5. Shopping, Driving, Complaining in India (25 August 2004)

Shopping in India

I hate shopping in the best of times.   Since moving into our house, I have spent most every day shopping.  Before we moved here, I knew that we would have to furnish an empty house.  I saw it as a challenge.  I imagined finding the Indian version of Ikea, going from department to department, saying “I’ll have one of those, two of those” etc.   My first mistake was thinking that there would be an Indian version of Ikea.  My second mistake was thinking that I could say “I’ll have one of those” and that the one of those would be delivered the next day.

From my experience so far, I can only surmise that the average Indian wants every piece of furniture custom-made with their own selection of fabric and wood.  Virtually nothing in a shop is ready for delivery.  And, while the shop may provide the wood, it is likely that you will have to go to another shop to buy fabric.

Being someone who gets my ideas from seeing things in shops, furnishing our house has been a difficult and time-consuming journey.  “Journey” in most cases means from furniture shop to fabric shop and back to furniture shop.

Delivery of Items Purchased

Placing my first order for household furnishings was a relief.  Finally, I had accomplished something.  What I had yet to discover was that placing an order is only half of the journey.  The next challenge is actually getting what I ordered.  Take our curtains, for example…please take our curtains!  We ordered curtains for the living room and dining room.  We were reassured that the tailor came to our house to measure the windows.  We then calmly waited for curtain delivery, which happened as promised, only 2 hours late.  Much to our surprise, the curtains delivered were not at all what we had ordered.  The fabric was the right one but the style was not at all what we had agreed.  The shop owner came for delivery and, as we looked on in shocked surprise, she kept saying “wait and see them, they will look very nice”.  Unfortunately, her taste was quite different from ours and (fortunately for us) she would not be living in our house to enjoy her design. We promptly sent her back to the shop with the curtains, after refusing to pay more for the re-design.  The correctly designed curtains were delivered the next day.

We purchased quite a lot of furniture from the “Looking Good” furniture store.  Since I want our house looking good, I thought this was a good place to shop.  Another mistake.   Our dining room table and 6 of 8 chairs arrived last night (only 3 hours late).  The fabric I had selected for the chairs was a beautiful gold colour with a fleur de lys pattern (hommage to my former life in France).  The fabric was on all 6 chairs, which was good!.  But 5 of the chairs had the fleur de lys going in one direction and a 6th chair had the fleur de lys in the opposite direction.  Now for those of you who think I’m being picky, I must say that I didn’t really care which direction the fleur de lys went…but I do think it a matter of good taste to have all the fabric on all the chairs going in the same direction.  One chair will be sent back to the “Not so Good Looking Furniture” store today.

The Cherry Tree

I’ve often thought how wonderful it is to have fruit trees at home (we have them in Norway and they are fantastic).  Our house has a cherry tree just outside the front gate.  “Marvelous” I thought when we first saw the house.  “Dreadful” was what I thought after we had moved in and I realised that cherries fall off the tree and stain everything they drop onto (in our case, our upstairs terrace and the entire entryway).  Not only do cherries naturally fall off a tree, but in our case, they were helped by a family of monkeys who visited everyday, shaking the branches so that more even cherries would fall off the tree.

We decided to spare most of the tree but not branches hanging directly over our house.  After consulting with some of Hans Einar’s colleagues at the office, we were told that one cannot just cut down a tree that grows on public property and that we would need permission from the local authorities.  Two days later (a quiet Sunday morning), a gardiner mysteriously showed up and cut down the branches (please don’t tell the local authorities).   We are happy.  The monkeys are sad.

Driving In India (Part II)

Well, we did it!   We drove in Bangalore.  Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon, there was virtually no traffic due to a trucker strike and it was only 5 kilometers but we did it and are very proud to report that we survived.  

Here’s how it happened:  after sulking around on Sunday morning, we threw off our feelings of being home-bound without a driver and took the brave decision to DRIVE IN BANGALORE (capital letters provided to show how momentous a decision this was).    First, we had to pick a destination.  A local shopping mall not too far from home seemed like a good choice because (1) it was not too far from home; (2) we knew how to get there and (3) it involved only one turn.  Then, we had to plan our itinerary.  Now, in Norway, France, the US or Canada, the itinerary would have been “drive to the mall”.  In Bangalore, the itinerary went like this:

  • drive 2.5 kms straight along the side road, avoiding any and all traffic on the parallel main road.
  • when you get to the first intersection where you need to turn and join other cars, abandon the car and walk the rest of the way to the mall.

We shared the driving so neither of us would be totally stressed out about the whole thing.  We were VERY proud.

Complaining

While some of you may be shaking your heads right about now, wondering how I can live in one of the most fascinating and exotic countries in the world and do nothing but complain.  I will now say a few words in my defence. 

Complaining is how I cope with the small and big frustrations of this very unique period of settling in.  What many of you don’t know is that, by the time I have written a Bangalore Brief, I have already vented many of my frustrations in real time while playing online backgammon and “chatting” with my mother and sister.  With the 10‑½ time difference between India and the middle of North America, this event occurs almost every day and sometimes twice a day.   A recent internet chat between me and my mother went something like this: 

My Mother:    what plans do you have for today Roberta?

Me:  electrician at 10. rented furniture pick up at 11. then going to the bank to set up an account. all thrilling stuff in this exotic country that is India…and more  furniture delivery at 7 p.m.

My Mother:    you sound depressed Roberta, are you or are you just frustrated?

Me:  I wasn’t depressed until I started playing backgammon with you! [she was beating the pants off me]

My Mother:    Well I feel better about that.

Me:  Actually, this whole settling in process has been frustrating. There’s no way around it. I have good days and bad days (and good moments and bad moments). Not surprising but I’ll be glad when it’s over and I can start just doing normal things…whatever those will be!

My Mother:    hand in there darling. the best is yet to come

Me:  where should my hand be?

My Mother:    lol..around the hang

So you see that my frustrations are vented with my family and, thankfully, soothed by their wit and humour.  If you are ever frustrated, I highly recommend playing online backgammon with my mother or sister…but be warned, they will probably win…

4. Water, Toilets, Ambassadors and Pondicherry (17 August 2004)

The House

We moved into our rented house on Wednesday, 4 August.  This was not the day the house was actually ready…rather, it was the day when our hotel could no longer provide a room for us.  I have learned that, for a house to be ready to move in to, it should have the following: 

  • toilets with all pipes present and connected to each other
  • running water (preferably hot and cold)
  • some furniture

On Wednesday morning when we arrived, our house did not have all of the above.   By Wednesday afternoon, our house did have some furniture (rented) and two toilets that we could use.  For most of us, two toilets for two people is quite sufficient but I have discovered that the human body has an innate attraction to use the toilet one is nearest to and not necessarily one of the two toilets actually hooked up with pipes.  It has been two weeks and all toilets are now working.

Water

Running water in a house is something I have, in the past, taken very much for granted.  I never really questioned where water comes from or how it gets to a faucet that I turn on.  I have always simply turned on the faucet and water would pour out until I turned off the faucet.  I have learned that, for water to run out of the faucets, in our house, it must come from the water tank on the top of the roof…which must contain water.  And, for this to happen, water must be pumped from the sump pump under the driveway up to the roof tank.  This is done by a simple flick of a switch in the kitchen which sends water from the sump pump to the tank on the roof.  I have gotten quite adept at flicking this switch because (1) it is a switch that works and (2) it makes sufficient noise that I know something is happening.  Being naturally curious, I asked an Indian woman how I would know that the tank was full.  Her response was that I would hear when the tank begins to overflow and that this would be a sign that the tank was full.

We have 11 faucets in our house, none of which provides potable water.  Drinking water is supplied by our Aquaguard Royale, a water filter system attached to our kitchen wall. 

Aquaguard Royale

Aquaguard Royale

To use the Aquaguard Royale, I consulted the user guide which explains the four essential steps to obtaining drinking water: 

1.   To switch on the unit, press the “power” switch.  The red LED will glow for 5 seconds indicating that the power is on.

2.   Soon the yellow LED will glow for 54 seconds indicating that the unit is processing water.

3.   When the green LED glows, you’ll hear 3 beeps indicating that the unit is ready to deliver clear, safe drinking water.

4.   To let the water flow, press the “flow” switch.  While you fill your glass, you can opt for a pleasant musical tone by pressing the “music” switch.

I have done all of the above and it works (as long as there is water in the roof tank).  Having drinking water is a very nice thing, but I must admit that I was most excited about the musical tone option.  While the symbolism is lost on me, listening to “It’s a Small World After All” play while I secure safe drinking water is quite pleasant.

Musical tones are a big thing in India.  Almost all cars and small trucks have a built-in musical tone when driving in reverse.  I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to hear Ravel’s Bolero as I saw a small truck back into a tree.

Electricity

Electricity in our house is supplied by the electric company, except when it is not supplied by the electric company.  The power sometimes goes out, but not for very long…so far.  When this happens, our trusty Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) kicks in.  The UPS consists of a big box connected to 4 huge batteries (think of a car battery quadrupled in size).  The UPS box sits inside the house and, fortunately, the 4 huge batteries sit outside.  When the electric company decides not to provide power, the UPS kicks in automatically, providing power for all 5-amp plugs in our house.  An electrician came to ensure that we had 5-amp plugs for our essential electric needs:   lights, fans and, of course, the tv.  We asked him to provide electricity for our other essential need:   our computers.

Travelling In India                     

Our first travel experience within India was a trip to the Union Territory of Pondicherry.  Our voyage involved one plane trip (from Bangalore to Chennai/Madras) followed by a taxi ride to Pondicherry.  Our driver met us at the airport in an Ambassador car.   I found the following description of the Ambassador:

 “The Ambassador is the first car manufactured in India. A hardy vehicle suited to Indian roads and conditions, it was all what a car was meant to be to the average Indian.

It should be noted that the average Indian does not seem require seat belts.  The Ambassador’s claim that it is suited to Indian roads and conditions is absolutely true:   it rarely reaches a speed over 50 km/hr and the 162 km trip from Chennai to Pondicherry took a little over 3 hours.  Our security discomfort was somewhat mitigated by our climatic comfort:   the average Indian does seem to require air conditioning, which came in handy with temperatures hovering around 40-degrees celsius.

ambassador

Pondicherry

While India gained its independence in 1947, Pondicherry remained a French colony until 1954.  The French language and culture are kept alive by the local Lycée Français and the Alliance Française.  We stayed at the charming Coloniale Guest House where Sabine welcomed us with fresh croissant and baguette every morning at breakfast.

Sabine and me

Sabine and me

The city is teeming with French and other visitors who mingle peacefully with its 650.000 inhabitants.  Pondicherry is an eclectic mix of both French and Indian cultures.  French and Tamil are heard throughout the city.  The rue Dumas and rue Romain Rolland happily co-exist with Jawaharlal Nehru and Nidarajapayer streets.  L’église Notre-Dame-des-Anges is a few blocks from the Manakula Vinayagar temple.

Pondicherry is also home to the Sri Aurobindo ashram.  Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) was a Bengali poet turned freedom fighter who, to escape the British, took refuge in Pondicherry.  It was here that he became a spiritual leader.  One cannot speak of Sri Aurobindo without referring to “the mother”, a Parisian mystic, painter and musician, who first came to Pondicherry with her husband during World War I.  Formerly known as Mirra Alfassa, she was so inspired by Sri Aurobindo that she kindly let her husband return to France without her and stayed on in Pondicherry until her death in 1973.  When Sri Aurobindo removed himself from public life in 1910 to pursue his inner spirituality, the mother took over and created the ashram.  In addition to being a highly developed spiritual centre of activity, the Sri Aurobindo ashram is a vast business enterprise with its own farms, health facilities, publishing house, retail stores, and post office.  One visits the ashram to meditate over the tombs of Sri Aurobindo and the mother, lavishly decorated with intricate fresh flower designs.  It is a tranquil island in the sea of Pondicherry’s bustling city life.

Ten kilometres outside of Pondicherry is Auroville, an experiment in utopian living.  Created in 1968 by the mother, it is now a city of 50.000 inhabitants who come to Auroville to pursue “divine consciousness”.    At Auroville’s centre is the Matrimandir (Sanskrit for the Temple of the Mother), a huge gold sphere built for meditation.  It was being renovated when we were there.  The hours for visitors are so convoluted and changeable that I can only assume that it is meant primarily for Auroville’s residents.  What I have read about the Matrimandir is that the sole source of light is a single ray of sun that falls on a crystal globe.  Total silence is imposed.  I hope one day to visit Matrimandir, as I believe it is one of the few places in India that is silent…unless there is a special Matrimandir musical tone…

Hans Einar and the Matrimandir

Hans Einar and the Matrimandir