Thursday, February 09, 2006

Divine Voice

The Good, the Bad, & the Idlis

Life is just a bit too easy here in small-town south India. The newsstand man now knows to keep aside a copy of Deccan Chronicle for me (you have to get to the newstand early to get an English newspaper - most of them are in Telugu. By 9am, the English papers are all gone). By now, the Auntie at the tiffin hotel knows my regular breakfast and doesn't even have to ask. She just hands me my idlis (steamed rice cakes) and special, double chai with a quiet smile and switches on the "Divine Voice" - an electronic box containing loops of 30 odd different Sanskrit mantras. Because it's morning, Auntie plays the mantra for Ganesha, the lord of beginnings.
Ommmmmmmm Sriiiiii Mahaaaaaaa GanaaaaaaaaaTiPathayaaaaaaaaaaaay

I stand at the counter under the fan, hovering over my "plate" (a banana leaf and a slice of old newsprint), and read horrible headlines that seem completely at odds with my surroundings. "Couple stoned to death in Bihar for marrying between castes." "Two commit suicide over financial difficulties." "BJP tortures Christians in Madhya Pradesh." These are sandwiched between feel-good , "lifestyle" pieces aimed at the growing Indian middle class - like "10 Items every urban male must have"(pair of black denims; black loafers; personal dig-assistant). They even use the word "metrosexual." Everywhere there are ads for self-improvement - spoken English, personality development, all manner of certificates and diplomas and private tuitions. India is a country on the way up and out. Everywhere I meet young people slaving over their exams and studies - the competition for seats in colleges, as well as jobs, is fierce.

Elbow-to-elbow with me are men in shirtsleeves on their way to office or school. I've never seen a woman patronize this (or any other "tiffin hotel") except to take home a "parcel" (Indian version of "take-away" or "to go"). One reason I like this place (besides the MantraBox) is Auntie's feminine presence - a rarity in a culture where women don't often work in direct contact with the public. This is changing, but to find a lady running a restaurant is still rare.

Tiny shoeless girls in school uniforms, eyes bright as buttons with their hair hanging in heavy, black braided loops, scamper up to get their tiffin packets before class, then scamper away like rabbits. A woman comes along with a shining silver bowl brimming with bright pink roses for sale. Dosa Auntie buys two. One for herself, and another for....? Auntie was quite a looker in her day, you can tell. She has broad, even features, a beautiful smile, and four Mangalagiri saris with matching blouses that she rotates. My favourite is grey with maroon border.

Everyone in the neighborhood wants their photo taken with my digital camera, which has its up and down sides, but it does keep me popular- and in demand. My hosts stay up late, and don't care if I do too. (Though the boys do keep the Hindi film music blaring constantly...the same 6 songs over and over and over... somehow, they never seem to tire of them.)

For some reason, contrary to the usual Indian customs, it seems to be okay for me, a single woman, to be staying in a house with 2 young men (21 and 24 years respectively) and their father with no other females around. Vijay says "they give respect to the foreigners." Or maybe they just figure foreigners are beyond all comprehension anyway?

I do have to wear my chunni nice and demurely, completely covering my bosom. But I like the way it floats along behind me when I walk, tassles trailing regally in the breeze.

Today, Vijay and I shot his Kungfu videos on the rooftop. My favourite is the one with the short staff - very cool. I finally got my Irfan View program, a working disk drive and my photo CDs all in one place at Subramanyam's. Madhusudana Uncle will have homemade carrot soup waiting for us. It's all quite idyllic, except fighting off the mosquitos at bedtime.


Shinu Mathew said...

Hi,the idlis look nice. And the leaf :)
Hope having a good time.
Anyway onething, Mata Amritandamayi is coming to Mumbai. If you are interested, i'll get the dates. Or may be you already know it. Any chance of visiting Mumbai anytime soon?

v_tel001 said...

That idlis picture brings back many old memories of days spent in Andhra.
btw..where is the chutney? :)

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Dear V_tel -
Normally I adore coconut chutney, but I can't eat your Andhra style stuff - the chilis are too hot for me! So I take the idlis straight up.

Libran Lover said...

You wrote: I've never seen a woman patronize this (or any other "tiffin hotel") except to take home a "parcel" (Indian version of "take-away" or "to go"). One reason I like this place (besides the MantraBox) is Auntie's feminine presence - a rarity in a culture where women don't often work in direct contact with the public. This is changing, but to find a lady running a restaurant is still rare.

I am quite surprised that you have not seen more women running businesses or being customers. I spent the first 25 years of my life in India, and I have always seen women work in almost every line of business - as proprietors and as customers. Well... I confess that I have never seen a woman run a liquor store, and only rarely seen women buy at the liquor stores. Nevertheless, your statement above paints a picture of women being more of a rarity in Indian public life than they actually are.

PS: May I please suggest that at the beginning of every post you mention the name of the place where you are posting it from and/or the place where the events you describe are happening? Those who closely follow your blog in sequence, may always know where you are and which place you are talking about. But those of us who randomly jump in, have to look around a bit before we know which place you are referring to.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Thanks LL for your comments and the location suggestion is very needed; I have started doing this.

About the women in public spaces: don't know whereabouts you are/were in India, but I have been here nonstop (except for 5 months in Nepal) for 3 years, primarily in the south, and can *count* the number of women even waiting tables, let alone running an independent food establishment. Women in liquor stores are not rare, they are nonexistent.
The more "Indian" a place is, the less likely to hire women in these positions (dosa hotels, almost nil; Pizza Hut, McDonald's etc,. far more likely).
However, if you spent most of your time in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and so on, you might get quite a different impression.

Women are very evident in public life, but only in certain roles. They tend to be selling fruits at the market, doing cash register perhaps at a medical shoppe, teaching school, running STD (public phone) stands sometimes, street sweeping, and doing white collar jobs like bank employee, hotel desk clerk, and of course secretary, and the higher white collar positions. There is a female police corps (with differing uniforms though). Women are common as day labourers in construction.

In 3 years I have seen 2 female rickshaw drivers, and one female bus conductor. No female bus drivers (and I have lived in - not just visited - seven different states). Precious few female tailors. There are often men in beauty salons working on women's hair, never vice versa.

Females working in positions like waiter are rare enough that I feel I must compliment and encourage them when I do see them. The women I knew in Mysore who worked at an internet shop were required to do only the early shift and be home by 7pm because, of course, "people might talk." Or in their own words, "we must maintain a certain orthodoxy."

The big cities are progressive, but are only part of the picture.

Libran Lover said...

sirensongs - I see your point. Thanks for clarifying that.