It's a lazy Sunday afternoon at the hostel, and my classmates and I are settling in to life in Bangalore. In less than a week, I've gone from a considerate Seattle pedestrian to a fearless jaywalker. I've learned to haggle with rickshaw drivers in a jumble of Kannada, English, and gestures. I've eaten a lot of delicious food, met a Karnatakan TV celebrity, and begun to learn about the history of the city and the problems its citizens face today - and it's not even seven days in!
After two hours of sleep once we arrived at the hostel at 5:30 on Wednesday morning, I went out to explore the neighborhood surrounding it. The sidewalks, where they exist, are a patchwork of stone slabs, brick, and tile, with holes and uneven edges everywhere. Telephone lines are affixed to trees instead of poles and often droop down so pedestrians have to navigate a tangle of wires on the ground and overhead. But the definition of "sidewalk" is flexible - cars, rickshaws, scooters, and motorbikes don't seem to have any notion of lane discipline, and pedestrians often join the mix on the side of the road. Unlike in the U.S., pedestrians emphatically do NOT have right of way here. Crossing the street requires an eye for gaps in the traffic and can take several stops and starts in the middle of the road to let rickshaws and motorbikes pass.
It seems that everyone notices our multi-colored group of foreigners. As we walked through the city with Anu leading us, I noticed outright stares from passing vehicles and pedestrians alike. While we clearly aren't Indian, our mixed ethnicities make it difficult for people to place us, and we're quite the object of interest. Trent, with his bright red hair and beard, even noticed people taking furtive photographs of him! After more than two hours of walking, we headed back to the hostel and had a sleepy dinner and early bedtime.
Thursday was our first day of program activities, and we started bright and early. At eight we had a breakfast of dosa and chai and at eight fifteen we boarded a bus to visit our first community partner, Environment Support Group. ESG provides legal and organizing services to communities under threat from development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused his poverty alleviation efforts on encouraging foreign industries to expand into India, but the costs of this new business are inordinately borne by the poor. Farmers's common lands are being taken over for research and development, fishermen are seeing lakes privatized and converted into water parks, and entire villages have become the dumping grounds for Bangalore's garbage and hazardous waste as the city grows out of control. ESG helps these communities get their voices heard over the more powerful influence of the rich, who stand to benefit directly from development by translating legal documents into Kannada, helping community leaders organize demonstrations, and litigating if necessary - they currently have a case pending in the Supreme Court of India. Rather than taking over the struggles groups face, ESG focuses on informing them of their rights and helping them to mobilize those rights if they want to.
Everyone at ESG was kind and gentle with us, but their work is clearly fueled out of a passionate sense of injustice. To welcome us, the staff had created a rangoli out of stone powder, turmeric, and crushed plants and lit a lamp fueled with a ground nut oil that's healthy to breathe. We each lit a candle and introduced ourselves to everyone. The candles represented the destruction of our individual egoes to help us be a better part of a community. The ceremony took a long time - I found myself getting impatient to start our "real work" - but when it was my turn to stand at the front of the room and introduce myself, the broad smiles of the ESG staff directed right at me made me feel invited into their organization with an intensity I hadn't anticipated.
From this gentle welcome, we transitioned to challenging subject material. Bhargavi, a long-time organizer at ESG, gave us a brief history of Bangalore and an overview of the issues ESG works on. She explained the government's lack of response to poverty with a Kannada expression: "Even if we don't have food in our stomach, we have flowers in our hair." The Indian government negotiates with many competing interests - its international image as an aspiring world power, foreign industry, domestic investors, the growing Indian middle class, and finally, the urban poor and rural populations. The former groups are in a position to offer much greater incentives to politicians, and the everyday Indian citizen gets lost in the shuffle as the government scrambles to develop shiny, beautiful cities to attract foreign investment. Half of Bangalore doesn't have running water, but the city just built a multi-billion-rupee metro system and is repaving sidewalks in affluent areas. Even more disturbingly, the city is projected to run out of ground water by 2023, and while the entire city center is served by two water pipelines from the nearest source 100 kilometers away, the tech companies outside the city have many, many more.
Bhargavi was explicit that her goal was to disturb and discomfit us, albeit with breaks for sweet, creamy coffee and a delicious homemade lunch. She criticized those who live what she called a "featherbed" life focused on comfort and convenience and challenged us to consistently question the status quo. At the same time, though, she and the rest of the staff at ESG chatted with us with kindness and humor and encouraged us to see the value in taking the time to light candles and enjoy a meal together. Fierce and difficult work requires equal attention to care and support.
Instead of busing to ESG for our second day, the group split up into threes and took autorickshaws. Anu taught us how to give instructions to the driver - first the neighborhood, then a landmark - and to insist on paying by the meter rather than letting the driver choose a fare. While five hundred rupees to get across town is just eight dollars to us, it's much more for the locals than the usual two hundred and fifty or so. Part of being a conscientious traveler, she explained, is understanding and preserving the local economy. So, I refuse a driver who won't go by the meter, but for those who agree to take me for the standard rate, I tip well. Riding in a rickshaw is so much fun! Major roads in Bangalore are less like I-5 and more like Mario Kart - horns beeping, vehicles swerving, and the occasional cow. Women in saris whiz by on scooters and men driving carts pulled by tiny horses stare at us.
At ESG, we spent the morning learning about the various projects its staff members have taken on. They are fighting the privatization of public land, the pollution of lakes, grasslands destruction, irresponsible bioengineering, trash dumping in villages outside Bangalore, and road widening that displaces poor households and cuts down trees. ESG's philosophy is that development must be sustainable, requiring a much slower, bottom-up approach to growth that is based in Indian traditions rather than the city's current headlong rush to westernize.
After another wonderful homemade lunch, we were treated to an Indian folk and theatre music performance. Rohini, a singer and actress famous in the Kannada-speaking parts of India, demonstrated several traditional forms accompanied by an incredible percussionist. After the concert, they invited us to experiment with the instruments, and finally we all played together with drums and shakers. I asked Rohini about her vocal technique, and she explained that when she sings traditional music, she sings full force the entire time, which requires a ton of support from her diaphragm. When I sing, my volume comes from the space I create in my mouth and throat, but Rohini's is all from the strength of her breath - I think she might have superhuman singing powers.
After our second session at ESG, we were free for the weekend. I've visited three markets, gotten lost on a rickshaw once (and was able to give the driver directions), eaten an impossible number of masala dosas, and almost started to feel like I know what I'm doing here. The upcoming week is a busy one - I'll be working with people from The Better India, Red Hibiscus, and prominent local writers in both English and Kannada. I'm so excited to keep exploring the city and grappling with hard questions, and I'll be sure to post about it here.