I’ve tavelled to Bangalore a number of times over the last several months. Each time I go, I learn a little bit more, notice some of the more subtle things that escaped me on prior visits, discover more favorite places, people and things. Each time I go, I find I’m able to achieve just a little bit more grace in the way I move through this culture. A few of the impressions that’ve stuck in my mind…
on the road
Driving in India is a much higher-awareness endeavor than in the US. Lane lines seem optional, and one wonders why they bother – even veering into oncoming traffic is considered acceptable – yet you’ll find far fewer accidents than over a similar period here. I’ve heard americans claim they’d be able to drive easily in Bangalore with a little practice, but I have to call bullshit on it.
Conducting this eloquent chaos is the language of horns. Unlike lane lines, horns are effectively required – you’ll even find signs on rear bumpersthat say – “OK sound horn”. And they mean it. And you’d better learn that language if you plan to drive there. A short toot that may say “Hi, I’m coming up on you”. A longer toot or quick stutter that says “Hey! I’m right next to you!”. A long blast that might mean “Dammit, stop crowding me!”
And yet anger, much less road rage, seems almost unheard of on those roads. Drivers appear cheerfully engaged in a way that reminds me of the “Whos” from Dr. Seuss.
But not all is passive on indian roads: intersections in particular seem ruled, if not by outright aggression, then by a resolute determination, a grim steadfastness in the sense of “I’m proceeding through this intersection, now, – thank you very much.” The faint of heart will sit, cowed, at such a junction for the entire day and get nowhere – it would take literally years for me to feel trained enough to be proficient in this flow.
Which leaves me the options of taxis or feet – and be warned, as a pedestrian here you are at the bottom of the food chain!
Motorbikes rule in Bangalore. I’ve seen vast parking lots of nothing but motorbikes. I’ve watched a single motorbike with the man driving, his wife riding sidesaddle on the back, a child between them, another child riding in front of the man, and still another child lying on the fuel tank. And the women never fall off. Imagine riding sideways on the back of a motorbike as it weaves through traffic, around potholes and over speedbumps. Go ahead – try.
With most species, it is the males that display color while the females tend toward a more subdued palette. Indeed, humans seem like a rare exception. And in India that difference is accentuated – while the men generally wear grays, tans and perhaps blues, the women are strikingly, beautifully colorful, wearing traditional clothing even when reporting to work in a technology park. It’s one of those cultural juxtapositions, a head-on collision between east and west, between historical and modern, that makes this place so intriguing.
In the tech park where I work when in Bangalore, large afternoon meetings are frequently visited by “chai wallas”, who bring trays full of piping hot chai and pass it out to everyone, an incredibly civilized way to break up the afternoon. In fact, I learned on my second trip that one could dial an internal number and have a cup of chai delivered to my desk, something I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get adopted back in Seattle.
Some traditions die hard. The caste system, for all the claims of reform, seems to have survived even if in some very subtle ways. It can be a look or a tone, or a reflexive cringe, or the use of the term “sah”. I’ve watched management dismiss food servers with an imperious twitch of their head, and those servers literally back away in a crouch. Courtesies we take for granted might be met with amazement or awkwardness.
In many cultures, food preparation can be pretty involved. In India, food consumption can be challenging. Indian cuisine is a rich landscape where just about every dish, it seems, has its own particular method for getting the food from the plate to your mouth. Bread (nan, roti), crepes (dosas), and at least a dozen or more types I couldn’t remember are all used differently. Some sauces are mixed on the plate when properly used. Some forms of bread are dipped but others are rolled up. And I am convinced that native indians have evolved special musculature that allows them to grab a piece of nan and pull off a properly-sized chunk of it, one-handed. It’s amazing to watch, like someone who’s able to roll a coin across their knuckles, a natural move that actually takes considerable coordination and strength.
And, traditionally, it’s the right hand that is used. Historically, the left hand is considered unclean because it’s used for, well, things besides eating. Which is tough when you’re a southpaw, as am I. Using a fork in my right hand is a challenge, chopsticks are downright amusing or even dangerous. Indian friends tell me that enough western lefties have invaded India that they’re accustomed to it, but I’ve received some very surprised, even horrified looks.
Usually, then, I’ll simply try to eat for a while with my right hand. Always leave ’em laughing…