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Bharata Mata - Mother India

Due to increased fear of terrorism, metal detection machines mark the entrance to most of the major shopping centers in the city of Bangalore. Backpacks and other shopping bags are not allowed into many stores.

Plastic bags are banned in India. At the grocery store, linen bags are provided for an extra charge. You cannot leave the store without providing your receipt to the guard at the exit. At the outdoor markets, vendors offer fruit as you pass by. “Not to buy,” one man explains as he presses two litchis into my hand. “Just taste.” Another man cuts up slices of a plum, and passes the dripping slices to each of us. The peel is not safe to eat, but the soft grainy flesh inside tastes like a juicy pear. Another man gives me a dark pink flower, the sweet perfume masking the smell of butchered meat when I press it to my nose and inhale. Monkeys cross the street on power lines, sliding down the wires that hang above the traffic jams. Dogs wander the city in various states of malnourishment. They lie in alleys, and sit outside restaurants. Some have lopsided ears, the healed remnants of past fights and injuries. A white dog, its fur stained with red mud, curls beneath a Shiva temple to sleep. Another dog stands languidly on the sidewalk, it’s black fur so thin it looks like dark peach fuzz covering red, sunburned skin. Every bone protrudes, it’s chest a cage of rounded peaks and valleys. A woman stops to fill her empty coffee cup with water, places it in front of the dog, and gingerly spreads a handful of cookies on the ground.  Cows amble slowly through the streets. Some are fawn colored, some dark brown, some spotted black and white. Wherever grass grows on the medians or roundabouts, cows gather to nibble the greenery. Many seem healthy, their bellies round. Others have hip bones that stick out sharply. A females nuzzles through a heap of trash, her udders swollen – flesh stalactites reaching towards the earth. During a morning traffic jam, a man on a motorcycle stops next to the rickshaw I’m riding in. Behind him, a blue crate is strapped to the seat. White chickens are crammed inside the crate. More chickens are piled on top, their legs tied to the crate with wire. Some hang upside down, their heads swaying under the vibration of the motorcycle. They breath shallowly, their pink eyelids drooping closed. Indian beggars crowd around the American students at Russell Market Square. A small boy gripping a handful of blue pens; a woman, dressed in a purple sari, holding a thin and crying baby; a wrinkled, white-bearded man missing his right hand. All display the same gesture – fingers pressed together and tapped against mouths over and over and over. No words, the universal letters of hunger etched into their dark brown eyes. Child beggars are arrested and sent to government rehabilitation centers. There, these children are taught skills to help reorient them into society. However, many children escape and return to begging on the streets. Driving by the military section of the city is a fascinating exploration of Indian propaganda. "Honor is simply the morality of superior men." "Live for nothing, die for something." The slogans painted on walls serve as reminders of the type of life that exists in India. The mottos morphs as you pass by Christian churches. "Do not let your life be consumed by the desire for wealth." "Help carry the burdens of others." I buy breakfast from an outdoor vendor on campus. I take a seat at an empty table beneath a grove of Polgalthia longifolia, also known as "false ashoka trees." I know this because each species of tree on campus is accompanied by a green plaque, labeling the common name, scientific name, and family name in handwritten white lettering. I sit at an empty table, munching a honeybun, sipping chai tea, and watching the miniature squirrels leap from tree to tree.

The class bell rings, and I’m joined by a group of seven Indian girls. Chattering to each other in several different languages, the girls sit down and whip out the breakfasts they have packed from home. Each girl takes a bite of her breakfast, then they suddenly start passing the food around. I find myself in the middle of a musical chairs breakfast buffet. The girl on my right hands me her veggie burger, telling me to eat some. The moment I finish taking a bite, a jam sandwich is placed in my hand. Next comes yellow rice in a silver tin, then grilled bread covered in ketchup and packed in a plastic Tupperware box. When a tin containing what looks like a coarse purplish grey pancake circles around to me, I ask what the food is. I am informed that it is ragi rotti. Finally comes a hash brown-like potato circle on a napkin, along with another rice dish. “Finish this,” the girl on my left says to the girl across from her, pushing the ketchup bread away. “I want something else.” She walks to the vendor and returns with a fresh samosa. She then proceeds to walk in a circle, holding out the samosa to each person at the table. The girls and I take turns biting into the fried dough stuffed with potatoes and onions. Only after everyone else has taken a portion does the girl take a bite for herself. The generosity, inclusion, and friendliness is absolutely incredible. And quite common. Walking down one of the streets in Bangalore, I see two girls holding bright orange spirals on sticks. I approach them and ask what type of food they're eating. “Potato twists with masala spice,” one of the girls answers. “Do you want some?” She offers me her stick, and allows me to pull a piece off. I thank her and walk away, my fingers stained orange and my tongue tingling. Best potato twist ever. 

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