Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Our Home in Bangalore

Bangalore is not a city that you’d visit for fun. Despite the bars and nightlife, most tourists wisely choose to avoid the city, using it solely as a gateway to other Indian attractions. Karnataka’s capital boasts a population bigger than London but none of the infrastructure to support it. The massive industrial boom here, especially in the IT and business sectors, has meant that the city has shot up at an uncontrollable speed and is at present suffering from substantial growing pains. The traffic is insane and the narrow and potholed roads simply can’t cope. Economic migrants flock to the city by the bus-load, but cannot afford the steep living costs and so are forced to into the slums. The difference between these houses and the swanky offices of big business is made more pronounced by their proximity to each other. Unlike London, poverty is not restricted to certain areas of the city. Instead skyscrapers sit next to shanty towns and family homes next to the slums.

The reason Lilith and I have ventured to the “Garden City” is to research and carry out a project with a newly formed NGO here and to assess whether it will be compatible with the aims of Bristol student charity BVDA. For the next five weeks we’ll be staying with Christina, head of the NGO Kirana, and her family. Kirana, which means “ray of light”, works with underprivileged children from both the rural and urban slums of the Bangalore area. The Children growing up in the slums have very little access to education, electricity or clean water and face a future of bonded labour, performing dangerous quarry work. The trust is currently in the process of building a home in the village of Chikkballapura for the most vulnerable of these children. Our aim is to establish whether there is a project here for future BVDA volunteers and well as to give Kirana some assistance in getting off the ground.

Christina herself has just turned thirty and is a lively and modern Indian woman, with a permanent twinkle in her eye. Her husband Dominic is also quite unorthodox, helping with cleaning and cooking as well as man-tasks such as driving, hunting down the best fish (albeit from the market) and cockroach removal. He has a mop of dark, thick hair and a fine moustache. He is a man that knows that in a crisis only a ridiculously overpriced pizza will do. Their daughter Catty is confident beyond her four years and is at times a bit of a madam. She’s always full of beans and is a born entertainer.

Christina’s sister Ruthlina is also a semi-permanent feature of the household. Ten years senior to Christina, Ruthlina (who we fondly call ‘ackhar’ or ‘sister’) takes on the role of nagging but comic aunty, famous everywhere for her constant chattering. Ackhar is also a nun, but not in any traditional sense. She cares little for the church, doesn’t believe in an afterlife and holds the most progressive social and political views of anyone I’ve met in India. She’s smiley, plump and always full of energy. It doesn’t take much to see who Catty takes after. The last member of the close family is Leena, Christina’s niece. Having lost her father when she was a baby and her mother just two years ago, she splits her time equally between Christina’s house and the family home which she shares with her two elder brothers. Leena is a 21-year-old master’s student and so in many ways is our Indian equivalent. Far more innocent and romantic than most British 21 year olds, she doesn’t quite get our rather dry sense of humour but despite this has become our instant friend. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to emerge as an adult without ever having heard the Beatles, punk or anything better than poor quality pop.

The house is situated in the predominantly Christian suburb of Marianna Palaya, which is, rather accurately, called an urban village. Although the office blocks of central Bangalore loom in the distance, cows and goats wander freely and the roads are narrow and dusty. The house is only two years old, and is a beautiful concrete construction (contradiction as that might sound) complete with all mod-cons. A generator means that we hardly notice the frequent power cuts and the only sounds that can be heard are winds in the trees and the shouts of children from the nearby school. The roof provides views of the surrounding coconut trees, as well as the nearby slum and distant city.

We’ve already had an induction into Bollywood, been taught a few classical dance steps and had our hands hennaed by the talented Leena. After the first few days of being overfed to the point of discomfort, we’ve engaged in a food war as we try to keep our calorie intake to less than 3000 a day. The food is amazing; tasty flatbreads, sumptuous curries and the most inventive rice dishes I’ve ever seen, but at present there’s just far too much. Taking tips from Channel 4 documentaries on Anorexia, we’re utilizing distraction techniques, as well as smuggling biscuits to beggar children and receiving apples gratefully only to sneak them back into the bowl at a later date. Always choose a pomegranate over a banana; they take ages to eat (hopefully you won’t be given anything else in the meantime) and they’re not filling in the slightest. More seriously, it’s been pretty difficult to reconcile this kind of hospitality with the poverty that we see just outside our doorstep.

At times I feel quite trapped by the lack of freedom, both in what we are allowed to do as well as how much we eat, but I think I am getting a pretty accurate picture of how it is to grow up a young woman in modern India. Here women are children until they are married, and must make the transition more or less overnight. A combination of overwhelming hospitality and fear for our safety means that we are heavily dependent on Christina and her family. It will be interesting to see how this changes during our stay.

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