Tag Archives: infrastructure

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



Wrangling Rickshaws and Wrecking Roads

Navigating queues and confusion, repelling autorickshaw assaults, enduring electrical irregularities, and glimpsing coherence in the chaos.

After my shocked retreat from the Indian streets on my first day (see here) I now have a sense of proud accomplishment at navigating the suburb of Whitefield all on my own (see photos), for example to use the basement i-Way internet café.  I’m also learning to navigate personal space, which is more spacious in my country of four million than in one of a billion.  A few times I’ve been standing in a queue and someone butted in.  I gradually realised they weren’t rude, but simply didn’t notice I was queuing because I stood so courteously far back.  After figuring this out, I pushed up and purchased a few sugary-milky confectionaries from “Brothers Bakery and Sweets”, and a notebook to record observations.

My notebook has a map of India at the front to identify locations here and a world map at the rear to point out NZ.  This is essential.  Many people know that New Zealand is near Australia, but some place us closer to the US, and one guy was convinced we’re not far from England.  “No, nowhere near England.”  “How far?”  Not knowing the Earth’s circumference by heart, I was unable to state exactly how many kilometres away, and I don’t think he was persuaded.

20 years ago, they say, Whitefield was nearly as far out of town as the antipodes, a wasteland out in the wops; the British once hunted jackals here.  It’s only 26 km away from central Bangalore but the journey takes 45 minutes to two hours, depending on the traffic.  The bus costs about 30 cents, but you’re claustrophobic sardines and it’s hard to see through the worn Perspex windows, so you rely on merciful fellow-passengers to know where to get off.  Women sit at the front, men at the back and are often keen for a chat.  One student clutching bulky textbooks turned out to be an illustrated one-volume encyclopaedia salesman and opened his tome for me with shy optimism.

Autorickshaws charge $5-$7, but three people can share them and they are much more exciting, with better views and faster weaving through narrow gaps.  The English, competency and honesty of drivers varies widely.  One day I was taken a few blocks in the wrong direction and asked to pay for the privilege.  Later I had to direct the driver to Whitefield, one of Bangalore’s biggest suburbs, and he then refused to give change.  I’ve been offered complementary city tours, and some of the Americans were stung when a cheap ride turned into an unwelcome shopping trip.

Though I’m not given to expletives, when trying to orientate myself in headache-inducing heat and fumes, and the third yellow hood in one minute blocks my view with “Hello!  Sir!  Can I help you?” and doesn’t understand the monosyllable “no”, it’s hard not to mumble a “_ _ _ _ (of the milder variety)-off” under one’s breath.  Many drivers do smile cheerfully, stick to their meter, and know where to go, however, so I mustn’t slander the whole breed.  Prepay traffic police booths avoid problems, giving a fixed price and carbon copy of the vehicle registration and driver number in case of complaints.

On our last trip back to the Ecumenical Christian Centre, the rains had made the road so bad that the auto-rickshaw slithered and stuck and we had to slide through mud on foot in the dark.  Whitefield still seemed a wasteland.  Last year the ECC sealed the neighbourhood road at its own expense, but heavy trucks broke it up again.  On a recent protest against Whitefield roads nearby International Tech Park professionals carried their notebooks aboard a bullock cart, beneath a banner “we have e-connectivity, but not basic connectivity like roads”.  At least construction of a subway began recently.

One of our speakers described Bangalore as an electronic city without electricity.  Several brief cuts per day are common.  One Sunday evening Jabaraj motor-biked me to his small Assembly of God church – I held on tight while he dodged bikes, potholes, cows – where the pastor continued with unabated Pentecostal zeal when both main power and noisy generator failed, merely calling for a candle to read the scriptures.  I used the darkness to reach for my insect repellent, as my attention had wandered to monitoring bare skin for mossie attacks.

The problem seems to be partly a lack of official coordination and communication.  There is no uniform street signage, which doesn’t help the poor visitor get around, while city, state and government tourist offices each have small amounts of different information.  No one has an overview of all transport, facilities and events at once.

So I still have many navigational skills to learn, but I have progressed.  I feel like the two villagers in Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance (1995) who moved to Bombay:

On the first day they sat in awe on the stone steps outside the shop, watching the street and seeing a universe of frightening chaos.  Gradually, they perceived the river of traffic in the street and, within it, the currents of handcarts, bicycles, bullock carts, buses, and the occasional lorry.  Now they learned the wild river’s character.  They were reassured that it was not all madness and noise, there was a pattern in things.