Tag Archives: Bangalore

Bangalore Observations

I had written this over a two years ago almost, while I lived in Bangalore. Life was different then, and one day I just wrote a bunch of random observations down. It was fun to read it today.

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It’s comically incongruous: a rather portly security officer, complete with uniform and shiny shoes and hat and baton and radio. And on his hip, a cute little shiny yellow canister, with even one of those little easy-spray attachments at its head that brings to mind the spray bottles at salons, resting proudly attached to his belt. The combination of somber grey uniform and shiny yellow pepper spray is striking, hard to ignore once noticed. I kept having images of baby canaries, salon treatments, a child’s toy… as my bus moved and he rolled away from my amused view.

Later that evening, I go to the local crowded café to order a takeout dinner. As I stand waiting for my food, I spot an older couple in the rush. He is dressed immaculately, as men that age somehow tend to be. She wears a sweater over a saree that is worn a tad higher than would be by a younger woman. Women over a certain age always tend to wear their sarees higher than I would wear it. They care less about the fall of a garment than the dust and grime on Indian roads. They carry plates of fried rice, and shuffle about the tiny restaurant looking for a place to eat. A certain type of restaurant in Bangalore saves on space and time by not having seats at all, instead having tall tables that are periodically wiped down by grubby boys. Not finding any free space, they stand and hold their plates in one hand and a spoon in the other. I can’t stop observing them, willing some of the younger people to do the right thing and make room. No one does. My sensible quiet voice tells me this is different from being in a crowded train or bus where it’s almost obligatory to give up your seat. Not so here. Still I feel outrage, and realize I cannot see people who remind me of my parents (minus the manner of saree draping) being placed in a less than desirable situation. I am seized with longing about my own parents as I see these two, and filled with affection for two strangers who order fried rice of all things, at a little restaurant with no seating. Within the next minute, my order is thrust into my hand, they find space on a table, and I walk out.

Almost every day of the week, I buy vegetables and fruit at a lovely little shop. The shop keeper and his helper are young men from Kerala, who are unfailingly gracious to me. They speak in broken English and I reply in broken Malayalam, and we are kind to the others’ mistakes as we carry out our daily transactions. They ask after me if I don’t show for two days, they apologize if the prices are higher than average, try to talk me into buying another fruit here, another one there. It’s a lovely ritual that is so common to a regular shopper in India. Then one day, one of them reminds me to bring my Malayalam-speaking mother to the shop when she visits, as I smile yes. And the other wonders if I am married, and my smile slightly freezes as I nod no. Why do I freeze a little bit? I am courteous but offer no detail. Isn’t it strange how we are comfortable enough to breed familiarity with people, but are jolted into slight unease by the most harmless question? Would I have frozen if a similarly educated colleague posed the same question over a coffee in perfect English? What does either answer say about me?

I return home and see my landlord’s father. An old retired gentle, gentle man. He regularly plies me with food and sweets as only Indian elders can do, and repeatedly makes kind offers of assistance should I ever need help. He makes sure to switch on a light on at the entrance to my apartment so I do not stumble in the dark while returning home late. This is also the same man who called out my name from the upper terrace one night. Inside the apartment, all I can hear is the suggestion of my name being called from outside. I go out but see nothing. While all of a sudden I hear my name again from somewhere above me and am startled pretty badly. He wants to know if I am alright. On so many levels, this annoys me. The excessive worrying about someone who can take care of herself perfectly, the insanity of calling to someone from the terrace while they are unsuspectedly inside their apartments, the whole thing baffles. And annoys. And then the next day he hands me a laddoo with a sweet smile, and says “take it”. What is one to do?

But this is exactly it about India and being here. Experiences linger, make a conflicting impression, make you think. They brand themselves onto your senses here, if you pay attention. And all the time, I am made aware of how very thin that line is between affection, distrust, annoyance.. Sometimes I think India thrusts these daily conflicts onto your face, wondering what you will make of it, wondering if you will see the hypocrisy that is rife in everyone’s lives. It can be alternately disconcerting and liberating, depending on the kind of day you’ve had. 

 

 

 

 

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Fair and not-so-fair

There used to be this ad on TV years ago. I don’t remember what it advertised. I remember the last few seconds only.  A  woman, short hair waving in the wind; one toned arm resting on the steering wheel of a convertible as she looks at the camera. She speaks about wanting to get away from it all every now and then and feed her wanderlust. Of course this begs the unasked question “But how safe will you be, a woman all alone driving who-knows-where?” She tosses her head back and smiles as a big, gorgeous dog appears next to her. She slides her free arm around him and asks “I have him”.

As a kid, I loved this ad. Perhaps it advertised a watch, a backpack. Whatever it was, I was certainly not part of their target demographic. But the attitude that the came with it, I drank up. How I liked the idea that a woman could just pack a bag, hop into her car with beautiful dog in tow and just drive off wherever she pleased. All she needs is right there. Heady stuff.  Today? Not so much. Now, the earlier promise is but an echo. Today, all Indian women would shake their heads and dismiss it as fanciful, forgettable, made to fool. But there are no ads on TV like this anymore. Today’s ads show conventionally pretty, if boring-looking young women, lissome and long haired, fair to a fault, dressed in pastel colors with very little hint of unique, peddling fairness creams and make-up products that come with foolproof guarantee that a similarly insipid man’s eye will be caught by this sight of wholesome, demure, pretty-enough-to-attract-but-boring-enough-to-not-intimidate, feminine “beauty”.

An obscene amount of energy is expended the world over, in some parts more than others, to mold women. She is stifled, oppressed, harassed, silenced. Some display this horror with a sort of sadistic pleasure-power, others will not dive, but will daintily step their toes into it and let it color a few unseen facets of their lives. But it happens, every day. Every one of us has noticed this: this hazy but strong line where admiration ends and intimidation begins. There is a critical point beyond which further qualities that the woman herself might prize, are viewed as liabilities that drag her down. Tell me, have you heard at least once in your life variations of this remark “She is too successful/beautiful/smart/ambitious/confident..”

Unfairness and inequality assault my eyes everywhere I look these days. The more I see, the more I am primed for this sort of news. A vicious cycle is born. Women are advised not to drive their cars alone at night, not to dress in “western wear”, not to go to pubs, not to stay back at work, not to live alone in a new city, not to attract too much attention to themselves, to be comforting and never jarring, to be fair and slim and long-haired, to carry on our shoulders every vestige of traditionality known. They are blamed if they are assaulted or molested. We are judged, every single day, by eyes that never stop staring.

Will the day come when I see a confident, olive-skinned woman with tousled hair and no make-up, ignore the pansy imbeciles that inhabit our television screens and walk out on fairness creams and the unfairness they promote? Walk out on mindless traditions and demeaning expectations? It won’t. There’s too much money and too many industries at stake for the former, too many narrow minded people for the latter. This will take a few generations. But will it happen at least in your neighborhood if not your TV screen? Will it happen in your home? Would you let your daughter befriend a woman like that, be inspired by one? Would you approve if your son fell for one of them?

How many women do you know who have been groped, whistled at, followed during a routine commute, made uncomfortable by leering creeps, abused verbally and mentally, shamed, raped? I lived in Bangalore for a while, falling in love with the city, marveling at how this India seems different and new. While returning home one evening, thinking about nothing in particular, I see a biker driving by too close for comfort toward my corner of road. This is not uncommon, you witness all sorts of vehicular acrobatics. This one rides by me, his pillion rider stretches out a lazy arm and touches me as they go by. I am consumed by thoughts of repeatedly washing my arm as I rush home, my skin suddenly dirty and repulsive. Even as I write this, I feel that same anger. And still I know that this is nothing. I don’t know what violation really is. Thank the Gods I don’t.