University of Michigan Center for South Asian Studies
Author: Chris Olson
Chris is a sophomore planning to major in Political Science and minor in Community Action and Social Change. After graduating he hopes to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in political science to pursue a career in academia. In India he will be conducting independent research on urban planning. Chris plans to examine the master plans of Bangalore and Amritsar and learn what values are motivating planning in the two respective cities and why those motivations are present. From there he will compare those values of each city to understand how and why they may be the same or different, giving greater insight into how urban planning is being conducted in India.
I thought everything would feel strange and different in the US when I returned after three months in India. Yet it all felt the same. My initial impression on entering the airport in Chicago: “I didn’t miss the TSA and it smells like saturated fat.” Nothing about the US feels strange being back, rather it just occurs to me how things are different here. Restaurant menus are filled with beef. I can now wear shorts. The traffic is well ordered and every home in my suburban neighborhood sits surrounded by a large green yard. I realize that I’ll need time to process my experience and my time in India. I don’t know that I understood everything while I was there but now I have a chance to mull over it. I know the trip changed me for the better but it will take me time to figure out how exactly.
Everyone asks me about my trip and I don’t really know what to say about it. I reply that it was good and leave it at that. When people ask me what the coolest part was I usually say my time in Dharamshala, where I ate cake at the Dalai Lama’s birthday party, hike to waterfalls and converse with Tibetan refugees. I can say my proudest moment in India was when I was able to trick a waiter into thinking I knew Hindi with the help of my friend. On a long layover in Delhi before my flight, a friend I made in Bangalore and I met up to pal around the city. After a few hours, we grew hungry and headed for dinner. My friend ordered for us in Hindi and the waiter replied by asking if I could handle spicy food, although my friend said yes, the waiter still mentioned that they didn’t recommend it for westerners. Of course, he did ask me. Later in the meal when we needed more butter naan I turned around and said “bhaiyaa” to get his attention. (Which means brother, people of similar age to you are referred to as brother or sister while those who are older than you are auntie or uncle.) Startled, the waiter came over and asked how the food was. “Theek hai” I relied. He looked at my friend and asked if I spoke Hindi. “I told you he has been here a long time,” they replied. I was pleased by how the waiter’s respect for me had risen immensely.
I learned a great deal about urban planning in my three months conducting research in India. I’ve avoided discussing it here for fear of boring everyone. For my efforts, I produced a 39 double spaced page paper, although 3 of those pages are citations. If you are interested in reading it, let me know. I found that even when I was still there, everyone asked me when I would be coming back. I didn’t have an answer. I said that I had to finish college and then I might be able to, but I said that I would return. My grandparents asked me the same when I returned. Whenever I do return, I know I have some friends there and I look forward to seeing them again.
(When I started this blog, I said I was biased and you might have figured out what that bias is. All I really have to say now is see if for yourself, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.)
Amritsar is hardly the only holy city in India and any attempt to create a list of all the holy places in India would be undoubtedly long and forgetting a number of places. The city however occupies a special place amongst all the sacred places of India as the holiest site in all of Sikhism. Founded by Guru Ram Das, the fourth in the lineage of ten gurus, with the excavation of a sacred pool. The next Guru went on to build the Sri Harmandir Sahib, what most westerners know as the golden temple, although for most of its history it was not covered in gold which would be added later by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 1800s. Since this founding the city has grown to a population of a million people, making it a small city by Indian standards.
When I planned out my accommodations in Amritsar before I left for India I knew I would be outside of the city proper. I ended up in something very familiar to me, the suburbs. Born and raised in the suburbs and having spent the previous summer measuring suburban houses for my local government, I have spent a good deal of my life in suburbs. The lack of anything interesting masquerading as peace, a conclusion only arrived at when compared to the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet no one thought to replace that bustle with anything meaningful. The rural and urban each side as the space occupies an in-between with a middle to upper-middle class resident in most every home. The suburbs have their universalities.
Although, I am still in India and not everything about the suburb I find myself in is the same as where I am from. Houses here aren’t detached, rather they all abut one another and in each house lives more than just one nuclear family or extended family. In this suburb however, most plots lack a house on them as the land is being held on speculation. Occasionally you can see where two houses have been build next to an empty plot, seemingly waiting for a house be inserted like a missing domino. Every house is required to have a small trough with plants in it. These troughs and the empty plots reveal the fertility of India. Walking around, eggplants, lemons, oranges, guava, okra, curry leaf, basil and green chilis can all be seen growing.
A short drive away lies the golden temple. For the tourist or pilgrim their impression of the city becomes immediately shaped by the walk to the temple. At the center of a roundabout stands a statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, beginning a road closed to cars for pedestrians to walk to the temple. Beautiful facades stand on both of the street with shops ready to sell juttis (Punjabi shoes), the 5 Ks of Sikhism (a metal band worn around the wrist, a small sword, a wooden comb and a particular kind of undergarment) except for the uncut hair, vegetarian food (meat is not allowed to be sold there), and other gifts. Statues sit in the middle of the boulevard as you walk to the temple taking in the activity and architecture.
Earning its name being covered in 750 kg of gold, the temple makes a striking sight. Milky white architecture surrounds the temple as it sits in the middle of the sacred tank. Many bathe in the pool which is also home to large coy fish so used to being fed you can touch the top of one’s head as it swims up to you. Unless you stare at the beauty of the golden temple, the serenity of the space gets lost in the hustle of people and grandeur of everything surrounding you. At the temple complex you can also go and get langar, a free hot meal provided by the temple. Every Sikh temple serves a free meal but the one at the temple is special as 100,000 people visit the temple each day, all of whom might want a meal. The langar is served every day, is always hot, vegetarian and you will be given as much food as you want. No one goes away hungry even with such a massive enterprise.
Beyond the temple and the boulevard leading to the temple lies the walled city, which grew out from the pool and temple when Amritsar was originally founded and enclosed by a wall. The walled city is the heart of the city holding much of the heritage of the city yet it is dense and treeless, with narrow roads standing in stark contrast to my temporary suburban neighborhood named Garden Enclave. Driving away from the city, the urban fades to suburban. I return to a house with a dog, a kitchen, multiple rooms and plentiful living area. I’m still in India, but I’m back in the suburbs.
When the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet and began his life in exile in 1957, numerous Tibetans followed him. Fleeing Chinese oppression, they took refuge in India who accepted them. Faced with a massive influx of refugees, India resettled them around the country. One such settlement was Dharamshala, where the Tibetan government in exile is located. The city has become a popular tourist destination for both Indians and foreigners alike who wish to see the Himalayas, the Dalai Lama temple and experience Tibetan culture. So many foreign tourists come to Dharamshala that they have created their own enclaves in the nearby towns of Dharmcoat and Bhagsu. Head to a restaurant/café there with a reputation for being a place where westerners who visit Dharamshala to experience eastern spirituality hang out and you will find pretty much what you expect.
When I planned to go to India I never intended to go to Dharamshala. My original plan had been to go to Darjeeling, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas known for its tea plantation. My habit of always reading the news however led me to learn that there was unrest in Darjeeling. The government of West Bengal had recently mandated that Bengali would be a mandatory subject in schools in Darjeeling. The people in Darjeeling are Indians, but ethnically Nepali and thus speak Nepali. They responded to the government of West Bengal’s imposition of them with protests, which turned to riots. An indefinite strike was called, troops were sent in and the internet was cut. Although West Bengal backed down, making Bengali an optional subject, the movement to make Darjeeling and the ethnic Nepali areas of India a new state, which has been periodically demanded since the partition seized, the opportunity to make their demands with an already motivated population. As the conflict continued, the elected government of the semi-autonomous authority that governs Darjeeling resigned. As of this writing the conflict has still not been resolved. Reading about all of this in the paper and contacting the person who was to hosting me in Darjeeling who confirmed what I’d read, the other SiSA fellow I was to travel there with, Caroline, and I decided to go to Dharamshala instead. The situation can be succinctly explain as someone said to me, “you can’t take people’s identities away from them.”
In Dharamshala, Caroline and I met up with another SiSA fellow, Addi, who was teaching English to Tibetans through an NGO named Lha. Meeting up with Addi, Caroline and I headed with her to the Dalai Lama temple, where she had seen the Dalia Lama, to see the statues there. (You can read about Addi seeing the Dalai Lama here: https://sisa2017.ii.lsa.umich.edu/what-do-we-want-from-the-dalai-lama/. He wasn’t in town when I was there so I never got the chance to see him.) Addi explained to us that part of what she did was to have conversations with Tibetans as a part of teaching them English and that we could join and have a conversation with a Tibetan. Caroline and I eagerly volunteered. That day however we couldn’t find the place where the class was in time. I made it in time for class the next day although Caroline fell ill and wouldn’t recover until the day before she was to leave.
Having made it to class on time this time, I had my heart set on talking to a monk. I had a number of questions that I wanted to ask about the viniya, the rules for monks and nuns, as well as other subjects related to Tibetan Buddhism. Addi told me where to sit to talk to a monk and I was able to speak to monk one on one. I learned that he had been a nomad in Kham, the southeast region of Tibet known for its rugged terrain. He became a monk at the age of 17 and had been a monk for 20 years. He answered all of my questions, yet what stood out to me was how he spoke about situation in Tibet. He asked me if I knew about the self-immolations in Tibet. I said that I did and he simply replyed, “it’s unfortunate.” I found this a dramatic understatement.
The day after my conversation with the monk was the Dalai Lama’s birthday, he turned 82. I joined Addi and some friends that I made through Addi in going to the Dalai Lama temple for the celebration. The Dalai Lama however missed his own party as he was celebrating in Leh, Ladakh. He was probably too cool for us. We still had fun watching traditional Tibetan dances and performances, eating laddu and drinking butter tea. I can only describe butter tea as tasting like drinking a butter cookie. There was of course cake and even though the Dalai Lama wasn’t there, I ate cake at the Dalai Lama’s birthday party. No one can tell me otherwise. After the dances and performances different people gave speeches. They of course spoke in Hindi, which only one of my friends knew so we simply talked to one another. I asked one of the Tibetans that I had made friends with about the Khata, a traditional Tibetan scarf that is given on certain occasions often white in color. Eventually, the rebirth of the Dalai Lama came up. He has said that he would not be born within Chinese control, that he might not be born again and that he might be reborn as a woman. He hasn’t really given a definitive answer on the subject. As we talked another person was called over to help answer our questions. The person who was called over explained to us that the Dalai Lama would most likely be reborn because the Tibetan people need him and that the Dalai Lama is more powerful than he has ever been. What stuck with me the most from the conversation however was when they said, “the people who burn themselves are taunting the Chinese. What can your guns do when I can burn myself alive? Nothing.”
The next day I and some of my friends decided to see the two waterfalls near Dharamshala. Caroline felt well enough to join us, albeit after a visit to the hospital and with a bottle full of oral rehydration salts in tow. The first waterfall proved easy to get to. There were steps as it was a popular tourist destination. To get to the second waterfall we took what was supposed to be a short cut. We hiked up hills moving toward the second waterfall we wanted to see. At one point, we encountered a mule on the path who decided we weren’t to pass by almost kicking one of our group. A man came out of his house and one of us asked him something in Hindi. He looked back baffled and relied, “It’s very strange to just get up and the first thing I am asked is do I speak Hindi?” We managed to get around the mule although later a cow almost decided it wanted to run into me with its horns. Footage exists that shows how close it came to me but I haven’t seen it. The path to the second water fall was comprised of rocks and dirt on the side of a hill with a metal pipe guiding the way that we would grab on to for balances when needed. As we neared the water fall it began raining on us, the second time that day. Fortunately, there was a small café at the water fall. I bought a box of cookies and gave everyone one to celebrate our achievement. We waited out the rain and took our pictures.
On the way back, I talked to a monk who had joined us on our hike. He became a monk at 4 years old and had been a monk for 20 years. He told how he wished to go back to Tibet so he could visit his grandmother. He was hopefully his request for a Chinese passport would be approved so he could go back and live in Tibet, although his request had been denied once already. I also asked him about the history of Tibet, although we had some trouble with the language barrier. Caroline left Dharamshala the next morning and I left the day after her, each of us continuing our journey through in India. I made a number of friends in Dharamshala and I miss being able to spend time with them, as well as the wonderful Tibetan community, Tibetan food and wonderful cake. I highly recommend the cake.
In Varanasi, I would find the real India, according to someone I’d met in Bangalore. The holy city located on the banks on the Ganges is associated with the god Shiva and attracts tourists and pilgrims alike who come to see the Arti ceremony, ghats, temples, sadhu-babas, make an offering or bathe in the sacred river. There with another Summer in South Asia fellow, Caroline, who had just arrived in India. My first day in Varanasi began with a walk on the Ghats, which means steps. We walked along, being continually asked if we wanted a boat ride while we took as much of the place in as possible. The river, the ghats and history of the place provided a great deal to observe. After reaching the last ghat we turned back and headed to the guest house.
With the rest of our day we decided to see Saranath, one of four pilgrimage sights in Buddhism and the sight of the Buddha’s first sermon, known in the sutras as Deer Park. The Buddha came to Saranath after achieving enlightenment at Bodh Gaya to find the five ascetics that had rejected him when he discovered the middle way. Knowing they would understand his teaching about the nature of reality and suffering he delivered the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of Dharma Sutra. Stupas stand at the spot where he met these ascetics on the edge of town and where he gave his sermon a short distance way. We wondered around the excavation site seeing the brick stupas and the sight of the Ashoka’s column. (Ashoka was a famous emperor of India who is said to have converted to Buddhism and marked the Buddhist pilgrimage sites. His column, that of four lions, is the symbol of India and can be seen on the nation’s flag.)
After seeing the stupas, we went to a Buddhist temple where the Buddha’s first sermon is recited every evening with other sutras. The temple also contained a Bodhi Tree, which was a clone of the tree found in Sri Lanka. Although many people walked around the temple complex, most left when it came time for the puja. Caroline, another person and I sat as the monks chanted. An hour flew by as the rhythmic recitation caused feeling of deep relaxation.
The next day we awoke at 4 am. Our guest house arranged a boat ride and a tour of the city for the day. A French medical anthropologist named Pierre from our guest house who was studying how religion effects schizophrenia joined us. Schizophrenia can often produce hallucinations that relate to god and the dive, thus religion can affect the hallucinations that schizophrenics have. When I first met him the night before, he said to our host “tomorrow, no rain, boat ride. Rain, tea and cigarette.” I quickly knew he was European. Even now I miss his jovial personality and sense of humor. Our guide met us at our guess house and we saw the morning ceremony on the Ganges at the Assi Ghat and drank chai from small clay pots. As the boat moved along the ghats, the guide told us about them. Some were former places of maharajas that now stood abandoned. Although one former palace was now a hotel with all the trappings of a palace, the interior still covered in gold and silver. You could spend a night there for 70,000 rupees. At the current exchange rate that’s 1,087 USD.
Our boat ride stopped at the Manikarnika Ghat, the largest burning ghat. Every fire that you see there has a body in it. People save money their entire lives to be burned here, the guide explained. Cremation costs at minimum 150,000 rupees and to be cremated there meant that you would achieve moksha, the reunion with god that is the goal of Hinduism. Although some people aren’t burned there such as Sadhu-babas and those who are bitten by a cobra. Women are only allowed on the ghat if they haven’t seen the face of the deceased. As we observed the ghat we saw a family bring another body to be burned there and a burnt bone be tossed into the holy Ganges. Only lower castes work on the burning ghats. Even the Brahmins, who are the highest priest caste are low caste there as there are sub-castes within the four major castes. These Brahmins can only preform pujas on the burning ghats and not in the temples which are reserved for the high caste brahmins. The high caste brahmins don’t even want to step into the homes of low caste brahmins who work on the ghats, believing them to be unclean.
Returning to the guest house, Caroline and I broke our fast on mangos bought from a street vendor. You can only get mangos when they are in season here, something foreign in the US where you can get fruits and produce in the store all year round. We continued our tour of the city seeing some of the numerous temples throughout Varanasi. We went to the Hanuman temple on Hanuman day to find it incredibly busy. Hanuman is the god with the face of the monkey who helped Rama in the Ramayana by lifting a mountain. Every day of the week has several gods associated with it. Friday and Tuesday are both days dedicated to Hanuman. All monkeys are considered to be incarnations of Hanuman and monkeys could be found all over the temple. Monkeys, while cute, are notoriously aggressive. Don’t get close to one. We also saw the Tulsi Dargi temple, the Durga temple or red temple and several others. We ended the afternoon at silk wholesaler who showed us beautiful silk blankets and scarves after having seen the hand looms on which they are made. The sheets were nothing short of works of art, and outside of my price range. I did still however buy a kurta, a traditional Indian garment resembling a tunic.
We returned to the guest house to avoid the heat of the day. In the evening, we ventured out again. While in Bangalore I craved a good lassi and was disappointed the few times I got one. Lassi is north Indian. In Varanasi, I found what I was searching for and our evening started with eating lassi in clay pots. As we walked through the narrow alleyways of the tourist market, our guide told me that Goldie Han had been to see his guru and had made astrological predictions for her. He asked me if I would also like such a reading, which would tell me what would happen in my future. I declined. After lassi we headed to the Kashi Vishvanath, a temple dedicated to Shiva known as the golden temple, although not to be confused with the one in Amritsar. While I could have tried to enter the temple, they ask that only Hindus do so. I chose to respect that. It still makes a striking sight from the outside earning its name being topped with gold. We saw the even arti ceremony which like the cremations never stops, rain or shine.
As the day turned to evening the ghats gained new beauty awash with light and changed from a religious space to a social space. People played cricket and teenagers looked for a place to hang out. Pierre, Caroline and I settled on one of the ghats to converse with our guide after the arti ceremony. He explained that if he wanted to be married he would ask his parents to arrange it. Although he had some desire to visit Europe he wanted to stay close to his family in Varanasi and felt fortunate to be born there because he didn’t need to go anywhere when he was to day and could be cremated there.. I also learned from him the saying “no hurry, no worry, no chicken, no curry.” He was an excellent guide and I was glad to have him show me the city as I never would have seen as much of it as I did without him.
Our last day in Varanasi was spent simply walking along the ghats once last time and heading back to the market, where I bought a few things for friends back home. We left our guest house 2 hours before we needed to catch a bus to Delhi where we would spend a day before heading to Dharamshala. When the auto dropped us at the boarding point we didn’t see the bus but the auto driver assured us it would be along shortly. We waited an hour and half. The bus hadn’t arrived. We pulled out our phones frantically trying to figure out where we needed to go as the bus was scheduled to depart in 20 minutes. With the help of strangers, we figured out the place we actually needed to be and managed to get there and board our bus. Without helpful strangers, I never would have survived for as long as I have here in India. I hope to become one someday as we could always use more of them. Odes ought to be written to them, but I‘ll save that for another time.
Attracted by its reputation for collegiate fun, I met up with friend from U of M at Bangalore airport for short plane ride to Goa. On the western coast of India, Goa is known for the beach, trace music, Russian tourists, and as I said, collegiate fun. Additionally, it’s the former Portuguese colony of India with historic forts and churches. Goa’s reputation only partially applies to the off season. Torrential rain, 90-degree heat and humidity so high you swim through the air keeps most people and the Russians away. We went to a tourist town, in the off season to find most of it closed. December and January is the time to go.
With a hostel to match the reputation of the state for our short stay in Goa, we meet an interesting number of characters. I met a computer science major from Gujarat blowing off classes that talked my ear off, a britisher who drove trucks in the US illegally and was later deported and banned from the country, a guy who used to work at the hostel and now got payed to gamble (not sure how he managed that but it was what he said,) all in my first two night in northern Goa. The first night we slept in a non-air-conditioned room. You learn to appreciate AC went you are trying to sleep in 90-degrees and what feels like 100% humidity as your tee shirt clings to your skin. Fortunately, after that first night we moved into an air-conditioned room. The power would go out every evening with the torrential rain that preceded it but the insulation kept us cool.
Early in our trip my friend and I met three medical students from Kerala. They happened to be staying in the same room in the hostel as us and we quickly befriended them. We got up to go to breakfast at the same time and joined them in finding a bit to eat. In selecting a place to go one of the medical students said, “South Indian first,” and that’s what we had. While I ordered idli, everyone else got Dosa. My friend, who had just spent the last month in rural Karnataka, and the medical students said they have idli every day and wanted something else. I needed to satisfy my desire for it before I can’t find it back in the US. The medical students from Kerala confirmed what I thought about the food however, it wasn’t very good. One of many attempts I would make to eat Indian food in Goa and be disappointed.
After breakfast, we rode on scooters up to a nearby fort to have a look around the only sight nearby. In a famous Bollywood movie that no one could remember the name of, three characters posed on the walls of the fort and everyone there wanted a picture of the three of them to imitate it. The vantage point of the fort reviled the lush green beauty of Goa and provided a gust of the sea breeze, the only relief from the heat and humidity. After seeing the fort, we returned to the hostel and I added the medical students on Facebook before they left to continue their four-day vacation from school in another part of Goa. (If they are reading this I wish them all well.)
Shortly after the medical students from Kerala left, we met an iOS developer from Mumbai. He had an Android. My friend and I hung out with him during the rest of our time there and returned to a beach we’d seen a few days before to find Siva’s face carved into a rock there. During my time in Goa I was always puzzled as to why I couldn’t get good Indian food. Once I ordered a thali and nothing on my plate was spicy. Nothing. People wore shorts and that was socially acceptable. Trance music played at the oddest times. It played when my friends and I sat down to enjoy dinner. At a sea side restaurant while families looked out at the ocean and kids ran around on the outside deck a shirtless DJ played to an empty room. All of this of course has a simple explanation: Goa isn’t in India. Although, I was later told, “forget your time in Goa.”
On a particular day when I knew I wasn’t going to be productive, I headed into Bangalore’s central district. I’d been there in passing but never saw it in the way I would have liked. Until then I hadn’t really done any sightseeing and this seemed like the day for it. Bangalore has two nicknames, the Silicon Valley of India and The Garden City. With the latter in mind, I began my day at Cubbon Park. Sitting in the center of Bangalore, it reminded me of most any park. Even on a Wednesday afternoon many people occupied the park, taking walks, sitting on benches, taking photos either of themselves or their friends. The shade of the trees provided welcome relief from the heat of the day as I walked along brick paths and the hard clay ground. While there I realized that most everything about the park can be traced back to the time of the British Raj. The park is named for Robert Cubbon, the longest serving British administrator of the Mysore state (now Karnataka.) The statues in the park are all of people from that time period including a statue of Edward VII the British king from 1901 to 1910. I wondered about the symbolism of the park and what it represented.
I walked from Cubbon Park over to the Karnataka High Court and Vidhana Soudha, the capital building for the state of Karnataka, right next door. I couldn’t get close to either of them. I’ve found a number of fences, walls and barriers throughout Bangalore. Often the walls are topped with barbed wire or large shards of broken glass cemented in place. Some of the wall surround the many military bases in the city, but you can find one surrounding everything from homes to schools to empty lots and public parks. Cubbon Park, Lalbagh, the Indian Institute of Science were all surrounded by either a fence or wall. The Karnataka High Court and the Vidhana Soudha were no different. I walked along the road and snapped a few pictures of each wishing I could get closer. The fences created a sense of distance for me as I looked at the buildings. Fences serve only to keep people out and I wondered who was trying to be kept out of these public institutions. Walking by I spied an open gate to the Karnataka High Court with no security. This was my change to see it I thought. A whistle blew and stopped me almost immediately.
“Where are you going?” I was asked.
“Just looking around.”
The security guard shook his head. Looking around wasn’t allowed. I looked like I didn’t belong there, I didn’t belong there and so I wasn’t supposed to be there. I walked away feeling somewhat perplexed. For public institutions neither the High Court or the Vidhana Soudha were very open to the public. These places were for those who belonged and that clearly didn’t include everybody. It was later explained to me that in order to visit these places you need to request and be issued a pass. They were open, just so long as you had a pass. The symbolism of the fences continued to stick out in my mind despite the explanation.
From the High Court I headed towards MG road, one of the commercial centers of the city. There I found designer stores and malls that took me back to the United States the moment I stepped inside. If you don’t like expensive designer wear, you head to commercial street. When I visited a few weeks ago I found it aptly named. Just as people tried to sell me drums on MG road, I was persuaded into a shop on commercial street. Although commercial street certain won any contest for hustle and bustle. Yet what I found curious on MG road was that the stores were only concentrated along main roads. With a few turns down some minor street I found myself in back allies with regular apartment builds like the ones I’ve seen throughout the city. There seemed to be no downtown, only commercial corridors. After a few hours of walking around I grew hungry and tired of the heat and headed home.
When I set out that day I thought I was journeying into the heart of the city in the way I would head into the downtown of any American city to see what it held there. I realized later that Bangalore doesn’t really have a single downtown or heart of activity. The activity is everywhere. Walk any direction in the city and it won’t take you long to hit a commercial area of some sort. Only the scale of the commercial differs both in price and scale. You can find carts wandering the streets sell fruits and vegetables to a Lamborghini dealership in Bangalore. Some see Bangalore as a global city, a center of wealth, innovation and knowledge and want it to strive to be just that. I don’t know that everyone here shares that vision. Some I think would be happy if the streets were cleaner and the 10% of the city that live in slums had a decent home.
Soon I’ll be leaving Bangalore. I don’t know how a month passed so quickly. I’m saddened that I won’t be able to continue build relationships with the people I’ve met here. They have been so pleasant, kind and intelligent and I wish I could get to know them more if only I had the chance.I was only ever passing through, but I feel as though I got a glimpse of what it’s like to live here. I value the time I’ve been able to spend here, it let me ask many questions and find a few answers too. What lies in the heart of Bangalore? I still haven’t figured that out, but I’ve seen commerce everywhere, barriers I’ve questioned, and the love Bangalorians have for nature and their trees.
My average day here goes something like this: I do research and then I take a walk to explore my small section of the city. In truth it’s not all that glamorous. Anywhere you live will have a certain amount of routine. Yet what makes being in India so interesting for me is that it’s all new and different from what I know. There are some similarities, a McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Dominos and Pizza Hut all within walking distance of me. Yet even these things which are familiar to me have their differences from what I would find in the US. You won’t find beef or pork at these places. You can get a paneer sandwich (a type of Indian cheese) and the food is spicier than what you would find in the US. Even the pizza can be pretty spicy. There are even masala flavored lays potato chips which are spicy and spicy masala ramen (both are pretty tasty.) French fries however, seem to have a certain universality to them.
In my research, I see the city academically. I read articles and news coverage on the planning issues of the city. Topics I won’t go into here for the sake of not boring everyone. When I walk around the city, I truly see it. The area in which I live in isn’t very walkable. Cracks in the side walk and trees blocking the way invariable cause me to interact with Indian traffic. Well, more accurately dodge. To understand Indian traffic is to understand informality. There are rules, but those rules aren’t followed. In the absence of regular established rules, new ones emerge. For another anecdote about informality in India see my previous blog post.
From my observations I have surmised the rules of Indian driving are:
Drive on the left side of the road
Obey traffic lights (Although I’ve seen this one broken.)
Lanes are optional. If there is a space on road you can occupy, you do it.
You honk you horn to communicate the following:
You are passing
Stay out of my space
You are passing side streets and don’t want others to pull out
A general sense of displeasure
When you might run into another vehicle or pedestrian swerve if you can, slow down only if you have to.
Everything else is do what you can, when you can. (This rule trumps all others and is the most important to keep in mind.)
With everyone using their horn to communicate with one another the road turns in to a crowded room with everyone speaking to each other. I hear it more as a cacophony of car horns. I’ve learned these rules in an effort not to get hit by cars as I cross the street. There are cross walks but those are for aesthetic purposed much like lane lines. My main trick has been to follow the locals. For all of my observations Indian driving seems to require an intuitive sense about how it works that I don’t know I’ve fully figured out. The rules I’ve laid out above are by no means comprehensive. All of this has come to be recognized by those who design the roads. There are speed limits, but speed bumps build into the road cause people to slow down rather than formal rules.
Informality also creates the widespread mixed use in the city. (Mixed use is when there is more than one land use occurring in an area. For example, a house next to a business or ground floor retail in an apartment building.) While there are zoning laws and mixed use is illegal unless the road is 40 feet wide, there is little enforcement. You’ll see a small grocery store or a tea stall with apartments above, an office in an apartment building, a house next to businesses on a busy road. Mixed use is how the city organically wants to be. (Perhaps part of the reason it works here is you won’t see any big box stores with large parking requirements. Commercial use slips seamlessly into residential areas in a way a Walmart can’t into a suburban neighborhood.) The rules can only be bent so much though and so most of the buildings are no taller than 4 or 5 floors. Trees supplement the little shade provided by the short buildings. The trees here grow tall and most everywhere. They seem a beloved part of the city. I know I would miss the shade they provide if they weren’t there. Yet any place without trees or buildings, people play cricket. An open space made of hard clay or even sometimes the road, look for a bat and a ball.
All of these observations are seemingly banal. Yet the banalities become important to what a place is. The trees do more than just provide shade. Mixed use means that I can walk a few streets over and eat at a restaurant or get groceries because it’s right near where I live rather than drive to commercial area. We don’t always make these observations and yet they shape our lives in ways we might not realize. What we also don’t always realize is that how our cities look and feel to us was planned. Or in the case of Bangalore, not so planned. Cities are unique environments because we create and control them. Just as Churchill said, “We shape our buildings thereafter they shape us,” so too do our cities.
Post Script: I wrote this about a week ago but haven’t had time to upload it, my daily routine has since then changed.
It was 1pm and I couldn’t get Skype to work. Although I came to India to do my own independent research, and not work for a NGO like the other SiSA fellows, I got recruited into one. One of the people who was staying at same Airbnb as me happened to be the municipal finance manager at Janaagraha, an NGO that does work with urban planning, government, municipal finance and democratic access. When he learned what I was working on and my background he asked me if I would like to write a white paper on using green bonds to finance public transit. I agreed and thus became an intern for Janaagraha. After having written a draft of the first chapter of the paper the day before I was trying to call the people I was working with to get their feedback.
The doorbell rang. A man stood outside the door that I didn’t recognize. I immediately hit the language barrier. I stood there confused not knowing what was happening. The man called someone and after a moment of talking with them handed me the phone. Once again, I couldn’t understand what was being said to me but I managed to make out one thing in English. “Leave my house,” they said. I called my Airbnb host. He said he’d be there in a few minutes. I still had no idea what was going on. It was Thursday and my fourth day in Bangalore. I managed to make the call I was supposed to be on to get their feedback as my Airbnb host arrived and began talking to the man and started making some calls.
After I finished my call, I stood around waiting for an opportunity to ask what was going on. My Airbnb host continued to make calls and talk to the man. At one point a woman showed up and walked around the flat a little bit and then left. Finally, I was able to ask my Airbnb host what was going on. He explained to me that in Bangalore it’s standard practice to put down ten months’ rent in advance. He had made a verbal agreement with the landlord, who was “some politician,” to pay the ten months’ rent by June 2nd. Now, on May 25th she wanted the ten months’ rent or she wanted us to leave within 30 minutes so her sister could stay there. We didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. When I had arrived on Monday, he had just moved in to this apartment and there were only two beds and some wardrobes for furnishings in the entire place. Now he had brought in some more beds, some chairs, tables, a refrigerator and a sofa, and we were leaving. I packed up my things and the host packed up the other Airbnb guest’s things and we left. Fortunately, my host had another apartment which he outright owned that we moved to a few streets away.
I was perplexed by what was happening. This is something that just wouldn’t happen in the US I told him. There are lease agreements and you need an eviction notice to remove someone. “That’s why I want to go to the US,” he said. He is a doctor and is studying for some medical exams which will allow him to be a doctor and get a residency with a university in the US. I’ve told him a few things about the US and told him that he should go to U of M. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to pick which school he’ll go to, although that hasn’t stopped me from talking up U of M. At this point I’ve convinced him to visit Michigan.
Academics call something like what happened to my Airbnb host informality. In the US, we take for granted all the formal systems we have that protect us. We have the deed to the house we’ve lived for years, there are lease agreements and paperwork for everything. India doesn’t have those formalities in the same way the US does, and so situation like the one I described happen. I’m telling this story to make good on a promise of what I would bring back from India for one of my high school teachers, (I hope you are reading this AB.) He asked me for “non-sanitized pictures.” The type of images that you can only get from being there he said, not the CNN pan shot of Varanasi, where everything looks picturesque. Although make no mistake, there are plenty of picturesque parts of India.
But to present you with a more complete view of my time in India, I have to tell you about all the generosity and help I have received, which started even before I got here. One of my roommate’s parents are from India and months before I left they gave me a water bottle with a filter in it to barrow, some rupees, my roommate’s uncle’s phone number and told me to call them if I needed anything. Before I even got on the plane to go to India I chatted with a man who was from Mumbai, but had lived in New York for the past 20 years and was a distributor for Amway. Small world, Amway is headquartered near where I live. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him if I ever needed anything in India. My Airbnb host has called several cabs for me and taken me out for meals and has always paid for me. He says he would show me more of the city if he weren’t so busy with his exams. Yesterday my host’s roommate made daal and chapatti for lunch and feed me when I hadn’t even asked him to. Before I could even finish what he had already given me, he gave me more. It feels like I have so many people looking out for me.
As you read this blog, and I hope that you do and enjoy it, it would be wise for you dear reader to consider that I am not without bias. I’m not a tabula rasa. I have previous experiences and belief that shape my experience and what I rely here in this blog. I can’t really give you a complete picture of this place nor experience it in the same way that you would. For that you’ll have to see it for yourself. Here, I’ll try to show my experiences and observations that I think fit for public consumption, none of which will be without some level of editorializing. I know that I have only scratched the surface and begun to understand what it means to live here. In the interest of not making this entry any longer than what it already is, I’m going to forgo talking about the urban design I’ve seen here. I’ll try to do that next week. As for all the other things I’ve seen and experienced here, I’ll have to relay that another time. For now, these are the stories and thoughts I leave you with.
In the few weeks I’ve been back from school, just about everyone has asked me what I’m doing this summer. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“I’m going to India.”
“That’s cool! Are you going for a mission trip or just to visit? What will you be doing there?”
“I got a fellowship from U of M to do independent research there.”
“What will you be researching?”
“I’m going to be studying urban planning. More specifically I’ll be determining the values motivating the decisions inside of city’s master plans.”
“That’s awesome! Very interesting!” (I’m always a bit surprised people find this interesting. I always figured this would be something that would be interesting only to me.)
“Where will you be staying?”
“I’m going to be in Bangalore and Amritsar mostly. Bangalore is a big city in the south which is sometimes called the silicon valley of India. Amritsar is up north and is a holy city for Sikhism, the Golden Temple sits in the middle of the city.”
(Usually after this I will be invariably told not to drink the water in India.)
What led me to pursue a fellowship to go to India began in high school. In my sophomore year I developed a fascination with religion, particularly eastern religions. I read the Tao De Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, a few of the Upanishads, an anthology of the Pali Cannon, the Dhammapada and other texts. Once I came to U of M I was required to take four semesters of a language. I never took Spanish or French, the only two languages offered at my high school and what most people take since they already know some of the language. I had a clean slate, and could pick any language I wanted. Of the forty plus languages I could have picked, I chose Sanskrit.
It was from Sanskrit class that I heard about the Summer in South Asia Undergraduate Fellowship. My professor sent my class an email encouraging us to apply. I felt timid about applying as a freshman so I didn’t even make an attempt. My friend from the class, Aaruran Chandrasekhar, however, applied and got the fellowship. I went home the summer after my freshman year and scrolled through social media seeing my friends post from their travel abroad. I desperately wanted to be somewhere other than home. I felt like I was missing out on something bigger.
That summer, I got a job with my local township government. Every summer they hire college kids to be assessing assistants, which meant that I and a partner would measure houses and ask property owners a few questions for the purposes of property taxes. I did this 40 hours a week, for three months. I measured hundreds of single family homes, met a few very unpleasant people, some very nice people, and found that most people were alright. After doing this for a few weeks, I began to realize that my home town looks the way it does for a reason. Someone decided that my town was to be a bedroom community and suburb of the city of Grand Rapids. The new developments in the area told me that wasn’t about to change either.
When I got back on campus in the fall, I knew that I didn’t want to go home again when summer came around. I saw Aaruren present at the SiSA symposium and knew that I wanted to apply for the fellowship and go to India. I started working on my application in November when I knew it wouldn’t be due until March. I thought of doing an internship since the structure might be better for me since I have never been to India and embarked on something this large before but I decided I wanted more of an adventure and chose to do independent research. It took me some time and a few meetings with some professors that I cold emailed to determine what I would study but eventually I figured out how to merge my long held interest in political theory with a new found interest in urban planning that stemmed from my time measuring houses. I found an adviser and decided to take an intro to urban planning class hoping it would help me get the fellowship and better prepare me for doing my research if I did manage to get it.
Now I’m a week away from getting on a plane and leaving the US for India. I’m nervous. I’m worried I don’t have all my ducks in a row. Have I done everything I need to in order to be prepared to leave? I knew I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and have an adventure so here I am doing just that. Of course it hasn’t felt real yet but it is dawning on me more as it approaches. But at least I won’t be spending the summer at home, and I know what to say when someone asks me what I’ll be doing this summer.