About Avi Kramer
Avi Kramer is a freelance writer and editor. He has lived in Chile, China
and India and currently resides in Portland, Oregon.
Latest Posts by Avi Kramer
[Note: This post was originally written in mid-April. Accompanying photographs could not be uploaded.]
RAVANGLA, Sikkim – Stinging nettle, a wild green used to make soup, is called shishnu in Sikkimese. The leaves have rough, serrated edges covered with very fine hairs that sting if touched, so gloves are used to harvest it.
On a recent afternoon in Ravangla, a small village in South Sikkim, a local English teacher named Tseten Bhutia (pronounced CHI-TIN BOO-TIA) was preparing shishnu for his family’s dinner. “Bhutia” refers to his caste or tribe: the Bhutia people came here from Nepal, and along with the Lepchas (also of Nepali-Tibetan origin) are the two most numerous castes.
India’s Parliamentary elections are happening this month across the country, and the Sikkimese go to the polls on April 30th. Authorities have moved a highly-anticipated cricket tournament to South Africa over concerns about security being stretched too thin during election time.
With unrest in many parts of India, employing adequate security is a serious undertaking and very important to ensure the safety both of poll workers and voters. Already there has been violence in Bihar and West Bengal. Elections bring out many protestors—from quiet boycotts to much worse. And it’s not solely protests but also strong arm tactics and cronyism: workers from various political parties bully and intimidate polling personnel in order to push the elections in their candidate’s favor.
To ensure any semblance of fair elections, poll workers must be allowed to carry out their jobs without feeling threatened. In Ravangla, however, the mood is much different. People here talk about how calm it is around election time.
Tseten Bhutia moved to Ravangla a few years ago with his wife and their young son. Tseten’s wife grew up here, and while his family is in the capital city, Gangtok, it was important for her to be close to her parents: she is also a teacher, so in Ravangla her mother is available to look after their son during the day.
Mr. Bhutia talked about the elections in Sikkim and why it’s more peaceful here than in other provinces.
“All people in Sikkim have an O.K. life,” Tseten said. “Overall it’s better than in most other parts of India.”
Sikkim benefits greatly from New Delhi’s financial support but is not plagued by the ethnic unrest common in other northeast states such as Assam and Manipur.
Mr. Bhutia went on, “The Lepchas and Bhutias have been here for centuries, so the way of life is established and not much has changed. People here trust in their religion, but there’s no communalism.”
Communalism is a difficult subject in India these days: it refers to showing greater loyalty to one’s religious group or caste than Indian society as a whole. It is all over the media, and politicians are eager to speak out against it. Along with Hindu nationalism—which has led to such violence as that directed at Christians last year in Orissa—critics of communalism see it as divisive and damaging for a country in which so many different kinds of people have to co-exist.
In Sikkim there’s much less talk of both communalism and unrest related to the elections. In Chumbong, a village about fifty kilometers from Ravangla, I spoke with a government clerk, Pem Dorjee, who explained the province’s higher standard of living.
“The population of Sikkim is very, very low,” he said. “Maybe four or five lakhs [1 lakh is equal to 100,000]. It’s nothing compared to other states in India. So the money that comes from Delhi can do a lot more because there are so few people.”
With fewer people and decent infrastructure, Sikkim is visibly cleaner than mainland India. Sikkim’s Chief Minister, Dr. Pawang Chamling, has banned plastic bags, and he encourages organic farming and sustainability (although skeptics say this is less for his own people than to court foreign investment from the U.S. and Europe; still, this benefits the Sikkimese).
Dr. Chamling plans to make Sikkim “the clean energy capital of India.” He speaks out for women’s rights and decries discrimination against lower castes. He’s also traveled the world to build interest in Sikkim, and he reopened Nathula pass, the main trade route between India and China, which was closed during Indo-China border friction of the early 1960’s.
Despite Dr. Chamling’s work some people are uncomfortable with the fact that he’s been in power for so long—three consecutive terms of five years each.
“There’s no point in voting,” one man said. “It’s peaceful here, yes, but it’s not a democracy. He’s the king.” In all likelihood, Dr. Chamling will be voted into his fourth term as Chief Minister.
Still, whether it’s a carryover from Sikkim’s time as a small but prosperous monarchy or the policies of Dr. Chamling over the last fifteen years, or both, the standard of living here is noticeably higher than in mainland India.
In my last post I wrote about one restaurant owner in rural Tamil Nadu who said that most people in India have been unaffected by the economic downturn. His point was that rural people — most of India’s billion plus population — are used to surviving on very little income, with very limited means.
Still, it’s not always that simple — for many families the recession has certainly brought trying times.
Not only have many jobs been lost within India, ex-pats are being laid off overseas and forced to return home; many have already come back from the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. In Malaysia, some businesses are letting go all of their foreign employees, many of whom are Indian, and they’re replacing these jobs with native Malays to ease the financial difficulties faced by their own people.
Many people I meet here are finding it more difficult to pay for the everyday essentials. Even with a recent government tax break on fuel, petrol still hovers around a dollar per liter; in the markets, the price of the cheapest rice is still above thirty rupees (about sixty cents) per kilogram, a steal by American standards but expensive here.
Rani Martin, above, is a 62-year-old widow from the village of Calachel in southern Tamil Nadu. She used to be a teacher in Chennai, but last fall, when the financial crisis took a turn for the worst, she lost her job and her apartment. Her two sons, both in their late twenties and unmarried, had left home to find jobs in Mumbai and Bangalore.
Ms. Martin’s husband died suddenly a few years ago. They were living near Goa, where he was an assistant manager of a dairy factory. After his death she and her sons moved to Chennai, and she found work in professional schools teaching computer skills. She did well and was able to invest in some property and computer equipment. She opened a business offering computer instruction and pay-by-the-hour web browsing.
In the space that she rented in Chennai, one room was for web browsing, the other for doing outsourcing work from, primarily, businesses based in the United States. Ms. Martin said that it seemed like a good way to earn some extra money.
Early last year she signed a contract with Chennai-based Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). The arrangement specified that she would work with BPO middlemen who received the typing, proofreading, data entry, and/or page alignment materials from different American and European companies. The middlemen then passed the work on to people like Ms. Martin who hired their own employees to do the time-consuming computer work.
The way Ms. Martin describes it, the American companies’ money goes directly to the middlemen and is then intended to be distributed downward. As the economy went south last fall, she said that she was never paid for the week she did; instead, they cited a clause in the contract stating that, while the base pay was five rupees per page, if the work done was less than 95 percent accurate, the contractor was not entitled to any pay at all.
She could no longer pay the monthly mortgage on her apartment plus the rent for the computer center. Her residence was seized, and she fled south towards her native village.
Ms. Martin is now renting a one-room apartment in Nagercoil, near her native village Calachel, for about thirty dollars per month. She now has no income and her savings leftover from her late husband are quickly dwindling. She calls the apartment “temporary.”
“For now,” she says, “I have to live like a refugee.” There is no furniture, and she sleeps on a straw mat on the floor. Her sons, unable to find work in the bigger cities, were living with her here for the last six months, but they’ve since left.
“They have the freedom to take all from me,” she said. “Because they are my sons, I cook for them and pay for everything. Now, they’ve left and will not care for me. One has a job, and I know he bought a new mobile phone instead of sending me some money.”
When I asked her about other job possibilities — something local near Nagercoil instead of waiting to be re-hired in Chennai — she shook her head. As an educated woman, she will not take a job that she feels she is overqualified for; she says she is waiting for another teaching job to open up in Chennai. She talks about working for an “international service organization, human rights, or the environment.”
Her parents’ former residence, where she was raised, is less than ten kilometers away, but her two brothers now own and rent that house, and she doesn’t feel comfortable asking for their help. Other family connections have not provided much help, either: her husband owned and rented some rural property near Nagercoil, but after his death this went to his younger brother instead of to her.
With job prospects slim and getting slimmer, Ms. Martin does not feel very optimistic, but she’s finding that she can survive on very little. It’s very hot in southern India — daytime temperatures in much of Tamil Nadu near forty degrees Celcius — but she barely uses the ceiling fan in order to save on the electricity bill.
“I don’t mind sleeping on the floor,” she said. “It’s just how we have to live sometimes in India.”
[Note: This post was originally written earlier this month.]
KARAIKUDI, Tamil Nadu – Karaikudi is the small capital of Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad region, a place renowned for its spicy cooking. Chandra Shekar, below, manages a restaurant here near the bus stand.
Mr. Shekar is from the village of Dindigul, about 100 kilometers south of Karaikudi. His wife is there with their eleven-year-old son, but Mr. Shekar rents a room above the restaurant in Karaikudi to be here for work. He is a former Air Force sergeant and has lived all over India, but now that he is retired and has returned home he can focus on his real passion: Chettinadu-style cooking.
A typical Chettinad vegetarian meal includes a tamarind-flavored vegetable soup, yellow lentil dal, an eggplant curry, and rice, but Mr. Shekar talked about some of the more interesting variations they prepare at his restaurant.
They also serve a spicy tomato and green chili soup (an Indianized gazpacho); creamed spinach and chickpeas stew; and beets stir-fried with ginger and coconut. For an evening snack or dessert, the restaurant makes sweet masala milk: milk boiled with ground-up almonds, broken cashews and pistachios, and sugar.
I asked Mr. Shekar how the economic downturn has affected his business. He brushed the question aside.
“In India it’s no big deal.”
Well, for the rural community where Mr. Shekar lives, maybe this is true. Without a pause he said that for the average person in India who survives on very little the recession isn’t affecting him. Below, a village man bikes through farm land in Bhongir, Andhra Pradesh.
Mr Shekar explained: “Unlike in the west, here a man can survive with just a lungi (the sarong-like waist covering worn above) and a bowl of rice with salt. He washes his clothes at night and wears them again the next day.”
But does he still have a job? A man with this simple lifestyle, yes. Layoffs have certainly hit the subcontinent, but they’re mostly in the software and IT sectors: since Americans and Europeans are buying less, call centers in Bangalore and Hyderabad — those that take orders and troubleshoot technical problems — are being forced to downsize their staffs.
“Of course in those sectors there are job losses,” Mr. Shekar said. “But the average man goes to work and earns enough to eat. The jobs he has — painting a building, serving food, digging trenches — will always be there. He is paid basically nothing, but it is enough. He doesn’t need anything else. This is why Indians will always survive.”
Other than water, Indians do not typically drink while they eat. If anything besides water, it’s a soft drink. There are many fresh-squeezed fruit juices, fresh lime sodas (seltzer + fresh lime juice + sugar), and yogurt lassis available from street vendors, but these are taken as refreshments or with a snack. For the vast majority of Indians, alcohol never accompanies a meal.
Drinking has a complicated place in this
country. While it’s forbidden under Islamic law, it’s not for Hindus or Christians. Still, even for those who are not restricted by their faith, drinking is not an integrated or communal activity — the British brought their gin and tonics to India, so it’s still seen, in some ways, as a loose and immoral habit of the colonizers.
Pick up a bottle of Kingfisher beer in the state of Tamil Nadu, and you’ll see LIQUOR RUINS COUNTRY, FAMILY, AND LIFE written in capital letters on the back label. Clearly, those Indians who still choose to drink and ignore such a menacing warning are judged negatively for it.
In the north bars are mostly restricted to the high-end, western-style hotels, but in southern Indian states like Tamil Nadu public bars are common. These are mostly run-down kind of places, all grimy and dark inside. They seem designed to reflect the fact that drinking is frowned upon.
Bars all have the same hours, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and safe to say are never patronized by Indian women. Men will sit for hours over a whisky or “strong” beer; these have names like “The Godfather” and “6000” and promise a higher alcohol content than regular lagers. The bars don’t serve food other than a few snack items.
Liquor stores do not open until the mid-afternoon but stay open well past midnight, and men, only men, crowd around them in the evenings. Vendors sell from behind iron bars, and the ground nearby is covered with trash and scattered bottles. Needless to say, the scene is not exactly welcoming.
[Note: I'm catching up from the the last few weeks -- this post, as well as those from March 15th and 17th, originally took place earlier this month, but I've just published all of them this afternoon. Also, I am now blogging at the travel writing site, We Blog the World. Click on India, left sidebar. Many of the posts will be taken from Aambrosia, but there will be some new content as well. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave comments after any of the posts.]
NAGERCOIL, Tamil Nadu – Would you like diced green chilies in your breakfast yogurt? Or maybe chopped red onion? Or both? While it might sound like a bit much for an American palate — we do like our Strawberry Yoplait — the green-chili and red onion raita (a yogurt-based Indian salad) is actually a nicely cooling flavor next to the
pungent vegetable curries.
This Tamil Nadu-style raita is especially good alongside a biryani rice dish made with chicken, lamb, or vegetables. The vegetable biryanis here (rice cooked with vegetables and spices, more on these later) have strong but not spicy flavors — roasted cloves, big pieces of cinnamon — so the chili-onion yogurt goes along well.
For the past few days I’ve had my own kitchen in the guesthouse where I’m staying in Nagercoil. This town is very small and quiet with palm trees lining the narrow streets and neighborhoods. It’s nearly on the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent: only twenty kilometers from Nagercoil is Kanyakumari, where you can look out on the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. Just by turning your head.
As a traveler, you get pretty used to taking your meals in restaurants. This is fine and also necessary. In a place like India, just being able to afford those meals each day is not to be taken for granted. But when you do, on those rare occasions, have the chance to cook for yourself, it becomes so very clear why home-cooked food is still the best kind there is.
I’ve been testing recipes from Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The first was upma (also uppuma) a savory breakfast dish made mainly in Karnataka and Kerala. In northern Tamil Nadu, they make a variation called pongal.
Upma is a made with semolina flour or couscous, onions, and spices, and the finished dish has a light mashed potatoes-like consistency. Solely eaten for breakfast in south
Indian (but of course could be a side dish on an American table, as couscous often is, for lunch or dinner) it’s served by itself in homes or, in restaurants, with a small cup of sambar (tomato and lentil soup) and coconut chutney.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ inch ginger, finely chopped
½ red onion, chopped
1 green chili, finely diced
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
5 curry leaves
2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup semolina flour or couscous
½ cup shredded coconut
Heat oil in a small pot over medium heat. As the oil becomes hot, add mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add ginger, onion, green chilies, cilantro, and curry leaves, and stir-fry until the onions are browned. Add water and salt and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and gradually pour in semolina or couscous, stirring while you pour. When the grain absorbs all of the water, add coconut, mix well, and serve.
From Trivandrum it’s a two-hour drive to Nagercoil, which is just over the border in Tamil Nadu. I was eager to get out of Trivandrum, a clogged and crowded city that’s about 100 degrees every day in March.
At the bus stand buses pulled in to the station and people rushed to get seats. The bus drivers never came to a complete stop, so the crowds ran alongside the buses and hoisted themselves up by the handles outside of the doors.
Whole families traveled this way together: the parents hanging out the bus door holding on with one arm and their young child or children with the other. I waited for some time at the station, watching this scene and waiting for it to calm down. It was dusk so people were taking their evening tea at the small restaurants and chai stalls.
So I traveled to Nagercoil on one of these evening commuter buses. As it got dark, we passed through the smaller villages outside of sprawling Trivandrum. In each village center, there was some form of a parade or celebration in the streets.
Boys with red and silver umbrellas sat on elephants, and there were rows of women holding candles. I asked a few people near me on the bus what it was all about but couldn’t understand their answers, which they gave in Tamil with a few English words thrown in.
In each village people sounded clanging bells; women did prostration prayers in front of shrines on the side of the road; men in lungis (traditional south Indian male attire, a type of sarong) hollered and chanted with painted faces as they stood like bowling pins in the beds of trucks.
Other men were shirtless in the streets playing drums. Everyone was dancing. I tried again to ask someone but didn’t get anywhere — decent English speakers are harder to find in the south, so I was left just to watch, enough in itself without needing to understand why. (The festival of Holi, celebrated all over India with colored powders and paint, wasn’t on the calendar for another few weeks.)
While my grasp of Indian languages is, to say the least, quite pathetic, I can recognize spoken Hindi and can pick out some common words when I hear them in conversation.
The problem is Hindi is never spoken in south India — here, all of the provincial languages have Dravidian origins instead of Indic roots (Hindi is an Indic-Aryan tongue): Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Kannada is the language of Karnataka, Malayalam the provincial tongue of Kerala, and the state language of Andhra Pradesh is Telugu.
In all, India has close to twenty official languages and thousands of dialects. To travel around all of India and actually be able to speak to the average person you’d need to learn at least half of those twenty official languages. Not surprisingly, my very limited knowledge of Hindi does me absolutely no good in the south.
Thirvanathapuram, more commonly known as Trivandrum, is nearly on the southern tip of India. It is Kerala’s business capital with booming shopping and many Indian tourists who come south on vacation.
To get to Trivandrum from northwest Tamil Nadu, I traveled ten hours from Coimbatore, a loud, industrial city and a major transportation hub. On the way south outside of Coimbatore, there are few cities as you pass by banana plantations and forests of coconut palms.
While beautiful, there were clear signs that it wasn’t some untouched paradise. There is no system for dealing with trash, so the trenches along the road act as landfills, as do the rivers. The main road to Trivandrum — which is really a highway based on how fast people drive — is very narrow and dangerous.
Villagers live just off the road in little more than shacks where there is no plumbing and rare if any electricity. Sewage
flows into the rivers. Passing through these villages, the buses do not slow down, and traffic accidents here are often fatal.
At one point along the way the road ran parallel with the railway tracks. The bus I was on slowed. Nearby, a group of people crowded around the train tracks. A policeman wearing blue rubber gloves was inspecting a dead
The man had been hit by a passing bus and thrown onto the tracks. It was jarring sight, to say the least. Still, the body will be removed, and nothing will change. No bus driver will be charged with any crime; life in India will go on at the same pace, full of the same uncertainty.
Hot wind blew through the bus. After any day of road travel in India, my shirt collar is nearly black from the dirt and grime in the air. As we neared Trivandrum the ocean was just on the other side of a narrow grove of palms, and you could smell and feel the saltiness in the hot air. The city was very hot, the midday sun harsh.
I sat in the lobby of a business hotel and ordered a soda (Coke, made with local sugar cane sugar, glass bottle, ice cold, pretty damn good) so I could use their wireless connection on my laptop. But the power kept going out, the Wi-Fi connection along with it. It was another built-up city in India with that veneer of first-world luxury — so many
billboards and so much shopping but no reliable electricity and open sewers along the streets.
So I scrapped work and went to find lunch. Recently, I’ve been searching out old restaurants — those places that often have the same menu they’ve had for decades, where the same waiters have been serving the same local-style food for
just as long.
In Trivandrum, this is Ambika Café near the old train station. They don’t serve anything that they haven’t made very well for many years: porota, idly, dosa, appam, and different vegetable curries all made with grated coconut, the most readily available ingredient in this part of southern India. At the cashier’s there were Hindu shrines and family portraits, and back in the kitchen the cooks were making a fresh tomato curry and more dough for porotas.
Porotas are the most common south Indian flatbread: a ball of dough, made from wheat flour and ground coconut, is braided, stretched flat, and cooked on a greased griddle.
At Ambika they served porotas with the just-made tomato curry. This vegetable dish was very different from most that I had seen in the south. Instead of just part of the gravy, fresh tomatoes were the main ingredients.
Tomatoes stir-fried with fresh green chilies, a few heaping T’s of red chili powder, and a lot of garlic.
Over the last ten days I’ve covered southern Karnataka (Bangalore, Mysore, and some surrounding villages), northwest Tamil Nadu (Ooty and Pudumundu), and now southern Kerala (Trivandrum and Kovalam) and Tamil Nadu (Kannyakumari and Nagercoil). I’m currently in Nagercoil, a small town on the southern tip of the subcontinent.
Stopping through Bangalore last weekend I visited the famous India Coffee House, a workers’ co-operative that supports south India’s small coffee farmers.
Located on Mahatma Gandhi Road in downtown Bangalore, the place is truly an institution. The gentlemanly waiters wear turbans. The furniture and ceiling fans pre-date India’s 1947 independence. The 9-rupeee (about 20 cents) milk coffee tastes like an American mocha (locally grown and roasted Kodagu coffee stirred into steamed milk, with or without sugar added). The non-tourist clientele is a bunch of regulars: artists, musicians, journalists, grad students.
The above photo shows the busy first floor, but upstairs people sit for hours reading, chatting, and occasionally ordering a coffee to share. It is a must-stop for any traveler to India’s tech capital — you see Bangalore as it was before the software companies and shopping malls. Get away from the billboards on Brigade Road and walk around the corner to India Coffee House. Then go upstairs and meet Babu. He’s been there nearly every day for the last forty years, but that will end soon when another mall developer takes over the lease.