Monthly Archives: July 2009

The one in which I am grumpy and brilliantly uninspired

I am sick of these metaphors. It’s 5 am, my god fate, do I have to give everything an aesthetic, hm?

I am leaning onto my bookbag on the Airtrain between terminals. The plane slid in Newark by dark, but now dawn is rising for me a second time today. On the horizon, the New York skyline rises, too, like in all its fictions. The Empire State Building pierces the exact middle of the generating sun, as if its syringe tip is coloring the sky’s pink and orange tissue. I have never been to New York. From this distance, it looks like Delhi, or Delhi looks like it. I don’t know if the haze is morning fog or constant pollution. A highway slits the metaphors lower half – it is busy already at this hour.

I guess the literary world is trying to tell me something about my arrival with this image, about my inevitable new dawn of life after such an incredible trip. The scene longs, lingers, yearns to become bad poetry. But the image is like morphine on my own culture. Culture shock, that is, and the pain of trying to sleep upright for half a day and too many security checks and the loud, white everyone everywhere in this passport place. I slump against my backpack even more and turn away from the shining scene. I’m home, but not completely.

Aesthetic. Anesthetic. Another cappuccino, please. This last flight will be long, too.

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Monsoon Missive

there is so much to fill in before this, but

I get caught in the rain on the way home from the Indian Habitat Center. I can see it streaking the metro windows as soon as it pulls out from Rajiv Chowk. I should have known the cool air on the platform was too good to be an air-conditioned encounter.  On the metro the clientele considers me. I come without punctuation- I’m carrying just my laptop bag and wearing a long modest embroidered top bought in Kanpur. I’m just another person riding the metro in another city with no interest other than avoiding getting trampled at the interchange station. It felt good to present myself as declarative rather than interrogative at the ticket counter. Rajendra Place and the eleven rupees already in hand through the semicircle opening. On the way to the center, I recognized the song on the radio, and whistled along. I knew I could do it, live here if I wanted. But I see the rain blackening the already grey halo around the city’s colors and I know I wouldn’t ever want to.

When I leave the metro, I retreat to the alcove of a building and shrug at the old man already standing there. He gives me a brief smile and says indiscernible quip, which I interpret as, Well, we tried. Isabelle and I used this as the catchphrase for all our rickshaw misadventures in Hyderabad. We tried; our India ultimatum. I watch the rain target its missile into the puddles. Thousands of drops collide their concentric circles into each other, obliterating each other in the valence. From the impact some bubbles rise, though. Uniformly the wind shooes them across the murky miniature lakes and my eyes follow their symmetry, form and pop and then just as many again replacing them, like reading the bulbous notes of sheet music as their sound is conceived around me in the soft storm.

When the clouds inhale, I move back into the open. I come to a huge puddle, which I think I can cross but soon I realize my entire ankle will be submerged. There’s no way around. I consider jumping across until I remember I have all my electronics in my bag and see a group of men near a line of motorcycles staring, waiting for my action. I sheepishly move around the parking lot, taking brief refuge in a parking garage with some more interested faces of young, rough men, then bolt around the other way. I repeat when the rain surges again, and again. It takes me half and hour to walk down the street back to the guesthouse this way.

I must have been a stranger sight than usual to those lingering under trees or rickshaw covering in this residential area. My steps slap with more focus than a meander; I don’t stroll, but I don’t hurry with the alerted concern or adventure shoes a fresh tourist either. I move over reflexively without looking back at who’s honking. I walk in a directed stride coupled with the malaise of sickness.  Already the temperature changes have exacerbated this cough/swine flu/malaria I have had for days and I consider ways to hide this from Customs; I just want to be home.

Back at the guesthouse and wait in the lobby until the taxi arrives to take me to the airport. I had to check out of my room at noon. I had intended to make one more round of the neighborhood. Perhaps I would have bought a mango and given my remaining coins to the dusty children near the park, or braved some idlly from the chat stand just for posterity. Likely, I would have come home after fifteen minutes, afraid to faint alone in heat and fever hours before my flight. Instead, I finish the novel I took from the hostel in Hyderabad – The Time Traveler’s Wife. An appropriate send-off for my 16-hour race with the night across the Atlantic. I leave it on the bookshelf among the consignments of past travelers and take another, lighter one for the flight, The English Patient. I put it in my stuffed bookbag and recline again. Enough of the others. My fingers break the swaddled humidity and syncopate with the monsoon shouting to the back door and I write my own last waiting words.

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Backtrack

I realize I have written very little about Hyderabad, which is a shame because I liked it immensely as a city, even if it was a bit over-sized and polluted.  The final project for one of my classes involved exploring places of leisure and writing a reflection over them. I visited Shilparamam, a recreation of a village oddly situated in the middle of Hi-Tech City, Lumbini Park, which borders the mediocre lake in the middle of the city, and a mall. In leui of  adventure stories, you’ll have to be satisfied with this academic fluff. Please excuse spelling and grammer – I wrote this in fits of fatigue, homesickness, and stress about parting with my new friends:

I am a traveler who places a high value in local geography. Before I unpack, I like to find my bearings and explore my surroundings. In six weeks, I have mapped the city of Hyderabad by train, bus, rickshaw, and car. My favorite activity is to drive around town while listening to the radio or a cd played by the driver of each. Against the backdrop of Indian pop music, I imagine that the whole world moves to the beats. The man selling peanuts wheels his carts to the backbeats; the motorist glides smoothly like the stringy melody; the cows in the street lumber to the percussion. I have the brief notion that the convergence of the songs and the activity forms a complete picture of this new place. Yet, I am very aware that this mentality homogenizes the diverse activity surrounding me. Like the glass of a car window, the soundtrack separates me from the places I am passing through. The music turns the city into an exotic landscape rather than a complex experience. My own entertainment takes precedence as the music turns the whole scene into a prescribed exoticism.

As a foreigner from a first-world nation, I am susceptible to a fantastical, glamorized view of India. The Indian Tourist Bureau tends to exaggerate this image for the sake of visitors like me. It markets an exotic, ancient land through their Incredible India! campaign in a way that prevents immersion into the actual pace of life. While heritage does shape society’s customs in part, it by no means includes every person or place. Emphasizing just past traditions occludes new ones and limits the diversity it is actually trying to celebrate.

This became apparent when I visited Shilparamam. A sign on the Living Rock Exhibit read This heritage is to be preserved. Further into the park, the Tribal Lifestyle exhibit romanticized traditional rural life. Frighteningly real-looking mannequins were positioned in craft-making activities in fake huts. The mannequins wore clean, white clothing. They seemed content in their pursuits, well-fed, and clothed. However, people in rural areas, like many parts of the world, often suffer from poorer qualities of education, nutrition, health care, and government funding to equalize these needs to urban standards. The representation excluded this aspect of the rural life. It demonstrated an efficient, trouble-free environment. By idealizing existence into a palatable lifestyle, the exhibit seemed dishonest and exploitative the more I looked at it. If they acquired the means to visit Shilparamam, some rural dwellers may not have the spare money or leisure to even come view this recreation of themselves.

Simply using the phrase Tribal Lifestyle diminishes these disparities between rural people and the urban visitors viewing the exhibit. The word tribal reinforces the Incredible India image. It suggests that these craft-makers live a primitive existence untouched by the modern world. While, the mannequins look tranquil, the word tribal always carries the connotation that these people lack intelligence, practice heathenism, and  require saving. It is important to note that these were all arguments the British used to justify colonizing and ruling India until less than a century ago. Ironically, Shilparamam’s reiteration of such views, whether intentional or not, through the village recreation prevents urban dwellers from empathizing or identifying their rural counterparts.
Issues of modernity continue the further one treks into Shilparamam’s park. From the top of the Mountain Heights section, one can see the sign marking Hi-Tech City. A green structure with four minarets and Hi-Tex written on in big letters looms over the highway. The fact that a recreation village sits in the middle of gleaming, sleek high-rise offices of the modern India suggests that pluralism exists peacefully only in imitation form. Like the surrounding buildings, Shilaparamam was carefully built and well-manicured. It offers relief from the busy, loud world just outside of its gates. Young couples lounged on the giant swings and the admission fee blocks the area from beggars or street vendors. The whole place, despite its efforts, indicates a needed separation rather than a celebration of India’s social layers.

I began to wonder if this negative view of pluralism resulted from my own hypersensitive cultural lens when I then visited Lumbini Park. Like Shilparamam, the green lawn seemed immaculate and the bushes planted thoughtfully for decoration. It offers respite from the busy six-lane road just beyond its private walls. Families and couples lounged on the grass. A guard whistled at children climbing on shiny new playground equipment. It seemed like a popular destination for upper and middle-class families, not a truly public space. In America, parks typically represent family leisure spaces in a similar fashion: children play on the equipment, couples picnic under trees, and relative rent out tables to hold reunions. These activities also offer an escape from the busy hassles of urban life; however, their occurrence tends to place a higher emphasis on escape through natural beauty. Parks usually comprise a preserved area of a once-uninhabited area. At Lumbini, the foliage seemed individually planned and the lake was made my man. While parks in America can have these qualities as well, mostly the transition between urban and   Security is minimal in parks. They are very much public places and therefore carry the hazards of dubious activities along with familial ones, such as drug deals and kidnapping. Teenagers visit to parks to escape their families often to smoke marijuana and engage in clandestine sexual relations. Lumbini Park offered none of these concerns. Despite it being in a bustling part of town, I felt as if I could lounge on the grass as a foreign by myself without such danger. Its careful recreation of nature, while more synthetic than American parks, seemed to weed out the unsavory leisure activities that those of America do encompass.

Yet, I began to notice layers emerging the longer I observed the area. I was first struck by the A Muslim girl’s black hijab swaying in the wind as she swung against the backdrop of the Hindu Birla Temple. She faced a giant statue of Buddha. Within less than a mile, three different religious coexisted. The Muslim girl may not visit the Birla Temple and the visitors to the Buddha Statue may not practice Buddhism. Yet, a level of mutual tolerance and knowledge of each religion must exist for these places to have been built and continually used. Entrances to these places are not exclusive to their worshippers, either. I believe religious pluralism in India exists for this type of incorporation. Although tensions rise between Hindus and Muslims in some areas, the basic inclusive and communal nature of all religions inspires their wonder and longevity as well. The families visiting the site may not be of mixed religions yet, but the families as a whole comprised an assorted public community within just the small confines of a park.

Social layers became clearer the more I watched as well. Although the park seemed on the surface to cater to families who could afford to spend a working day lounging around, it really did offer activities for a range of budgets. Admission fee of 5 rupees was much less than that of Shilparamam. Anyone with pocket change could access at least the park. Boat rides to the Buddha Statue or around the lake varied from fast and cheap speedboat rides to expensive parasailing excursions. A medium-sized boat for Buddha Statue tours docked right next to a large dinner cruise ship blasting loud music. The same view was available to nearly everyone. It just depended on how much you were willing to pay. In the lake white sails of ships in business moved across the horizon. These juxtaposing images show that the Lumbini Park is central in both geographic and social location. Its escapist environment attracts people from all religions and social standing. This shows that the dream of escaping Indian life, at least in part, exists not just for the upper class that can obtain it more easily, but for all levels of society.

After visiting Lumbini Park, I traded its natural setting for the synthetic one of Hyderabad Central Mall. As soon as I went through security, I felt as though I had stepped back into America. The colorful clothing was displayed not in the overwhelming mixture of a bazaar. Rather, a white floor and bright lights showed them on neat racks. In obvious ways the mall contrasted with the quaint, personable feel of Shilparamam. At Shilparamam, I met the artists who painted a small sprint I bought. He had hundreds of them, but no two were exactly the same. At the mall, I saw one of each item in every color and a uniformed clerk tried to sell me an identical of each in my size. After a while at both places, however, it all just represented mass consumption to me. The repeating rows of hand-carved boxes at Shilparamam looked a lot like the repeating rows of silk pashminas in the Mall – the latter was just more expensive. Between the two places was a difference of kind, not degree.

The mall displayed the most progressive notions. Jeans, v-neck t-shirts, and short dresses existed along side traditional kurtas and dupatas. Clunky play jewelry hung next to Hyderabad pearls. I bought some t-shirts on sale: I am cheap in every country. In the food court upstairs, one could buy pizza and racy American movies. American rap music blasted over the speakers. The women shopping around me were often alone unlike in Shilparamam and Lumbini Park.

At Shilparamam, Aryuveda treatment could only be offered to ladies, although I did see men and women learning paper art techniques together in a tent. At Lumbini Park, couples openly held hands despite the being in the most socially diverse surroundings of the three places I visited. Surprisingly, the mall gave the most obvious display of gender segregation. It began the moment I walk in the door. The men simply walk through a metal detector but the ladies enter a curtained area. The physical touch of being padded down is completely shielded from the men’s eyes. Men’s and women’s clothing are separated by floors. Men and women do not mingle when they shop; however, men and women salesclerks work the same floor. In America, the modernization that India hopes for usually equates to a liberalization of society. In part this is happening in India, yet the mall reminded me that high social status and modernity do not necessarily equate to liberal social views. Many people in Western nations would consider some of these displays about gender segregation just as primitive as the creators of Shilparamam consider the tribal people.

Overall, leisure seemed inherently wrapped up in escape through consumption. At Shilparamam, people with leisure can buy or learn to make handicrafts suggesting an authentic ethnicity without the trouble of social inequality. At Lumbini Park, they can pretend they are a professional cricket player by practicing their swing at the batting cages or an acrobat by jumping on a giant trampoline for a few rupees. At Hyderabad Central, they can buy revealing Western clothing and play arcade games. The money, free time, and willingness to engage in these pop culture pastimes is more important than the actual performance of them. Yet, this shared ability or social class hardly indicates a homogenized sector. Being able to patronize these three places in one’s spare time is the goal of most Indians. However, the personal convictions about religion, gender, and social development vary wildly even between those who possess the money and time to do so.

At the Hyderabad Central Mall I bought an A.R. Rahman compilation cd. As we drove back through the city to come home, I put it in the cd player. As usual, the popular music seemed to make the street life more exciting. This time, I was aware that I was escaping it in my relaxation. I began to look at everything more closely. If I had learned anything from the day, it was that even in areas of repose, you can see the intricacies beneath a well-created surface. I took my leisure in those observations.

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Lonely Plan It

This blog is temporarily suspended for adventure!

On last minute notice, I have entered India alone. I will be visiting some old friends and some new ones if I can ever figure out how to  lift up my feet while carting the exactly 25 kg of luggage I somehow acquired.

Satish encouraged me before leaving Hyderabad by saying I would surely discover the difference between a tourist and a traveler. With this advice not yet 24 hours fresh in my ears, I have already used my print sheet as a make-shift curtain, my wrap-skirt as a blanket, and my broken English as a weapon to access closed-off street, find a room fully-booked hotel, and yell I know you are a scam! at the orange-uniformed ‘officials’ outside of the New Delhi Railway Station.`My how times have changed. In two months my face has hardened to determination and my stomach to strange dishes that streak the whole geography of plates in leftovers the same color and stripe of the Indian flag . My wardrobe also contains a disproportionate amount of Aladdin pants. My arms and shoulders, sore from the day’s confinement of straps and handles and broken wheels, tell me a good traveler knows which ones to abandon.

Tomorrow’s task. Now,  a hot shower after the long midnight train and motionless sleep.

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Recovered

I worried about propriety while writing about Haritha and the others. I didn’t want them to become characters in a narrative, although I didn’t see any way to avoid this in part. I worried that this fictionalization would happen even in my own mind. The only way to repay them in any equality was to keep their memory pure. I know I have done a poor job representing them and am frustrated to lack the exact words when I have been able to write about every other trivial thing. Yet, excluding the day which was undoubtedly the most memorable part of my trip seemed like a gross twisting of the record.

Then, today as I was preparing to post all these skeletal observations, Anna and I couldn’t find the paper on which we had written their names. We scrambled through our belongings. We flipped open pages of our notebook, shook out novels, and turned over old train stubs. I thought we had used a substantive book of some kind, but maybe not? With all these loose papers, it could be anywhere. What had we brought with us that day?

I have lost my share of earrings and class notes and borrowed clothing, but this one would be the worst to forfeit. Taking them in words without names would be the most dishonest representation I could imagine.

Suddenly Anna found me with a radiant face. On a tiny patchwork folder they were scribbled in our guessed spellings – Harith, Prianca, Patush, Richie, Potina. We had intersected their lives but it was more than that. The gestalt of their kindness exceeded the afternoon. It didn’t matter if anyone else understood those moments, singular or cumulative. I copied the names into my own notebook. In the writing I remembered each face and cried in relief where no one could see me.

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Vijayawada: Lounging and Lunging

It’s sleeper class on the return. You pay chump change to recline and to sweat in the circulation of the wind dashing between the open windows. The train life is a repeating tape as a cast of castes enters from the side wings of the car every few minutes. A man with crippled legs slides through of aisle and shakes a box at me. A waif woman totters not from the train’s squirming crawl but from a limp and passes me. Her sari is a muted brown, a simple cloth compared to the ornate, bejeweled wraps that women wear to impress each other on the train. However, the body it covers is seamed with wrinkles. A man hands her a few rupees and one drops to the floor. She doesn’t even have a kurta. When she bends over and I fear exposure, but the folds of her body enshrine her breasts. The sweat on her body glints brighter than any beading. Her fingers spent ten minutes scrimmaging with the dust and the luggage to find the lost coin. Her waist bent low like a wilted, burned sunflower and I didn’t think she would be able to stand back straight. The man who gave her the rupees, waiting but unable to pass, stoops to help and she refuses to leave it although I couldn’t bear to watch the determined hunt to its conclusion.

Chaicoffee! young boys shout as they stride through the car with silver pots and paper cups swinging like lanterns in front of them. The single syllable emphasizes their urgency – get it while it is hot!

Interspersed with the chaicoffee connoisseurs, two women trail each other through the berths, attached like the capsules of the peanuts they are selling out of large, round wicker baskets. They squawked whatever it is you shout to let people hungering for peanuts know they better flash their wallets. Even if I hadn’t wanted peanuts, I would have bought some for a moments silence from their impossibly deafening pitch. Their seemed to elude the Doppler effect and amplify with the rushing wind.

That can’t possibly be that Telegu word for peanut, Anna notes when the interjections interrupt her upright snooze.

Despite the interruptions and the stowaways, I like riding the trains because for once I see people’s unadulterated moments. For the first few hours the sieve of curiosity attracts syncopated head-turns from whole families and neck-twists from those passing by our berth. Soon enough, though, everyone forgets or realizes the most interesting thing I’ve done is scratch a bug bite. Then I can see the mother changing her toddler’s pants, the or the two brothers, one arm around the others shoulder, chatting and smiling, maybe about us through shrewd lashes, but maybe not. Later one lays his head in his brother lap while the other reads. They make do with the cramped space and uncounted hours. In a similar remedy, the tiniest boy placed himself as a decal on the adjacent window by somehow cramming between the spaces of two of its bars.

We shared our berth with an uncharistically taciturn family of 5.  When we stopped at a junction station, the father left his seat. I thought he might be using the restroom, but when I looked out of the window I saw him on the platform charging his daughters cell phone in an outlet. Five minutes later the train started moving. He pulled the charger from the pillar and jogged to the train, hoping on at the last minute.

I am glad you made it back, I smiled. He smiled back, shrugged, and crossed his arms and went to sleep upright again. I wanted to know how his daughter is getting reception all the way out here.

If we weren’t going to have to explain our travels and our relationship status to anyone, I was going to daydream about it myself. I shove on my headphones and try to remember each mile we pass.

I scroll until I find the Avett Brothers. I hadn’t given them much play time before – I had always relegated them to the bench of artists whom might impress a casual observer of my iPod but when pressed for more information, an opinion,  I would reply with the hipster dignity masking ignorance, I need to listen to them more to say. Still, I liked a few songs and I had six hours to kill.

I see one titled Salina and play it out of curiosity. The song begins with a plea to Kansas and I remembered the drive I took the day before through the farmland near my house, when the sun seemed to be laying its long limbs of dusk onto the horizon in repose.

Now, I watch as the train hemmed the Western Ghats drenched in a similar sun. Their singular blue cones tended to waterlogged rice paddies and brown fields like the shepards passing through them wearing a cloth around their waist. In a seat sticking to my white pants, admittedly a poor choice for the conditions, I listen as the lunging banjo gave the lunging car a dulcet impetus. The rushing wind wraps the surroundings closer. It makes the movement more like a ripple than a cut through the countryside. I could have touched the people on the platform whizzing by, or the short palms wagging their fingers in our wake.

I look at the flaccid, bored faces of the families around me, also facing the margins of the train like correctly-placed photos in a yearbook spread. The East Coast Express promises the most direct route to the people and destinations they must be envisioning. I thought of Kansas, but also how I was chugging back from a place I still could not map except in a sweet memory almost like that of home. I couldn’t say if we were going north in the world or where. In the drone and sway of the tracks I keep looking out at the unknown fields, revealing in the moving isolation, adding this somewhere to me.

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Vijayawada: Tell it to Me

The Modern Café can be seen this way or it cannot. It has transplanted its black and white tiles floors, a cursive sign that says Quality Satisfaction straight from a 1940s diner. But down the street a man with a cart is cooking samosas in a giant wok of oil. So, the dirty tables and inflexible menu aren’t so bad. Vanity lights border and perpetually illuminate a shrine in the back. This fast-food joint faces the Sree Vesudev, and we eat there every morning. Each day a new batch of customer stares, the wait staff aloof, though, after the first time, their rapid movements ensuring us quick food, if not what we wanted. Every day we run into the problem of ordering. Nearly half of the items listed on the menu are not available, plugging our adventurous tastes.

Masala dosa?

Plain dosa

Chickoo milkshake?

10 am

9:30.

At this point three waiters have surrounded our table trying to resolve the problem that is us.

I will have the aloo paneer and roti.

Just No. Expectant stares. The other waiters disperse without a word.

In America, the wait staff would be fawning with apology for being out of this type of cheese, that kind of liquor, offering suggestions for similar dishes. Here, you’ve got to bring your own back-ups, decisions; a varied appetite for a spit-fire, two-word response to It is not possible.

After six attempts, we down grade to plain dosas. The waiter oscillates his head and then walks away. We wait to see if he meant yes or no.

Soon, he arrives back with the huge crepe-like flakes. The dosa is still good, but its a forced food misadventure. When we ask Satish, our graduate assistant at the university, about the deceptive menus he explains that dining out is still a novelty act for most Indians. Few customers result in fewer choices and some ingredients are seasonal anyway. The menus anticipate a cosmopolitan business but settle for the unvaried diet of the small regulars crowd.

On the last day, as we are rummaging for rupees and ordering mineral waters for the train ride home, I see the warning. Written above the door in English black block letters spell incorrectly beneath the Telegu script: WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR BELONGING. Don’t I know it, India.

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