Tag Archives: language

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).



Trusting the Companion on the Way to Malaysia

I take wing on a prayer and verify Biggles, leave camera, guidebook and Gucci behind to find playground, housewives and life.

So much has happened since my last communication, it’s hard to remember that for many back home it’s just been a few more days at the office.

Last Tuesday morning, after a night of talking to my sister in Berlin, helping Mum, final packing, and four hours sleep, I shot off for a morning run, camera in pocket, to catch final memories of my home suburb – even passing my first school, May Road Primary.  Once at the airport, check-in was smooth, although with so much hardware security scans are a pain: unpacking and repacking my computer, power supply, hard drive, camera, Kindle, phone.  I was on Malaysia airlines and my boarding pass was in English in Malay, making me tingle with an exotic anticipation.

I had a window seat, though the wing blocked the view.  Once upon a time, the personal entertainment consoles; compared to iPads, they feel sluggish and clunky.  They still offer a linguistic bonanza.  I frolicked around in Berlitz basic Hindi, two Bollywood flicks, the interactive Holy Quran, and relished all the movie languages: from English, French and German that I learnt at school, to tongues that span the Orient from east to west: Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Tamil, Hindi, Arabic.  I perused my New Straits Times, imagining myself sailing out to the colonies when the paper was founded in 1845.  Daily temperatures in Kuala Lumpur, I learnt, currently range from 24-32 degrees Celsius, but are a cooler 12-26 in Delhi, that city of myth where I’ll be next week!

Hanging on the rear wall were “Muslim prayer leaflets”, with pertinent supplications in Arabic, Malay and English.  “Allah is the greatest… The One Who has placed this transport at our service… O Allah, You are The Companion on the journey… I take refuge in You from the difficulties of travel, from having a change of hearts and being in a bad predicament…”  I said Amen and then read on the back: “In the name of Allah when taking off and landing, verily my God is most forgiving and merciful.”

Thanks be to God, we arrived with no predicaments.  The sun was setting as we touched down 45 minutes early at 7:45pm, in 30 degrees heat.  A few minutes later, on board the shuttle from the satellite terminal, I was surprised it was already dark.  I recall reading in boyhood romances of Biggles in Africa (or the like) that night falls fast near the equator – and by gad he was right!

My in-flight companion was a young Chinese chap who’d moved to Kuala Lumpur for his work with Huawei, the Chinese manufacturer of my new phone.  He invited me to share the company-funded taxi to his flat in central KL, which was just a few minutes down the road from my accommodation.

After that auspicious arrival, I found the guesthouse locked, with no reply to my ringing and knocking.  I was a little nervous alone on the back street after dark, but a passer-by offered his phone to ring the guesthouse manager.  Its screensaver displayed, in big colourful lettering, a message I needed to remember on my solo challenge: “Trust in God”.  Below was the verse, echoing the on-board Muslim prayer, “God is our refuge and strength: a very present help in trouble.”

In 2004 I spent a week in Kuala Lumpur ticking off Lonely Planet’s recommendations.  The last few days, however, I’ve been considering a multi-month stay when I return from India, and it changes your perspective!  I’m roaming without a bag or camera – just umbrella and water bottle in pockets.  I’ve felt very safe, no-one’s tried to sell me anything I didn’t want, and I’ve only spotted tourist traps from the train while en route to outlying suburbs.  KL proper has about 1.5 million inhabitants, but it’s nearer 7 million with the contiguous satellite cities, which may be better accommodation prospects.

Yesterday I struggled along – and hair-raisingly across – central KL streets in the midday dust and noise and heat.  It was not idyllic and I wasn’t that glad to be here.  Half an hour later, I stepped out of the train in Petaling Jaya to the west, and heard more birds than traffic.  Below the station was a park.  I walked around its small lake with a cold bottle of Coca-Cola-copy drink.  Kids swinging in playgrounds; a ball from a schoolyard rolled down the hill – a cheerful “hey uncle!” when I threw it back up; old men chatting or sleeping in a shady pavilion; many trees – should be able to sling my travel hammock – and exercise stations around the circuit.  I could imagine living here.  KL is a booming city, full of cranes and construction sites, but much of it has an almost rural feel, with fields of palm trees and lush greenery overgrowing embankments.  Most buildings look looking rather dilapidated and frogs croak in the canals at night.

Two stations up the line is the University of Malaya campus, with busy streets but lots of fields and its own lake.  Of course I checked out the library.  In the “Blue Zone Quiet Area – no noise” I saw more blue from Facebook than study on the computer screens – students are the same everywhere!  During an afternoon downpour I shared the umbrella by a chicken-rice with two high school pupils.  Rain briefly cools the air, but when the sun returns it steams up like a sauna and fogs my glasses.  Signs on trains threaten 500RM (approx. NZ$200) fines for smoking, eating, littering, sticking gum.  But on campus they read: “No smoking at University of Malaya … RM10,000 (approx. NZ$4000) penalty or 2 years imprisonment”!  Central KL was nicer in the evening cool, as I relaxed with sizzling roti bread and tasty chicken curry in an outdoor eatery.  I thought of that University sign with more appreciation when a guy at the next table lit up…

On my hunt for KL living ideas, I’ve had a fun catch-up with one of my former biochemistry lecturers, the person who first paid me to program, who recently moved here.  I bought a book of KL maps and found the Expat Magazine.  It targets bods in power ties not bums in gender roles like me, but I ripped out a few resources.

I emailed and Skyped from Starbucks wifi in upmarket fashion malls.  Their glitzy glamour is a novelty at first, making Kiwi malls look pretty tawdry, but soon comes to seem plastic and sterile.  I was charmed to find a suburban mall where real people shop – and I may soon too!  It felt much more like a home.  There was a RM10 shop (like our $2 shops) with cheap crockery and cutlery like I might need for an unfurnished flat, and the “Handy Fix: your DIY store” for household appliances.  A row of safes suggested there are more handy burglars here than at home.  My heart warmed to see “Reader’s Paradise: Rent-a-book” with a range of classics and contemporaries, and find that Giant supermarket stocks essentials like peanut butter, toilet paper and Sanitarium “Weetbix Bites” from New Zealand, the box labelled in English and French.

I’ve seldom been overly conscious that Malaysia is a Muslim country.  I’ve seen pretty mosque domes and tessellating lattice grills, as well as separate Muslim bathrooms for washing before worship, but heard no prayer calls, and the central malls seem western, commercial and secular.  This suburban mall, however, had stalls of henna hand dye, Muslim headscarves, and long gloves that recalled Victorian Englishwomen.  A stand of Islamic literature, CDs and trinkets for devotion was manned by a Palestinian. All much more interesting than Armani and Christian Dior.  I can’t wait to live in this world for a while.  I breathed a prayer of thanks and half regretted I’m going to India first.

Slums and Sweat: by Rail to Chennai

Surreal surfing and sewer streams, scurrilous drivers and solicitous chefs, brutal laundry and bemused language; coping with cold waves and Internet cafes and taking the TARDIS back in time.

At Hyderabad station Tom and Jerry frolicked on TV screens while men in lungi-wraparounds shifted stacks of parcels on their heads.  I bought an India Today magazine for the journey (the local equivalent of Time).  Felt more relaxed and organised on my second overnight train, the Hyderabad-Chennai Charminar Express, but still had little sleep – rocking and rolling around corners, jolting and jarring as carriages bumped each other, plus buzzing overhead from broken wire on a bottle holder.  Lying on a high pillow in my curtained side berth, I watched village stations floating by in dreamy pools of light.

Chennai is India’s fourth largest city (population about 7 million) and was officially called Madras until 1997.  We approached the Queen of the Coromandel (India’s south-east coast) past tropical scenes of palm trees and shacks along a river and somewhat un-royal residences: slum houses roofed with tiles, corrugated iron, plastic sheets and flax.  There were downpours of rain.  Streets flooded ankle-deep.  Man in white shirt under black umbrella.

When I got off, I almost splashed through puddles in my sandals, then realized it might as well be sewage water.  Pack on back, umbrella in one hand, I juggled map in both hands to get my bearings.  I was glad to see a pre-pay auto-rickshaw booth which avoids hassles and haggling by setting a fixed rate and instructing the driver where to go.  Or not.  My driver stopped at a gas station and asked me to pay for his petrol.  I refused.  He insisted.  I began to get out and seek alternative transport so he backed off and we carried on, but I still paid more than the “pre-pay” receipt.

When at last I arrived at the Hindustan Bible Institute (HBI), the principal was not amused.  He took my prepay receipt, which should record the driver’s number, and rang the company to complain.  I hoped I’d be avenged.  In retrospect, as often in India, I reflect that these swindling scoundrels, who seem so malicious as you struggle to stay afloat in the Indian Ocean, are likely themselves – more deeply than me – just struggling to survive.

Like many Indian organisations, HBI’s functionaries strive to follow Christ’s injunction, “Let not your left hand know what the right is doing”.  But I’ve been warmly welcomed.  I transferred myself from bland Western dining to the Indian mess hall with simpler, tastier food, where I pay NZ$1.50 not $25 per day and can also meet the students.  Many Indians seem to confuse spices and germs, hotness and hygiene, unable to grasp that I fear tap-water in uncooked food, not chilli in well-boiled dishes.  It’s awkward to grab and dry the rinsed wet plate and cup before my food is served, without seeming rudely fussy.  Sloppy washing especially irritates a chemistry graduate – intolerable in an analytical lab!

I have my own apartment.  Blaring music ceases by night, though cooing pigeons peck loudly against my shutters at dawn.  I’d heard that Indian women do all the work and this was confirmed when I climbed up to the flat roof that overlooks a slum: women were filling and carrying water bottles, washing or hanging clothes, while a group of men stood gossiping.  One bloke was pushing a cart of water drums.

Clothing is mostly washed by hand – maybe by people like those I saw below me – then dried in fields of hanging laundry.  People often wash in polluted rivers and thrash dirt out by beating clothes against rocks, so I wondered how my shirts would fare when handled by the dhobis.  But the Merry White Cleaners and Launderers returned them washed and ironed, immaculate, as had the laundry man in Bangalore, and only one button was broken.

I’d hoped to learn a little language in India but my efforts have pretty much flopped.  In my first days in Bangalore, I noted how to thank the kitchen staff in their various languages (none Hindi), but my cheery “thank you” received only bemused amusement.  One lecturer told us Indian languages have no word for thank you as the sentiment is expressed by gesture.  That may have aggravated my difficulty.  Here in Chennai, I noted Tamil phrases from Lonely Planet, but then met only non-Tamil speakers at meals.

The HBI students come from many parts of India.  Those from north-east states look more Chinese.  A group from Myanmar/Burma use spoons to eat and are surprised that men and woman sit apart in India.  Students from less advantaged states have stories of poverty, persecution and miraculous healings that make my western Christian faith seem insipid and insincere.

Bangalore is 920 m above sea level, Hyderabad 600 m (daily temperature 14-31°C when I was there).  Down here on the coast it’s a little warmer and much more humid, though the rain has cooled the air. The Chennai paper described a day of 19-30°C, with 80% relative humidity, as “almost cold wave conditions”.  I am sweating more and my armpits are slightly itchy.  It hasn’t rained since I arrived so the ground is dry again.  Found I can buy 2L water bottles to refill my 1L ones and reduce plastic waste, though drinking several litres per day still produces a long row on my bench.

Compared to Hyderabad, there are fewer Muslims and mosques in Chennai, but the streets around HBI have many small churches and Christian bookshops with Bible verses in the window.  I found it hardest to find internet cafes in the IT city of Bangalore.  In Hyderabad, I walked five minutes from my hotel, stepping around beggars sleeping on the sidewalk after dark.  It’s a similar distance here to send off the day’s adventures, crossing a bridge over a stream of sewerage.  At the end of the weary day, I pass cart-vendors packing up their stalls, and then I step inside.

It’s dimly-lit and air-conditioned.  My focus shrinks to tapping fingers and glowing screen as my spirit surfs across the globe.  I’m online in Auckland and New York.  I’m connected to the 21st century.  Then I log off and wormhole back to a different reality – through the looking-glass door everything turns upside down.  As I step outside the TARDIS, time rolls back to a semi-feudal, semi-rural world.  Sultry smells and sounds and sights assault the senses once more.  It’s the first full moon since Diwali, so fireworks are going off again.