Archive for the ‘Expat life’ Category

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.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures Tags:

India Grasshopper Big Nosebiter

September 7, 2013 1 comment

Nosebiter grasshopper

My little Canon Powershot A4000 is a great all-around tourist camera, but isn’t that good for low-light close-ups – this was the best I could do capturing this visitor to our flat vestibule.  About 4.5” in length – a veritable Hummer of a bug – I was taken by how leaf-like the wings were.

I’m a live and let live kind of guy, and so long as these hefty emerald Tettigoniidae don’t swarm excessively, destroying Pharaoh’s crops and the like, I’m good.  But I did want to find out some details on this specimen, like what species it was.

One thing I had to go on came from driver Rupesh and his copious store of local knowledge: these bugs hereabouts are called “nose biters”.  So, fire up Google and look for “india nose biter” … well, different variations of that tell me nothing about grasshoppers, but in the first few results of most of my searches was this article, about Sri Lankan politics:

UNP Has Gone To The Dogs, Nose-Biter MP Is A Racist Too

Dunesh Gankanda, a United National Party Member of Parliament from the Ratnapura District walked in to The Museum Club at the Galle Face Hotel around 1.30 am on Sunday with a friend, Capt. Senaka De Silva, a close aide of General Fonseka. Present at the night club was a Tamil businessman, Diwakaran, entertaining a group of foreign clients. Senaka knew Diwakaran and walked up to his table to say ‘hello’ and then introduced Dunesh. Diwakaran invited both to join his table. Dunesh initially made small talk and then broached  the topic of Raju Radha, ex-husband of Dunesh’s  wife Kushani Nannayakara.  She is the daughter of Capt. Nanayakkara and Mrs. Norma Nannayakara of Green Lanka Shipping Ltd. and has two children from her marriage to Raju.

Raju Radha, the son of the famous Indian actor M R Radha, is the owner of HRC Shipping and other businesses. His sister Radhika is also a popular Indian actress. Their mother is Sri Lankan.

When Diwakaran said he knew Raju well and Raju was a relative – out of the blue Dunesh lunged forward, bit Diwakaran’s nose and then disappeared into the crowd in the night club. Diwakaran was shocked and did not react at all.  Bleeding profusely and in pain Diwarakan was rushed to the General Hospital, Colombo where doctors performed surgery on his nose.

Ok, so the Sri Lankan parliament has its fringe cases, just as the Indian parliament – which incidentally has 125 of its 545 lower-house members indicted for crimes ranging from rioting to rape to murder, graphically shown here:


Some of these crimes are amusing, like “GOVINDA (INC), Age: 41, From: Mumbai North, MAHARASHTRA; Defamation, obscene acts and songs”.  Sounds like Govinda needs a nightclub booking, not a court date.

Back to my bug … nose-biter was not helping, so now I just try “india big grasshopper”.  What do I get?  See for yourself:

The Grasshopper Experiment

Of course.  “big” == “Big Bang Theory”, “india” == “Raj Koothrappali” (the show’s Indian astrophysicist), and “grasshopper” == Raj’s favorite drink.

Ok Google, you win.  Don’t know what species my bug-visitor actually is, but far as I’m concerned it is Tettigonia magnus viridis bharati – big green Indian grasshopper.


August 31, 2013 Comments off


Driver Rupesh presented us with a hefty sack of fresh peas a few days ago.  Kim shucked them, blanched them, then warmed them in some ghee with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar.  Verdict: Delicious, with good flavor, a little crunch and a not unpleasant starchiness you don’t often get in peas back home.

Where did these peas come from?  Rupesh uses the phrase I have heard many Indians use, “my native place” – the home village or small town.  His family has a farm of a 11 or so acres and there they grow sugar cane, onions, “ground nuts” (ie, peanuts), and peas.

Despite decades of modernization, India is still an overwhelmingly farming country – 69% of the population is classed as rural.  The vast majority of people you meet here in the cities are one, or possibly two, generations removed from a farming life.  You may be a security guard, bank clerk, or an accountant, or an engineer, but your father is/was a farmer, or your grandfather was.

The top 3 Indian states in terms of urban population are Maharashtra (which has Mumbai and Pune), Tamil Nadu (which has Chennai) and Uttar Pradesh (which has 7 cities of greater than 1M population, including Lucknow and Agra).  Uttar Pradesh – U.P. as typically called – also is the state with the greatest rural population, over 150M.

The story of country people coming to the city to find opportunity is in many ways the central story of India today.  A famous 1967 film, Upkar, presents a story about an upstanding farmer and his educated, urbanized, and greedy, brother:

You don’t need to know Hindi to get what’s going on here.  A big part of this story is the division of land: The evil brother wants to divide the land and keep his share to himself, the good brother wants to keep the land together and work it in partnership.

This very much still happens today and is the main reason the average size of a farm here in India is only 1.3 hectares – a bit bigger than a US football field.

BTW, the guy on crutches is Bollywood superstar Pran; his character is “Malang Chacha”, a wise old farmer who is the spiritual advisor to the film’s hero, named “Bharat”, which is the Hindi word for India.  Pran passed away only a short time ago at age 93.

Categories: Expat life, Food

An Indian Wedding

August 18, 2013 1 comment

Wedding ceremony

If you don’t know it, family life is incredibly important in India.  When I talk to colleagues and acquaintances here, the conversation always comes round to this topic, with questions like: How many siblings do you have?  How are your parents? How did you meet your wife? And so on.  My own parents and siblings are scattered from New York to Massachusetts to New Jersey to Georgia to Florida to Texas and to Colorado, and I sometimes think my Indian friends conclude Americans are all solitary cowboys, riding their lonely trails into a variety of sunsets with no connection to hearth and home.

From what I have been able to discern of the Indian perspective, by and large family comes first: the wishes of parents are extremely important to sons and daughters, and, being married is close to an absolute necessity for adults here.  The pressure is so intense that many blogs offer suggestions on excuses to give one’s parents, such as “I am waiting for cousin so-and-so to get married first”, or (a popular one) “I have to complete my advanced degree before I marry” – an Indian parent will never say no to education.

Back to the matter at hand, one of my work colleagues, Rahul, invited me to his wedding.   I wanted to go not only to celebrate with him, but also out of curiosity.  So, on the morning of 15 August, Independence Day here in India, Kim and I put on our best go-to-meeting togs and headed for the wedding hall.

First thing to note: the time on the invitation said “9:36 am”.  9:36?  Why not 9:30, or 9:35?  The reason is because of astrology and numerology – many Indians will not do anything important without a consultation and, if numbers are involved, the luckiest ones must be used.

We arrived a tad early at 9:30, hoping not to disturb any in-progress ceremony.  The ceremony was in fact already underway, but not to worry, it would have been extremely difficult to disturb the ceremony of this wedding, as the 200 or-so assembled guests were all happily chatting and socializing. Much, much different from a typical Western wedding, where we all silently focus our attention on the wedding couple as they undertake their vows.  This was learning #1: while the ceremony is important, the wedding is as much about maintaining the bonds of the community as it is about the two principals.

Through the proceedings women went among the guests offering dabs of jasmine perfume and red sandalwood paste and Kim availed herself of both:

Helpers at the weddingKim

Another practice, there was a large supply of colored rice:

Wedding rice

At certain times the other guests would fling pinches of rice in the direction of the bride and groom, so Kim and I supplied ourselves and tossed rice with everyone else.

Marriage ceremonies for Hindu people are complex and have regional differences all over India.  Some forms take days to complete, with multiple feasts each day.  One thing all forms of the ritual have in common is the vivaah homa, or “sacred fire”:

Sacred fire

Many offerings are placed in the fire, but the most important part is the saptha padhi or “seven steps” – the bride and groom take seven steps together around the fire, each step representing a different vow.

I said these ceremonies can take days?  This one did not, but still went around 3 hours which I felt was a goodly time. Quite a lot more went on, including an exchange of a coconut, some blessings from parents, and still other things Kim and I could not follow.  However one thing we did follow, along with all the other guests, was when lunch was declared.

And that was learning #2 about Indian weddings: food matters.  Food-wise, Indian hospitality in general is overwhelming, and at a wedding, doubly so.  The fare was simple – salad, tomato soup (an Indian favorite), butter paneer, dum alloo (potato curry), several types of pakoras (veg fritters), chapati (flat bread) and bhature (fried bread), plain rice and pulao (veg rice), plus many sweets – but it all was very good and there was a lot of it.  Other guests kept pressing us to take more helpings, but after my third helping I had to admit defeat.  Then as we were leaving, we saw many more guests just arriving – apparently the lunch is the main thing for many folks here.

So, all in all a memorable day for myself and Kim, as I am sure it will be for Rahul and his bride, Ashwini.  All the best to them in their life together, and all our thanks for their great hospitality. Śādī kī badhā’ī hō!

Rahul and Ashwini

Categories: Expat life, Pictures

Day of the Cobra

August 11, 2013 3 comments


There are many Hindu festivals in the latter part of the year and today is one: Nag Panchami, a festival that commemorates Lord Krishna’s victory over the nagas – powerful cobra spirits who are generally benign but terribly dangerous if mistreated.  The festival is an important one for young women and married women, who make special puja and offerings of milk so that snakes will not attack their families.  One reason milk is important involves a legend of a brother who went to fetch some ketaki which is used in the special puja for the nagas; as he searched the brother ironically was bitten by a snake, but he was nursed back to health (or in some versions, brought back from the dead) by the sister, who rubbed his back with milk and ghee.  Also on this day, many milk-based sweets are made, such as puran-poli, a kind of sweet roti served with sweetened milk.

The motivation for propitiating snakes is easy to see, when you consider that over 45,000 people die in India each year from snake bites.

Back to the ketaki – known in the west as the screwpine – I came across this saying by the pandit Chanakya, who lived in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE:

O ketaki flower! Serpents live in your midst, you bear no edible fruits, your leaves are covered with thorns, you are crooked in growth, you thrive in mud, and you are not easily accessible. Still for your exceptional fragrance you are as dear as kinsmen to others. Hence, a single excellence overcomes a multitude of blemishes.

Chanakya is famous for many wise – and some not-so-wise – sayings, such as “Of a rascal and a serpent, the serpent is the better of the two, for he strikes only at the time he is destined to kill, while the former at every step”,  “Women have hunger two-fold, shyness four-fold, daring six-fold, and lust eight-fold as compared to men”, and “She is a true wife who is clean, expert, chaste, pleasing to the husband, and truthful.”

Alas, like the ketaki, Chanakya’s excellence seems marred by blemishes.  Let’s hope he had a sister who prayed to the nagas on his behalf.

Categories: Expat life, History

A Day at the Races

August 10, 2013 Comments off

Horse racing in Pune

Week before I received an invitation from an expat group I belong to, Everything Expats.  Everything Expats provides relocation services for expatriates and as part of that they also maintain a mailing list, host a forum where expats can trade info, and from time to time host get-togethers where foreigners can meet both other foreigners and local folks as well.  The invite was for the running of the Theur Hamlet Cup at Pune Racecourse on Sunday 4 August.  Seemed intriguing, so off we went.

The day was overcast – the monsoon is not quite done – and we had light mists of rain all through the afternoon.  Here’s a view of part of the Member’s Area and the public grandstand beyond:

Race course grandstand

Like many things here, the racecourse has an old-timey feel – one could easily picture Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Harry the Horse, or any other of Damon Runyon’s characters placing a bet at the tote window.  Horse racing has been happening in Pune since at least 1815.  In 1870 a Major General Burnett donated the current race course lands to the West India Turf Club; the race course is in the middle of the Pune Cantonment, a military district established by the British in 1817 and today maintained by the Indian Army.

Nowadays the race course is part of both the Pune social and commercial scene.  The “Theur Hamlet Cup” was sponsored by a local real-estate developer, Theur, who was promoting a new development, “The Hamlet”.  Far from Elsinore in both distance and conception, The Hamlet features horseback riding and also high-end bungalows with solar panels and other eco-minded features.  But the real-estate angle hardly impinged on us, mostly we wandered about, mingled and generally had a nice afternoon:

Pune race course party

Morgan and Kim at Pune race course

Pune race course party

This is a turf club with real turf.  After each race a crew would slowly pace the grass of the track, fixing up the divots made by the race horses:

Race course crew

We all noticed that it was the women who did all the fixing; the men just trudged after dragging their rakes and talking.

What was the financial upshot of all this?  Well, despite losing Rs. 100 on the first race I bet – on a long-shot named Salsa – we had a winner and a placer on the two next races, greys picked by Morgan and Kim named Four-Star General and Hachiko respectively.  In the actual Theur Cup race, Mars was the favorite and Fortune Favors the #2.  Hoping boldness would be rewarded, I put another Rs. 100 on Fortune Favors to win, but it was not to be.  If not for that last bet I would have been up a big, big Rs. 30 (about $0.50).

I should have used a more scientific method, like these guys:

Categories: Expat life, Pictures Tags:

Bricks, Water, Steel & Concrete

June 23, 2013 2 comments


I was in Mumbai on Friday, presenting at an event for customers.  After staying the night, I drove back home, leaving a bit before 9 and arriving back home in Pune a bit after 1.  Traffic was very heavy, and the trip took an hour longer than the usual 3 – 3.5 hours.

One reason is the Mumbai streets, an example you see above.  I was in Chennai for a short time day before and something that instantly struck me was the streets there – all smooth concrete.  Admittedly I didn’t see much of the city – only went from airport to hotel and back – but still the contrast was striking.  The Chennai streets were smooth riding and allowed slow but continuous speeds.  Mumbai streets … well, you may get up to 30 kph for 15 seconds or so, then you hit a rough patch so you slow down, then you try to accelerate and then you hit – guess what? – a speed bump.  Anyway, Mumbai may be the richest city in India, but its roads are terrible.

I guess it is no wonder the roads are made with brick.  Brick-making is ancient in India.  Doubtless when the Israelites were making bricks in Egypt, so too were the Aryans and other races making them here.  In my car-travels I have seen many brickworks, like this one:

Brickworks in India

Looks to me methods in India today are not all that different from the Israelites’ time: Mold bricks from sand, mud and straw, stack them in a big pile, then build a fire underneath and let the whole thing heat up.  The resulting bricks look like this:


These particular bricks are piled up outside the car-park at my flat, to be used in some new walkways.  These bricks are more baked than fired; I easily scratched deep into one with my fingernail.

Sadly, there are other parallels here with the Israelites of Moses’ time: Many workers at these brickworks are slaves, working to pay off supposed debts incurred by their parents, grandparents, or even earlier antecedents.

While some streets, or parts of streets, in Mumbai (Pune as well) are concrete and asphalt, 90% are this mix of brick, concrete paver, poured concrete, and dry, crumbly asphalt.  As you drive around you can’t help having an archeologist’s attitude, as you see erosion exposing layer upon layer and the attempts of different construction methods.  For the most part brick does not make for even roadways.  Even on the best of footings individual bricks settle differently from those nearby … and the footings here are anything but the best, even for roads bricks are set on dirt.  One good sluicing monsoon rain and it is a surprise these roads don’t wash away.

Tragically, that very thing this past week happened in Uttarakhand, where close to 600 persons have perished in floods:

Flash-floods in Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand is to the north and east of New Delhi.  Here many rivers flow, with sources in the Himalayas, down through Uttarakhand, then through Uttar Pradesh, finally reaching Kolkatta and the Bay of Bengal.  The Ganges, sacred to Hindus, is one such river.  This time of year brings many pilgrims to Uttarakhand.  The Ganges Basin is one of the oldest settled regions on Earth, and near to the river are many places dedicated to Lords Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna.  One of the oldest is Haridwar, 200 kms from New Delhi and just where the river emerges from the high barrier of the Ranipur Range.   Haridwar is one of the places where the celestial bird Garuda dropped the elixir of immortality.  To bathe in the Ganges here is an experience sought by all devout Hindus.

The ingredients of this tragedy are not hard to perceive.  Many things are built quickly here.  Tea stalls, shops, and even “hotels” – modest hostels – can appear overnight, which when pilgrims come in large numbers, is exactly what happens.  The pilgrims come for the river, so things are built near the river, then a flood comes … all the sadder because of the predictability.

Back to my drive from Mumbai, the going was so slow I had ample time just to look at scenes and at people.  It was early in the day yet and while people were on the way to their jobs, work for the most part had not begun.  Here some road-repair was in progress:


No workmen were in evidence; they may have left their patching from the night before.

My way through Mumbai took me underneath the elevated metro being constructed here.  One of the planned lines goes to the airport, which my hotel was near.  The scenes of this part of the trip were not the best, many places resting up against the giant concrete pylons were piles of festering trash.  Looking up through the car windows at the 20 meters or more elevation of the railway, I had to wonder what it will be like, when train riders whisk back and forth to the airport, while below slumdwellers eke out a living in their shadow.

This is not all bad for these groundlings.  Some actual “slumdogs” living in this area are becoming real millionaires, by selling the hovels they purchased before the airport came into being.  One man bought two hovels 50 years ago for Rs. 40; going by average rates back to the 70s, that was about $1.50.  He now is selling these for Rs 1.4 crore (14,000,000 rupees), or nearly $250,000.  Such is the value of real estate close to the airport in this wealthy city.

Construction like the metro is everywhere here.  Another thing impeding my progress home was road construction, like this:


This pic, snapped through the car window, shows the steel skeleton of a flyover support.  Flyovers are very common here, they elevate the roadway so a crossing way can pass underneath without impeding the main flow of traffic.

Most major structures here are made like this: A steel skeleton is built, concrete forms are constructed around the skeleton, then the forms are filled with concrete.  Judging from what  I see around me this is the easy part; the metro areas of Pune and Mumbai are dotted with the concrete frames of flyovers, apartment blocks, tech centers and more.  Anyway, with India growing so quickly, it is no wonder some of the big fortunes here have been built on steel and concrete.  India is the world’s #4 steel producer and its steel industry is the fastest growing in the worldIndia is the #2 cement producer, after China.

On the road to Pune I had another experience with steel.  Not quite on the main highway, we were on a major road where traffic should have been making 50 kph or so.  Instead we were stuck, inching forward.  After a few minutes we encountered part of the explanation – a dog, one of millions of feral dogs that live here, dead on the pavement, its neck askew.

10 or 15 meters further on we saw a large bus, a “luxury coach” as they are called here, stopped at the side of the road.  Coming abreast of it I saw its windshield and part of its front was caved in.

Then the story became clear.  Just ahead of the bus was a Maruti WagonR, a kind of small minivan.  It was crushed, accordioned to half its normal length.  Apparently the WagonR had hit the dog, slammed on its brakes, and the bus smashed it from behind.  People milled about, talking on cellphones.  No ambulances were in evidence so I believe – and hope – there was no major injury.

At least we reached the highway and had swift driving the remaining 110 kms or so to Pune.  The day was fine and I saw more evidence of the rains in the many small waterfalls running down the hillsides, like these I snapped in the distance:


There were many clear flowing streams right by the roadside.  We passed a car of people who stopped at one; a young Indian woman was laughing and rinsing her long hair in the falling water.

On this part of the trip you often see langurs:


They come to cadge food from people who stop at the scenic overlooks.

At speeds of 90 kph or so there were no more close up sights to see.  I dozed a bit, chatted with my driver a bit, then at last reached the flat, ending the tale of this ride from Mumbai.  I saw a bit more this time than I normally do, just a few stories out of the hundreds I’m sure play out every day on this roadway.

Now, it is evening, and outside my flat the wind is faintly howling.  Earlier, late afternoon sunlight filtered through clouds showed me a light but steady rain, each raindrop a streak of light bent half-over by the wind.  Typically here, with sunset the winds quiet, but the rain continues.  I expect the morning will show us clean streets, and pilgrims of myriad kinds will continue their journeys, hopefully to happy endings.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures