Archive for the ‘Expat life’ Category

Diwali, and on to Delhi & Agra

November 4, 2013 Comments off

Diwali lights Evening in Korgeaon Park Selling lanterns

The holiday time of Diwali, the festival of lights, has come to India.  The pix above came from Saturday evening, strolling about Koregaon Park after our dinner, and what they portray is typical – every home and business must show its lights.  The “supermarket” shown in the right-most pic was doing a brisk trade; paper lanterns and fairy lights sell in vast quantities this time of year.  We have such a lantern hung in our living room:


It is hard to describe Diwali.  It’s natural to link such observances to something from your own experience.  For example, there’s many gifts exchanged, so some people might say, “Oh, it’s like Christmas.”  Others might hear Diwali commemorates different cases of good triumphing over evil – light triumphing over darkness and all that – so you might say it is like a more solemn Christian observance of Easter, or a Jewish one of Hanukah.  Finally there’s lots of food and family visiting, so you might say it’s like Thanksgiving.  None of these, nor any other trite parallel, is true to the feeling you get here – Diwali is its own thing.

In addition to our lantern, we are following our Indian friends and neighbors in yet another holiday practice: vacation!  Since our visit to Aurangabad last February we haven’t really taken any time off, so we certainly are due.  Since most schools are out all week for the holiday, this is when people go to visit distant family, take relaxation, or go sight-seeing. Count us in the latter category: Our destinations, Agra and the Taj Mahal, then India’s capital city, New Delhi.  Tomorrow at 6 am our flight departs.  I will try for some posts this week while we are seeing all these sights, though I can’t promise anything.

It’s evening here, and the festival fireworks are starting, color bursts in the sky far and near, interspersed with reports of varying loudness – from pop-gun to howitzer.  Till I post here again:

Diwali ki Shubhkamnayein!

Categories: Expat life, Pictures

A Door

November 2, 2013 Comments off

Antique door

Seen at an antique dealer here in Pune.

It seemed old, but now it is set immovable in its frame – an un-openable door.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures

Gold in them ‘thar forts

October 30, 2013 Comments off

One of the bigger news items here of past few weeks:

Sadhu dreams of hidden gold, ASI to excavate fort in UP

UNNAO (UP): A sadhu’s dream of hidden gold treasure at Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh’s fort here has prompted a team of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to survey the area and begin excavation work from October 18.

The sadhu, Shobhan Sarkar, had apparently dreamt that 1,000 tonnes of gold was buried in the remains of the fort situated in Daundaia Kheda village. …

Let’s see, with gold at roughly $43,000 per kilogram, and assuming metric tonnes (why would a sadhu dream in imperial measures?) that is 1000 x 1000 kilograms or 1 million kg, dollar value $43 billion; a tidy sum, to be sure.

But wait, what is a sadhu?  A sadhu is a holy man, usually itinerant; a seer, an advisor.  Many are rightly revered, but many are scam artists and it can be hard to tell the real from the fraudulent.

Getting back to the gold, the specific density of gold is 53 cc (cubic centimeters) per kilogram.  Our sadhu’s dream therefore was about 53 million cc, which seems like a lot.  Sticking with volume, 1,000 cc == 1 liter.  The sadhu therefore dreamed a mass of gold 53,000 liters in volume – or, a rectangular block about 10 meters long by 5 meters high by 1 meter wide: that’s a big brick.

Alas, this particular dream seems to have been mistaken:

No hidden treasure in Unnao, ASI stops excavation: Report

NEW DELHI: The Archaeological Survey of India has stopped digging for gold treasure at the fort of Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh in Unnao. According to ASI officials, excavations have confirmed that there was no gold at the fort, Times Now reported.

Some pottery pieces from Buddhist era have been found from the site.

Thus far, no word from the sadhu on what went wrong.  Apparently one of the sadhu’s supporters, Azam Khan, the Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Ministers, believes that “ … had Narendra Modi not ridiculed monk Shobhan Sarkar, the gold would not have vanished.”

I feel the same way about lottery tickets.  Many of mine would have doubtless hit, if only I had not bought them.

Categories: Expat life

Nandu’s Parathas

October 27, 2013 1 comment

Nandu's Parathas

Where Indian food is concerned, the one thing that seems a universal constant here is comfort.  I don’t find a lot of fine dining hereabouts, but all around is food that is filling, satisfying, simple and, well, yummy.  A top example is Nandu’s, where they serve pretty much just parathas, a griddle-fried pancake made from wheat flour  and stuffed with different things.  Just like the swedish meatball, every culture has its own version of the pancake.  India, abundantly blessed in so many ways, has many versions, from dosa to roti to paratha to uppam to madak saan to cheelas and more.

But Nandu’s is pure paratha.  Here’s what you get:

A paratha

This one was stuffed with potato and chopped fresh green chili.  It comes with coriander chutney, some raita, and some pickle – mango, lime or other vegetable in salt, vinegar and more chili.  On the spoon is a dollop of ghee – clarified butter.  It all comes to you hot off the griddle.  You drizzle the ghee all over, tear off bite-size chunks of pancake, dunk in raita or chutney, and then eat.  Then you eat more, and along with thinking how just plain good it is – the butter, the pancake, the filling, all fresh and hot – you’re also cursing every hour you ever wasted eating American fast-food.

The price … wait for it … a big, big Rs. 90, or about $1.50.

I’ve been in India over a year, with less than a year remaining and people are already asking, “What will you miss when you go?”  I have a lot of work to do on that list, but the #1 entry is easy: Nandu’s.

Categories: Expat life, Food, Pictures Tags:

Heaven and Earth

October 5, 2013 Comments off

These two articles from the India Times caught my eye when I was on a trip a few weeks back:

India’s Mars satellite clears key launch test

BANGALORE: India’s launch preparations for the ambitious Rs 450 crore Mars orbiter mission achieved a major milestone with the successful thermo-vacuum test of the spacecraft with its payloads (scientific instruments).

… ISRO said the primary objectives of the mission are to demonstrate India’s technological capability to send a satellite to orbit around Mars and conduct meaningful experiments such as looking for signs of life, take pictures of the red planet and study Martian environment.

… After leaving earth orbit in November, the spacecraft will cruise in deep space for 10 months using its own propulsion system and will reach Mars (Martian transfer trajectory) in September 2014.

The vehicle that will convey the satellite on its journey is the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV):

Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle

PSLV was developed by India in the 80s and had its first launch in 1993.  Providing a national means to launch communications satellites is of course economically very important.  Just as significant is the national pride that stems from PSLV.

So, Mars!  How cool is that?  The US has of course sent many famous missions to Mars, and the ongoing discoveries from Curiosity are amazing.  But we won’t have another mission till 2020.  So for now I say, Go India!

The second article speaks to concerns both earthly and heavenly:

Jaisalmer plans to set up crematoriums by caste

JAISALMER: For the dead in the desert town of Jaisalmer, their caste tag lives on. A government agency for urban affairs in the western Rajasthan district has sanctioned separate and clearly marked cremation grounds for different castes and communities.

The Urban Improvement Trust (UIT) in its board meeting on July 10 adopted the proposal for developing 47 new crematoriums and sanctioned Rs 5 crore for the project. The money will be spent as per the requirement of various castes and sub-castes, from across the hierarchy. Some of the 47 groups allocated cremation sites are nai, darji, bhatia, kumhar, puskaran, grahaman, ranvanarajput, maheshwari, soni and jeenagar. The UIT is under the jurisdiction of the state’s urban development and housing ministry.

This effort is all so families need not cremate their dead in the facility used by another caste, as shown in this picture:

Caste crematoriums

The Indian Constitution makes caste discrimination illegal, but nonetheless caste is ever-present.  For example, assignment as one of India’s Presidential guards is open only to Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs, three traditional military castes.  The authorities explain this is done “purely on functional requirements”, as if only people born in these families have the objective capability of presidential guarding.

Castes are nearly synonymous with surname – just by knowing a name Indian people can often develop a fairly accurate picture of someone’s social standing.  A book I have read and referred to since coming here is The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India.  This multi-volume work – available on Project Gutenberg and for free on Kindle – was written by R. V. Russell and published in 1916.  I have to admit I often take the family names of people I meet here and search for them in this book.  For example, here’s what TCCPI says about some of the castes referred to in the cremation article:  “Kumhars” are potters, while “Nais” are barbers.  The “Ranvanarajput” or “rawana rajput” or “rawna rajput” are a sub-clan of Rajputs – soldiers, as I mentioned above.

Caste and occupation are inextricably related.  As I said, people of the “kumhar” or “kumbhar” (the Marathi version of the word) community were originally potters; if your father was named Kumbhar, he made pots, and you would make pots, end of story.  100 years ago, or even 60 years ago, this was very close to absolute – there was no choice in what your role in the world would be.  But today this is no longer true.  While I’m sure many Kumbhars still make and sell pots, LinkedIn shows me over 870 professionals in the Pune area alone with surname Kumbhar, with job titles ranging from “Central Govt Servant” to “Accounts Executive” to “Senior Maintenance Engineer”.

While the hard and fast link between caste and occupation is largely broken, caste as community remains.  One way you can see this is through the endless marriage websites that exist here, all providing matchmaking services to particular communities, like this one for Kumbhars.  If you are a Kumbhar man, there you can browse the profiles and smiling pictures of lady Consultants, Executives, and Sales Professionals, all Kumbhars.  And while more and more young people in their online profiles indicate “caste no bar” to marriage – i.e., they would marry outside their caste – today only about 10% of people here actually do that.

As an American I shouldn’t criticize.  In USA people rarely marry outside their own socio-economic class, though in the US today inter-racial marriages are at an all-time high.  But the hard part for me to understand is the arbitrariness of caste, to exclude people not because they are richer or poorer or have a different social experience from you, but because 100s of years ago their forebears were potters, while yours were weavers.

When I first read these two articles on the same day, I spent some time pondering the question, how can the nation that sends a spacecraft to Mars also publically acknowledge and promote the idea of caste?  It’s no answer, but I found this observation, in Gods and Rockets: A Tale of Science in India, that offers some illumination:

“We are afraid that the thunder-storms might have an impact on the scheduled launch.” The Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, G. Madhavan Nair, was speaking to reporters in Tirupathi on the morning of May 5, 2005, as the countdown continued for the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, a 140-foot rocket loaded with two satellites. Still, he said, he remained optimistic that lift off would occur as planned at 10:19 am.

Nair had reason for confidence. Since 1993 the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, had been a success story of India’s space program. What’s more, earlier that morning Nair and more than a dozen other top space scientists had visited the Tirupati temple of Lord Venkateswara, where they laid a miniature prototype of the PSLV-C6 at the feet of the deity (a form of the sustainer-god Vishnu also known as Lord Balaji) and offered prayers for a successful mission.

Yes, send a vehicle to Mars by all means … but do not neglect to propitiate Lord Balaji before you go.  This is India in a nutshell.

Categories: Expat life


September 22, 2013 4 comments

Dogs in Pune Dogs at Pune Airport Sleeping dog


There are dogs, there are dogs, and there are dogs.  Three different kinds, and in this port drive all from your presence.

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light

India abounds with dogs. White dogs.  Brown dogs.  Black dogs.  When I first came in Feb 2012 I asked one of my friends, “Who do these dogs belong to?”  He patiently explained the dogs belonged to no one, they are wild and live on whatever they can find, or get.

Here you will encounter dogs everywhere you go.  Several well-known canines sleep on the sidewalk in front of my IBM office and at lunchtime each day great crowds of IBMers considerately step around them.  I saw the dogs pictured below just yesterday, taking their ease in the middle of a fairway at the Poona Golf Club:

Resting dog pack


The little puppy I think was part of the family, but was more interested in nosing about than in napping.  More than once playing at this club a pack of dogs has followed us circumspectly as we went from shot to shot.

These dogs are – when not mixed with some modern European breeds – among the oldest known breed of dog.  Called the pariah dog, or sometime INDogs, I don’t know how old as a breed they really are – 1000s of years, certainly – but they seem incredibly well suited to their environment and to living alongside humans in the cities and farm regions of India.  All the dogs I have encountered seem alert, inquisitive, and friendly.  Many live by eating trash, though clearly some hunt small animals, like the vast numbers of rats that infest India.  And people feed them, glad to trade a few scraps for a dog that will be friendly and challenge unfamiliar people coming to your place.

Alas, many show signs of hard life.  You will often see  limping dogs, painfully thin dogs, dogs with mange, and dogs showing various wounds.  Sometimes we hear dogs howling at night, and then the howling is transformed into the sharp and threatening growls of fighting.  The many dogs you see with tattered or missing ears give witness to these nighttime battles.

This dog is a family favorite:

Bouncy on a wall

Bouncy investigatesBouncy on the trail

The wall in the left-hand pic is near to where Morgan waits for her school bus every morning.  This white dog seems to like bounding atop the wall and surveying the surrounding area.  Because of this ability to move up and down with ease, and also because of its friendly energy, Morgan calls it Bouncy.  Rupesh likes it too … during the middle of the day Bouncy often sleeps underneath our car.

Kim and I sometimes call Bouncy another name: the White Mouser, because Kim has seen it catching small creatures … hopefully, rats.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures

Navigating Diplomatic Waters

September 17, 2013 1 comment

Mumbai street flood

Made a day trip to Mumbai today … Destination: US Consulate.  Mission: Get visa pages added to my passport – out of the standard allotment of 20 I had only 4 remaining, and many countries will not even admit you if you have a such a small number.  Our considerate and efficient consulate added 48 pages while I waited, even sewing the new booklets securely into my passport.

But first I had to get there.  The monsoon is continuing uncommon long this year, at least in Maharashtra.  We encountered heavy rain on the highway part of the journey, but in the city had to slog through many places like the above, where water was at least 10” deep and not apparently going anywhere.  The door to door trip from Pune to Mumbai of about 150 kms took about 4 1/2 hr, some 45 mins more than it usually would – said time being spent slowly inching around these new lakes and keeping to the safe coastlines … because when a Mumbai road is involved, you never know what lurks beneath the surface.

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