Thursday, October 17, 2013

Navaratri 2013 नवरात्रि

© Rebecca Delekta 2013
     Twice a year, every year, during the seasonal changes that mark the beginning of summer and winter, Hindus across the world celebrate Navaratri  – a nine night festival worshipping the Mother Goddess.  In Sanskrit, nava means nine, and ratri means night.  Navaratri is one of Hinduism’s most ancient and complex spiritual festivals. Like most other auspicious days, this festival is determined according to the seasonal and lunar calculations of the Hindu calendar. During this time, nine different aspects of the supreme Goddess are worshipped, most notably are Durga – the female representation of power, and the destroyer darkness; Lakshmi – the Goddess of wealth and Saraswati the Goddess of knowledge.

     The intricate cultural elements of Navaratri celebrations differ immensely across India.  In West Bengal, where Goddess worship has the strongest roots, Navaratri is the most vividly celebrated.  The entire city of Kolkata is shut down for the extent of the celebration.  In Gujarat, throughout the nine nights, people get dressed up in their most ornate ethnic wear, and gather in the masses to perform garba – a traditional dance performed with small colorful sticks.  In recent decades, the celebration has also caught on in the South, and Bangalore, with a growing number of Bengalis, has risen to the occasion.  This year, over fifty separate processions took place within the city.  Although I cannot imagine the cultural intensity of Navaratri celebrated in Bengal, the festivities here in Bangalore adequately satiate the outsider with a taste of Bengali culture. 

     Processions across the city are centrally focused on the pandal – the temporary temple constructed for the display of Goddess Durga, and the pujas conducted in her worship.  Although her depictions vary, the sharply lined, almond-shaped, wild eyes of Durga always give her away.  On each evening, just as the sky has turned dark, pujas are performed to awaken and conjure the Goddess’s divine energy.  For roughly half an hour, pujarees perform these sacred rites, and devotees gather to pray and receive the blessings of the Goddess. Once ode is paid to the Mother Goddess, devotees are free to partake in the festivities.  Entertainment and celebration come in a variety of forms.  Known for their talents in the arts, Bengalis often perform dances or sing.  Stalls offer the cultural foods from Bengal, vendors of all kinds sell their products, and carnival rides entertain kids in the masses. 

© Rebecca Delekta 2013
     This year on Soptomi, one of the most celebrated nights in Navaratri, Sanjeev and I decided to visit the procession organized by the Bengalee Association in downtown Bangalore.  On Saturday evening, after dressing in our best attire and braving the city streets for an hour, we reach Commercial Street’s procession gates.  Darkness has just set in and the crowds have yet to fill the grounds.  We roam, eating Krispy Crème doughnuts, and eventually proceed to the food stalls.  We patiently search for an all-vegetarian stall, walking through air thick with the smell of smoke and frying fish (most all Bengalis are non-veg, and seafood is a staple part of the diet due to Bengal’s position as a coastal state on the Bay of Bengal).  After careful deliberation, and multiple turndowns of fish offered, we find a Ganapati Catering stand.  Sanjeev gets poori (fried wheat roti) and Bengali style potato subjee.  I get two samosa snacks, hoping that they might taste like they do in Delhi.  We remove ourselves from the nauseating smell of seafood and stand in the middle of the courtyard, I pick at my Samosas, examining the masala inside, paranoid of finding meat.  It tastes different from the Samosas of the north – tangy with more lentils. 
    After we finish eating, we head back to the pandal display to see that the puja has already started.  The crowd is beginning to thicken, red plastic chairs aligned in rows are nearly full, and people crowd the front of the center isle to pray to the Goddess.  Sanjeev and I wind through the traffic, while he prays, I snap off quick shots of the pujaree waving a smoldering clay urn around the idols to awaken the Goddess, and quickly move on my way to make room for others wanting to offer their prayers.  I stand off to the side, and videotape the rest of the puja, large drums in front of me playing a beat that breeds excitement. 

     Once the puja is complete, and the crowds satisfied, we move to the next tent that houses the stage for the cultural events of the night.  We sit in the corner of the front row and patiently wait as the tent fills with people.  After some time, an announcer informs us in Bengali that several children’s choreographed dances will take place.  I photograph their movements in the color varying light, my favorite is an Assamese dance performed by young girls wrapped in red and white saris.  They sing as they dance, faces smiling and free. 

     After a much-anticipated wait, a stunningly dressed Odissi dancer comes on stage to inform us of the dances about to take place in observance of the Mother Goddess.  I am utterly enthralled when they take the stage, knowing that I am witnessing a dance that embodies ancient India. There are 7 different types of classical dance in India, in their varying forms they often beautifully articulate aspects of the divine.  Three of these dances are amongst the most renowned: Bharatanatyam – deriving from Tamil Nadu – the most ancient of all dance types; Mohiniattam deriving from Kerala; and Odissi originating from Odisha.  Traditional dances have been called “artistic yoga” for their controlled movements and poses, and the intricate use of mudras (hand and finger gestures that influence energies and signify meaning). 1  Classical dances were originally performed to entertain the Gods, but have also been effective in passing on stories within mythology from generation to generation through dance. 2  Those who take on the immense task of learning an ancient dance commit to a lifelong journey.  Odissi is considered one of the most sensuous, passionate and bewitching classical dances. 3  Its roots can be traced back at least 2,000 years, when rulers of the region build kingdoms and the cultural arts were nourished. 3  Many Odissi dances focus centrally on Krishna – the God of love and joy. 

     The three Odissi dancers set to perform tonight are utterly stunning – their outfits consist of intricately wrapped blue and green traditional dance dresses.  Their necks and waists draped in silver jewelry.  Leather bands affixed with hundreds of bells wrap their ankles.  Jet-black hair is neatly smoothed back into buns and covered with white flowered headdresses.  Eyes are lined heavily with kajal and complete with the third eye bindi.  With their elaborate attire and makeup, they are transformed from modern day urban Indians, into representations of antiquity – reflections of Goddess Durga herself.  The first dance is in ode to Goddess Durga, with various poses depicting her different aspects – her softness, her ability to heal and create, and her wrath of power and triumph over evil.  Several scenes articulating the dark side of the Goddess are so powerful they send shivers of energy through my body.  My heart thumps in my chest, and I struggle to hold my camera still, its weight growing heavier.  The second dance is performed by a solo dancer in honor of Krishna, depicting a love encounter at Yamuna River.  The dancer moves her hands and body in ways that make you visualize water; she picks flowers, searchers for Krishna and flirts.  Two dancers perform a final dance, it meaning mysterious but still maintaining that powerful energy.

       After the dancing is finished, we listen to live music performed by an insanely talented Tamil woman, whose voice is reminiscent of old India, and laugh at a Bengali guy too full of himself to realize that he has no talent to sing.  A small group of sari clad Bengali women dance to the music in front of us, I watch them move, clearly enjoying the time they have to dress up and free themselves for a moment from the bonds of daily life.  Once I have had my fill of mosquito bites and the deafening noise, we leave the tent to see that the crowds have grown immensely.  We drive home with the radio low, the Odissi dancers’ bells still ringing through my head. 

(1) Yoga Technology LLC. (2013). Mudras. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from         

(2) Cultural India. (2013). Indian classical dances. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from           

(3) Cultural India. (2013). Orissi Dance. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Further Celebrations

      At ten thirty pm, I’m curled up on my couch, alone for a few hours.  I’m working on some recent photographs, my computer overheating from the task.  In the distance, I can hear the tempo of elaborate drumming.  I ignore it for the time being.  The celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi is still in full swing, and every day the gaiety of the festival seeps into my apartment.  Firecrackers go off at any time of day, their explosive booms causing my heart to skip a beat.  After nightfall, multicolor fireworks burst above apartment complexes and company buildings miles away.  A few days ago, well into the night, I watched a group of 15 men and boys celebrating courtyards over.  The quick drum beat music quickening to a climax over and over.  Full of energy, they danced wildly, bodies outlined by a tungsten lit shack housing a Ganesh idol.  Yesterday, while visiting Hosa road’s market, the street reflected the ongoing celebration.  Amongst the fruit and vegetable vendors, a large corrugated metal structure covered in plastic loomed.  What it contained wasn’t a mystery to me, I touched the plastic outside cover as we drove by on the bike and twisted around to see a dizzying display of colors inside.  Ganesh in all his splendor, drawing Hindus from every angle.  On the opposite side of the street, where alleyways between the small business shops lead to apartment villages, clusters of women were gathered around on the pavement, crafting deeply colorful rangolis (freehand design of sacred shapes using natural sand-like ingredients).  Children squatted around the finished designs, laughing and playing.  Above them, thin strings of blue, orange and green lights zigzag across the alleyway’s gap between apartments.  In the fading cloud diffused light, I stood watching them, cursing myself for not having brought my camera for fear of rain. 
      Back in the present, I’m analyzing a photograph I took on Ganesh Chaturthi during my visit to the temple, a close up of a bronze color metal entryway, Ganesh’s image imprinted alongside another God.  As I play with the sepia tint, the drumming gets louder, harder to ignore.  The bass resonates through my windows and walls, the rhythm filling me with an irresistible urge to move my body in tandem.  I toss my computer aside and run to the southwest facing windows of my bedroom pull back the curtains, and slam open the window.  I’m struck by the cool night wind, tainted with the fresh scent of rain, and further excited by the sharp increase of the drums echoing across the distance, and reverberating around the walls of my room as if it were a cave.  The subtle glittering lights from the hundreds of apartments outside provides the room’s only illumination as I search in my closet for my camera and zoom lens. 

      Camera assembled by feel, I pad across the icy marble floor and climb onto my bamboo chair propped against the wall.  I start video taping the scene before me, my camera unable to perceive the light that my eyes still see; the image grainy from pushing the ISO.  Although I could only dream of catching the constellation of Bangalore lights outside my wind at night, what I really want to document are the beat of drums.  Ten stories below, on the small road running parallel to my apartment, and disguised by the deep shadows of the buildings, I make out a tractor slowly pulling a flat trailer with a ten-foot high Ganesh idol.  A group of performers surround the idol, entranced by the rhythm of their music.  I make out the sound of South India’s classic bronze cymbals known as elathalam.  They complement the sharp and impossibly fast beat of tasha drums.  Several people make a shrill whistle common to popular Punjabi songs.  The most overwhelming sound is a deep base drum, its eerie thum thum… thum thum….thum thum… beat booming through the house and my body, reminding me of the alien heartbeat of a monster.  As Ganesh is escorted down the road, random spectators dance in celebration.  The tractor comes to a halt under the orange light of a street lamp, and passersby stop their motorcycles to observe and pray.

      Two days later, the celebration is repeated at 11:30 pm, this time the escort includes several idols of Ganesh, with a larger crowd of drummers.  A small goods truck carries an idol backdropped with a flat display comprised of small neon lights.  It reminds me of a large light bright display, the bulbs illuminating buildings with unnatural florescence in passing.  As they reach the intersection of the dirt road with Hosur main, a series of firecrackers are set off, and the beat of drums quiet for only a few minutes, before another three displays roll through.  Each night’s celebration, I spend it half hanging out the window from my vantage point, shooting the scene and attempting to keep the heavy camera body balanced and still.  I am utterly enthralled by the display, moved, and energized by the archaic sounds of exotic drums.  When both groups meet at the intersection, they meld into one giant and bedazzling herd of noise.  As they head back to their village their images slip into the night, though windows closed and wrapped in my blanket, I can still hear them playing into the distance

Check out this video, it is a closer look at a similar drumming celebration:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

गणेश चतुर्थी Ganesh Chaturthi 2013

     Yesterday, September 9, 2013, India celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrated across the central and Southern India as the birthday of Ganesh, one of Hinduism’s most beloved lower deities.  Ganesh – also known as Ganapati – is the elephant-head God, son of Lord Shiva and Parvathi.  As the “remover of obstacles,” Ganesh is prayed to for blessings of good luck and for help in overcoming difficulties throughout the journey of life.  Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated differently according to region.  In Karnataka, on the day of Ganesh Chaturthi, each Hindu family buys a clay, hand-carved and painted Ganesh idol and displays it in an area of their home devoted to puja ceremonies.  Doing so is said to invite Ganesh into one’s home, where he stays as the center of worship for 9 days.  In exchange for their daily offerings of incense, fresh flowers, and devotion to Lord Ganesh, the Hindu family is believed to be graced with his blessings.  On the ninth day, traditional religious ceremonies are conducted and the Ganesh idol is immersed in a natural body of water where his divine essence returns to the Earth as the clay disperses in the water. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     Although the festival is primarily celebrated in the home, like most other Hindu festivals, Ganesh Chaturthi is also publicly celebrated on a grand scale.  In Mumbai, where this festival is most elaborate, the clay Ganesh idols scale as high as twenty-five feet requiring the strength of a dozen men for its immersion into the Arabian Sea.  Millions of people flood into parts of the city to participate in the festivities.  In Bangalore, weeks prior to the event, goods trucks that look like tiny auto rickshaws converted into goods carriers can be seen traveling all avenues.  Ganesh idols carefully wrapped in plastic, neon colors still evident beneath cloudy covers.  Men and women hoping to make extra income arrange for several dozen idols from handicraft workers, and display them in order of size atop wheeled carts for purchase off the street.  On the day of the celebration, local temples set up ornately decorated abodes to house their own Ganesh idols.  Individuals on the street stop and pray, providing offerings of jasmine flower garlands, coconuts, and bananas. 

     Over the years, as the business of idol making grew, new materials other than clay, and brighter, more vivid paints began to be heavily utilized.  Ironically, the act of worshipping a beloved deity and participating in a major cultural event celebrating life has subsequently resulted in an environmental issue.  The millions of Ganesh idols immersed into India’s major water bodies have created heavy water pollution; lead and mercury amongst other heavy metals and poisons leach into water, which result in sedimentation, the poisoning wildlife and degradation of fragile ecosystem health.  Each year in Bangalore, a city already struggling with an inadequate and polluted water supply, the issue grows worse.  For years now, environmentalists and activists throughout the country have waged an awareness campaign to effectively curb the pollution by encouraging individual homes to purchase eco-friendly idols that are created according to traditional practices: hand-carved out of natural clay, and adorned with natural paints like red earth and turmeric powder. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     This year, Sanjeev and I found a skillfully crafted natural Ganesh idol at our local mall’s grocery store.  For 500 rupees we happily escorted our eco-friendly Ganesh home and displayed him on our puja counter.  His presence is so welcomed in our home that I refuse to let him leave.  There will be no immerse or dispersion for this fellow despite being no threat to the environment. 

     In celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi this year, we decided to join a group of friends who planned to visit the evening puja ceremony at Raggiguda mandir located in Jayanagar.  On the drive over, the streets were eerily vacant, evidence that a large portion of Bangalore’s residents returned home to their respective states to celebrate the festival elsewhere.  Despite the significantly lower population, Jayanager was alive and brilliant with the senses of life.  Through a sudden mess of traffic, and crammed down as smaller side street, we finally catch sight of towering entrance gate to the festivities, warmly lit and portraying deities.  A plastic banner with Kannada text apparently identifies it as the local Ganesh Chaturthi celebration.  We park in the lot of the huge Central mall next door, its walls and entrance over-lit with harsh florescent lights.  The busy mall stands in contrast to the gate, modern and traditional India existing side by side. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     We make our way through the side street, blocked off to traffic and littered with people and small side stands selling food, idols, and small trinkets.  At the end of the road, we finally come to the temple grounds and its tall gates.  Seeing it, I now recall having been to this temple before, in 2010 with my friend Balaji who used to accompany me on outings to see some of Bangalore’s best temples.  Memories like photographs pop into my mind, and I remember the second temple at the top of the large rock hill, and sitting inside, lotus pose, absorbing the positive energy on a monsoon afternoon much less populated by devotees.  Amidst the other people dressed in their nicest outfits, Sanjeev and I slip off our sandals, place them in a woven bag, exchanging the bag for a token from a man who carefully files the footwear away during our visit to the temple.  The grounds are filled with devotees, families and friends gaily talking and moving single file through the maze of a walkway that leads one around the grounds and up to the temples built on top of the rock mountain, wet with the afternoon’s rain.  The daylight is fading and I have to push my camera’s sensitivity to its highest ISO in order to capture the scenes before me.  Waiting for the line to move, I watch people posing for pictures taken with mobile phones before a manmade waterfall carved into the mountain rock, painted and complete with idols.  We move slowly, the ground is wet and cold on my bare feet, and I try not to pay attention to the grit and wet leaves sticking to them.  As we move up the ramp walkway, I see that I am the only white person amongst hundreds of Hindus.  But in my new and elaborately colorful kameez suit outfit, complete with all the dressings right down to the toe rings, I am comfortable, a misfit perhaps, but an expert at being so.  We wind through the maze, and I feel as though we are in a line at an amusement park waiting to try out a new ride. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     After about ten minutes of foot traffic, we finally arrive at the entrance to the temple.  We give 100 rupees donation to a man sitting at a glass table, who types the amount into a little calculator which spits out a small receipt.  The donation sponsors the rice the temple acquires for the next day’s prasada – the food offerings to the poor from the Gods.  People push past me in the line, anxious to perform the darshan – the viewing of the Gods in idol form.  Finally at the end of the walkway in the center of it all, we are instructed to take two large red fabric bags of rice.  We carry it over to a bronze metal idol of Goddess Annapoorneshwari – the Goddess of food. We wait for our turn amongst the people crowding around her, each in turn, dumping their own bag of rice at her feet.  One by one, they empty their bags, the tinkling sound of dry rice flowing down the statue and into a large barrel.  I manage to push my way to the front and dump my rice feeling rushed and overwhelmed in the room.  We turn back to the primary idol, of Ganesh of course, give a monetary gift to the aarti tray, and run our hands through the diya flame, covering our eyes for blessings of insight and enlightenment from the Gods.  

© Rebecca Delekta
      Upon leaving the temple, we are again herded into another walkway that leads to marble stairs carved into the mountainside, and up to the temple at the peak.  I hold on to the railings as I climb, avoiding puddles, and feeling the threat of leg cramps as we move.  At the height of the climb, we enter an even more densely crowded temple that houses the idols of Shiva, Rama, and Hanuman, the three idols placed strategically around the corners of the temple, with Hanuman, the monkey God at the center.  Moving in line again, I watch an elderly lady wound in a peach color sari no taller than four feet, perform her prayers, moving swiftly despite her age.  We pay our respects to Shiva first, moving single file down the hallway that circles the idol, and do the same for Rama, where we catch up to the small aunty and watch as she prostrates before the idol.  The darshan complete, we slowly head down the marble stairway, stopping to stretch my cramping legs. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     During our lengthy expedition to the two temples, the sun has given way to dusk, and in the quickly failing light, I attempt to catch some shots of the temple’s features.  At the bottom of the rock mountain we gradually follow the flow of people to a courtyard area decorated with multicolor strands of lights.  Small benches line the area in rows, and we watch individuals enter the courtyard from the entrance path carrying their Ganesh idols, ringing small bells to awaken the spirit of Ganesh as they walk.  Each family places their idol on the bench, lights incense, and an oil lamp, and begins to perform their personal puja to invite the spirit of Ganesh into the idols.  I watch two elderly men wrapped in a traditional white cloth perform their ceremony, snapping their photos from a distance. 

     As darkness settles in, Sanjeev and I sit on a granite ledge lined with plants and wait for the rest of our absent party to show.  Over time, the flow of families bringing their idols for awakening increases, and the air begins to crackle with energy.  The idols come in all sizes, some fitting in the palm of the hand, others need to be carried by two or more people.  We take note of the small amount of people using the natural clay idols, most everyone has purchased the neon colored, chemically laden statues.   

© Rebecca Delekta
     In droves, they march down the entrance walkway, the sound of hundreds of bells overwhelming and accompanied by the sharp beat of hand drums.  Young men and children happily shout phrases in Kannada honoring Ganesh, running alongside the person who has the honor of escorting the God.  A father yells in Kannada “Il nodi Ganesha!” (Look! here is Ganesha!)  His children yell back, “Al nodi Ganesha!” (Look there is Ganesha!) “Ellakadi Ganesha!” (Ganesha is everywhere!)  Others yell in Hindi, “Ganesh Maharaj ki jai ho” (Hail the king Lord Ganesha!).  Tonight, women don their most beautiful silk saris reserved for special occasions, their array of tantalizing rainbow colors still evident in the lamp lit night.  Their little girls follow them down the path, clad in heavily adorned and glittering ethnic wear, attempting to keep their dresses off the dirt ground so as to not trip.  Each family makes their way through the swarm, their festive spirits adding to the positive energy.  The sounds of the pujas, the riot of colors, the smell of burning incense on the moist cool air, the movement of every individual, all coalesce, creating a sea of life.  With each passing moment, the river of people increases, joining the tides of energy.  I remain seated in awe of the intense cultural moment I am experiencing, a persistent smile of enjoyment on my face.  I absorb the energy, feeling as though my skin might glow with its life seeping into me.  There is no place I would rather be at this moment, and I remain there, immersed in the tide of sentience. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013


     On any given night, I fall asleep to the gangs of local street dogs barking out their territory claims.  Occasionally a fight will ensue, with sharp yelps and growls echoing off the concrete walls of our apartment building, leaking through the windows and into the dark space of my bedroom.  At night, Bangalore belongs to the dogs.  In the beginning of my time here, the sounds of the random fights of angered canines vying for space I could not see perturbed me.  It served as a reminder of the cruelty of life here – the absence of love, food, and shelter for hundreds of thousands of dogs in this city.  In my sleep, their animal cries would seep into my dreams, drawing up images of feral street mongrels directing their grievances of injustice at me.  On the nights when their repetitive yelps refused to give way to the otherwise peaceful night, I wondered how I would ever fall asleep.  Over time though, their canine theatrics became just another set of noises I subconsciously learned to block out. 

      Around four a.m., human life in Bangalore begins to stir.  The first to come is the sound of increasing traffic, drawn long out over the stretch of Hosur road, only marginally populated in the early morning hours, and duly taken advantage of.  The drone of tires on pavement is accompanied by the sounds of short bursts of shrill car horns, and the obnoxiously elaborate songs of bus horns piloted by impatient and jaded drivers.  The gaps of silence are filled with the whirring sounds of heavy transport trucks driven too fast through the streets by cross country drivers wired and determined to escape the city before the morning rush hits.  Early morning risers, exposed to the cool and less polluted air contribute the nagging whines of mopeds and the putt… putt… pop sounds exuded from the tiny tailpipes of auto rickshaws.  Like the echoes of the dog brawls, the mechanical sounds of traffic blur away into nothingness as I sleep. 

      A couple hours later, after the sun has risen, the locals outside of our towering apartment complex have begun their day.  The steady thump…. thump… thump sounds of women beating wet soapy clothes against worn stone plates reverberate through the walls. The courtyard children commence their day of play with excited high-pitched voices, calling out to one another, laughing, screaming.  On the dirt road parallel to my bedroom windows, the heavy breathing sound of a tractor carrying its load over uneven terrain fills the air.  Metal shop workers begin shaping their work, the screech of saws and the clang of metal on metal sharp and intense.  Plots over, the gypsies work on the construction of several new apartment buildings.  The sounds of scraping metal on wet concrete join together with the pounding of carved wood supports into place, blending and carried on the wind over the distance to my windows. 

      As the mid morning hours come around, residents of my apartment head off to school and work, car alarms go off accidentally, and random arcade like tunes play as indicators to cars backing out of their parking spaces.  The first water tanker arrives for the day, diesel engine revving as the lone driver skillfully backs the clumsy truck up to the water well ten stories below my bedroom window. 

      Pigeons land on the air conditioner outside my unused window, concealed behind the thick yellowish curtains permanently closed.  They coo to one another, feathers swishing against metal and glass as they perch.  Their strange and soft murmuring sounds lost to my world of dreams. 

      As I slowly stir and become aware of my surroundings, I usually see Little Pup watching me from his bed, patiently waiting for the first signs of life from me.  I close my eyes again and wait for a few moments, absorbing the soft comfort of my camel printed Rajasthani blanket before I rise for the day.  Doggie breakfasts served, I pull back the curtains of the living room patio doors, and open the smudged glass wide to the sudden rush of life in full swing.  I sit down on my cotton sheet covered couch and drink my morning tea, the beats of the city, and the cool breeze inescapable but welcomed guests in my home. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

इंद्रधनुष Indradhanusa (Rainbow)

     We sit on the cheap squeaky metal chairs in the main room of the service center, waiting for at least twenty minutes for the repair worker to tell us if our purchase of a replacement LCD screen was the right solution to our currently out of service tablet.  “I’m hungry.” I say, and fiddle with my camera settings out of boredom.  This is the second time we have visited the Asus service shop on Lalbaugh Main Road.  Last week, Sanjeev’s GPS led us in circles through a Muslim ghetto in an attempt to lead us there.  We ended up having to park on the side of an adjacent main road in what was also an area populated largely by muslims.  I had walked down the filthy road observing the crows, goats and chickens scraping for food amongst the garbage thrown on what would serve as the sidewalk.  Women walked by in their burkas, and I kept myself from making eye contact with any of the men.  I hate these parts of the city, even if I only come across them occasionally.  Bangalore as a whole is a dilapidated place, but the muslim ghettos are its worst representations – serving as real life models of what the world would look like after an apocalypse.  Odd man out is the Hindu that walks through these areas.   

     This visit however, we managed to avoid the ghettos and parked in the visitor parking lot of the still-in-construction building that contains the service center.  The friendly and smiling security guard directs us where to park, and the inside layout of the service center reminds me of a small hospital waiting room.  Except for the low speaking voices in Kannada and Hindi, it’s too quiet inside, and I hear saws going off in the empty parts of the building. 

     After waiting for a good half hour, we decide to head up the street a few blocks to have our lunch at the MTR restaurant. Today, the company is known for its high quality ready-made food mixes and spice packets available everywhere, but its original and quite dated restaurant in Bangalore still keeps its doors open.  I was hesitant to eat there considering the run-down state of the area, but it is the only place within walkable distance, and it’s supposed to be very good food.  Down the main road, the muslim to Hindu ratio appears to have evened out, but I am still in a defensive mood.  The lower level of the restaurant is crowded with patrons, and a passing waiter makes a sort of grunt and motions with his head to take the stairs to the second level dining area for seating.  At the first level of the stairs, I see a colorful mirror portrait of Krishna playing his flute, and I immediately relax when I see that everyone eating here is Hindu.  A waiter motions for us to follow him and pulls out two red plastic chairs for us to sit on at a large marble-topped table.  There are three separate elderly married couples already sitting at the table, and I feel rather puzzled that he is asking us to sit here when I see other tables in the room are completely open.  I don’t want to refuse his request though, and we both quietly slide into our seats.  Next to me an old uncle, neatly dressed in traditional white cotton South Indian attire patiently waits for his food.  Next to him, his wife sits quietly; just as nicely dressed in a pressed green and pink silk sari, gray hair smoothed back into a neat bun.  Directly in front of us sit an aunty and uncle in their late sixties.  They are more causally dressed in their ethnic wear and chatter in Kannada between themselves.  We order dosa and chai and quietly murmur to each other.  Though the elderly couples are polite in acknowledging my presence, I feel awkward.  Sanjeev sits in his best polite stance, back straight, hands folded in his lap, and I know that he feels the same.  We sit in silence for some time, and I feel as though being inside this restaurant, I have stepped back in time a good thirty years.  The layout, the seating, the people, everything inside this place seems to be reminiscent of an older, much different India. 

     A waiter brings each of the couples their orders.  Every individual is served a plate of idli (steamed rice cakes) and steel bowls filled with sambar, and coconut chutney.  The dish is complete with the addition of a tiny bowl filled with ghee.  The aunty and uncle in front of us happily drizzle their fattening ghee on their idlis and skillfully use two spoons to break apart the idli and dunk it in the chutney and sambar.  We wait, trying not to look at them all eating.  After what seems like forever, our dosas are placed in front of us.  I feel compelled to eat with my right hand in the presence of elders, and manage to tear apart the dosa and scoop up chutney without making a mess.  The food here is traditional Tamil style, and perfectly spiced.  In a gluttonous mood, I decide that the dosa isn’t enough for me, despite that it’s thick and cooked with too much ghee.  We order two plates of dahi vada (curd with a spiced doughnut).  In the meantime, the aunty and uncle opposite us start on their second plate of food, a bowl rice and dal in a spicy sauce; a dish I have eaten myself but fail to recall its name.  The server finally brings us our chai, served in good-sized silver tumblers.  He gives us each two tumblers, one filled with chai, the other empty.  I sit for a moment somewhat self conscious about the task that is before me.  The two tumblers means that I will have to perform a stunt with very hot tea without burning myself or carelessly spilling it in my lap.  Traditional tea in the South is served with sugar spooned into the cup without stirring.  Mixing the tea and the sugar is done by pouring the contents of one tumbler into another repetitively; effectively mixing the sugar and enhancing the taste of the tea.  People accustomed to doing this can pour the tea from a foot above the other tumbler without spilling a drop.  I however, have only done this a few times.  I manage to mix my tea without burning my fingers too much, and I only make a small spill.  It’s made with the cheap residue tea available everywhere, but it is prepared in a wonderful way and reminds me of side stand tea from the chai wallas in Delhi.  We finish our tea and overfill our stomachs with the dahi vada.  For some reason Sanjeev gives the server a large tip, who makes sure to ask Sanjeev twice if the amount is really for him.

     As soon as we exit the building it begins to rain, and we dodge traffic to cross the intersection, running down the sidewalk to find shelter from the downpour.  I cover my camera with my kurti and skillfully avoid the cracks and holes in the sidewalk as I run.  We find a store with an awning and take our refuge next to three other men.  I wipe the water droplets off my camera and sit on the entrance’s marble ledge while we wait.  A few minutes later, the coast is clear.  Sanjeev tells me to go back to the service center and wait for him while he crosses the busy street to use the atm.  I walk back down the brick laid lot and lean against the entrance wall.  Across the long glass wall, a security guard with chiseled features who looks to be either Nepalese or Assamese directs the random cars and people to their respective places.  I notice the appealing architecture of the building’s complex in front of me, and the neatly maintained shrubs and plants.  I fidget with my wet hair, attempting to smooth and reshape my limp curls.  Three middle-aged women, clad in traditional saris walk by me, each giving me a sweet smile that I return.  As they pass me by, speaking in Kannada amongst each other, Sanjeev comes around the corner.  I know that they are speaking about me, so I ask him if he heard what they were saying.  He replies that they were impressed with my appearance being fully immersed in Indian culture, complete with my mangal sutra necklace.  As we walk back into the large building I can’t help my smile knowing that the women approved of me.

     Back in the service center waiting room, we are told that the new LCD screen has not fixed the problem and that our tablet is still not working.  He informs us that it is most likely a video chip in the motherboard that has gone bad, and that it would cost more than the tablet is worth to replace it.  We pay out another $100 for the extra screen and spare part and pack up our useless tablet.  On the way home through the obnoxiously loud traffic jams, I vent out my frustration about the death of our hardly used tablet, and the waste of invested money in an exaggerated, breathless ramble that keeps Sanjeev laughing the whole ride.  I swear off buying useless electronics and pout the rest of the trip. 

     Back home, I retrieve a squealing Bubby from his bedroom and take the elevator downstairs.  Outside the entrance of my block, I see fresh puddles in the uneven brick layout, and know that it has rained in this area as well.  The sun is getting low in the sky hidden behind the rain clouds, and the evening light is tinted a beautiful pinkish orange.  I let Bubby pee and decide to make him take a round in the complex.  Coming around the corner of another block, with Bubby behind me doing his speedy spider walk, I begin to see the edges of a rainbow in the South.  Around the bend, I see its true brilliance, colors vivid and distinct, its wide arch peaking high above me.  I stop and admire it for a minute, deeply breathing the moist cool air, and finally head back to my block.  I don’t ever recall having seen a rainbow in India.  Perhaps it is a sign good luck to come.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Raksha Bundhun

     Today August 20th, is Raskha Bundhun (knot of protection) – a festival celebrated across the whole of India and better known as Rakhi. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     On this auspicious day, sisters tie a red thread bracelet (a rakhi) onto their brother’s right wrist as a symbol of the bond between siblings.  Traditional belief follows that the tying of the rakhi will offer protection and good luck the brother, while also reminding him of his vow to protect his sister from all that is evil.  The historical roots of Raskha Bundhun stem back to the times when India was ruled by kings.  Folklore has it that a queen of a Hindu empire offered a rakhi to the ruler of the Mughals as a peace offering and symbol of friendship. 

     In modern India, Rakhi continues to be celebrated each year during the Hindu month of Shravan. Weeks before the festival, handmade rakhis numbering the tens of millions flood the streets of India’s cities.  Rajasthani families who are well known for owning radiantly colorful little knick-knack shops always maintain the most elaborate displays of rakhis.  Last Rakhi, I remember walking down a street in Koramangala and being drawn to the vibrant presentation of rakhi bracelets that had spilled out of a Rajasthani store and onto the sidewalk.  A makeshift display board with bracelets dangling hung from a large tree, and tables full of rakhis lined the entrance.  All of it so carefully placed out so passersby could quickly buy a bracelet and perhaps be lured to into the colorful and warmly lit store downstairs. 

 © Rebecca Delekta
     While the sisters are responsible for procuring the rakhi and to also provide her brother with sweets, it is customary for brothers to show their dedication to their promise of protection by giving gifts to their sisters.  Sanjeev told me that when he was little, he used to joke with his four sisters that Raksha Bundhun was intended to be about the bond of siblings, but is instead just another festival that grants permission for sisters to loot their brothers for gifts.  Sanjeev and his sisters still maintain their traditional celebration, and over the past week, packages have come from Delhi and Gujarat filled with soan papdi sweets and greeting cards, each one containing a unique rakhi bracelet inside.  Like the year before, I taped each card and its bracelet to the refrigerator.  Last night we were informed that the package to Delhi containing the salwar suit materials for three of his sisters arrived, each one delighted with our choice of design.  In Gujarat, Renu was also pleased with the gift and money for the tailor.  At nine a.m. this morning, after two hours of sleep, Sanjeev is already on the phone with his sisters wishing each one a happy Rakhi.  I wake up to his voice, and find him in the kitchen amongst the cards performing a modified version of the Rakhi ritual in his sisters’ absence.  He takes his shower, dresses, and ties all four Rakhis on his wrist.  I cut off the loose ends while he mixes a tiny rice pack with a pinch of vermillion powder to create the auspicious tilak on his forehead. 

     I have witnessed the celebration of Raskha Bundhun in Bangalore three times in the last four years.  Although the nonexistence of my own brother requires me to only observe Rakhi rituals from the sidelines, Rakhi remains to be one of most interesting, fun, and light-hearted Hindu festivals simply because it is another day that joyously celebrates life and the bonds of family. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Chain of Events To Help A Lost Soul

     In a city of almost ten million, Bangalore evokes a strange sense of awareness about time and all the small coincidences in life, how they string together as events in the lived experience.  This awareness essentially makes you realize how your life, each day and moment, can be dramatically altered by one event, determined by it even.  We can live one day in a million ways.  Today, I felt particularly aware of time and this connection of events. 

     We round the corner on the bike, coming to the final bend that leads out to Hosur Main Road.  Sanjeev swerves the bike somewhat and immediately pulls over to the side and stops.  “We have a tire puncture,” he tells me, “get off.”  That’s interesting.  Just an hour ago we had amazing luck by narrowly missing our bike being towed for illegal parking in Electronic City.  I was just sitting down on the bike to leave when a tow truck abruptly pulled up, stopped in the middle of the road, and let out two guys who walked around our bike and us and began hastily removing the other three bikes parked on the side of the road.  Just 30 seconds later, and we would have been attempting to bribe the tow guys to give us our bike back.  As we drive away from the tow truck and the men, I tell Sanju that Shiva must be watching over us, and we laugh about the fact that someone is actually enforcing laws in this city.  

     But now, our luck seems to have run out.  I get off the bike not at all surprised that we have a flat.  About a half hour ago we were driving along what has got to be the worst road in all of Bangalore.  A four-foot high pile of broken bricks lay in the middle of the road, and to avoid driving through the water filled massive lengths of potholes, we instead drove over a patchwork of fist sized jagged rocks.  The second trip through the rocks probably did the trick.  It is amazing at all that we manage to keep our vehicles intact and running for all the beatings they take from the roads of this city. 

     The crater road stunt was done all in an attempt to find an adequate place to eat our skipped breakfast.  I felt like South Indian and was in luck to find that a chatt restaurant was serving a well prepared Southern variety lunch, a big steel plate filled with enough small bowls of different subjees, sambar, rasam, and dahi to fill up even the hungriest of souls.  Sipping cardamom tea after food, I helped Sanjeev fill out the greeting cards to his sisters, stuffing a 500 rupee note in each one.  August 20th is Raskha Bundhun, better known as Rakhi – a festival acknowledging the relationship between brothers and sisters.  Days earlier, Sanjeev and I took forever to pick out unstitched salwar suit materials for each one of his four sisters to send them in celebration of Rakhi.  Finding cards for them was an almost unattainable goal, but after asking around at a couple of small stationary stores in the area, we found ourselves in the hot and unventilated second floor of a grocery store, with apparently the only greeting card display available in the city.  The card stand looked like it has never once been organized, and we spend roughly 15 minutes sweating and searching for relevant cards in the mess.  On the short ride from the grocery store to the restaurant (and over that nasty road) I somehow lose one of the cards.  Not wanting to waste valuable time to get another, I forfeit the “friends” card with two ugly little dogs on it that I had bought to send Kristie. 

     Cards filled out, and tea finished, we start back toward Hosur Road to visit the courier’s office and send it all out.  The sun manages to peek out of the clouds after four full days of nonstop rain.  I feel unexpectedly light as it warms my back.  It would have been even more enjoyable if we didn’t get a flat and have to walk the bike to a service shop on Hosur.  We walk for about five minutes before we see that the first puncture shop is closed (it is mid-day after all).  An auto guy with a backseat full of happily waving kids stops and tells us that there is another puncture shop further up the road.  At this point another man approaches Sanjeev speaking in a language I cannot identify, though it is clear that he is asking for help.  Like most people from his poor class, he is utterly too thin, clothes hanging off him, looking as though they haven’t been washed for some time.  His hair is thick and jet black, I take him to be in his early thirties, but his face is worn and deeply sad, and it is hard to look away from him.  Sanjeev listens to the man but wants to dismiss him as a drunkard, another one of the men living in this state that have fallen prey to drinking away what little money they make.  We continue walking, and he follows us persistent to ask for help.  I tell Sanju that I feel bad and that I want to give him some cash, but I can see that he doesn’t believe what this man says, and I catch the word police in Sanjeev’s reply to him.  I try my best not to look perturbed.  Living here, you have to learn to ignore beggars, especially if you’re white.  Giving money to everyone that asks would leave you broke, and people can and will take advantage of you if you let them.  I have had kids beg from me and then get angry and argue when I refuse to give them cash but offer to buy them something to eat instead. Somehow though, I feel this guy is different.  The look on his face reflects his hard lot in life.  I know however, that it would make Sanjeev angry to give him the money, and we would essentially repeat the same argument we always have over giving away money.  The guy continues talking and Sanjeev makes another reply that stops him, a hurt look on his face.    

     As we put distance between him and us, I look back, and ask Sanjeev for better clarification about the event that just happened.  The guy was speaking Tamil (a language Sanjeev knows very little of), and he explained that he works as a cleaner but was left behind in Belgaum after his trucker friend and him had a fight.  He traveled the 508 kilometers (315 miles) from there to Bangalore on foot.  Sanjeev however, doubts his story and tells me that he’d be probably be visiting a liquor shop with any money we gave him.  I drop the issue for the moment and wait as Sanjeev stops and asks two more bike repair shops if they do puncture work.  Both are a negative and tell us in rambling Kannada and pointing arms to continue further down the road where another place is set up.  We walk for another five minutes and I joke when I see that we’ve reached our courier office.  We are in luck because a few shops down there is a small workshop that clearly does puncture work if the stacked up and hanging used tires outside its entrance are anything to go by.  It’s miraculously open and we walk our bike under the awning.  Sanjeev asks an old muslim guy sitting inside if they can fix our tire.  He nods and disappears somewhere when I look back and see that the Tamil guy has stopped someone else.  We leave the bike and walk back to the courier to finally relieve me of gift bag I’ve been hauling around all over the place.  The Tamilian is close to the store and before we turn to go inside, Sanjeev stops and tells me he is reconsidering helping the guy.  I am not sure what has changed his mind and I watch him walk over and converse with him on the side of the road.  After a few minutes of impatient waiting, I join them, and observe their conversation in broken Tamil and some random English sentences.  Sanjeev finally breaks his conversation and turns to tell me that the guy wants to get home to his village outside of Chennai in Tamil Nadu.  We agree that we will first send out our gifts, and that he will take him on the bike to the interstate bus station back in Electronic City.  I will take an auto home.  He tells the guy to sit and wait outside the courier office while we finally get those packages out. 

     Inside the stuffy office, we wait for the workers to finish their lunches.  I pace a little and glance out of the glass doors at the Tamil guy sitting on a concrete block.  He looks so worn, desperate even.  While Sanjeev busies himself with filling out the addresses of the packages, I see an elderly woman wrapped in a faded sari approach the window.  See knocks on it once to get my attention and asks me for money by bringing her hand to her mouth in an eating gesture.  The only kind of beggars I never ignore are the elderly, most of whom have been abandoned or widowed, and have most likely had an unimaginably hard life.  I walk over to the gap in the glass that serves as the exit and hand her a 100 rupee note.  She thanks me silently by touching the money to her heart and walks off.  When I rejoin Sanjeev, he tells me he thinks we got a flat tire so that we could help the Tamil guy.  I think about the events that led up to this point.  The fact that we didn’t go out to get the gift task done the last two days because of time and the rain, that we couldn’t use the car today because Akilesh is home, that we left when we did, drove over that road, and got a flat where we did.  I agree with him, we both believe in fate leading you places and sending you signs.  We stand around sweating for another ten to fifteen minutes, waiting for the cashier to finally finish charging us entirely too much for our package to be sent out and reach Delhi by the 20th.

     Back out on the street, Sanjeev tells the guy to continue waiting as we go back to check on the progress of the bike.  A young kid no more than twelve who sports the look of a hard working mechanic tells us that our tire tube needs to be changed, and we watch as he removes the tire off the back of the bike and begins dismantling it.  The kid speaks in Hindi too accented for me to understand more than a couple of words, and I watch them discuss which replacement tube to use.  Next to us, metal shop workers loudly hammer their current project and solder joints without protective glasses.  Trucks roll by with deafening horns blaring, and after idle standing for a few minutes Sanjeev asks me to walk back and check to see if the guy is still waiting.  I do, and motion for him to follow me when I see him.  He catches up to me and asks me in halfway decent English where I am from, I tell him America but pronounce it in an Indianized way he can understand – Amareeka.  We walk to the entrance and I strain to hear him speak to me over the sounds of the traffic and horns on the street.  He asks me for an American coin, and I tell him I don’t know if I have one, but search in the coin pouch of my wallet for the change I left in there from my last trip home for the expressed purpose of not disappointing another person who asks for a small token from my country.  I dig out a quarter, a dime, and a penny carefully placing each one in his palm and explaining to him what they are called and worth.  He thanks me and I say that I hope it brings him good luck.  He tells me, somewhat like a child, that he has come across a one-dollar bill and has kept it.  I ask him if he is native to Tamil Nadu and he tells me he is but that his family is very poor.  He says it took him seven days to walk to Bangalore.  When I comment that it was sad that no one helped him he replies that it was difficult because most people here don’t speak Tamil.  He again begins to look like he might cry and I tell him not to worry, that we will help him get home.

     The mechanic kid finishes his job and Sanjeev again joins us.  Having thought his trip over, the Tamil guy asks us if we can help him to the train station instead.  He holds out his right palm and draws with his opposite finger an imaginary map for us to describe how close his mother’s home is to the train station in Chennai.  We agree to get him a train ticket instead and start walking down the road to the bus stop just within sight.  Sanjeev parks the bike and asks him go sit on the bench on the other side of the street.  While Sanjeev looks up the varying trains and their times to Chennai on his phone, I go inside a little snacks shop and buy a bottle of water and a veg puff for the Tamil.  I walk across the side road and give it to him, and he feels compelled to show me his education credentials paper that he keeps folded in his front shirt pocket.  I notice that the well-to-do people waiting for the bus are staring at me, and I open the heavily creased paper, attempting to separate the Tamil script from any printed English.  I see that his name is Satheesh and I say it out loud to him.  He smiles approvingly that I have pronounced it right and I tell him my name.  He speaks it several times, with heavy emphasis on the R.  I hand the paper back to him and tell him to wait again while I check on Sanjeev’s train progress.  There are no more trains he can catch tonight but we agree that it is best if he gets the ticket himself for the 6:30 am train tomorrow.  We speak with him at the bus stop, waiting people curious and eavesdropping on our words.  We give him five hundred rupees ($10) for the train ticket and food, and 20 rupees for the bus fair to the train station.  He thanks us and holds out a small packet of locally harvested raisins for me to take.  I argue with him to keep it for himself but he tells me it is for the food and water I gave him.  I hesitantly take it and while we walk away, he boards the bus. 

      Before we drive away, a rather large guy who had been eavesdropping on the situation tells us in Kannada that we were fools to give Satheesh that money, because he is probably a drunkard.  It is true of course that Satheesh could be lying to us.  It is difficult to separate the truthful people from the deceitful ones.  Whether he takes that train to Chennai tomorrow morning and arrives at his mother’s home, and finally feeds himself, or uses it to drown his sorrows with cheap liquor, we cannot know.  I’d like to believe that he was honest; the despair on his face was genuine.  We both agreed that we did our part, whatever the outcome.  Driving home the last couple miles, I notice that the sky has suddenly turned dark again.  Five minutes later, back in the comfort of our apartment and changing out of my ethnic wear, I watch the sky open up and pour outside my bedroom window.  We both admit that the weather managed to be nice just as long as we needed it to.