chai with strangers

•August 25, 2008 • Leave a Comment

All I wanted was to go swimming.

I have done nothing the past two days, and that’s only barely an exaggeration. With everybody gone, I have lacked the motivation to go anywhere or do anything. It seemed like too much work. I thought of calling Aashiq (this being the right English spelling) but kept dancing around the idea, due to the awkward possibilities it could introduce. Then my phone died and I lost the charger, withdrawing the possibility.

So I just wanted to go swimming. I wanted to get out of this house.

Over the summer, some friends had gone to the Ramada Inn nearby and had no problem swimming–they were even given fluffy white towels. I brought my own towel, but met with no luck. After having two doors opened for me to get inside the vast, air-conditioned lobby (far more luxurious than any American Ramada Inn) I explained that I wanted to use the pool. The staff motioned me to a plush beige couch and conferenced. A few moments later I was told only guests could use the pool. “Even if I pay?” I asked. The man gave a graceful bow of the head to indicate apologies. I nodded and retreated back out into the scorching sun.

Returning to the house was disappointing, so less than an hour later I was back out, having decided I would take “A Passage to India” and go to Anokhi, a cafe with comfortable chairs and good food. I would have a sweet lime soda and this tomato-mozzarella pizza-esque thing I’d had in the past. It would be good and I would be spoiled and I would be out for a while.

Anokhi was, embarrassingly, a retreat for a number of foreigners at the time. British accents drifted toward me from different directions. Across from me an American and a British man, both slightly loud and overweight, were engaged in conversation. “Well this is a nice escape,” one pointed out. The American lamented a hair in his food and discussed a similar situation in the U.S. when a hair in the food meant a free meal. These people were irritating me. Their tone of voice was irritating, and suddenly the whole situation was irritating, this Western-modeled, comfortable, organic-food providing, videshi-magnet cafe. I’d had my food and it was good, but now I needed somewhere else. I also needed money. So I went outside and found a napping autowala. I prodded him awake and got him to take me to Citibank on M.I. Road, but he refused to take me to the old city. So I withdrew some money and waited by the side of the very busy street.

A happy-looking cyclewala pulled up beside me and motioned me into the seat. “I need to go to the old city,” I explained. He motioned me in again. “How much?” I asked. “80 rupees,” he said. Several things having annoyed me today, I simply said no and started walking away. He lowered to 50, apparently carefree about the price, and because I still don’t know the layout of this city well enough to know rickshaw prices between many destinations, I gave in. Also because he was so happy. Maybe I would pay extra for some kindness.

After establishing that I could speak Hindi, he decided to become very engrossed in conversation. This happens frequently–because people at the level of rickshawvalas are not usually the highest educated and tend to be very limited in English, and because few Hindi-speaking foreigners ever venture through the city, a foreigner’s speaking Hindi opens up a conversational territory they rarely see. Now he could crane his head around and ask–why was I here? Where was I from? What do I think of India? Do I drink chai?

Answering affirmative on the last question, I suddenly found that we were pulling to a stop alongside the road and I was being ushered out of the rickshaw toward a chai cart and a small congregation of men. One pointed me to a wooden stool and I sat in everyone’s curious gaze. I heard the grinning rickshawvala explain me to the men as well as he could: “She’s a student, she’s 20 years old, she speaks some Hindi.”

People took up stools around me and asked more questions–where was I studying? How is Hindi? A glass of water was offered, but I demured as politely as possible, after having just watched a small child shitting into a gutter. I watched the chaiwala heat the milk and tea in an iron pot and stir with a ladel, and then the chai was distributed, and another man was placing a small glass of the steaming beige drink in my hand. I drank, slightly amused. What if I needed to be somewhere at a certain time? What if someone was in the hospital? Chai waits for no one.

Our drinks consumed and we were back in the rickshaw, him chatty as ever. He pointed out a place where marriages take place. I nodded. He offered free Hindi lessons. I declined. He stopped, turned around, and said that he would take me to the old city, but first he wanted to pick up his children from school. “I have three children! First I’ll pick up my children, then I’ll drop them off, then I’ll take you to the old city. Is this fine?” I suppose I could have said no, but my curiosity was piqued. It’s not like I had anywhere to be, really.

We came near to the old city I’ve been familiar with and he veered in a new direction and stopped. He promptly left the rickshaw without a word. It was a new scene. Men with giant knives were absently slicing at the bodies of chickens. Live chickens, some grotesque and half-plucked, were squeezed into small cages, some with conversational boys sitting on top. Chickens walked in the street. In front of me was a fruit cart and women with covered heads were buying fruit. All around, women had their heads covered and some men wore skullcaps. Political posters–likely not for the BJP–were strung through the alley like Buddhist prayer flags. This was a Muslim neighborhood.

The rickshawvala came back without a word and hopped back on the bike, and then we were on our way toward the school. We went deeper through alleys and turns, vaguely uphill. “This is the oldest part of the old city,” he explained, as the alleys became narrower and I felt like I was going back in time.

Horse- and donkey-drawn carts were sharing the street. A girl was hand-washing a pair of jeans with a cup of water outside her door. Large cast-iron pots sat over fires at the side of the street, preparing food for a restaurant. Carts of bricks and stones passed by. Piles and piles of fabric and shredded old cotton were being examined by groups of women. Two men rode past on a camel. Gnarled old trees rose upward and shaded sections of the street. A man rested on a cot, smoking a cigarette. I wish I could properly describe the architecture–crumbling brick fortifications and plaster-covered walls with old paint in faded blue and yellow and pink hues. Doors were open and inside tiny rooms led into other tiny rooms.

We wound uphill. Slowly a beautiful cream-colored fort came into view on a hilltop nearby and I made the surprising and happy realization that I was in the part of the city that I had viewed with such curiosity only a couple of weeks ago from inside the fort. On the top of that hill, this part of the city–so close–looked like a maze of alleys with the beautiful connected buildings shining in the dusk. It looked like a Middle Eastern desert city, like something from A Thousand and One Nights. It didn’t look much different from the ground.

We came so near to the hill that the we went past some of the fort’s old walls. Finally, the driver stopped and announced it would be “only ten minutes”. He ushered me into a park to enjoy the grass and bushes and trees and there I sat, watching people nap and play and watch me back. When I walked out of the park he came right up with his rickshaw, three tiny people in tiny school uniforms seated inside. He motioned next to the tiniest, a little boy with dangling feet and only one shoelace in one shoe, who stared at the surroundings. He introduced me to the children quickly–I have forgotten all of their names, as I’ve heard a lot of Indian names today–and we went back in the same direction to their house, a little slice in the plaster wall. I managed to get one picture, which of course attracted a great deal of attention. I got the two little boys–the girl was too shy, maybe, and ran inside.

And finally, after maybe half an hour, the rickshawvala dropped me in the old city. I didn’t know where I was, but I wasn’t about to say anymore.. I thought I might end up eating dinner with his family or meeting his parents. Eventually I got to where I wanted to be, a little shop I’d been in once before, down a very narrow alley. The shopkeeper (Devraj, his name I do recall) remembered me and we struck up a rapport–he introduced me to his brother and told me about his family, how long he’d owned the shop, told me his age and about his two sons. A lot of people have one particular thing they’re intrigued about with foreigners, and for Devraj, apparently, it was alcohol. He wanted to know if I drank it, how much I drank, if I drank alone or with friends. I laughed and answered his questions, wondering what he’d heard about Americans. After I bought what I came for, the brothers asked me if I’d like chai. It was about that time. I’ve become just as addicted as the rest of this country, so I stayed on and talked a little more, until a little boy came bearing the glasses and for a second time that day a small hot glass of steaming chai was placed in my hand by someone I barely knew.

Say whatever you want about the Indian people, they do not deny you your chai.

We drank together and across the alley the call the prayer was ending in the mosque upstairs. Down the steep concrete stairs and into the alley flowed a river of men in white kurtas and pants, wearing their skullcaps. Of all the sounds I love in India, possibly my favorite is the eerily beautiful sound of musical prayer drifting from the mosque. I am not religious, but it still sounds sacred to me.

And so I was happy, it was getting cooler and darker, and I caught an auto back to Raja Park, “gurdwara ke pas” as I will only say a few more times. I walked through the park opposite the house and the requisite schoolchildren came to greet me–always all wanting to shake hands, and a particular few going so far as to kiss my hand. It’s a bit silly but not a bad greeting all the same.

And not a few steps from my house I was called back by a few teenage boys who scattered a number of questions over me, the same I’d answered all day, and they answered the same I often asked. (One studies biology and when I asked “To be a doctor?” he answered with a cheerfully blunt, “Oh no, we are poor.”)

The outspoken of the group was 17, a good-looking and outgoing guy, and he introduced himself as “Mohammad Aashiq”.

“Aah, Mohammad,” I said. “We are Muslim,” he pointed out. “Musselman,” I intoned. “Yes!” he said, and asked after my religion. I tried to explain I didn’t have one, but ended up just saying I was Catholic; it was easier, and “I don’t have a religion” doesn’t translate well, culturally speaking. He began to probe at the interesting questions, what do I think of President Bush, how did I feel about 9/11, but the conversation only lasted so long and they had to go for dinner.

The contrast between the coldness of the inside of this house and the warmth I find outside of it is striking. This family has amassed wealth, puts additions on their house, buys the newest cell phones, and displays great resentment in feeding me. Meanwhile, so many that I’ve met–Namak, Ravi, Devraj–have very little money and are still happy to buy me a glass of chai and engage in conversation.

I bet no one in this family knows the name of a single worker creating the precious addition on their roof.

Having my say, or, TAKE THAT, kanjus* family!

•August 20, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The following is my evaluation of my host-family, which I will be sending to the director of the program shortly. I have about one week left in this house. And then… liberation. Abbreviations will be used to protect the kanjus.

To Whom It May Concern:

I do not think I have ever written an evaluation as negative (and lengthy) as this will doubtless end up being, but imagining its composition has been my greatest solace through many frustrations over the past several weeks (month?). It will be about my home-stay experience. Just to make reading it more enjoyable for you, I will inform you now that I don’t blame the program itself for these frustrations. So relax, bear with me, and let us begin:

After visiting all of the families and creating a system of placing ourselves, I found myself at the B. house. The family was higher up on my list for a couple of shallow reasons: I liked the bathroom, and the room was non-AC and thus a little cheaper than the air-conditioned alternatives. There was one other room besides my own and it was filled by another student named Rebecca. Mine was on the roof, had a cooler, and was 6500R; hers was in the house, had an air conditioner, and cost 8000R.

Almost as soon as we got to the house, and as I was moving my luggage into my room, the host-mother mentioned that the cooler rarely works “in this season” and suggested I sleep in Rebecca’s room. I tried to sleep in the roof room with the cooler on and did find it too hot, so I wasn’t really sure what to do and Rebecca and I took to sharing a room.

After a couple of weeks, we began to want our own space and Rebecca mentioned that she might move out if they couldn’t provide an alternative. She informed the family of this decision and the mother asked if we’d both stay if she put air conditioning in the roof room. We agreed and she spent a day or two thinking about this, and instead decided to repair the cooler (which apparently was just broken, having nothing to do with the season). It was pretty clear she just wanted us to split one room and pay for two, possibly to keep electricity costs lower.

After I’d moved into the roof room, it apparently became invisible to the family. At night, the gate down into the house (where our shared bathroom was) got locked soon after dinner, and it became a problem as I often hadn’t gotten ready for bed before it was locked and there was not really a way to get a hold of the family (I called my roommate to let me back in the first few times). The room (and my presence) was also mysteriously invisible during several meals, when they just made no effort to get my attention and insisted they thought I had “gone out” when I came down later.

Eventually they decided to raise a wall (and the roof) up so that my room would be a part of the house. “For you,” they said (???). In the middle of doing this, they decided to expand on the project and put another room for paying guests beside mine, moving most of the roof up an entire level. This was not long after I’d moved into the room on the roof (maybe two weeks) but immediately following this decision the roof was crowded every day with laborers, who started working around 9AM and often didn’t finish until around 6PM. Some days there were also women and children–practically a displaced village–on the roof. The concrete in front of my door was torn up, a pipe burst and flooded the area for a few days, and debris (plaster, also sometimes rain water) came through the cracks of one of my windows to cover one side of my bed and the floor. Recently, mold has started to grow on the walls as well.

One weekend when Rebecca was out of town, I slept in her air-conditioned room downstairs. In the morning, the mother approached me at breakfast and asked, “Don’t you get chilly?” “Why?” I said. “Using the air conditioner all day and all night,” she said, “Don’t you get chilly?” I told her I’d only been using it at night–which was true, and also true of Rebecca–and she said that the bill for air conditioning alone had been 2,000R this month and that she might have to start charging more. [A few comments on this: 1) Is their even a charge separate for air conditioning from the regular electricity? On this I am skeptical. 2) They also use air conditioning, to a comparable degree. Rebecca’s room is 1,500R extra, presumably for the cost of AC. Why should the family expect us to cover the whole house’s AC costs? 3) This was not even my room, generally.] I argued that there was no reason to pay more when 1,500R for AC was already being paid, and she didn’t choose to press the topic.

Needless to say, our relationship with our host-mother was not based on warmth or interest, merely on money. We were an ambulatory pile of money. When we had conversations, which was rare, they were usually invasive questions on her part to try to find out just how much money she could squeeze out of the paying guest situation in the future (if not now). She asked how much other people paid for their host-stays and what was included. When Rebecca mentioned that one family has meters installed to measure electricity as an added cost, she seemed very happy with the information. She asked about how people chose houses and whether hers was popular. It was very uncomfortable. When the host-mother made any attempt to learn anything about me, it was generally connected to money. How much money do I make in the U.S.? How much money do my parents make? Why would I say that $40 (in regards to manicure/pedicure, which, shockingly, I don’t spend scads of money on in the U.S.) is expensive?

I was charged 700R a month for using the internet. As one Indian friend in Mumbai commented, “Jesus! Their bill alone can’t even be that high.” She still seemed irritated when I used the internet, and they unplugged the router routinely even after I’d just plugged it in. She made comments about my electricity use to Rebecca, despite the fact that I rarely came home before 5 or 6PM and rarely used the cooler during the day.

Neither Rebecca nor I felt comfortable within the house. We each spent almost all of our time in our rooms, as these were our relegated places. Frequently the flush in our bathroom would not be working (a problem we gently mentioned several times and which only recently really got fixed), and one night, in the middle of the night, I needed to throw up and didn’t want to do so in a toilet that didn’t flush. I was also downstairs, getting water at the time. So I used their bathroom. The mother seemed scandalized at this after she woke up (upon finding me in her bathroom, throwing up and crying) and asked with some irritation if I wanted to see a doctor.

Our privacy was not respected. On one occasion Rebecca and I told the family we were going out to the market and would be home after 15 minutes. When we did get home, I came onto the roof to find the host-mother in my room, moving my things around, looking agitated. “You should clean your room,” she said. I do tend to accumulate clothing and papers in piles, but I do not think it’s appropriate to invade someone’s personal space because of this issue. She could have asked me politely outside of my room, and I would have tidied it up without a problem.

When the family went out to dinner, which they did pretty frequently (maybe once or twice a week), we were never asked if we wanted to come but were instead fed at home by the maid. We were never asked to do anything with the family. Some nights they ate in their bedroom, with the television, and we were fed in separately. To be honest, we didn’t mind this after some time, simply because their company was so awkward and uncomfortable.

We talked with other students in the program about the B.’s and realized that past experiences have also been bad. When one mentioned their name in passing to their host-mother, she said that in the past, the “B. girls” would always come over to their place to get away because the environment was more home-like, and “it wasn’t about money”. She also said that though they were acquaintances, she stopped talking to her because when she saw her in the market one day and asked about her “American daughters”, Mrs. B. corrected, “Don’t call them that–they’re paying guests”. (If it’s any further indication of our discomfort, we also didn’t know what to call the family members–“Auntieji” etc seemed too personal. We ended up avoiding calling them anything directly.)

I will say that the home was for the most part very comfortable (although we felt too uncomfortable to enjoy that) and the food was very good (the best aspect of staying here). The B.’s are clearly an affluent family, and bought lots of new things (new cell phones, a new refrigerator) in addition to their adding on to the house. We felt like perhaps we were funding it.

I understand that housing is in every way a logistical nightmare, and you can’t exactly control every detail or only find families that treat AIIS students as one would their own child. I sympathize. I also know that the people in AIIS have been interested in feedback and promoting a positive image of India.

This was my first trip to India, and I had a difficult first month in adjusting. If I hadn’t had Rebecca–who had spent a few years in India before–to explain what was and wasn’t acceptable, and to take charge in telling the family when we had a problem, I probably would have felt much worse throughout the summer. I now love the country and have met so many kind and hospitable Indians while outside that I realize inhospitable behavior is not a norm in India and the B. family is a bit of an exception. But I do worry that someone unfamiliar with India and without a roommate who does understand the culture and general kindness of India would feel some resentment for it after staying with this family. I would have been happy to excuse many of the smaller things had it not been for the family’s attitude.

I also want to point out that many other people also had experiences with distant families (although most of these were still pleasant). I would recommend updating the program’s information packet to explain that the host-family situation may be more like a paying-guest situation, as a lot of people felt unprepared for their family’s lack of interest in them. I don’t think this distance is a bad thing (independence is good!) but I think it’s very different from the American idea of a home-stay family and without explanation, it catches people off-guard (and makes them question themselves).

After so much negative, I also want to say that the program staff itself–the teachers, and Kumar ji!–behaved exactly the opposite from my host-family, showing great interest in both our academic and emotional status. Many of them told us to think of them like family and tell them if we had any problems, and offered a great deal of support (which one shouldn’t even expect from teachers). They were very amenable to our requests and interested in us, and were always available for help.

My big complaint is with the home-stay family. I just think that people who so clearly don’t enjoy having guests in their house should be the sort of people who constantly have guests.

Thank you for reading! My apologies for the (excessive) length.

Sincerely,

(Me.)

*miserly

Case Study #4: Clubbin’

•August 17, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I have never been to a club in America.

I imagine this is because I would probably hate it. I liked getting drunk in my old apartment with some friends and Ty’s guitar, wearing black leggings and a bleach-stained tank top. I don’t think I’d like getting drunk to blaring music and sparkly shirts and sweaty men suctioning themselves to my hips (this is almost certainly unavoidable for any XX chromosome-bearing individual).

But I’m not in America. I’m in India. And here, we were invited (by Ashik, of course, our mysterious and overly generous host) to experience a night of clubbing in an Indian city of 3 million. This is not necessarily an authentic “Indian” experience, but I suppose it is an authentically affluent Indian experience, at least in recent years. Ashik is nothing if not affluent, and we are nothing if not spoiled, so this was where we were going to end up.

We were picked up a little after 9 and it was once again the familiar trio of American girls (we have bonded this weekend, with everyone away) and Imran and A at the wheel. Imran was wearing possibly the most adorable t-shirt I’ve ever seen (a globe in the middle, surrounded by the words “Boys can help save the Earth!” in a bloated and childlike font) and A was in a sleek white button-up, black pants, and shiny shoes. He doesn’t do casual.

When we arrived at the hotel with the club–which I’d grossly underestimated the grandeur of–we followed A past the desk (where he wheeled around before the last moment to scoop up complimentary pink candies from a dish and drop them into our palms) and toward the club. It was around this time that I realized with some panic that there was a cover charge of 500R. each (I’d brought 100R. from the car, absentmindedly) but before I could explain my lack of funds we’d already been ushered past the guard and were descending into the darkness of a floor below.

Nowhere in the world do parties start at 9:30pm, and still, when I saw the empty dance floor but heard the blaring house music, I felt embarrassed. Doesn’t everyone, at that sight? Still, the guys looked unfazed, knew the territory and how the night worked, and we followed them toward the bar. A menu appeared and I selected something involving gin, always a standby. I felt a little nervous and figured I would need the help of gin to make the dance floor a viable option.

Everyone got a drink but Ashik–he is a Muslim, and refuses alcohol.

It took a while for things to get started, and meanwhile we staked out a few couches in a dark corner and sucked down our poison. I sat next to and spoke to Imran, who, at this point, I had come to recognize as shy and a little awkward. In my view, this is perfect for a dancing partner, so before we’d even gone out on the floor I’d decided to target him for forced dancing. “So how do you know Ashik?” I asked him.

“I worked in one of his stores,” he explained. “He said I should think of him as a friend, not a boss.”

Kari was getting restless. She looked back and forth between all of us, and motioned to the dance floor, where maybe six people were at this point. The music was still bad techno house music, but at some point we were going to have to start dancing; Ashik had been footing an impressive bill, and I didn’t want to sit around on my lame ass, and offer this impression of America (it’s surprising how often I feel like some sort of American ambassador). So the three Americans grabbed Imran and we went to the dance floor.

I am not sure how things escalated from here. Not long after we got on the floor, the music changed to the danceable sort — and actually danceable too. You don’t know danceable until you know Indian pop music. Following the change in music, the floor–and the room–was suddenly full. Full, and dark, and moving, and smiling. And not just young people, either. There were a fair number of middle-aged people, and there was nothing awkward about this. I don’t think I could imagine this not being awkward if I hadn’t experienced it.

And here’s something else. Men dance here. Everyone dances. Nobody cares how they look–they just dance. Imran, who I had pegged as so shy, was maybe the craziest of them all. He barely left the dance floor. And here’s something else. Men are content to dance with you. I had no problem with the suctioning males because they had no desire to suction–I danced with several guys, and they all faced me. It felt like it was more about fun than sex, and it hasn’t been like that since 6th grade.

I also probably haven’t danced like I did last night since the 6th grade. Maybe it was the gin-saturated drinks, or maybe just the realization that allowing myself to be even a little self-conscious would have wasted and disturbed the whole experience. I am on the other side of the world. There is liberation in that.

While most of the dancing veers in all directions–a group facing each other, girls dancing with girls, guys dancing with guys, girls and guys pairing off and then switching, dancing with people you’ve never met–I did end up somehow with one guy in particular, a tallish and muscularish Hindustani with a mop of curly hair–vaguely attractive, if I’d stood still long enough to focus on his face. He told me his name time and time again and I didn’t hear it even one time. He spun me. He tried to teach me to salsa. I struggled to keep up.

Eventually, Ashik, who rarely danced (unless we forced him) and spent most of his time watching over us like a hawk, eventually moved us upstairs to a cooler area to rest for a while–on the overhang we could look over the dance floor. It may have been a helpful move in giving the girls a moment away from some of the more attentive guys, or it may just have been a desire for some cooler air. It was hard to tell. Still, as we went back to the floor, as he stood to the side, sober, watching over us, he began to seem protective in addition to simply mysterious. I spent the last few minutes wondering about him. He hasn’t made a pass at any of us, but he’s been entirely accommodating and friendly. Are there really some people in the world like that? Is there something we don’t know?

We left early, by club standards–around 1AM, to get back to the guys’ apartment (the guys in our program, that is– this is where Kari and I would be sleeping) before the gate closed. We were sweaty and happy in the car, and I thought of something. “What is ‘kiss’ in Hindi? How do you say ‘Kiss me’ in Hindi?”

Mujhe papi karon,” he translated.

“Mujhe papi karon!” I tried.

“Not right now,” he said.

happy birthday, hindustan.

•August 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I went down to breakfast this morning and greeted my host-father with a brisk, “Happy Independence Day!”

“Yeah,” he acknowledged, and looked at me without enthusiasm over his black-rimmed glasses. “My friend sent me this text message,” he announced, and withdrew his phone from his breast pocket. It went a little somethin’ like this: “It’s independence day. But is India free? Is India free from poverty, from corruption, from illiteracy? Until we have these things, India is not free.”

I shifted awkwardly on my bench. “That’s a good point,” I offered. He then proceeded to explain the mess that poor Hindustan has gotten herself into. “All the parties are corrupt. Nobody follows the laws, everything is done with bribes. Most of India is younger now but the government is still run by 75-year-olds.” He then suggested that India become like China, that people start taking the country into their hands and fix the mess. But, “People here are too selfish. Everybody is too selfish.”

I have gotten used to conversations with my host-father. They are few and far between, but I appreciate them, as he seems to actually enjoy talking to me. In fact, for all my complaining about my host-stay situation, I really like my host-father. The host-mother has a calculating and cold look about her, but my host-father just looks sort of bumbling and nerdy in his Rivers Cuomo glasses. At home, where he rarely is, he is usually outfitted in his casual wear of t-shirts advertising Thailand and Canada, and basketball shorts. When I ask of him a question or offer a short statement, much like my own father, he often takes the invitation for conversation and runs with it, using the opportunity to fill the air with his every thought on the topic.

But I understand the dynamics of our conversations now, and know that they are meant to be one-sided. They are usually rife with interruption on his part when I begin any sort of statement, and it is implicitly understood that I should be pleasant and agreeable. So I didn’t interrupt his lecture with the firework that went off in my head (i.e. China is the last country anyone should try to emulate). Instead, I absorbed his diatribe. This is how Indians feel on Independence Day: partially proud, partially scornful. So I have seen. They love their country and culture; they hate the government’s corruption and ineffectiveness but feel powerless to affect it. It is, imagine, the way so many Americans felt this year’s 4th of July.

But I find Indian pride to be far, far more charming than American pride, for several reasons. Some places in the world, some groups, are more in need of pride… India is a country ready to shred itself apart at any given moment, with so many angry Hindus and Muslims willfully hating each other. One party with a lot of power is the Hindu nationalist party, and I have even seen an actual fight break out between a BJP advocate and an irritated Muslim–over breakfast. So many “Indian” cultural practices are fundamentally religious, and so many stakes are driven in between culturally different individuals in this massive and diverse country, that national pride–waving an Indian flag–is far more uniting than detrimental. It can be a peaceful act.

That a political party can openly identify itself with and base its policies on a specific religion, and then get elected, is reason enough for me to realize a tiny twinge of American pride–the GOP may ooze Christianity through its very oily pores, it may make its slimy presence felt in the megachurches of America, but I still don’t think we’ll see the day when they declare themselves the party by and for Christians.

(Although I have to shudder and admit that writing that statement makes me question it. Is the only thing that keeps the GOP from being God’s Own Party the fact that they hope to attract voters of other faiths? Or that in America, with the “separation of church and state” business given some voice in elementary school, identifying yourself as the Christian Party can make even some of the religious voters squirm in discomfort? Is there even anything keeping the Republican Party from claiming Christianity as its official guideline for social values? Are the GOP and the BJP just brothers of another color?)

Back to India–

National pride here shows something good; it shows that people are willing to embrace each other as Indians. Not just as fellow Hindus, or Muslims, or Sikhs, or Rajasthanis, or Southerners. In one of the most fragmented countries in the world, it’s good for the national peace.

In addition to that, there’s not a lot India is doing — at least in my mind — to discourage a little celebration and self-love. When it hurts, it hurts itself. Any open-eyed, progressive American gets a little uncomfortable on the 4th of July. When America hurts, it usually hurts others. It’s easy to celebrate producing Bob Dylan and jeans and great independent movies and sock hops; it’s hard to celebrate foreign bloodshed. And sometimes it just seems hokey to celebrate America; it’s redundant. It’s boring.

My self-loathing as an American has been elevated to orange this week.

Onward and upward.

Having made some local friends (really! It’s thrilling) recently, Mara and Kari and I met Ashik–a twenty-something businessman (“In the business of handicrafts”). A. is new and strange to us–he is relentlessly friendly, entirely popular, and completely unsketchy. He looks a little like Aamir Khan. He is always dressed to the nines in patent shoes and striped button-ups, and he chauffeurs us places in his car and answers his constantly ringing cell phone. Then he buys us food and drinks and chauffeurs us home. We have experienced this a few times now. I hardly know what to make of such hospitality; it seems he has made entertaining us his new job.

Today Ashik picked us up and took us to Mr. Beans, a hookah/coffee shop. There, five of us–the three Amrikan larkiyan and A and his friend Imran–gathered around a hookah and I partook of the tobacco for quite a while. I also had an Assan tea and a mocha, and the conversation was a little stunted and boring for a while. Nobody’s fault, really; but what do you talk about in these situations? After a while, it picked up… broken Hindi always makes the Indian boys laugh, and I learned for the first time that in asking for the bathroom, I have been continuously using the word that is shower-specific. I have, essentially, frequently insinuated in many public places that I need to go bathe please, and where can I do so?

After Mr. Beans, we squeezed back into Ashik’s car, picked up another of his friends, and found ourselves being driven to an unfamiliar part of Jaipur to the blaring tune of Sexyback (this is globalization). Roads turned dustier and thinned out a little more, trees sprouted up a little more thickly, and then it was dusk, we were on a dirt road in a small residential area, and the car stopped. We were going to a school “function”.

This function was set up on a grassy area, a tent overhead, tarps on the ground, a stage in the front, and colorful block-printed sheets on strings providing something of isolation on one side. In the back were seated parents and grandparents in folding chairs, and near to the front were young schoolchildren in uniform. On the stage, off to the side, sat a few men of importance, in white traditional clothing, looking bored. On the table in front of them sat a requisite Hindu idol, wreathed with an orange garland, with incense burning before it.

As we approached from the side, every head turned in our direction to stare. I felt a little uncomfortable–were we going to take away attention from the acts?–but as we came closer a man came forward and led us past the parents, past the schoolchildren, and (really) on to the stage. We, the three Americans and Ashik, were seated beside the men of unknown importance, in kushy white chairs. The two other guys sat off the stage but closeby. A young guy with sunglasses and a microphone celebrated our presense and the audience of possibly two hundred–definitely more than a hundred–clapped. I felt completely strange and flattered.

From the stage we watched various performances by younger kids and preteens. We watched a group of nine of so girls perform a Rajasthani folk dance. We watched a nervous boy recite a nationalistic poem (I think?) with frequent use of the phrase “our country” (that’s about all I caught). We saw one of the important men give a longish inspirational speech about educating the young. We watched a group of boys perform a humorous play as drunks (none of which I understood). Intermittently a young boy bearing honorary garlands of marigolds came forward and the MC introduced each Important Person and they stood up to receive their garlands. I wondered for a moment–and then yes. We were acknowledged. More garlands were obtained and little girl in a sparkly lavender outfit, comfortably fashioned on her father’s hip, put these over our heads.

At one point I had to pee and whispered this to Ashik–I was then wisked away by someone administrative through the dark, and I followed him up the dirt road and into a house, through the twists and turns within the house and up an uncertain set of stairs with the sky over my head to a second level, where he motioned at a pitch black closet-looking room with a toilet buried somewhere inside. “Halka?” I asked, which I hope means “light”. He tried some switches nearby to no effect, and handed me his cell phone.

Later, Kari, being late for something meant to happen at 7:30, whispered to Ashik and we stood up and filed off the stage. Walking back to the car, more important-looking men shook our hands. We thanked them for their kindness, and they thanked us for coming. “Ashik is my boss,” one of the men explained, smiling. So that was it. The boss had shown up with three white girls, and this is occasion for stage-sitting and garland-giving. I don’t know, incidentally, how A is associated with the school, or how he seems to have his tentacles in everything, as a mysteriously important Jaipuri. We have begun to suspect he is in the Mafia, but I suppose we’ll never know.

As if this wasn’t enough, before we got into the car, some of the men begged us to come inside “just for a moment”, and then we were led into a tiny room with a map on the wall, a small globe on the table, a dusty computer and a messy desk. Here we occupied the chairs for only a minute before the food appeared, pakoras and jalebis, and water was presented, and Jesus were we spoiled. This sort of hospitality is disorienting in its over-the-top nature and leaves me looking immensely confused and gratified. I’ve found it in several places but so far this has been the pinnacle.

We got in the car and I spoke to Ashik–“Aap mashahur hai,” I said–you are famous. “I am famous because my heart is big,” he replied.

Who knows how true anything tonight was, who can begin to untangle the complicated strings of what is or isn’t deserved, whether my presense is positive or negative, who A is to this society, and what happens when I pass by in a nice car those who are living such different lives on the other side of my window. So much of being here is just seeing the large mass that is what I don’t understand.

What I do understand is that I was dropped off outside my door wearing a garland of orange marigolds and a little pin with the Indian flag on it (this acquired at Mr. Beans). It was a good night.

Happy 61st, India.

Gulabi Shahar

•August 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Really good day.

Went to the pink city this morning with Rebecca and Mara for the intended purpose of getting Mara some jewelry, Rebecca something I don’t remember anymore, and me some things I don’t want to say because some of them are gifts (!!). I hate shopping, usually. But shopping here is like, as one shopkeeper told me, “Heaven for the womens.” Not only are things cheap in price, they’re barely resistible; colorful and strange and beautiful. It’s jewels and skirts and sweets and shoes… a line of shops sinking me into consumerism. And the ease of shopping, here. You walk through the doorway, point at something, it is shown to you. “Kitna hai?” you ask. “200R,” he says. “Nahin,” you spit and contort your face–“100R”. He pauses and looks blank. “170,” he offers. You head toward the door, but before you’re gone he’s shouting lower and lower prices and eventually, if you know your quality, he’s at 100R and suddenly money is exchanged and suddenly you’re one shiny-thing richer.

And it’s out the door, and onward.

Took a cycle rickshaw and saw monkeys crawling over rooftops. Smelled garbage and spices. And I bought a little tube of red nail polish, for my toes. I don’t think I’ve painted my toenails in years, but now seems like a good time.

oops.

•August 9, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I think it’s harder for me to keep up on this ‘blogging’ thing not because I don’t have enough time, but because normally I write about very small things and here things are so different that it’s exhausting just thinking about it. I mean, I’ve made enough mental notes that it’s all oozing out my ears; the streets, the waste management system, the host “family” situation, the food, the implications involved with everything I do, the begging children, bangles, animal treatment, the feel of nighttime, and on, and on.

I feel like if I start writing anything I’ll feel obliged to make a novella out of it, and I don’t have the energy here.

That said, here is what to expect soon:

–A painstakingly detailed and critical evaluation of my “host-family”

–The meaning of “developing”

–My travel plans for the month of September

looking up.

•July 25, 2008 • Leave a Comment

After assessing my last post, and maybe a bunch of posts before that, and generally thinking and doing and speaking and thinking more, I have come to the conclusion that I had an immensely sensitive weekend, and that I frequently use blogging as a medium for complaint to flow from my head into other people’s (which is maybe just like having an irritating friend, only in voluntarily readable form). So I’m going to write something that’s actually…positive.

A few days ago I seemed to pass over some kind of barrier. I’m not sure what caused this passage, or what prevented it from being passed before, but somehow I’ve shed my angsty and vulnerable veneer. I have become consistently happy. Happy to be under this hot July Jaipur sun, happy to have sweet lime sodas and chai and happy to eat this savory food, happy to be somewhere so different. Knowing that I will have to deal with stares and harassment and gouging has become ingrained in the way that Chicago accustoms one to bitter winters and overheated summers–it’s just there, an impersonal, irritating, and distinguishing part of the place.

Again, I don’t know how I have somehow settled and come to rest. Maybe I crossed into familiarity with the animals, the infrastructure, the people. The meaning of “developing” and how one finds a home in such a place.

So I thought I’d do something nice and point out two things I find particularly charming about this country.

1. Men can show affection. Walking down the street, it is hard to conceal the smile that overtakes my face when I see two middle-aged men, or two teenage guys, walking down the street, grinning, hand-in-hand–and without any question of sexuality.

2. People paint and decorate things here. Lorries and rickshaws are normally painted with designs in bright pinks, blues, greens, yellows, oranges. “HORN PLEASE” is usually painted on the back of trucks, accentuated by maybe some peacocks or elephants.

America would be better if straight men held hands in brotherly affection and vehicles were painted by their owners.