Author Archives: ramblinginthecity
At the end of a busy day, it was refreshing to go to my mum’s place for a special dinner yesterday. Ma had made a special effort to put together a simple but tasty version of the Onam Sadya, the traditional feast eaten during the Onam festivities in Malayali homes (and now, as food becomes a popular medium of social connection, everywhere!).
Before we sat down to dinner, Amamma gathered us together before her deities for a few moments. She used her walker and slowly lowered herself onto a chair in front of her puja ensemble. She gave us instructions and we performed the traditional aarti together. And then, to our delight, she asked my kids if they knew the story of Mahabali and Onam. Without waiting for a response, Amamma launched into an enthusiastic narration of the legend of Mahabali. With a liberal use of words from Tamil, peppered with Malayali expressions and strung together by some English and Hindi, her narration was driven more by her expressions and gestures than words. The children listened in rapt attention and so did we. Partly because mythology and legend is ever fascinating, but more because the act of storytelling had transformed Amamma from a placid, pleasant and largely inactive old lady into an animated, beautiful and expressive matriarch.
In those few minutes, I watched my children’s reactions but simultaneously I regressed to being a four year old in Amamma’s care, being fed and nurtured by her warmth, enjoying her wonderful cooking and listening to her unending stories about her life and times. That relationship with her remained through my life but of late has stagnated because she, sadly, has withdrawn into a shell born out of partial deafness and an uprooting from her native environment to Gurgaon where language and cultural context are drastically different.
The image of Amamma telling the story has lingered in my mind all morning and I’m thinking of the immense value that grandparents and great-grandparents bring to children’s lives. I worry about the problems arising out of an increasing focus on English, how grandparents are no longer able to communicate as well to the little ones as they used to in my childhood, when the primary languages at home were of their choice despite the pressures exerted by English-medium schools for us to be fluent in English.
The other thought on my mind is how mythology, while certainly mostly religious in origin, is being increasingly appropriated and intertwined with religion. In Kerala, though, the legend of Mahabali is widely narrated and Onam a statewide celebration across religious communities. Growing up in Lucknow, non-Muslims only missed the namaz bit of Eid, participating fully in the feasting that follows. On Diwali, whether children burst firecrackers was more about the economic status of their parents than their religion. Things seem to have changed today, sadly. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could revive traditions of storytelling and shape them into a collective format so children get to share legends across religious and regional lines, and also maybe share storytelling grandparents?
What is one year in a life lived over a hundred years? Only 365 days or so, one may so. In contrast, a year after the loss of someone so great who lived a century but felt immortal, who looked diminutive but towered over us all with the force of her persona- this year has felt like an eternity.
Ajjee left us a year ago. But she isn’t really gone. She was there when I was born, she was there when I struggled through nights of studying and stress, she was with me when I fought to comprehend the grief of losing my father even as she dealt with her own immeasurable loss. And she is there now.
It isn’t her physical presence, but her immense stoicism that I carry around with me like a lamp with a steady flame. It isn’t her material memory but her vast empathy and broad-mindedness that I try to nurture everyday, and use as a shield against the injustices and pettiness around me. I don’t hear her words when I shut my eyes and think about her, but I feel those bony fingers down my spine telling me that all will be well, that I must have faith and the doors will open.
Our ancestors are all within us, giving us the strength we need to go on, to scale those new heights, to conquer what we set our sights on. And of all of them, Ajjee’s smiling presence is the most comforting of all.
We live in a deeply divided world. Significant shifts in global economics and geopolitics have meant that countries are desperate for economic growth and increasingly intolerant of any events that derail them from achieving their targets. In this milieu, migrants have been caught in the crossfire. No one seems to want them, but what’s more, the unwillingness to include migrants has severe repercussions on how nations are planning, managing and financing their cities.
What is inclusion? Attitudes towards internal migrants shift, very very gradually
At Prepcom3 in Surabaya, Indonesia in the last week of July, I was disappointed to see India join the European nations and the United States to object to the inclusion of the Right to the City framework in the New Urban Agenda, which will be further negotiated by United Nations member states in New York a few days from now. Allegedly (see Indian Express report), while Europe’s concerns stems from the migrant crisis and the US is loath to recognize immigrant rights, India is also worried about the repercussions of taking on the responsibility to provide social justice to all, extending the already thin benefits of State welfare and largess to those who might not be legally recognized citizens.
This is the heart of the problem. In a policy environment in which the word ‘inclusive’ is bandied about rather casually, the meaning of inclusion bears repeated and deep exploration. Gautam Bhan put a spotlight on this issue of citizenship recently with reference to the Delhi Jal Board’s historic decision to provide universal access to water.
Who does India consider illegal and what are the various kinds of non-citizenship that people experience has been a subject of much study. Internal migrants, despite a Constitutional right to mobility anywhere within India, have been described as ‘illegal’, ‘encroachers’ and ‘polluters’ in numerous policy documents and court judgements. Even where policy has recognized their economic contribution, migrants have been steadily excluded – or inadequately considered – from provision of basic services (like water, sanitation), housing (negligible supply of affordable housing, no focus on incremental housing), transportation services (low priority to affordable public transport including NMT), health, education, subsidized food (no access to PDS at destination) and even conditions for livelihood (harassment of street vendors, regulations that prevent home-based work).
The good news is that this seems to be changing. We can see now the very humble beginnings of a new mindset that sees migration less as an intrusion and more as an inevitable consequence of economic transition (and climate change). Parliamentarians have been debating migration in a more healthy manner and that has resulted in the creation of a Working Group on Migration particularly to assess linkages with housing, infrastructure and livelihood. I understand the debates within this group comprising several ministries and government department, academics and industry representatives have been encouraging.
Inclusive housing takes heartening steps forward
Besides changes like the Delhi government’s inclusive stand on water, there is much progress in the field of housing as well. At a consultation co-organized by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA) along with Magic Bricks and GIZ this past week, I was pleasantly surprised to see not only more supply of lower income group (LIG) and economically weaker section (EWS) housing by state governments (representatives from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu spoke), but also much movement on progressive housing policy.
This morning’s interview of Mr Sriram Kalyanaraman, MD and CEO of National Housing Bank, who also spoke at the event, offers much hope. We see the confluence of the government’s flagship housing scheme Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY) and technology solutions (e-gov, m-gov, intergated MIS) that work to educate housing buyers and link them with accessible bank branches. The uptake of low ticket size home loans is especially encouraging. Kalyanaraman reports that home loans for under Rs 10 lakh comprised a whopping 30 percent of the total in FY 16! I have a personal sense of victory in this regard, having been involved with organizations like mHS City Lab that persevered long and hard with the government and finance sector to push changes that allowed banks to devise means to underwrite loans to informal sector workers. A huge change indeed that will have rippling effects going forward.
MoHUPA’s support of rental housing and attempts to bring in some policy reforms to encourage it are also heartening. Particularly brave are its efforts to understand the informal rental market, for any discussion that talks about the middle ground between the formal and informal pushes us towards a deeper understanding of how human beings survive, negotiate realities and experience the world; the exercise reveals the limits of defining people through their economic functions and shifts the focus on aspects of human dignity, safety and livability. Even more, it shows us that our understanding of their economic realities is also deeply flawed at present. These discussions are critical if we are to move towards long-term inclusive growth.
The contradictions must remain on the table, in plain view
And so, even as we celebrate the early wins, we need to highlight the contradictions in our approach. For example, those in the field know that any discussion on subsidized housing inevitably leads to the question of tenure and title. This consultation was no different. One cannot logically argue with the traditional defense of no-sale and no-lease clauses stipulated for a period of time (5, 10, even 15 years). This defense rests on the logic that people have no right to profit from something the government has subsidized entirely or partially. But if we happen to be in that moment when we are looking at market realities and the reality is that mobility of labour is a defining feature of India’s (rather painful) structural transformation, isn’t it a tad discriminating that we continue to devise schemes that tie the poor down to a specific location, disallowing them full tenure and denying them rights to sell or rent their properties? Is there no way around this? Could rent-to-own schemes be a solution so that the poor pay their way to ownership if they want to? Could private sector rentals that are currently in the informal domain be legitimized and even supported by mutually developing frameworks that ensure minimum quality standards and provide mechanisms to redress grievances?
Any number of questions come to mind, but if the government were to truly engage, solutions are also just as many. Beginnings have been made and now its a question of innovation, experimentation and perseverance.
Recent legislation in India around maternity leave and surrogacy have generated much debate around the idea of family, and the importance of parenthood and childcare. In all of this, the role of fathers as caregivers and parents and the challenges of single parenting are issues that have particularly been on my mind.
In this context, a recent experience to interact with a group of adoptive parents offered some interesting and unusual insights. I accompanied my dearest friend Nupur, and may I add mausi (translation: mother’s sister) to my kids, to Ludhiana’s district courts to attend to formalities related to her adoption of baby Bela, now about seven months old. When we reached the lawyer’s chambers on Monday morning, we were pleasantly surprised to meet three other families who had adopted babies from the same adoption centre. To an observer, it felt like a family reunion of sorts. Baby names and eating habits plus experiences with the adoption process were the main topics of conversation. The atmosphere was charged with happiness, and gratitude. Everyone there felt like life had given them that rare chance to fulfill the dream of parenting, a dream they had obviously harbored for a long time. The years of disappointment and pain, the feeling of emptiness that preceded adoption were unspoken but nevertheless evident part of their narratives.
The couple from Rohtak, whose baby girl was a bit over six months old, told us about the ingrained prejudice against the girl child that they faced everyday. The mother was pained about the mindset around her. She described it as a wall she could not penetrate. “Our neighbours advise was to wait for a few more years till the adoption centre had a boy for us. They felt that since we were adopting, we had the luxury of the choice of gender. The obsession with sons carrying the family’s name forward is disgusting,” she told me. “We have decided our baby will carry both parents’ last name,” she added.
In all three couples, I saw the fathers completely dedicated to the child and attentive to their wives needs through the day. I wondered about how fatherhood must appear a miracle to them and how little we think about the desires of a man to have a child. That came home to me when, in a rare moment of emotion, one of the fathers shared his feelings with me about being a parent. Their adoptive child was nearly a year old when they brought her home. His wife, a teacher, had been bold and bargained for a full six months of paid maternity leave from her school (before the law came through), asserting that adoptive mums need the time to bond with their children before joining work again. The father, on the other hand, said he was back to work in a week. He was pained about the fact that being away at work all day and spending only a few hours a day with the baby meant it took him much longer to get used to the idea of being a parent. More interestingly, he spoke about his passion for his work and how he did not like compromising on that either! “If I love my work, how can I do justice to it when emotionally I feel the need to be with my family?” he said, his anguish clear as he expressed his opinion on how employers need to think about offering options for leave periods up to two years for fathers/mothers to attend to childcare needs.
The reactions and opinions of these ordinary people in the midst of an extraordinarily beautiful and emotional experiences reinforced my suspicion that we need to re-examine not just gender stereotypes but also our ideas of what constitutes an ideal family and ideal parenting. There are many ways to offer children love, care and a nurturing environment that operates around a sound value system. Why not create a policy framework that empowers parents and guardians to do so?
I look at my son running around the office. He giggles and laughs and takes forty rounds around the printer console. Plays with the calculator, block sections, paint catalogues. And I wonder why must I choose. The thought came from another article which a working mother friend forwarded to me about being a working mother. […]
Even as Indian society remains gripped by patriarchal values and gender roles have barely changed in the Indian family, the sands are shifting slowly but surely among urban youth. I claim no statistical evidence and I’m well aware that this is just a very tiny group, but those of us who live in urban India just have to look around to see more fathers engage with tiny tots in your neighborhood park, more women taking on weekend hobbies and enjoy social engagements while their spouses take care of the home and hearth, more shared parenting overall. An opinion piece in Live Mint today refers to the growing number of men taking on or at least sharing cooking responsibilities as well. These new trends fly in the face of Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s ludicrous assumption that men will misuse paternity leave. Meant as a rejoinder to criticisms of the recent landmark law that mandates employers to give women six months paid maternity leave (and full marks to her for championing that cause), Gandhi’s response could have been far more nuanced.
I admit, the issue of paternity leave has been problematic across the developing world, influenced by ideas of what constitute good family life as well as economic development imperatives. The international experience shows that the Minister’s concerns over the uptake of paternity leave are legitimate. Brazil’s maternity leave program, already voluntary, was amended to extend paternity leave from five days to 20 this year, but is expected to have limited uptake. China has also extended the leave entitlement for fathers recently, with the hope it will encourage couples to have more children, but commentators are not hopeful it will have impact as most couples now prefer single children. Overall, fathers are not seen as equal partners in bringing up children, but the benefits of parents spending more time with young children (and the critical role models fathers can be) are more widely recognized. Intersected with better education among women, there is a need to revise the outlook on the role parental leave policy can play.
My submission is this: Instead of making policy that is merely reactive and a long time coming, why not think of policy changes that will reward those families that engage in more gender equal behaviour. It’s not just a question of gender equality either; bringing women into the workforce is a critical task for India’s economic performance, and preventing educated urban women from dropping out of it the low hanging fruit.
India doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel either. Many countries have experimented with parental leave. The much-lauded Swedish model offers a total of 16 months of parental leave, two of those to dads. Sweden is considering extending that to a third month. Germany’s experience is interesting too. In 2006, the maternity leave was amended to parental leave, allowing dads to have two months of the total parental leave time (like Sweden). A 2012 evaluation of the reform showed, however, that families of young children tended to take on traditional gender roles and critiqued the policy for disproportionately benefiting families that had single/one-and-a-half earners. In order to encourage a healthier work-life balance so both parents get to spend more time with young children, the parental leave policy was amended in 2014 to incentivize flexible work and also allowed parents to use the benefits in many different ways. Also motivated by the prospects of falling workforce numbers, Singapore has recently announced government subsidy for a second week of paid paternity leave.
India can also consider taking baby steps forward by opening discussions on providing a framework for:
(a) parental leave instead of only maternity leave
(b) how best to encourage employers to offer flexible work hours for mums and dads; and incentivize uptake of paternity leave; and on
(c) how parental leave laws can extend to benefit low-wage earners and those in the informal sector who are currently left out.
Through consultation and public debate on these issues, it might be possible to build a new consensus on how we could, as a society, offer more men and women opportunities to balance their careers and enjoy parenthood simultaneously.
Nothing like books to bring alive people and places! A lovely post indeed
I have watched with fascination the obsession that revolved around the Harry Potter series. I remember the pictures of the lines outside stores for the release of each new book and my sister-in-law using all her contacts to get a pre-release copy sneaked out for my niece. These compelling, addictive series seem to be the fashion of the day, especially for young and young adult fiction. I watch my own grandson, addicted to various mythology based series – Maybe at that age I too went through the rage of the time – various Enid Blyton series, Bily Bunter and a great favorite, the William books.
Even for a fairly rapid and compulsive reader, I have not been obsessive about a series or a fictional character for a very long time. The first Henning Mankell book I read was Daniel which I picked up one of my increasingly infrequent visits to…
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Indian cuisine is an explosion of flavors. It is perhaps possible to live an entire year without repeating dishes if one had unlimited access to cuisines from across my country. I’ve been lucky to have reasonable exposure to food from many parts of India. And so, even though I’m not a foodie and that is something I must emphasize, I found myself looking out for the food I ate in these two back-to-back trips to Indonesia I’ve made.
Javanese cuisine, I realized, is incredibly diverse with a mix of influences- Arab, Chinese, Indian and European. Friends I made on my recent trip to Surabaya in Eastern Java told me I’m lucky to be Indian and tolerant to spices so I could enjoy this diversity. And enjoy I did!
My first meal in Surabaya, had with French and Indian colleagues, was a tentative exploration. To my delight, I tasted tamarind in the Sayur Asem curry we ate which tasted remarkably similar to the rasam my grandmother used to rustle up! I later realised that asem (tamarind) is a popular taste to look out for in this part of the world. We also sampled lontong, or rice cake, made out of steaming rice pressed into banana leaves, though we clearly were not aware of the right combinations as yet. Fruit juices are a big deal in Java and I tasted soursap (jus sirsak) for the first time, opting for the unsweetened version since a generous dollop of sugar is normal in these parts!
At the grand dinner that the Mayor of Surabaya threw for the delegates of the Habitat III Prepcom3 conference, I was urged by my friend Ashok who is intimately familiar with Surabaya’s secrets, to try rawon, a delicately flavoured beef broth with moong dal sprouts, sambal and kluwak nuts topped with pieces of roast beef. My friend Ashok graciously took it upon himself to be our guide in Surabaya, having the known the city for a long time, and this was the first of his many culinary recommendations.
At lunch on Day 2, I tried the lontong lodeh, that had rice cakes in a vegetarian curry with jackfruit and beans in coconut milk broth. This signature dish, commonly eaten during Id-ul-Fitri celebrations I later realized, became a hit with the vegetarians in the group, though us non-vegetarians added on a sprinkling of meat on top.
Dinner on Day 2 was simply out of this world, with Ashok (he had taken on the grand role of food guide by now for a bunch of us) introducing me to the famous Padang cuisine. Now, this is not just about taste, but also about the style! In a padang style restaurant, you would be confronted with a mountain of dishes being placed in front of you. Each dish is only a small bowl and you are given a larger plate with some boiled rice. You eat what you want and leave the rest and you’re charged for what you dig into only. It’s a fascinating practice, allowing you to intake the sight and smells of a larger variety while eating what you prefer. The spread included boiled greens including the tasty cassava leaves, chicken, fish, squid, the slow-cooked and really tasty beef redang and dishes with hooves and internal organs as well. Spicy and coconut milk based, padang food hit the sweet spot as far as I was concerned! I was one happy girl that night and a post dinner stroll through the city to spend a few hours in a homely little pub with live music only added to the appeal!
Day 3 was spent on the streets of Surabaya visiting traditional neighbourhoods called kampungs (more on this later). We ended up at ANDA Fit, a well-known establishment that boasts of authentic Javenese cuisine. Here, we were introduced to another defining flavour, the tomato and chilli based penyet that is eaten in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. We had it with the signature tempe, made of fermented soy beans. The gule kambing, or mutton in coconut milk, accompanied by a ginger-based warm drink (wedang jahe) was definitely something to write home about!
Not a nuisance but an opportunity to include: Why you need to rethink your opinions on the kaawad yatra
For the last many years, I’ve been fascinated with the annual kaawad yatra, which takes place during the saawan month of the Hindu calendar and involves the transport of holy waters from the Ganga in Hardwar back home by pilgrims usually on foot (more here). Its a tough pilgrimage. Watching the yatris rest at the end of a long day of walking at the makeshift camps that local communities erect along the entire route, I’ve often admired their resilience and also the growing number of women yatris. I’ve observed them bandage each others tired, swollen and cracked feet. I’ve seen communities volunteering to cook, clean and heal yatris. I’ve even smiled at their obvious enjoyment of the music blaring out of speakers, as I’ve watched them dance and sing in camaraderie and joy closer to the completion of the arduous journey. To me, the kaawad yatra has always been a demonstration of India’s multiple faith-linked traditions that have the power to bring people together in a continuance of age old traditions.
For the educated classes behind the wheels of their motor vehicles, though, the kaawads are another word for traffic hold ups, mayhem and chaos that compounds the water logging caused by incessant rain and poor drainage each year. It’s an inconvenience, an injunction into the (imagined) smooth functioning of their lives. Its a faith system they don’t understand, even though many among them are deeply religious.
This divide and the vitriol towards the kaawadiyas was brought home to me last evening. I was driving and a friend’s daughter, all of eight-years old, pointed out to a truck full of kaawadiyas and declared, with much feeling that she hates them! Hate? I was taken aback and I asked her why, were they not entitled to celebrate the completion of their yatra? And her response was something entirely unexpected: “They don’t wear clothes!,” the little girl told me. “See, that man is only wearing those short orange shorts!”
A different kind of yatra: The influence of money and power
The transformation of the kaawad yatra itself, in the past few years, from a low key humble affair to a loud, rambunctious public party is partly responsible for the perceptions that this young girl and a large section of elite urban society. Clearly there is more money in the yatra business now, perhaps in reflection of a more affluent rural and small town middle class. The camps have grown larger, the music louder, the trucks of enthusiastic and often rowdy yatris and supporters are ubiquitous. In the past, State-sponsored protections like traffic cordons to create safe passage were a response to the unfortunate deaths of kaawadiyas in motor accidents. Today, youth in motor cycles and trucks break traffic rules with impunity in the name of religion. The little girl’s comment on how the yatris are dressed is also telling. A display of hyper masculine behavior is not only hurtful to urbane sensibilities but frankly threatening as well!
The farcical liberalism of the urban elite
On the other hand, the educated elite does not usually bother to learn more about the yatra itself. I know from my interactions with villagers in and around Gurgaon, that the yatra is deeply symbolic to these communities. It is taken with a sense of duty; it is also a means for young people to take a small holiday and earn brownie points in the process. There is also some bit of harmless competition among groups in the village on who gets back the holy waters first.
Plug the gap or prepare to be drowned
It is this big gap between the two Indias that is immensely disturbing to me. The divide of the rural and urban, the chasm between the educated well-heeled and well-traveled elite and the homegrown upwardly mobile middle classes, the totally different perceptions of the pretend liberals and the deep-rooted faith systems of the more rooted-to-the-land populations. All this is exacerbated by urban planning that puts the elite into ‘safe’ gated communities and ‘others’ those who tilled the very lands on which these gated complexes are built!
We need a new movement here to bridge this gaping chasm that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society. We talk about tolerance in our cozy drawing rooms, but we do not even understand the meaning of the world when we say hateful things that our children reproduce without understanding what they are saying. We need to start with understanding the traditions of our land and respecting them for what they are, even as we call out those who break the law and those who protect these detractors. We need to broaden our definition of community to include people from different classes. What stops the kaawad yatra organizing committees from reaching out to RWAs to contribute and collaborate in offering shelter to the yatris, as a gesture of humanity? Maybe this will lead to better ideas on how to resolve traffic snarls and conflicts of interest? What stops the police and local governments from running awareness campaigns that create empathy towards the yatris and use this enhance sense of pride to request them to remain within the law?
Of course, my comments could well be dismissed as naive. Many will say that I am deliberately leaving out the realities that confront us: the rise of the right wing that grants additional immunity to Hindu religious groups at this time, the alignment of local law enforcers with local communities that permits them to look the other way like we saw during Haryana’s infamous Jat quota agitation, the politicization of religion as seen in the capital that is now blatantly on display during the yatra. I admit there might be truth in all of this, but we must also admit that the insensitivity exists on both sides. If we do not bring empathy into the mix at this point, these conflicts will only get worse. We owe it to our children to speak a different language: one that opens the doors instead of slamming them shut; one that seeks to learn more before pronouncing opinions; one that celebrates diversity and shuns the idea of homogeneity that dangerously pervades our social lives; one that, in the true tradition of this land, refrains from violence seeks to include and find solutions through consensus.
The downside of Bali was the overtly touristy way in which everything was presented. Seminyak and Kuta were full of the same kind of knick-knack shops you find in tourist places the world over. Our only delightful find was a shop absolutely full of bead jewelry and the island’s superior artisanship made it possible, unlike say in Rajasthan or Goa, to pick nearly anything off the shelves and find it of decent quality.
Though less in your face that what tourists in India (especially white tourists) usually experiences, we found ourselves constantly accosted by people trying to sell us stuff from needlessly expensive tour packages to on-the-go manicures, sarongs and cheaper hotel rooms. Bargaining is de rigeur and even after we bargained and customised our own tour package, we probably ended up paying more than what it was worth. I’ll tell you why.
Tacky packaging for (what could have been) a fascinating cultural experience
On our one sightseeing day, we started our day with the most disappointing and poorly presented cultural performance I’ve seen, something akin to Ram Leela performances in India that are at times full of ribald jokes and casual acting. The Barong Dance was a classic good versus evil traditional dance drama full of evil spirits and fights and women who charm. Familiar characters from Hindu epic dramas and mythology like Dewi Kunti and Sahdev from the Mahabharata and Shiva from the Hindu trinity made the drama interesting, though the contexts were rather different. The elaborate costumes were charming as well, but that’s where it ended. Off key music that hardly changed no matter what the mood, actors that looked disinterested and periodic vulgarity, all left a bad taste and showed disrespect to the time even us ignorant tourists had spent in coming there and watching. I’m sure there are high quality versions of Balinese traditional performing art to be seen and I wish information about this was more accessible. I would not recommend the one we were shown as part of the widely offered tourist packages.
Who’s the bully? The struggle for authenticity
Wayan, our taxi driver, was an amiable chap. He was happy talking to us about his family, his migration experiences, his income pattern. He had questions for us too, and the first hour of our drive passed pleasantly. But he was obstinate too. He refused to stop at local eateries, deferring our requests time and again. When we expressed an interest in buying batik and ikkat fabrics, he drove us straight into a large, showy and overtly touristy crafts emporium where the prices were needlessly hiked. This, despite our pleas to stop at a small, more local place. We figured the tourist trail was all he had and he was used to counting on commissions from stores and restaurants where they took their customers. The Indian ‘setting’ was very much evident in Bali.
We got our way with the shopping finally, bullying Wayan to stop at a local store with more reasonable prices, and negotiating in sign language with shop attendants who spoke no English. But we were defeated when it came to our lunch stop. We found ourselves in the infamous lunch buffet advertised in every tourist pamphlet, facing Mt Batur, one of Bali’s most active volcanoes. We ate that very plain lunch only because of the very spectacular view of Batur and Lake Kintamani. It saddens me to think that tourists must settle for such a compromise. Perhaps it need not be so!
Religion at the altar of tourism: Compromise or evolution?
Our last stop before heading back to Seminyak was to the beautiful Tirta Empul in Tampaksiring, a temple built around 960AD at the site of a natural spring. Legend has it that the spring was created by Lord Indra to revive his troops in his battle with the Balinese ruler Mayadenawa who had positioned himself against the influence of Hinduism, forbidding religious rituals and worship. The temple is divided into three courtyards. The first with the bathing pool and the meeting hall, the second where the ritual bath in the holy spring is conducted, and the third contains a number of elaborately carved structures with a demarcated place of worship. There is hardly any signage at the complex to explain the architecture, the legend or the significance of the rituals; I have gleaned what I know from Internet research after our visit. At the time, the visit was a pleasant but confusing experience.
The signage is unequivocal, however, about the need for modesty and proper dressing in the temple. Men and women are let in only once they wear sarongs and women are repeatedly urged to not enter if menstruating. Websites about Balinese temples have stressed on the importance of respectful dressing and the purification ritual in Tirta Empul especially was something we understood as a solemn ritual needing priestly intervention. What we saw inside though, was something rather different. There appeared to be more tourists than Balinese in the spring pool and many of them had discarded their sarongs to be in their bikinis and briefs. The priestly interlocutors or guides, whoever they were, were only to be seen taking pictures of these tourists! On the farthest side, some Balinese families were engrossed in thier prayers, offering a glimpse of what might have been the originally intended mood of this beautiful temple.
In the innermost courtyard, we were shooed away from the area of worship by priests who reminded me of the stern ‘pandas’ of the shrine of Jagannath in Puri. I got no real chance to explain my own Hindu origins and request a chance to worship at a Balinese shrine. Now that would have been interesting!
For next time: Over the mountains, under the sea
From the glimpses we got of the beautiful island of Bali as we drove to and from the highland area of Kintamani, clearly there remains a lot to be explored. The sunrise trek up Mt Batur is something I would have liked to do, given more time. I would also have liked to sample the snorkeling and diving on the island and certainly, those are on my list for the next time alongside a visit to more religious sites after I’ve gleaned a deeper understanding of Balinese Hinduism. I’ll be back, Bali, with better research and local contacts next time!