shri ramachandra charanau manasa smaraami
shri ramachandra charanau vachasa gruNaami
shri ramachandra charanau SHirasa namaami
shri ramachandra charanau SHaranam prapadhyae
On Rama’s feet I meditate
With words I praise
With lowered head I pray
At Rama’s feet I seek refuge!
During one of our trips through Karnataka, we visited Hampi to see the ancient city of Vijayanagar. What a fascinating city! Under a UNESCO mandate, extensive restorations are ongoing. The temples are awe inspiring! But for M, the best part of the trip was our stay in the nearby town of Hospet. A busy, dusty town at the crossroads of the Manganese ore trade. Here we made camp at the “Shanbhag International.” There was nothing international about this place. Even by Indian standards, it was an average “Hotel,” but importantly it had a few air-conditioned rooms.
And before you wonder, the Shanbhags here were no relatives of ours. But the owner was a Konkani and hovered around the front lobby in his uniform white munda, white jhabba with a pocket stuffed with a diary and a stack of folded paper, slicked hair and heavy black framed glasses. Could have been one of my uncles, and I referred to him as maam. Quite an entrepreneur. He owned two hotels diagonally across a busy intersection called “Shanbhag Circle,” about a block from the bus-stand. While we stayed at the “International,” the one across the street was Shanbhag Lodge with the Shanbhag Restaurant, catering to the middle class.
Here in the “International”, he had a Bar plus Non-veg Restaurant and our favorite, the “Shanbhag Fastfood.” The fastfood catered to poor laborers. Only high tables and no seating – you stand and eat. So folks are encouraged to eat and move-on. You pay first and get coupons, which you exchange for food at the counters. All snacks (dosas, idli, vada, etc) were 5 Rs and chai or coffee were 3 Rs. Really! M and I had our fill for under 25 Rs (slightly over 50 cents).
It was not the money, it was the experience of eating here. The spectacle of buying coupons, getting the food, standing and enjoying the delicious fare. During lunch he also served sambar-rice for 8 Rs. The place was packed as laborers crowded for a filling meal. For dinner (10 Rs) he served a simple thali and I saw entire families eating here. You could feed a family of five for about a dollar!
We were in Hospet for about four days, ate at all Shanbhag restaurants and had a gala time. Highly recommend if you are visiting Hampi. There is a western touristy hotel nearby, but what fun would that be!
Before the pics, I share an anecdote. Taking a break from the blazing sun, M took a nap in the room, while I wandered the local bazaar and came back to the room with a couple of mangoes and some grapes.
I said: “Heh, the lady who sold me these fruits was very nice.”
She groggily replied: “Of course they love you; you never bargain!”
I said: “M, let me explain and then you tell me if I should have bargained”:
“I saw this push cart with fruits tended by an elderly lady. In my basic Kannada, I asked her the prices and got two types of mangoes and some grapes. She tallied and it came to 60 Rs. So I give her 60 Rs. Then she looks at me again, nods and hands 25 Rs back to me, saying “saaku” (enough). I insisted she take the entire amount, but she refused.”
I asked: “So tell me, what should I have bargained with her for?”
A nice part of visiting temples in India is, I get to meet the locals. The hard working laborers with a few days off to visit temples. These you wouldn’t meet in hotel lobbies or in coffee shops. Their kids care less for the soulful art, and are playing around with each other. Them, I look forward to meeting.
And so many I met on this trip to Karnataka. All, despite being poor, were rich of heart, of kindness and grace. Their eyes brimmed with joy. Through them life reminds us – there is a way to live! Through them I asked – what have I done with my life? For what? In the kindness of these, I find my happiest moments. Not in the bars, not in ritzy coffee shops on Colaba Causeway, not with my fancy gadgets. My camera incidentally is the vehicle for reaching out; actually, for them to reach out to me.
It's usually the poorest who will strike a conversation with us. Perhaps they have nothing to fear. Most are kids – certainly fearless! When they see I have a big camera, they come up and ask to take their pic. The common phrase was, “Anna (elder brother) photo!” pointing to themselves. I gladly shoot multiple pics and they scramble away, jumping up and down. With my big camera, they prolly feel like stars in a movie production. And I treat them like stars. Some stay back to ask where I am from. If they hang around long enough, I show them the pics on the LCD screen – then their amazement sees no end.
While I derive joy from this encounter, what's in it for them? Perhaps in approaching and dealing with me, their confidence is boosted. They may hesitate less, the next time they have to stand-up for something. Perhaps. Here I have assembled a few pics from our recent trip to Badami, Pattadakal and Hampi. Other than the actual sites, these interactions I craved the most.
Pic above: As we parked near the Cave temples of Badami, these two came up and he confidently asked me to take their pic. They appeared to be siblings – look at their beautifully intertwined fingers.
At the MahaKuta Temple complex near Badami: The kid selling Goli Soda darted by as I tried to get his attention. The other two noticed, ran after the kid and brought him back to pose with them. The kid was ~ 8-10 years old, selling Goli Soda.
Busily shooting at the Hazara Raam Temple in Hampi, the girl in the center asked to first take a pic of their largish family. Then she wanted a pic with only a couple of her friends.
These boys did not want to be left out and asked to take their pics.
These girls were tending the baby and were thrilled to have their pic taken.
At the Vithala temple in Hampi, this young girl Gouthami asked me to take a pic of her family. About 10, she directed her mother and older relatives to pose. Then she wanted one with her mother (above). While I was surprised at her english, my jaws dropped when her mother spoke flawless english and explained. They were from a village in AndhraPradesh and were leaving for Tirupati on the night train. Gouthami wanted more pics and her mother wrote out their address; and I mailed the pics.
I saved the best for last!
While visiting the Tungabhadra Dam, the adjacent gardens had a light and water show. We found seats in front of the fountains, which was to “dance” to the music. This group of kids were hovering along the perimeter of the fountain. They kept staring at us. To break the ice, I took a pic. They ran away. This happened a few times and finally one of the boys, boldly stood in front of me and posed a body-builder's pose. I took his pic and showed it to him on the LCD. He and his friends stared in amazement. Then they all wanted pics. Finally I got this pic of the 12 boys and girls in the group.
By now they were very friendly with us and all over our bench, squeezing themselves between M and me. I found some packs of Wrigleys chewing gum and offered it to them. They were thrilled! They spoke Telugu and I only knew a spattering of Kannada. I did understand “uuru” (town) in one of their queries and I replied, “Mumbai.” Sighs of approval spread through the group. They asked many more questions, but I could not understand what they were saying. But they just kept talking, and we listened intently and nodded. There was an older gentlemen with them, and he too only spoke Telugu. We could not figure out if the kids were from one family, or neighborhood kids out for a picnic.
As the show ended, our driver came to fetch us, and I asked him to inquire with the older gentlemen. We found that these kids were from an Orphanage in Raichur and were on a picnic to see the Dam and the gardens!!! My heart sank like a rock!
We walked back to the car in stunned silence; the kids waved us goodbye.
Here were kids with literally nothing in this world, not even family, and they seemed so content to be merry. M & I talked about how we had been quibbling earlier in the evening – we who have so much; and the kids, with nary a penny to their name were happily enjoying the moment. That was for an important evening, and I hope it changes our lives forever. Even today, whenever M and I have a disagreement, we think of those orphans we met at the Dam, see how happy they were with what little they had! Certainly, we have much more.
As part of our annual charitable givings, I hope to identify an orphanage in rural karnataka and make a huge donation to them. We have also decided not to take any more gifts to our relatives in India, but to instead continue and increase our contributions to the schools and other deserving opportunities. I encourage you to do the same.
Update May 2009: Now many years later, I see this event did have a profound impact on our lives.