Tag Archives: weather

Biblical Power Plagues: Sweating in Suburban Bangalore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bangalore-galilee-fish-and-chicken

Advertisements

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.