south-west.  In all, 29 km through 24 stations.  (17 km of further track and 13 new stations are under construction.)  In 2012 I could list them all by heart, as both places I stayed were on this line.  (For more info, see Wikipedia.)


As I set out, a whole two dozen stations seemed intimidating.  Would I get through them all in one day?  At least I’d already seen and shot four or five LRT displays in the past fortnight, so could leapfrog over several stops.  I soon found that some Ramadan displays were inside the ticket gates and others further out, so I sometimes needed to exit the system for a clear view.  This meant paying another fare, but public transport costs much less than in New Zealand and it was a chance to poke around the station, practice reading Malay signs, and search outside for food and drink.

I learnt from station staff that Rapid KL, the public transportation operator, sets an annual theme for their Hari Raya decorations.  One year it was kampung or village.  The end of Ramadan brings the country’s biggest holiday (like Christmas in the West), when Malays gather with family in their home town for a week or so.  Malaysians share a sense of nostalgia for this “balik kampung” or return to the village, and malls throughout Kuala Lumpur have life-size models of village houses (see The Star’s 2015 photos here).  The day before Hari Raya two weeks ago 1.6 million vehicles clogged the highways out of town.


When I was here three years ago Hari Raya fell near Malaysia’s Independence Day so, I learnt, Rapid KL had a combined Merdeka (Independence)-Raya theme.  This explains why the 2012 LRT station displays included so many Malaysian flags, as in the photo above.  Last year’s Hari Raya motif on the LRT was mosques.  For 2015 the theme is “ketupat”.

Ketupats are pouches the size of a small fist in the shape of a diamond or a triangle.  They resemble items woven from flax by New Zealand Maori.  In one market I watched women wind ribbons of coconut palm leaf around the fingers of one hand, then tuck and turn and pull and presto – the ketupat was done!  The pouches are filled with rice and boiled until it expands and is compressed into a dense lump.  They are then cut open, and the rice cake typically diced and served with spicy beef rending or satay.  Over Hari Raya ketupats adorn greeting cards and posters, dangle on shiny green and yellow ribbons, and twinkle in chains of lights like on a Christmas tree.  You’ll see plenty below. (See Wikipedia on ketupat.)

Setting out with Lemang

Last Wednesday morning I left my guesthouse and walked to station number 7, Dato’ Keramat.  My dictionary defines “keramat” as a place that is “holy and sacred, endowed with supernatural or magical powers (such as the ability to cure sickness)” – an auspicious stop for my start.  On my way I passed a rack of bamboo tubes over a charcoal barbecue, like some infernal pipe organ as it billowed with smoke above the flames.  These were another Hari Raya special of lemang.  Hollow bamboo is lined with banana leaf and filled with glutinous rice and coconut milk.  Once cooked for several hours and cooled, the tubes are split open with a machete.  The compressed rice is sliced into disks and served much like ketupat rice cakes, with a more smoky-coconut flavour.  Lemang are in hot demand during Hari Raya – some stalls prepare hundreds per day.  Look out for bamboo tubes in the Raya photos below.


From Dato’ Keramat station I worked my way to the northern end in almost vacant trains, gloating to see the city-bound coaches were packed.  I then shot back to Damai station, jumped over Ampang Park and KLCC where I planned to eat dinner, and continued stop by stop to the far end (bar another jump over Taman Jaya and Asia Jaya where I’d been the night before).  For our photo journey online, however, let’s embark at the northern terminal of Gombak and track through the stations in order.

KJ1-GombakKJ1 – Gombak

Serenity at the end of the line, almost in the jungle, with the vapour trail of a plane hanging still in the sky.  There’s a parking building for commuters and buses leaving for the Genting Highlands and Batu Caves.  The Hari Raya display was tucked behind the ticket office, so I had to swipe out of the station.  I bought nasi lemak for a classic Malaysian breakfast: rice cooked in coconut milk, with salty anchovies, peanuts, spicy sambal sauce and – in this case – quail eggs.  Wrapped in a tetrahedron of banana leaf for RM3 (NZ$1.20).


As well as toy ketupats dangling from the bamboo fence and filling a cane basket, the Gombak display featured other items I’d see all day.  A metal and glass kerosene lantern, wick lamps on poles and models of oil lamps or pelita that flicker along pathways to village houses during Ramadan nights.  There was a mock wood fire under a pot for boiling the ketupats, a silver bowl and teapot for rinsing fingers before eating, and a basket of white and purple onions.  Later stations added baskets of cinnamon sticks, red peppers, or other spices.


The greeting on the big green diamond (with the cute little train fronts) is in Malay – “Selamat Hari Raya”, while the poster at left is in Arabic – “Salam Aidilfitri”.  1436 indicates the current Muslim year of 1436 AH, the number of lunar years (354 days) since the Hijra, Mohammed’s move from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.

KJ2-Taman MelatiKJ2 – Taman Melati

This station featured more pelita and ketupats, and pink artificial flowers which looked more like a bouquet in my granny’s house than a Malay artefact.  There was also a greeting from the staff, roughly reading:

A blessed Aidilfitri from Rapid KL.  We workers of the Taman Melati station wish you happy Hari Raya, complete forgiveness [more on this in Part Two], and a safe journey to your village.  Drive carefully.  Be careful on the highway.  Remember, dearly loved ones are waiting your return as a family.

KJ2-Taman Melati-hari-raya

We pass a pretty mosque dome, pink with daisy patterns above the lush green undergrowth, then corrugated iron roofs scattered among the foliage, before tidy rows of tiled roofs and Chinese restaurants announce the next stop.

KJ3-Wangsa MajuKJ3 – Wangsa Maju

I simply shot this display over the ticket barriers.

KJ3-Wangsa Maju-hari-raya

I loitered here a few weeks ago at the neighbouring Ramadan Bazaar (see Timeout KL feature), where I bought the new-fangled fusion of Maggi murtabak (see Wikipedia): instant noodles fried in a batter pancake.

KJ3-Wangsa Maju-ramadan-market

KJ4-Sri RampaiKJ4 – Sri Rampai

This year’s display included paper figurines in a garden and a cane trap for fishing in rivers (at right).  From it dangled small envelopes for “duit raya”.  The National Bank reported withdrawals of RM 500 million the day before Hari Raya this year, 90% in one and five ringgit notes.  This is given in green envelopes to children as they visit houses with Hari Raya greetings.  The paper estimated that 5 million Muslim children 14 years old or under might receive five ringgit at each of 20 neighbourhood houses, making RM 100 or NZ $40 each.  This Malay tradition combines Muslim giving of alms, especially at Ramadan, and the red Ang Pow packets of cash delivered at Chinese New Year.  It reminds me of Halloween trick-or-treating in Colorado when I was six, filling my pumpkin-shaped bucket with candy as I knocked on doors around the block.

KJ4-Sri Rampai-hari-raya

A mosque from last year’s decorations (1435 AH) hung on a back wall.

KJ4-Sri Rampai-hari-raya-2014

KJ5-SetiawangsaKJ5 – Setiawangsa

Cubic cloth ketupats above coconuts on the floor.  There was also a “Pearl Word Corner” with posters of quotes like “Success comes in a can, not a can’t” and “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses” (Abraham Lincoln).


KJ6-JelatekKJ6 – Jelatek

One of my two closest stations, where I often embark.  An electric flicker in this fire, and I saw people posing for photos with the parasol.  Outside the station is a muddy lot covered in yellow cranes and again I hope construction won’t quench the city’s soul.  From the last stretch of track I saw a billboard by the motorway, “Sayangi Kuala Lumpur” or “Love KL”, and I do!


KJ7-Dato KeramatKJ7 – Dato’ Keramat

Ketupat pentagons, strange frilly balls, and the apt (though misspelt) message, “Keep calm and eat ketupat”.  My second nearest station, where I began my tour.

KJ7-Dato Keramat-hari-raya

KJ8-DamaiKJ8 – Damai

Perhaps my favourite display so far, tidy and symmetrical, with its dignified blue carpet and cushions hinting at Middle Eastern opulence.  The service counter was adorned with the tinsel greetings you see in many shop windows at this time.  Lots of hibiscuses, Malaysia’s national flower.


South of Damai the train dives below ground in a tunnel that’s sometimes square, sometimes round.  The Kelana Jaya line is fully automated with no drivers, so there is a clear view out the front window.  As we accelerate I’m reminded of the psychedelic swirling in the credits for the old sci-fi series of Dr Who.


KJ9-Ampang ParkKJ9 – Ampang Park

Here I ticked off my 24th display, the last one of the day.  Like me by then, it seemed a little tired – I pushed a letter falling off back onto the poster at right, and straightened the carpet.  Then I rode the escalator down to the platform, trained back to Jelatek Station, and walked the 15 minutes home.

KJ9-Ampang Park-hari-raya


Traditional Raya icons, including a split open bamboo-rice lemang, plus cut-out white leaves I thought looked more Japanese.  “Lebaran” is another name for the festival after the fast.  Behind me two guitarists were strumming and singing at a “Busk Stop”.


Down the station corridor is one of the city’s biggest malls, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, with a huge kampung house for Ramadan on the concourse beneath the Petronas Towers.  Outside the mall is Malaysia’s biggest model ketupat, as acknowledged in July by the Malaysia Book of Records: 12m high by 9.8m wide.


KJ11-Kampung BaruKJ11 – Kampung Baru

Kampung Baru is one of my favourite places in KL, a suburb of traditional wooden houses on stilts, with carved verandas and chickens on the ground and a lovely variegated roofscape of corrugated iron in autumnal shades.  Not far off above the rust loom the gleaming sci-fi Petronas Towers.  The bustling Ramadan Bazaar (see Timeout KL), was the first one I visited this year.  I bought a Roti MacGyver for dinner – a bread roll filled with black pepper beef, all wrapped in crispy deep-fried batter.  Believe it or not, that night I hung out with Chinese friends who were watching American reruns on TV (good old Fonzie in Happy Days!), and on came my first episode of MacGyver since I was a teen!

KJ11-Kampung Baru-hari-raya

At the Kampung Baru station I especially liked the cards distributed by Prasarana, the parent company of Rapid KL, listing the virtues of Ramadan in the form of a Metro map.  Peach-coloured Line 3 runs from Gratitude at top left through Familiness (how to translate such abstract nouns?),  Honesty, and Bonds of Hospitality to the interchange station at Relationship where it joins brown Line 4 (coming from Willingness via Pardoning, Happiness, Friendship, and the Blessing of Father and Mother).  The two lines proceed together through Blessedness, Sincerity, and Celebration and terminate at Homecoming.  Pink Line 5 departs from the Village Compound, passing through stations of Nostalgic Longing, Divine Blessing and Brotherhood en route to Forgiveness.


As we’re nearly halfway to the end of the line, I hope I’ll receive Raya – Jaya forgiveness if I take a break and pick up the remaining stations in Part Two.  If you’d like a break, here’s a love song to Ramadan by my favourite Muslim worship singer, a Lebanese-born Swede who also sings in Malay and tops the charts here.

You can continue the Hara Raya journey through Kelana Jaya stations 11 to 24 in Part Two.


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.

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).


Corrupt Grammar and Apostolic Essays

I arrive at the college and start to teach; I’m confused by seasons, depressed by marks, inspired by students with biblical lives, and make myself at home with peanut butter and books.

I caught my third overnight train from Hyderabad to Bangalore – back in second class, with egg biryani for dinner – and on Easter Monday I was driven 40 minutes northeast from the centre of Bangalore, 5 km past the Outer Ring Road, and turned into a lane that winds past the college.  After 14 different beds over five weeks, averaging 2.5 nights between each set of sheets, it’s good to be settled for seven straight weeks.

Just past the guard house inside the gate a rock displays the verse, “This is the Lord’s doing.  It is marvellous in our eyes.”  Beyond lies the main quadrangle, with dining hall and kitchen on the left, admin and classrooms at right, chapel with small spire and library at the far end.  The buildings are of red brick, with cream pillars and balustrades. Low hedges, flowerpots and shrubs in Bangalore’s red soil edge the central lawn.  The lush green is patrolled every morning by three or four white herons.

Accommodation is scattered around the complex, interspersed with trees and flower beds guarded by big black crows, swings and slides for kids, and dirt clearings for cricket, badminton, soccer, volleyball.  When the rain came, the bare soil turned green almost overnight.  Seasons are different here – as someone said to me, “It’s spring: the leaves are falling.”  Which they were, but trees also dropped yellow and red and lilac blossoms, while three-striped squirrels scampered up and down their trunks.

out-my-window-bangaloreI was at the college during its summer break to help teach a seven-week English enhancement program for the students starting in June who’d scored less highly in the entrance English exam.  Three other Kiwis completed the volunteer team.  Aucklander Dennis, a teacher of high school geography and now English as a Second Language, ran the course last year with his wife Barbara.  Isla from small-town New Zealand taught it before that.  I was the newbie, unsure what to expect, and had only spoken to the others on the phone. Dennis said he had imagined me as short and pot-bellied: I was less surprised at his appearance.

We had 23 students aged from early 20s to 40s.  During introductions, I noted their home states and identifying features: glasses, thick beard, thin moustache, spiky hair, no hair.  Only three girls.  The biggest cohort came from Nagaland and Manipur in the Northeast, where the people look quite Chinese.  The students from southern India were dark skinned, with a few fairer guys from central states.  For the first week, the roll lived in my breast pocket for constant cribbing, and I added a few character traits to jog my memory: laughing or shy, cheeky or serious.  There were easy biblical names: Samuel, Daniel, Thomas, Paul.  Others took longer to memorise: Benjongsenla, Worchihan, Surendra, Srinivas.  My favourite name was “Graceson” (son of grace).  Another student on campus was “Lightson”.

As the names sank in, we settled on a schedule.  At 8:30, a student gave a biblical reflection.  By nine, Dennis, Isla and I headed for our own classrooms, with a different group of seven students each day.  I taught in long trousers, but jandals and a loose short-sleeve collared shirt gave reasonable ventilation.  In the morning we worked on the Academic Writing track of the Cambridge International English Language Testing System (IELTS), used by many Western universities to vet overseas students.  We tackled grammar and structure exercises like rephrasing and connecting sentences with conjunctions, or organising thoughts into a logical flow.

The linguistic workout earned an hour off for lunch, which all staff and students ate together.  As in old monastery refectories, a picture of Christ’s Last Supper hangs on the wall, though it’s not as large or impressive as da Vinci’s in Milan.  There’s always white rice and vegetables, often with chapattis; frequently chicken or beef, and a veg-only table.  Even my Colgate toothpaste read “Always 100% vegetarian.”  Yoghurt to cool the spice, and bananas, watermelon, or jackfruit that hung from campus trees in bulbous bumpy shells and I found a little sickly.  Apart from those I enjoyed the food – especially the biryani chicken – and twice-daily heaped servings of rice and rich sauce tightened my belt a little.  I was surprised that some students found the food too hot to eat.

To work off the meal, two afternoons a week was a trial IELTS writing test.  Task One (150 words) was to summarise graphical or tabular data, such as bar charts of an imaginary survey like “Factors Motivating People to Succeed” and “Irritants for Theatregoers”, or line graphs of company sales.  I brainstormed synonyms on the whiteboard so every sentence wouldn’t repeat that sales that year boringly “rose” or “fell” or stayed the same, but rather “soared/rocketed” or “collapsed/plummeted” or “hovered/fluctuated fitfully/erratically”.  My favourite graph showed the output of four imagined authors from age 20 to death.  For fun we drew curves for Moses and St Paul.  Test Task Two was a structured essay of 250 words, mostly on a controversial environmental or social issue.  I enjoyed discussing Indian examples.

Marking took up to two hours.  It was satisfying when I found an eloquent opening, punchy conclusion, or successful use of a phrase I’d just taught.  It could be depressing, even when I saved the best students till last, and I pity professional teachers.  As I corrected the same mistakes every day, I asked “Am I a lousy teacher?”, “Does anyone listen in class?”, “Does anyone read my comments?”, “Does anyone have a gun?”

Learning more about India cheered me up.  In an essay on corruption, caste or dowry, one student wrote: “Justice has become a strange word for the people of India because of corruption” – which most of my class named as India’s biggest problem.  “The caste system is a poison to Indian community life”, wrote another.  It “has wounded the hearts of the people”.  “Marriage is becoming a business entity” and “even today… thousands of women have committed suicide because of dowry problems.”  As we read a booklet of Old Testament studies, I discovered how similar rural India can be to the biblical world, as I’d seen a few weeks before (see here).  Students told of pastoral festivals and rites which echoed Scripture, such as thanksgiving at harvest times, or sending a scapegoat into the wilderness.  More gruesomely, one had seen village priests decapitate a goat and drink its blood from the neck.

Some of our students had almost biblical lives.  Speed-climbing thorn trees when wild elephants charged during a jungle trek; nearly dying from malaria; being beaten for their faith by Hindu fundamentalists – one was left for dead much like St Paul.  Some came from poorer backgrounds; others had surrendered careers in IT or banking or business to study theology.  All were great people, and as time progressed we laughed more in class, shared more in the evenings, met some of their families, and enjoyed the Friday night games – rock-scissors-paper recast as Samson-Delilah-lion – or movies like Oliver Twist, where I noticed that 19th-century London market lanes look like India today.  (Extra entertainment from the cracks of mosquitoes frying on an electric racket.)  Two had studied in Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills, near one of the oldest and most recommended Hindi language schools.  The steep snowy streets in their photos resembled a ski resort and suggested my next India destination!

my-kitchen-bangaloreTeaching finished at 3:30 pm and we went back to our own flats, which all had names.  My door read “William Carey” (my office was “Jerusalem”).  Grey stone cladding, with window bars shaped like diamond lead lights.  As I’ve learnt to do when arriving in new Indian accommodation, I immediately inspected the insect mesh on all windows, opening shutters for a breeze where they didn’t leave cracks.  In a few budget hotels I’ve taped over holes in the mesh.

Staff in red sari uniforms delivered a jug of creamy boiled milk every day, as well as eggs, small sweet bananas, tea and coffee, bread and muesli for breakfast.  After finding ants in my cornflakes, I found the airtight pots.  I even had a toaster, with peanut butter and Bournvita chocolate milk powder from the supermarket.  I swapped a photo on the cream-painted wall for my Tramping New Zealand calendar, lined up my books on the shelf under the Readers Digest miscellany, and the place felt quite homely.  Especially once I visited the library, where filling out borrowing cards by hand took me back to schooldays.  After teaching all day, it was good to relax on my cane lounge suite.  The geckos on the walls were peaceable companions, mostly darting behind a cupboard or picture frame when I approached, although I feared squashing their babies on the floor, especially at night in bare feet.


Pork and Pollution: by Rail to Hyderabad

My first train and an old friend, culinary minutiae and mistakes, beards and burkas and bombs; packing in the transport with congestion of roads and nose.

Last night I took the overnight Rajdhani Express 11 hours north to Hyderabad.  It was my first Indian train and the process was pleasingly efficient.  I booked online (although the website crashed a few times) and a ticket was couriered to “Shri David Titheridge” within two days.  When the train pulled in, a list of occupants’ names was taped alongside each carriage door.  A Railway Protection Force sign warned, “Do not accept biscuits, tea, drinks, fruits from the strangers.  Don’t get drugged and lose your cash, jewels etc.”  That made me a little nervous, reminding me to get a water bottle at the station chemist, where a man buying Vomistop tablets didn’t bode well either.

I had no need to accept magic cookies from leering malefactors.  My “Trains at a Glance” book specified the menu with precision – 150 mL soup, 20 g bun, 10 g butter chiplet; 100 g rice, 150 g dal, 150 g vegetarian or chicken mains; 150 mL tea/coffee in a 170 mL capacity cup – and that’s exactly what arrived, the hot dish wrapped in foil as on planes.  I guessed the pedantic detail might be to stop rail employees flogging off supplies.  Others in my carriage complained about Indian inefficiency.

On board are both Western sitting and Indian squat toilets.  The latter is more hygienic as no skin contacts the facilities, but by the same token you’re less balanced in a rocking train and need to grip the sink drain pipe.  Speeding sleepers blur together through the hole.  I was in second class A.C.  Blue vinyl seats fold down to make bunks separated by dark blue curtains.  It seemed a remarkably dull decor for India, maybe because the British built the railways.  I got some broken sleep on my upper berth, before morning tea and crackers arrived.  Best of all, not once did I wish for that chemist gentleman’s pills.

Dawn broke with romantic views of amber sunrise through the tinted windows, white herons reflected in water (doubtless stinking in prosaic reality), in which a few daring souls washed.  At 7:30 am I arrived in Hyderabad (population about 6 million), capital of Andra Pradesh state.  It’s long been the “Pearl Capital” of India and is now “Cyberabad”, Indian headquarters of Google and Bangalore’s IT competitor.  The four-turreted Charminar, icon of the city, does look a bit futuristic when glowing blue and green at night. (See my Hyderabad photos here.)

I was met by my friend Hima, who shared the same postgraduate chemistry supervisor at Auckland University, and stayed with her family for two nights.  We celebrated her mother’s 61st birthday at Nanking Restaurant.  Chinese eateries are popular here as China is a neighbouring country but there were no chopsticks!  As an alternative to chicken, I ordered sweet and sour pork and was embarrassed to discover the others, although Christian, wouldn’t eat it.  Topped off the meal with paan: a mixture of ground nut and spices wrapped in a green betel leaf to freshen the breath.  Returning home, we passed a wedding celebration.  The bridal couple sat in a horse and buggy, while guests drummed, piped and danced till after midnight, lit by gas lamps carried on attendants’ heads.

Hyderabad has a strongly Muslim culture (perhaps explaining my predicament with the pork).  I’ve seen more mosques than temples.  A billboard outside the train station reads “Welcome to Haj pilgrims”, and other signs ask the pilgrims’ blessings on the city.  A lot of Muslim men wear tight-fitting skullcaps, and those who who’ve been to Mecca have beards died reddish-orange.  My beard is naturally ginger so I wondered whether they took me for a fellow pilgrim.

Many women show only eyes through black burka slits – few women in Bangalore covered up so well.  Many also had braided hair hanging out the back of their veil, toenails polished with ankle bracelets, high-heel shoes, and were holding hands with a boyfriend in jeans.

14 people died in a bomb blast last May during Friday prayers at the 17th-century Mecca Masjid mosque, which can hold 10,000 people, so civic security is tight.  Near the mosque are police “Rapid Action Force” buses and police jeeps with barred windows patrol the streets.  There are metal detectors at entrances to malls and even one family lake-side park.  A police sign read, “We salute the spirit of Hyderabad.  Terrorism can’t divide us.”  Billboards proclaimed, “Na Hindu, Na Muslim, Na Sikh – Na Issai”, or “No Hindu, No Muslim, No Sikh – No Difference”.

Hima’s young boys complained of the terrible streets and traffic, but I find them comparatively good after Bangalore, with few stand-still jams, and footpaths mostly intact although overcrowded.  Vans equipped for “Mobile Pollution Monitoring” show environmental awareness, as did an electronic sign in Bangalore: “Carbon monoxide limit 10 mg/m3.  Keep pollution under control.”  The paper reported that increasing smog has reduced India’s sunshine by 5% over the last 20 years.  I was pleased to see one LPG auto-rickshaw, hopefully the way of the future with its blissful absence of black belching.  In New Delhi, I hear that all public transport is now CNG, significantly reducing pollution, although increasing private transport counterbalances the improvement.

Hyderabad auto-rickshaws have manual horn bulbs and cram in more people than in Bangalore – I’ve counted 8 or maybe more.  And I have a new motorbike record: two black burka’d women behind the driver and two kids in front.  Motorbike helmets are sold in stalls by the road.  It’s all pretty thrilling, but I’m getting more used to crossing the crazy roads.  The trick is to attach myself downstream of a group of locals.  Pedalling more sedately are pushbike-drawn carts, bicycle rickshaws, and one tricycle ferrying baskets of live chickens.  I smiled at the irony of a “Zen Motor Driving School”.

Although they call India an assault on all the senses, I haven’t noticed the smells as much as you might think because my nose is mostly half-blocked with dust.  I use decongestant spray to clear it at night so I can breathe to sleep.  Now and then I’m seduced by a whiff of incense from a shop or temple, or sickened by rotting refuse, animal or human dung or urine.  Some walls read “Urination Prohibited”, but my olfactory organ senses that certain sidewalks are considered public conveniences.

After a gold coin meal of piping hot naan with tasty vegetable kurma – washing my right hand in warm water with a lemon slice and crunching mouth-freshener seeds – nose and stomach and morale all feel better.  Every day in India has both positives and negatives.  I oscillate between “It’s fantastic – I wanna come back!” and counting down the days before I get out.  The Minnesotan students’ info pack was wise when it advised: take India one day – or even one minute – at a time.