The Clouds Parted

25 Sep

It has been almost two months since I’ve last posted. It has also been two of the best months of my life.

Namaste, Bitches.

The summer at AIIS came to a close at the end of August. We were busy constantly, working on our final projects and attempting to cram as many experiences as we could into our final weeks: nights of going out, nights of staying in and talking on the rooftop; much last-minute gift shopping for those returning home, solidifying of plans for those staying.

My final project was translating a scene from one of my favorite plays — Sarah Ruhl’s contemporary rewrite of the Greek tragedy Eurydice — a song — More Adventurous by Rilo Kiley — and two poems. I spent a few hours every night of the final two weeks working on these; in the afternoon I would spend hours working with one of my favorite teachers on correcting my mistakes and learning the proper way of saying many of the things that I couldn’t. Two of my friends wrote, shot, and edited an excellent movie called Shaharwali Aasha (City Dreams) for their final project, in which I was the hero, and a lot of time was spent traveling through Jaipur to get the necessary shots for the love song.

After days of constant studying, writing, editing, and living the dream, our program’s end sadly arrived and through tears we assured that the memory of and appreciation for this once-in-a-lifetime experience would not fade.

In the morning, an end; in the evening, an adventure.

Between the summer’s AIIS program and the fall’s SIT program I had a week free. Wanting to save on airfare to the states and take advantage of the opportunity of being in India, I decided to spend the week traveling. My friend Manish had spoken regularly about the beauty of his native state — white marble temples among the snow-capped peaks, waterfall after waterfall next to the stone paths that wind through the mountains. He had invited me to visit here, to meet his family and friends and to see the places to which many Hindus journey yearly. I saw off my American friends in the morning and packed my belongings during the day. We left after dark on an overnight train to Uttarakhand.

One of the sacred cremation temples on the banks of the Ganges.

Haridwar, Manish’s hometown, is one of the holiest towns for Hindus the world over. Here, on the banks of the Ganges, Hindu bodies are burned and their bones released into the flowing water as special mantras are chanted by the priests. The very poor walk hundreds of kilometers to reach this destination — they collect water in large plastic jugs and send leaf-boats filled with candles and flower petals to safely release their loved ones’ souls back to the great soul, Brahman. Thousands of people crowd the banks of the Ganges nightly.

Manish took me to meet one of his best friends — a Brahmin Panda named Amit.

Amit with one of his family's vahis.

One of the most fascinating traditions I have hitherto encountered is the practice of keeping sacred Hindu genealogical records. Amit was one such record-keeper (known as a Panda). His office was lined with old wooden cupboards; yellow script above each door labeled the date and author. Manish excused himself to the bathroom, and Amit sifted through some of the books — known as vahis — to show me entries he had recently written of people coming from the States. One matriarch had passed away in Baton Rouge, a different man from California was on his way out via prostate cancer. He then revealed the crown jewel of his family’s work: the vahi belonging to the lineage of Bhagat Singh — one of India’s most famous freedom fighters. Amit spoke little (read: no) English, and every few minutes would have me synopsize the conversation to ensure that my understanding was as complete as my nods suggested. When Manish returned, Amit excitedly had me repeat what I had learned; a geek-out over Bhagat Singh was almost certainly not what he expected from this twenty-year-old with large glasses.

On the road through Rajaji National Park.

The next day, Manish and I borrowed a motorcycle from one of his childhood friends to aid our journey to Rishikesh, a touristy town twenty kilometers from Haridwar. By my request we took the road through Rajaji National Park, an 800-square-kilometer jungle filled with wild tigers and elephants. The road wound through the trees and at points ran alongside the Ganges. We passed elephants and abandoned temples as the fresh air blew against our faces. As I’ve discovered is common in many parts of India, the road was bisected by a creek. Or what at most non-monsoon times of the year was a creek, but at the present was a small river. A few cars and scooters were lined up on either side of the rushing water; drivers signed their suggestions for wading the rushing waters. A brave pair attempted to cross on their motorcycle, but unsuccessfully chose to move diagonally and ended up in three-foot deep water. Luckily they managed to salvage their motorcycle, which was now stalling due to the intake of water. Manish was not willing to give up, and we reared ahead on the edge of a small waterfall and were only met with a foot of water. His pants and shoes were drenched, however, and halfway to Rishikesh we stopped so he could adjust his dripping clothes.

Manish showed me his favorite areas in Rishikesh — a waterfall and swimming hole ten minutes into the woods, an Angrezi-food restaurant, and a large ashram were Manish led me through all of the avatars of Krishna. We drove home after dark, this time choosing the dry path.

“Rasta band hai. Paidal se jana hai.” (The path is closed. We must go by foot.)

Manish, Amit, and I left Haridwar at 6.00am the following day, headed via local bus to the Himalayan town of Gaurikund. On a normal day, the drive takes approximately twelve hours; Manish made sure to warn me that my butt was going to be sore. He did not, though, mention to me that due to the monsoon rains it would take nearly twice that long.

Travelers moving over the closed portion of mountain road.

Five hours into our journey, I awoke from my nap to find the bus vacant, save two old people whom I did not know. The bus was sweltering and I was pouring sweat. I looked out the window to see a line of busses, jeeps, and cars nearly a kilometer long. In the distance the path had been covered by falling rocks and dirt, and large construction equipment was working to clear the obstructions. Crowds of people gathered on either side, cheering the workers on until the path had finally cleared. Traffic slowly moved in one direction over the small stretch until we eventually made it past and were able to once again wind through the mountains.

After this initial stoppage, we were stopped every two hours by similar conditions. The quality of the road deteriorated as we traveled further, and by Hour Eight, the vehicles could no longer make it over the closed portions of road. Police officers stood in the middle of the treacherous stretches, waiting for the intermittent avalanche of rocks and dirt to let up. They blew their whistles and hundreds of people ran from both directions, where they then boarded new buses and continued on their journeys. We reached the halfway point of our journey just after 6.00pm and found a hotel room.

Counter-protesters at the Lokpal rally in Shrinagar.

Manish and Amit were content to settle in for the night; my boundless curiosity unsatisfied, I decided to roam the streets of Shrinagar. The town was small, mostly a resting point for travelers, and radiated from a circular park in the middle of the city’s bazaar. I stumbled upon a rally in support of the Jan Lokpal bill, India’s largest anti-corruption measure that has gained a huge amount of momentum this summer after a 12-day hunger fast by Anna Hazare. A middle aged-man with a microphone shouted chants: “Sare sare Anna ka; Pura desh hai Anna ka.” (Everyone is Anna’s; The entire country is Anna’s.). A group of 40 young men on motorcycles road around the town center, chanting in response to the leader’s words. Indians are in an uproar about this bill — throughout the entire trip, I overheard countless conversations on the proposed legislation’s strengths and weaknesses.

We slept in, leaving at just after 10.00am for Gaurikund. This time we boarded a jeep instead of a bus and made it to the small town in good time. Our hotel room there cost only three American dollars. Due to its altitude, Gaurikund has a much cooler climate than anywhere else I’ve visited in India. While Manish and Amit wrapped themselves in layers of thermals, sweaters, and shawls, I wandered in a thin button-up shirt and jeans. Manish told me that I must be very “dense” because I can handle booze and the cold; a sign of “matureness” according to him.

On the path to Kedarnath.

Our final destination of the trip was Kedarnath — the home of one of the holiest temples in all of India. Its fame comes from a story in the Mahabharata, which, in traditional Indian style, is very long and complicated (if interested, read the synopsis of the temple’s significance here). From Gaurikund, the trek to Kedarnath is a nine-mile uphill hike on a winding cobblestone path. Many Hindus in poor health insist on coming to Kedarnath before their death. They journey upward on horses, in baskets that single men carry on their backs, or on man-powered palanquin.

Sprinkled along the path every twenty minutes were small clumps of houses, dhabas, and dukans (small hole-in-the-wall convenience stores selling packaged snack foods). We’d rest there from time to time, refresh with a small cup of chai and Parle-G biscuits; for lunch we stopped for a samosa and Maggi noodles (Indian ramen, usually prepared with vegetables). We encountered natural waterfalls every thirty minutes, and we’d refill our water bottles with the crisp, clean mountain water.

Amit, in his very-late 30s, referred to me only as the “baccha,” or child, and would frequently compliment me on not being a very childlike child. “You’re a clever child, Nicholas,” “You’re a very adult child, Nicholas.” On our ascension, he tried again to reassure me of my good qualities, but I could not understand what he was saying. He is one of India’s many addicts to Dilbag, a nicotine-like substance that is formed into little rocks and carried on the tongue — in Amit’s case, almost constantly. The drug leeches a red liquid and stains permanently the mouth of those who fall victim to its addictive properties. Amit mumbled normally, and when he had this pebbles sitting on his tongue it was practically impossible for me to understand what he told me. After much struggle of him trying to explain the word in simpler terms, I realized that he was trying to tell me that I was good at understanding Hindi.

A dukan just outside of Kedarnath.

Nearing the summit, Manish hollered for me to stop; I had grown tired of moving at the slow pace of my seniors and wandered ahead. When Manish reached me, he put his arm around my shoulder and turned me around. There, in the distance, the clouds had finally parted — framed through their ethereal white window were the white-capped Himalayan peaks in the distance. Surrounded by rushing waterfalls, rolling hills covered with evergreens, giant stones scattered around the smaller mountains’ flat tops, the clouds within us also parted. “This kind of happiness rarely comes in life,” Manish spoke softly. We sat on the edge of a cliff watching the Earth as the day faded into dusk.

(Check out my photos from this leg of the journey here.)

My Tummy is Out.

Finally at Kedarnath, we once again found a three-dollar hotel room and settled in for the night. The main purpose of this journey was to do pooja (Hindu worship) at the Shiva temple; we awoke early to beat the crowds. The temple is a beautiful, large marble and stone structure. Inside, a giant gold vessel holds water from the Ganges, slowly dripping it onto the peak of the mountain around which the temple was built. We were instructed by the Brahmin priest, in turn, to rub the stone with ghee (clarified butter), tikka (the colored powder that Hindus put on their forehead after pooja), grains of rice, and water. While he was chanting the necessary mantras, we pressed our foreheads to the stone and circled inside the room three times. Outside, we circled the temple three times, as is convention.

The conditions of the road poor, we were delayed on our return journey and had to spend the night along the path. In Rudripriyag, we checked into our three-dollar hotel and stretched our sore legs. Manish, in his white tank top and yellow briefs, was observing himself in the mirror from every angle he could manage — entertained, I asked him if he was having fun. “No. Mirror time is only fun when tummy isn’t out. And my tummy is out,” he pouted as he patted his belly.

SIT India’s meetup date quickly approaching, I had to break off from Manish and Amit to head back to Haridwar, and then to Delhi. The pair continued to Badrinath, another Hindu pilgrimage site, to which they annually venture. I luckily encountered only two closed areas in the 12-hour journey and safely arrived in Haridwar that evening. After a night of rest at Manish’s mother’s apartment, I left for Delhi in the morning, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the new batch of Angrezi log (white people).



1 Aug

I’ve never considered myself an especially masculine person by American standards (nor have I ever been considered by others to be especially such). It was never a problem for me to be the fringe member of “one of the guys,” and usually in a social group that also deviated from conventional American masculinity. At Yale, I was afforded even more social freedom in gender thought and expression, albeit a peculiar freedom where assumptions were made just as frequently but usually with the opposite reaction than my home-state.

In India, however, I am often perceived as the epitome of masculinity.

Sexism in India is absolutely unavoidable in day-to-day life. Men are allowed an extreme amount of freedom compared to women — in choice of clothing, acceptable social interactions, bathroom locations, employment opportunities, and familial obligations. A lot of these restrictions on females are common in most cultures, including America. But unlike in America, Indian sexism is unconcealed by the niceties of perceived social equality: women who drink alcohol are loose women; women who wear shorts are loose women; women who talk to men before being addressed are loose women.

Our pre-depature orientation discussed ad nauseam the proper decorum to which women must adhere to maintain good standing with their host families, teachers, and India at large. As a male, I was also warned to “avoid being the cause for Indian women to end up in places, situations, or sections of town, or at times of day that might gain them disrepute.” We were told not to make eye contact with Indian women, to not joke with them in a manner that we would joke with an American female. Essentially, most advice was to stay away from the opposite gender as much as possible, but understand that my social freedom must be used to defend my classmates from harassment and possible assault. As one of only four males in a group of 27 students, I effectively assumed the role as shotgun-toting (in attitude only), overprotective brother of my share of six American females.

A few women studying at AIIS have been assaulted by men this summer. One girl was followed by a man on a motorcycle for a city block as he shouted obscenities at her. She finally turned around and told him to leave; he sped up to her, grabbed her breast and drove off. Another was pulled into a drunken street dance where she was groped by at least a couple men, one whose hand was forced into her pants, before she escaped. This is common in Indian culture, so much so that the most useful recommendation by AIIS is that “wherever she [the female scholar] goes, she should find women from a variety of social strata, as well as from a variety of local religious and social groups, and ask them how they deal with sexual harassment.” Attitudes are evolving, slowly, and many Indian men are equally repulsed by the normality of eve-teasing.

At this point, it seems obvious that females in India are offered a second-class life as servants to men. While this is especially unarguable for women in villages or lower-caste social circles, it is interesting to note that India has earned the distinction of having the longest-serving female Prime Minister — Indira Gandhi, who served from 1966-1977 and 1980-1984. To me, this illustrates how far America, which has only recently seen a woman as Speaker of the House and has yet to see a female presidential candidate on the ballot, has yet to come before truly defeating sexism. Most Indian men I’ve met are upfront about the problem of sexism in their country; a lot even vocally support traditional gender roles while simultaneously denouncing the myth that men are the superior gender. To me, this is an easier mindset to battle — how can we even begin to change the attitudes of American men who refuse to acknowledge that there is still gender inequality? Or more difficult yet, who believe that men are now being treated as the inferior gender?

Both because of my gender and ability to speak Hindi, I usually end up getting three to five phone numbers from men every time we go out on Friday or Saturday nights. None of these are sexual advances; most men are simply excited at the possibility of having a white friend, which I’ve gathered is somewhat a status symbol. I had already met and exchanged phone numbers with Rajneesh, the 20-something manager of our favorite restaurant/club in Jaipur (3D’s Restro Lounge: “Drink, Dance, and Dine in the third dimension of your life”), when he approached our table. My companions for the night, all girls, tried unsuccessfully to ask him questions, most of which he ignored or answered to me without acknowledging them. This type of interaction — “man-versation,” the girls dubbed it — is very common. My host father, younger male teachers, rickshawalas, shopkeepers all defer to me, even if I’m clearly the least able to speak to them in Hindi. And try as I might to include any female in the conversation, many men pay no attention.

The man-versations I’ve had are usually equally endearing, forward, frustrating, and entertaining. At 3D that night, Sonu, a man in his mid-40s, approached me while in queue for the restroom, inviting me to his house for “traditional Rajasthani food and culture” and to meet his daughters. The DJ, Vaibhav, and I have become “good friends.” After my arrival on the dance floor on Saturday night, he interrupted the music every five minutes to assert that it was “for my good friend Nicholas!” I visited the DJ booth and learned the ropes for a half hour, pushing buttons and rotating the turn tables haphazardly. At the end of the night, as we debated how we would manage to all fit into a single taxi, Vaibhav pulled up on his motorcycle and insisted that he give me a lift home. Probably one of the least man-versation-prone Indians I’ve met outside the house, Vaibhav has still offered characteristic Indian generosity and hospitality, if not much eagerness.

This type of interaction is one of the most surprising gifts India continues to give me. Americans are not inhospitable, but no where in America have I had interactions like this. This facet of Indian culture undoubtedly influences masculinity, and vice-versa. The tenets of American masculinity, in my experience, are power, domination, vocal sexual drive to women, wealth, athleticism, and aversion to all things feminine, to name the most visible. Indian masculinity, by contrast and in my understanding, is based upon love, emotion, enlightenment, intelligence, familial obligations, loud fashion sense, and hospitality. Especially among the younger crowd, there is more crossover with American masculinity, but the difference is still very clear. Physical homosociality is not only accepted but expected; men frequently walk hand-in-hand down the street and emotionally rely on each other in a much more vocal manner than most American male/male interactions. Accordingly, my thin frame, slightly effeminate demeanor, proclivity for books, and fondness of floral print renders me as much “one of the guys” in India as it separates me from that same thing in America.

While this brand of masculinity must be equally oppressive for those who fall outside its code, it has been freeing for me to be able to interact with any man on an equal level without encountering the same valuation as I do in America. It’s regrettable that this newfound freedom comes at the expense of being on an equal level with my female peers.


26 Jul

I’m on my second regiment of antibiotics since my arrival, my stomach bloated from its overly-acidic reaction to the half-banana I could swallow this morning before feeling nauseous. I’ve barely slept in the past two nights due to the bathroom-minded alarm clock my intestines have become. I can no longer deny: culture shock has finally descended.

The worst part about the things that are adding up to make me angry is that they are all stupidly minimal, all things that only illustrate how privileged I am. For example, not having control of when my room’s cooling fan is operating. While I am certainly grateful that I have a cooling fan at least part of the time, I am frustrated every time I walk into my room in the blistering afternoon heat to find it switched off. Without fail, it turns on at 10.00pm, the time of day which it is least needed, and turns off just after I take my cold shower (no hot water) and step back into the cool room.

A few of my shirts have come back from the dhobi (the woman who washes the clothes for the neighborhood) with holes and stains, and I’m helpless to stop the service unless I plan to wash all of my clothes by hand. I’ve already been doing this with my underwear, as it is offensive in Indian culture to expect another person to clean your unmentionables. But due to the cooling fan’s constant stream of cooling humidity at night and the increased humidity during the day, it takes about three days for my boxers to air-dry, and by the time they dry, they all are hard and smell a bit mildewy.

Just as Thoreau, I too have begun sharing my room with a colony of black-ant neighbors. I woke up in the middle of the night to find a line walking straight across the bed, over my arm to get to the gummy bears sent by my mother. I’ve since packaged the sweets soundly and the ants and I have reached a compromise: they get the left side of my desk; I get the rest of the room.

But what has been most irritating is the constant noise — usually car horns — and the incessant smell of rotting garbage when we travel through the city. The pollution is awful and the muggy air forces everything into my nostrils, lungs, and ears. So I return to my also-muggy room and try to clean myself but there is always a film of sweat and particulate matter that I can’t wash away.

By now, my plight as a first-world crybaby should be clear as no such thing. It’s the lack of all the little things that I have control over that are turning me into a Type-A mass of petty grievances. As I said earlier, the most frustrating part is that these things that I miss — mostly being able to control my comfort — are things about which only children of an opulent society can complain. And I’m no longer able to fool myself: by the world’s standards, I am foolishly wealthy. It’s something that people immediately know of me, too — because I’m white and obviously not from India but fiscally able to travel. It’s a scarlet dollar-sign that I want to scrape from my lapel but am too spoiled to do so.

I have so much to learn.

A Twig

19 Jul

Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig all the morning!
I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig.
I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.
Perhaps you glance at me and think, “What a stupid game to spoil your morning with!

Rabindranath Tagore, from Playthings

We visited this man’s house on our second full day in Kolkata. It was a palace of sorts, with open air balconies overlooking the multiple courtyards. After his death in the 40s, the house had been converted to a museum dedicated to his poetry, art,  prose — his life. I had limited (read: no) knowledge of this man prior to touring his house, and hence learned much as I wandered the place of his birth and death. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first Indian to win such) in 1913, and toured the world throughout his later years, crossing the paths of G.B. Shaw, Albert Einstein, and Helen Keller. He is one of the most celebrated Bengali scholars, authoring hundreds of poems, short stories, and novels, including both the Indian and Bangladeshi national anthems.

A big-bellied phulwala at the flower bazaar.

From there, we walked in the direction of the Botanic Garden, but got lost on the way and ended up in a very lively flower bazaar. Clearly not a tourist destination, the place was filled with only Indians and our skin got us a lot of attention. Most, though, seemed excited to see us as they asked us to take photos of them. The bazaar was fragrant with flowers — bright golden marigolds and red carnations, white roses and strings of indigo buds. Some were organized into bouquets and wreaths, others sat in piles as their owners sifted through. This is our twig; these are our playthings — the small, elusive paragons of India that we find only when lost. We grew weak and tired in the midday swelter and found ourselves in the direction of our hotel.

That night, we slept on the train to Jalpaiguri. Once again split due to our late booking, I was on a separate car from the others and made polite conversation with the men in my compartment. From Jalpaiguri, a 2.5 hour bus ride brought us to Darjeeling. One of the more popular hill stations, Darjeeling is a clean, steep city of about 100,000 people. On clear days, four the world’s five highest peaks are visible from this place, including Everest and Kanchenjunga. The monsoon season is the worst time for seeing such things; the city was completely enveloped by white fog. It felt like limbo — this was it, just this drizzly, cool city floating in the ether.

The drying tables in Happy Valley Tea Estate's withering room.

The following day, Tricia and I visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate, one of Darjeeling’s most prolific producers of its namesake tea. As always, we missed the proper turn and were directed through the winding staircases between the houses built into the slopes. Eventually reaching our destination, we learned the process from plant to package. Women, divided by age and marital status into groups that gather varying amounts of crop per day, pick by hand the tea — small growths of two leaves with a bud in the middle — and men carry the crop back to the shop. Once there, the tea is spread on large screens in the withering room and blasted with eight hours of cool air and eight hours of warm air. Then it is sent through chutes to the lower level, where machines sort the leaves from stems, ferment the black tea. Finally, the rollers divide the crop by quality and then package it in bulk for shipment. All workers at the Estate live on the property. They are provided access to health services and a good wage, the tour guide affirmed. Paths were carved throughout the plantation’s growing land, and we meandered through countless bushes and houses, greeting workers clad in bright clothing as we passed. (My pictures from Happy Valley can be found here.)

Darjeeling was more relaxing than thrilling, and at the end of our stay we were rested and chilled — ready again for the humidity of Kolkata and the heat of both there and Jaipur. Our return was stalled by a strike spurred by a fuel price hike, starting the day of our departure. We finally managed to find a taxi willing to wind through the back roads to deliver us to the gates of the Jalpaiguri station, albeit at almost three times the standard fare.

Sleeper train again, this time all in the same compartment. We rented a hotel room in Kolkata for our final day to house Mandy, our sick companion; store our bags; and bathe. Our funds beginning to run low, we opted for the seven-rupee local bus to get to the Indian Botanic Garden. A five-mile hour-long ride took as through the city’s slums, which were being cleared by Kolkata’s newly-elected government. Lines of the low caste watched as uniformed men destroyed their lean-tos with bulldozers and backhoes.

The Botanic Garden (full name Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden) is home to the world’s largest banyan tree, aptly named the Great Banyan. We wandered through the park for a little over an hour before catching the bus back to our neighborhood. The return was not nearly as bearable as the ride there — the monsoon rains finally fell, and my obese seat-mate seemed unbothered by the rain pouring through the window I was pinned against and couldn’t close. I breathed a steady stream of particulate matter from the diesel engines while the sound of car horns evolved from a solo to a small band to a full-blown orchestra, honking away at my ear drums and sanity until I was sure I was on the bus to hell.

The Darjeeling fog cleared briefly one morning, exposing the valley below.

We made it back to the hotel, finally, and ate street food in the afternoon, pasta in the evening; carried our luggage into the train station to start back to Jaipur. We were all on the wait list but were certain that we’d have a spot — after all, we were only WL1, 2, 3, and 4. But Tricia and I couldn’t find our names typed on any of the approved lists posted to the cars, and in a panic rushed to the conductor who looked at our ticket and quickly clarified that we weren’t on the approved list because our tickets were for the train four days prior. He sent us to the ticket counter, who sent us to the station master, who sent us to the T.T. (the train’s ticket checker), who sent us back to the ticket counter to purchase a second-class sleeper ticket to at least make sure we wouldn’t be kicked off the train in the middle of the night. When the T.T. finally came around to check our tickets, he told us that we’d each have to pay 1000 rupees each to sleep in the AC compartment, and if not we’d have to move to the second-class area at the next station. Our wallets empty, we had no choice and walked through the dark station at three o’clock in the morning to the open-air, completely packed second-class car.

My experience with such was limited to the spectacle of its boarding — young men crawling in through windows, over other people to get the best seats, which are all unreserved. We clearly looked out of place and people mostly stared, although a few told us that the AC cars were further up. A few kind gentlemen took pity and adjusted their luggage to accommodate our tired bodies. We tried to sleep, but I was sitting on a three-foot span of luggage rack and Tricia was allotted nine inches on the edge of a seat while the adjacent man’s sleeping head rested on her shoulder. Thankfully, at seven o’clock the train emptied for the most part, and we managed to snag full seats and sleep peacefully until noon, at which time we snuck back into the AC compartment to escape the midday heat. Certainly another twig; another game that probably I didn’t win, but one that I did play.

We arrived in Jaipur at just before midnight, exhausted and sore from sitting the entire day. But when we walked out of the train station, we all felt relieved to be back in Jaipur. It’s nice to know a city, to be able to negotiate transportation back to your room no matter where you are, to have people sense on you that you aren’t simply passing through for a few days. The rickshaw didn’t attempt to overcharge us, and within an hour I was happily asleep in my bed.

To See Your Mutta

14 Jul

I have many memories of my grandfather hooking us into his favorite mantra. “Alright, I’m going,” he’d say as he’d make a motion to get up and leave.

“Where are you going, grandpa?” we’d ask excitedly. We want to come!

“I’m going to Calcutta to see your mutta, and your fatta, and your brutta, and your sista.”

I’m almost certain he coined this himself; who else but an old German (chermin) could craft such a rhyme? Although we eventually grew wise of the saying, it has stuck with me. When discussing with other CLS participants where we’d be going for our midterm break, I couldn’t resist telling them that I’d be in search of their parents and siblings.

The morning of arrival via sleeper train.

We chose to travel via sleeper train since it was barely a quarter the cost of airfare. The 26.5-hour ride was not nearly as miserable as expected, in fact it was quite enjoyable. I’m traveling with the three girls I live with — but due to our last-minute ticket reservation, we were split between two cars. One of the girls and I slept in 3AC, an air-conditioned box split into compartments for six people. Our compart-mates were a family from Kolkata, returning home from a trip to Agra.

The Kolkatan boy from the train.

They didn’t speak English but were very eager to talk with us in the limited Hindi we knew. They showed us the ropes of ordering the train food (a garlicky paneer and onion dish, rice, and roti), told us all about their friend who lives in Los Angeles (everyone in India has a friend in New York or L.A.) and snapped a picture of their two-year-old son sitting with us.

Kolkata, renamed from the British Calcutta in 2001, is a massive, thriving city, which was immediately apparent when we stepped off the train into the crowded station. Outside of Sealdah, the rail terminal, were rows and rows of yellow Ambassador Classic taxis. We bartered in the usual way to get to the tourist hotel neighborhood. The heat, humidity, and rain render this the off-season for tourism, so we were in sparse white company. After a few price-checks, we bathed our bodies of the train-sweat, ate a lovely dinner at Gaylord Restaurant, and called it a day.

The next morning, I awoke early to roam the neighborhood before we’d head to the Victoria Memorial. Not twenty paces from the door of the hotel, a beggar woman latched onto me and refused to yield to my attempted stone-cold indifference. She carried an infant in her arms; he was wearing only a cloth diaper and looked very malnourished, he was missing patches of hair and had sores on his body. “Please sir, only milk for my baby.” She led me to a store down the road, where I eventually bought her two large cylinders of powdered milk, spending my own daily allotment for food. She was not yet satisfied though, and continued to follow me for another block and ask for rice, lentils, fruit.

Another woman walked next to me for a couple blocks — she spoke very good, clear English and talked about her family and aspirations as I played with her friend’s son. Gita asked me to buy her rice and lentils to feed her family, but I told her I didn’t have money with me and would return later. On my way back to the hotel, I was swept with privileged guilt and took a detour through the food market to get her a kilo of each. I talked with the shopkeeper in broken Hindi for a while, explaining why I was in Kokata, learning Hindi, and buying raw rice and lentils. He told me that a lot of the beggar women will ask tourists to buy them food and then sell it back to the shopkeeper at a slightly reduced price to make an income. Feeling slightly cheated (but not wanting to doubt Gita), I still purchased the items and dropped them off with her before leaving the neighborhood for the day.

The men in the back left of this picture were bathing outside our hotel every morning.

I met up with the girls and we walked through the city’s largest park on our way to the Victoria Memorial. The week before our arrival, the city hosted what appeared to be a massive Hindu festival. Booths and circus tents were being torn down on either side of the path, but some of the signs were still hung:

Instead of thinking that man is the center of the universe, the idea should be to understand that man is part of the universe… Therefore we should take care of the environment because man will ultimately kill himself if he doesn’t.

Root cause of Pollution in the world is the pollution in the ecology of the human heart, pollution caused by toxic greed, egotism, and selfish exploitation of nature. Whatever change we make in outward world, only has sustainability only to the degree those changes are paralleled within our hearts.

A few soccer teams played in the field just past the fairgrounds while goat-herders pushed their flock through the tall grass and horses roamed freely.

Upon reaching the end of the park, we were approached by two Nigerian men who claimed to play for the Goa soccer team. They seemed excited to see white people, and insisted we exchange phone numbers so we could smoke hash with their “homiez” (qtd. from a text I later received). I attempted to give them a fake number, but they called it so I would have their number and were relentless to get my real number. They texted me frequently in the evening, and called about ten times the next morning until I blocked their number.

The photo the old man from Varanasi insisted on taking.

We finally reached the memorial; unfortunately the interior was closed for the day, so we were confined to the massive, well-kept palace grounds. We wandered for a while, and I ended up talking with an old man from Varanasi about the best places to see in Kolkata and Darjeeling. He gave me hand-written slips of paper detailing the must-see locales and how to get to them via local transportation. His English was exceptional, his understanding of American culture was not. After explaining to him that we indeed do not have a caste system, he gave up on trying to understand how our backwards society functioned. He told me that no matter what American society was like, my mother would surely want to see a picture of me in front of the palace, and took my camera from my hands and directed me to stand near the gate. We talked for a little while longer, and I snapped a picture of him and handed a few American $1 bills as tokens for his daughters.

The projection machinery at Birla Planetarium.

Our next stop was to be the Academy of Fine Arts — this was also closed for the day (I guess Monday is not the day for tourism), so we continued down the road in search of a restaurant. We passed the Birla Planetarium, something I had already wanted to see, just in time for their Hindi showing. Everyone around us was concerned that we were in the wrong line and we were repeatedly told, “The English showing is at 1.30, this showing is in Hindi.” We’d respond, “Yes, we want to see this one. We are learning Hindi,” at which point their eyes would grow and they’d say, “Oooh, good, good, good, good” in Hindi. The content was portrayed slowly enough and simply enough for us to understood a fair amount.

After severely overeating at Marco Polo, the girls were too rotund to continue in the afternoon and opted for a nap. I roamed through the streets, eventually making it to a market near our hotel. A man began talking to me about his friend in Los Angeles and after a few minutes asked me to visit his shop, which just opened that day. I was not only their first sale of the day, but their first sale in the new shop, which meant that my happiness was absolutely crucial to their future success. I had in mind that I wanted small statues of Durga and Kali, who both represent female empowerment, for some friends, and they showed me their inventory of such at length. After making my purchase, they insisted I smoke a cigarette with them for “auspiciousness,” and then I returned to the hotel.

The first day in Kolkata ended with us at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city. Kolkata has completely surprised me in its cleanliness, organization, and vibrance. I’m sad to say that I have yet to find your mutta, but Granda, in the future you may have to come to Kolkata to find me.

*I’ve also uploaded selected pictures from our days in Kolkata to my Flickr account.

Models and Motorcycles

10 Jul

”Do you like going fast?” Manish asked me as I rode on the back of his purple, not-in-the-best-condition motorcycle. The horn doesn’t work, he told me, due to the faulty battery; the gauges had also gone the way of the horn. I was mildly concerned as we headed to the outskirts of Jaipur when I spotted his gas tank was very much in the red.

“Of course!” I responded. He had given me his spare helmet to wear and it slipped down my forehead as we rode. We had gone out sans-helmet a few nights prior and ended up having to run from the police. The fine is only 50-200 rupees “depending on their mood,” but Manish didn’t want to deal with the hassle at that time and sped by them. But today, on the long, straight stretch of bustling roadway, he was itching to cruise and I would not complain. He sped up, weaving in between vehicles in the standard Indian fashion of motorcycling until we reached our destination.

Manish and me at Jal Mahal

In front of Jal Mahal

Among the hills that have erupted in greenery since the monsoon’s arrival lay a moderately sized lake. In the middle — not on an island, no ground around the base, simply there, in the middle — stood a giant maharaja fort. Arches near the water were reminiscent of Venice, while the staircases leading up from the water and the domed roofs were distinctly Indian. This place — Jal Mahal — is one of the most pleasant places I’ve seen so far in Jaipur. The walkway next to the lake is filled with food vendors and playing children, yet the place is distinctly calm and peaceful, which is hard to find in India.

Manish and I wandered the path a few times while talking about cigarettes, our lives, India/the U.S. In his early twenties, he walked on the runway as a model for Levi’s and a few high-fashion brands in Mumbai. A few of his former peers have made it big; he dropped a few names that, due to my ignorance of Indian cinema, I did not know. He showed me a few scars he earned from his multiple motorcycle crashes and street-fighting days, and told me a story of getting kicked repeatedly by a gang of five men until he lying on the ground in the fetal position, covered in blood. (The scar from this incident I could not see due to his thick, well-groomed, black hair.) “Then I was beautiful on the outside, Nicholas, but I was not beautiful on the inside.”

His heart was broken after his girlfriend of four years married the other man she had been seeing the entire time. This spurred a year-long journey of punching walls while crying, Hindu pilgrimages, and eventually inner peace. He told me I would not recognize the person he was then, and I don’t doubt him. I was shocked to hear a lot of this — he has demonstrated nothing but calm, caring hospitality and has become one of my closest Indian friends.

Because He Doesn’t Understand Hindi

7 Jul

So the learning continues, at all times of the day and from all directions — whether I’m exhausted and only half listening as my pencil wanders over my creme-colored paper to the sounds of imperfect participle construction or actively inquiring about the purity of the antique “silver” floral-patterened ring on my index finger. I finally reached a point this week when I realized that my language skills are sufficient for many of the menial day-to-day tasks I’d been neglecting. My pride is no longer harmed by having to repeat “dhire dhire boliye” (please speak slowly) while talking to most people, and overall I’ve found most people to be enthused by my effort.

Today I made my way back to Soni Hospital in hopes of getting a chest x-ray and accompanying doctor’s note to prove to the SIT program that I indeed do not have tuberculosis. My first visit to the hospital was not as successful as I had hoped, having been able only to get results for two of the three required pre-program tests. One of the administrative assistants at AIIS escorted me through the process of Indian hospitals. With his help, I navigated through the strange facility. It felt very much like a hospital, but in each room a surreal something reminded me that I was not in the U.S. Each wing was its separate building, and one walked through the bustling courtyard to get to the various areas: laboratory, surgery, long term care, etc.

The waiting lounge of the laboratory section was more akin to an airport than a hospital, and the actual laboratory was merely a ten-by-ten cubicle with yellow-curtained glass walls. They handed me a small cup for my urinalysis and directed me to the facilities. The lavatory was disgusting. Completely free of a western toilet, the room’s back section was slightly raised and and tiled in red squares, with an inset white basin. A constant stream of water accompanied human waste down the three-inch hole. After filling the small plastic cup, I had my blood drawn in the cubicle and was on my way. Four hours later, I returned to pick up my results.

My return to the hospital today, however, was essentially purposeless. I struggled for a while to explain to a few different receptionists what I needed: a chest x-ray for tuberculosis. Finally, a nurse seemingly fluent in English was found to assist me. The scene is roughly as follows.

(Nicholas sits in a chair SR facing a reception desk, SL. An Indian man in a white lab coat is seated at the desk and picks up the phone regularly, talking excitedly for brief moments while staring at Nicholas. A young Nurse enters, also wearing a calf-length white lab coat. She talks to the man for a minute in subdued Hindi while they both look across the stage at the pale twenty-something. Eventually, she approaches the foreigner expectantly.)

Nicholas: I need to get a chest x-ray for tuberculosis and to have a doctor write a note saying that I don’t have tuberculosis.
Nurse: You need to know if you have tuberculosis?
Nicholas: No, I don’t have tuberculosis. I just need a doctor to write a note saying that.

(The nurse walks back to the reception desk, presumably tells the man what Nicholas has just said. They talk for a moment while staring at Nicholas. Beat. She walks back to Nicholas.)

Nurse: So you have a prescription for tuberculosis and you need to talk to a doctor.
Nicholas. No, I don’t have tuberculosis. I need to get a chest x-ray so a doctor can say that I don’t have tuberculosis.

(The nurse once again returns to the reception desk. Same as before: talk, stare at Nicholas, beat, return.)

Nurse: You want to see if you have tuberculosis.
Nicholas. I do not have tuberculosis.
Nurse: So you want to know for sure that you don’t have tuberculosis.
Nicholas: I am almost certain that I do not have tuberculosis.

(Walk, talk, stare, beat, return.)

Nurse: You need a prescription for your tuberculosis.
Nicholas. No. I do not have tuberculosis.
Nurse: You want a chest x-ray.
Nicholas: Yes.
Nurse: To see if you have tuberculosis.
Nicholas: No. I do not have tuberculosis. I am studying here in the fall and I need a note from a doctor saying that I don’t have tuberculosis so that they will let me into the program.

(Once more.)

Nurse: You do not have tuberculosis, and you need a chest x-ray to receive a confirmation from a doctor.
Nicholas: Yes.

(She walks to the reception, explains in length to the man with the telephone. He picks up his phone and calls someone as she looks at him. He seems to be amused. About a minute of talking and listening, then he looks up at her and does the Indian nod and she returns to Nicholas on SR.)

Nurse: Our hospital is closed for the day. Please come back at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.


I picked up my backpack and started back to the program center. The program house is located in Bapu Nagar, about two kilometers from the hospital, so I was not planning on walking back during the afternoon’s peak temperature of 110F. However, I had little choice after realizing that aside from knowing the neighborhood, I knew no way of telling a rickshaw where to take me. I had an hour to spare so I decided I might as well walk.

On the way, I passed by the samosa stand I had visited a few times prior. The young boy who usually manages the counter is amused by the Hindi I try to use, and although today his father packaged my samosa, the boy still stared. I also attracted the attention of a short Indian man in a white button-up shirt who was ordering the same. He asked me — “Kya tum Hindi sun sakta ho?” (lit. Can you listen to Hindi?), and after telling him that I understand some and that I was in Jaipur to learn Hindi, he grew excited and kept asking me questions. “What does this say?” “Do you have a wife?” “Why are you learning Hindi?”

After talking to him for a few minutes, the man behind the counter handed me my samosa and charged me seven rupees. My new friend asked the man, “Why did you charge him more?” I overhead his price was only five rupees, but we are always charged the “videshi” price so it didn’t cross my mind. The man behind the counter answered, “Because he doesn’t understand Hindi.” I chuckled as my friend in the white shirt smirked at me. I thanked them for the conversation and finished the remaining ten-minute walk back to the program house.

Getting over the hurdle of embarrassment is one of the hardest parts of living in a foreign language, I was told. Rickshaw-walas and shopkeepers will continue to correct my sentences, but they visibly appreciate my effort and it’s an amazing learning tool. The immersion is exhausting, but thrilling, and in the end I don’t really have a choice anyway so I’ve stopped fighting it. Bharat, main aa raha hoon.