Sunday, June 15, 2008
In Hindi, there is only one word for yesterday and tomorrow--kal. The context lets you know which one is meant, but only today is truly different. As I left India, feeling as if I were dry-heaving through my skin, this idea kept coming back to me.
And so I must look at the past year. What does that kal hold for me?
The mingled smell of incense and baked piss as I walk around the city. Seeing women go bowling in saris. Sunrise over the Himalaya. Writing on a riverbank in Laos. My French friend Sam inexplicably changing his pants in the middle of a restaurant. Train station goodbyes. Directing plays. The kids at the orphanage. Dancing anywhere and everywhere. Praying over a dying baby. Seeing a woman whirl singing around a temple in a religious trance. Hinglish. Eating holy fruit. Rooftop conversations. The stares. The head-bobble. Tandoori smiles. A lime-green dump truck full of men in white-collared shirts. An 8-year-old monk struggling to free his hand from his robes so he could return my wave like the little boy he really was. Listening to some of my students pray at a stupa while the spire and the scent of Lotus flowers pointed at the rainbow-halved moon. Getting my sandals stolen when I left them outside a Buddhist temple. Night paddles in Kashmir. Women’s face veils falling away when they return my smile. Falling asleep in public places.
These things I will carry with me. But where will I carry them to?
Part of that answer is wrapped up in the fortunes of women. India was deeply feminine for me. Women were the first to genuinely welcome me to India, the ones to walk with me and teach me, to protect me from danger and lead me towards wonder. To be in India is to be firmly reminded of your gender at every turn. Where you can go. What you can wear. Who you can touch. What you can do. Of course India is evolving, and gender roles are evolving with it. I had dear male friends there who helped make my experience wonderful and rich. But that doesn't change the fact that my experience has been thoroughly defined by the general cultural perception that, as a white woman, I am both rich and easy.
In response to that, one of my last projects was to direct the Vagina Monologues in order to raise money to help victims of human trafficking. The main reason I did this was because of one piece: My Short Skirt.
It is not an invitation
that I want it
or give it
or that I hook.
My short skirt
is not begging for it
it does not want you
to rip it off me
or pull it down.
My short skirt
is not a legal reason
for raping me
although it has been before
it will not hold up
in the new court.
My short skirt, believe it or not
has nothing to do with you.
My short skirt
is about discovering
the power of my lower calves
about cool autumn air traveling
up my inner thighs
about allowing everything I see
or pass or feel to live inside.
My short skirt is not proof
that I am stupid
or a malleable little girl.
My short skirt is my defiance
I will not let you make me afraid
My short skirt is not showing off
this is who I am
before you made me cover it
or tone it down.
Get used to it.
My short skirt is happiness
I can feel myself on the ground.
I am here. I am hot.
My short skirt is a liberation
flag in the women's army
I declare these streets, any streets
my vagina's country.
My short skirt
is turquoise water
with swimming colored fish
a summer festival
in the starry dark
a bird calling
a train arriving in a foreign town
my short skirt is a wild spin
a full breath
a tango dip
my short skirt is
But mainly my short skirt
and everything under it
Clothing is so fraught in India, especially women's clothing. The group of women that came together to do the play--Indians, Germans, Americans, Sri Lankans, Mexicans--all responded powerfully to these ideas. As a group, we made a LOT of people uncomfortable. As a group, we helped each other realize our womanhood in India more fully. But the biggest thing that this project taught me wasn't to appreciate what I had as an American--it was to realize what I didn't have. In a land where a woman's place is somewhat fragile, there are powerful bonds of sisterhood, support, and solidarity. Those things of course exist in the West, but they often exist alongside of acrimony, envy, and tearing other women down.
My Indian woman pulled me through the days when I didn't love India. They cheered me up when I was overwhelmed with the dust, garbage, objectification, dying puppies, hopeless mothers and starving children. They are the main reasons I am leaving India still Carolyn and not a shivering wreck of a Hindified Post-Capitalist Hare Krishna Hippie with a masala fetish.
So aside from learning how to wear a sari and eat when I'm bursting and begging a bus driver in Hindi to stop swerving over mountains unless he wants me to upchuck all over his bus....
India has taught me how to be more of a woman, with all of the joy, sisterhood, baggage, and potential that goes with it. And so as kal turns to kal, I can only hope that my tomorrow will let me pay back the lessons of my Indian yesterdays.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
*Lists I Made in English Instead of the One I Was Supposed to Make in Hindi
Things People Walk Up to Me and Say Out of the Blue
- You are from which country?
- Hello goodbye chocolate?
- You look like Shakira! (I don’t, not even remotely)
- Madam please come?
- Why you are not married?
- Backstreet Boys?
- “He is eating fish” (Local man, when asked where the nearest town was.)
- You have sex!
- Are all American women addicted to alcohol?
Ways I am Becoming a Local
- I stare at white people.
- I am prone to outlandish metaphors, like a field of drooping sunflowers reminding me of the written script of the Telugu language
- I can spend large amounts of time squatting.
- My day is a romp through contrasts. Sometimes I think I have nothing to do with my feelings or reactions and am simply being pelted with emotional holi (the colored powder Hindus throw at you on festivals or Tuesdays) by the subcontinental equivalent of leprechauns.
- I have the uncontrollable urge to welcome people to my home and overfeed them…even when I’m not home.
- I can’t get through a day without at least 3 cups of chai
- I bobble my head like a mad thing when I’m agreeing…or smiling…or listening…or breathing.
- I eat the street food and drink the water and somehow manage not to erupt with intestinal parasites…except for that one time.
- I have started to misspell English words, such as "automobile" and "Carolyn."
Things That Have Recently Made Me Cry
- China—really must stop reading about resistance movements.
- Going to visit a local temple and being dragged outside by a mother who wanted me to pray over her dying baby. She looked at me with such hope, expecting me to be able to stop what would inevitably happen. I will never recover from this…and neither will her baby.
- People lying face down in the bakedpissstreetdust, with spines like question marks—questions that will never be answered.
- Coffee that smells like burnt popcorn.
- Trains that inexplicably smell like Christmas trees…right before they smell like urine.
- Food in all manner and magic of olfactory goodness.
- Burning garbage, which is actually not as bad as it sounds.
- Garbage, which is as bad as it sounds.
- Incense in thematically inconsistent places, including computer labs, temples, department stores, kitchens, and security outposts.
- Jungle, which smells like green.
- Car/bike/cycle/rickshaw/lorry/moped horns. Passing lanes, turn signals, right of way, and one-way signs are pretty much non-existent, all replaced by the use of horn. HONK I’m coming up behind you HONK I’m on your left HONK I almost killed you but you wisely jumped behind a sacred cow and were therefore spared HONK that was really just for fun. Honestly, it kind of makes more sense than the American system—why count on others paying attention when you can just warn them?
- The sound of Muslim prayers cutting through evening fog and Friday boulders as you overlook the city.
- The rhythmic sounds of vendors (wallahs) as they walk through the trains, sell-singing tea, snacks, and meals, all in resounding, repeating, melodic monotones weaving in and out of the train wheels clacking down the line. There is a great hip-hop back beat in there somewhere.
- Dog fights, early in the morning. Right outside my window.
Things I Hate About India
- A certain kind of staring. Most people who stare just do it because I stand out like a Carolyn in India. White people are rare here, and a white woman alone is an oddity. Plus, staring is not really considered rude in India. Add that to the national obsession with fair skin, and I would make millions if I started charging money to gawk at me. But for most people, it is simple curiosity and that is totally fair…and even endearing in an odd way. But I am genuinely concerned for some people (oh, I don't know, almost ALL MEN ages 14-87) that their eyes will fall out of their heads, expelled by the dirtydirtydirty thoughts that are crowding their brains. I am not a whore, Mr. Motorcycle Driver, get your eyes back on the road. You just hit a goat.
- Soul-killing poverty. Poverty is everywhere in the world. This is obviously not news. But the sheer breadth and depth of it here makes my soul bleed out my eyes. Scads of old women wandering around in traffic, putting their hands into rickshaws and open car window. Children stumbling around holding dried-up babies, putting their hands to their mouths in a plea, probably at the behest of the disreputable man watching from across the way. People sleeping on sidewalks, holy monuments, roadblocks, under trucks, and in the middle of a divided highway. Like everything I love here, this too is a part of India. And this too I will always carry with me.
- Deeply institutionalized unfairness. Again, not a new concept. Again…the widespread social acceptability of what seems to be hate and superiority complexes gone unconscionably wrong just kills me. Racism, sexism, prejudice…in certain areas and people, beliefs I cannot help but find deeply abhorrent are entrenched to an extent that people would have an easier time changing into fish than changing their minds. This is definitely not everyone…but it is also not rare.
- Men peeing on the side of…everything. As a backcountry girl, this particular practice has never bothered me (indeed, it has afforded opportunities for some one-sidedly hilarious practical jokes). But here, I take issue. They can whip out their dangle in public and I'm considered a whore if I show my SHOULDER?
- Bureaucracy. Really? You need a copy of my passport, visa, certificate of residence, dorm room number, 5 photos exactly passport-sized that show my ears, a form filled out and signed in triplicate…sent in on three separate occasions JUST SO I CAN MAKE A DAMN PHONE CALL? Really?
Things I Love About India
- The food. Oh Gods. The food. Dosa, idli, paneer, masala, chai, ladoo…oh Gods. The original version of this list consisted of roughly 57 different types of food and a vague mention of pretty colors.
- Running around barefoot is socially acceptable.
- The willingness of men to wear hot pink.
- Driving motorcycles.
- Eating rice (and everything else) with my fingers. Finally, I get to play with my food.
- Mango juice. I would marry it if had a better sense of humor.
- When the children at the orphanage call me "didi."
- The children at the orphanage
- Pretty much all children.
- Things lost in translation. At a recent Rotary Club meeting, the president exhorted us to help out with "Breast Awareness Month." I wasn't aware breasts needed a publicity campaign.
- Families of six on one motorcycle, complete with at least one baby melted into its mother, who is riding sidesaddle in a sari.
- Colors crashing into my eyeballs the minute I wake up. Attending university here is like going to school with confetti. People wear lime green with fuchsia, cheddar orange with cornflower blue, checkered pants with wallpaper-pattern shirts and striped scarves…and flowers with everything. Movie posters have actual gold garlands strung across the jewelry of stars, there are beautiful pictures chalked on the sidewalks of most Hindu homes, and temples look like someone painted them with the 34 colors in a leftover box of Easter egg dye. Even piles of worms dress themselves in raisin colors.
- Sliced ice cream.
- Playing guitar on the roof.
- Men holding hands everywhere.
- Three men on a motorcycle, with the last holding hands with another man on a bicycle as they towed him down the road at 40 miles an hour. Sometimes, I even see motorcycles in rickshaws or goats on motorcycles.
- The fact that everywhere I go, I wish my eyeballs were cameras. India is relentlessly photogenic, and every time I walk out my door, I think to myself that National Geographic magazine was invented for a country like this.
- The fact toothpicks here have fancily carved heads.
- The rate at which adventure happens.
Things I Don't Miss About the US
- Reality TV.
- The lack of international news.
- Stupid disclaimers on everything so that people won't get sued. Indians just assume that if you don't know not to bite the tires of a moving motorcycle, you deserve to die.
- The staggering lack of public transportation.
- Men who are afraid to dance (seriously…it's getting them to NOT dance here that's the issue).
- Signs about abortion, either for or against.
- Cleaning my own bathroom.
- Prosaic headlines. In the US, the headlines read like this: "US Senator Has Affair with Staffer.” In India: “Congress Member Killed by Monkeys."
Things I Do Miss
- Car shocks.
- Bagels and cream cheese.
- Street signs.
- Hip hop.
- Seeing knees.
Friday, April 18, 2008
I think I’ve been kidnapped by drug-dealing Punjabis.
At the time, it seemed like a really good idea: Friend and I would pay a taxi to drive us up to Srinagar, Kashmir, normally an 8-hour drive, and then we’d stay with a quintessentially Indian connection—friendofafriendofafriendofafriendofafriend. No worries, right?
Then comes the water buffalo stampede. S. PLURAL. The first time was funny…before it was an hour long. Then Driver-ji decides to pull off the road umpti-bagillion times to have conversations in bushes with mysterious turbaned men (god forgive me, a lot of them looked like smurfs…large, hairy smurfs.) At first I think maybe he is getting his homosexual on, until Friend sagely points out that the unmarked car following us up the mountain seems to contain drug-shaped packages. Awesome. Driver-ji is an opium dealer and likes to take hits and weave all over the road, singing in Punjabi and declaring his undying love for me while insisting I sing American folk songs. Inexplicably, all I can remember is “When Doves Cry” by Prince. I don’t even like that song.
At hour 11, our open car door is hit by the Indian version of a semi, and we sit shivering in the Himalayan air while Driver-ji and the other driver get into a yelling match in the middle of the road while the other men vigorously concentrate on staring so hard at me and Friend that I’m seriously concerned they’re going to start pelting us with eyeballs. Then we get stopped by the military. Twice. Turns out militaries like to use machine guns to vaguely gesture at you while they keep saying the Hindi word for paper: kagaz, kagaz! Great, they’re going to take our passports, kill and rape and rob us in some variation of that order and then sell our papers on the black market. OH. MY. GODS.
Oh. They just want a piece of paper to write down Driver-ji’s info in case they decide his bribe isn’t big enough. And now friendofafriendofafriendofafriendofafriend is calling Driver-ji every 13 seconds to make sure we’re still alive and has been waiting in the Himalayan Lakeside Cold for seven hours to make sure he can paddle us out to his houseboat the second we get there. I don’t even think I’d wait in the freezing cold like that for my own children, let alone a stranger 13 times removed. Even amidst fear and ridiculousness, nobody does hospitality like India.
Kashmir itself was lovely, aside from the machine-gun toting military. Even though I'm American, the sight of so many guns very distinctly creeped me out. (Kashmir has long been disputed between India and Pakistan, a conflict which often become militarized, so it's understandable.) There is something very vital about a culture that fiercely holds on to its identity under such surveillance. And if I’m being frank, that fierceness is not always a comfortable thing to be near.
We lived on a houseboat in Dal Lake, which was full of houseboats and loveliness and nestled in mountainsmountainsmountains. You had to take boats everywhere, including through the lovely Old City, which made me think of an ancient Muslim Venice. Instead of street vendors, they had lake vendors, canoes going around and selling everything from flowers to soda to toothbrushes to dress material. We rode ponies up to a glacier and impressed all the warm-weather persons with our flip-flop-wearing ways. At night, I got paddled back to my houseboat by my pal Feroz, and as we wove in and out of gardens and houseboats, slipping through star-scattered lake, we talked of religion and water and I remembered for the thousandth time how much others are not others at all.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Choose the true statement:a) On a recent train trip, I think I became engaged to a young man named Naveen. My Hindi’s not that great, but he kept giving me jewelry and talking about next weekend. b) One of the things I love about my current corner of this round earth is that the religions work sensuality into them—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism…there is always something extra for the senses, be it incense, sacred fruit offerings that you get to eat, colored powder to throw at everyone and everything... It makes me think that the religions that focus on the soul to the exclusion of the body might have missed something. c) I fell asleep on a bus to a village I’ve forgotten how to pronounce, and was awoken by a man poking my arm all over. At first I was ready to start throwing punches until I realized he was counting my freckles. d) All of the above
Before I came, everyone was always telling me that to live in India would be a great adventure. And, lordy, it has been. You all have read so many of my stories, seen my pictures, and occasionally received a phone call from tomorrow (I love time zones!). I've seen gorgeous things, broken my heart over the not-so-gorgeous, come up with observations that sound profound but quite possibly mean jack (when looking over the tallest waterfall in India, I said to myself "Water always changes color when it falls long distances." Seemed profound at the time) and eaten the longest-running string of fantastic food in my whole life.
One of the funniest things about India, though, is the running conversation I've been having with her people about what it means to be Indian. No other place I've ever been has had a citizenry so caught up with their various concepts of the character (or even existence) of a national identity...or so willing to talk about it. Maybe it's because I've never been to a country with so many living people who remember its beginning. To relay those conversations would, frankly, take too long and quite possibly be boring for you. So I'll limit it to this...as I've been here longer, many conversations have included various claims on how Indian I am. If I'm late, I'm Indian. If I do something good for other people, I'm Indian. If I unconsciously use certain phrases, I'm Indian. But if I want to buy something, I'm definitely a foreigner and will be expected to pay 2-3 times normal price.
It used to not bother me so much. I'd either haggle down or realize it was only 30 cents to me and frankly I can afford that...but the longer I live here, the less patience I have with the various doubletriplequadruple standards, especially the ones that do not apply to me--I get away with a lot as a white woman, and I shouldn't. Part of that is just the old childhood instinct--"that's not fair." But I actually think more of it is that as I live here longer, I feel more and more a part of this country, and it's frankly hurtful when I can't convey that. Even writing this post, I had difficulty thinking of observations to share because I can't quite remember what I'm supposed to think of as "normal" or "different." It's not just that I know some Hindi words now or that I dress in semi-Indian clothes. It's that the very texture of my skin has changed, the taste on my lips when I lick them in the heat, the fact that I can't get hungry before 8 p.m., that nodding my head now includes several previously unknown variations on that simple gesture, that simple American things like Cub Foods have to be explained to me before I remember what it's like to be in my own country.
My own country. That phrase has gotten a lot more complicated.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Choose the correct conversation snippet:
a) "Mirrors? I can't stand 'em! And besides...other people have headlights." Friend with a motorcycle who had ripped off the mirrors on it. Not sure what he'll say when he gets run over by a water buffalo. Will keep you posted.
b) "Now is the time to SWASHBUCKLE"--in my notebook in class. Not sure who wrote it because my brain had shut down due to terminal boringness
c) "No matter what you do, I will not be happy." Professor Chandran in giving us our term paper assignment. An inspiration to all future teachers, I can assure you.
d) All of the above
India is full of "what the..." moments. My most recent was when I was walking back from the Children's Home I work at when a strange man hauled off and hit me on the arm with a bag of vegetables. What? Or it's more difficult to get the paperwork to leave the country than it is to get into it. Huh? Or climbing a lovely mountain only to find a vendor selling the chance to shoot BBs at soda bottles once the view got old. Say what?
Some of them aren't always funny, though. For instance, the most common "what the" feeling I have is about children. Indian children seem to be nailed to opposite ends of the childhood spectrum. They're either insanely pampered and can therefore look forward to a future as a totally obnoxious human being...or they spend every moment from the time they can walk desperately struggling not to starve to death. Dirty children forced to beg on the streets become dirty young people carrying their younger siblings around to beg once they're no longer "cute,” then are married off to some stranger in order to repeat the cycle of poverty and hopelessness. It is so DAMN HARD. It seems there are so few kids who have what I in all my arrogance would term a solid normal childhood...you know, where you're loved and fed but not given so much attention as to ruin you. And after spending so much time trying to plug up the cracks in the systems so kids can change their future in America...it's even more galling to see that the systems here don't have cracks...because many of those systems just don't exist or are so confusing that they're nearly impossible to navigate. When your country holds a 6th of the world’s population, over a billion people...it seems to be nearly impossible to look after any of them..not enough money, even though to be rich in India is to live in a luxury I've never seen anywhere else.
All the foreigners in India are always rejoicing in how cheap life is here. You can get great things, great luxury services, for incredibly small amounts of money. But life is cheap in more ways than one. Life is cheap because so few seem to value it in other people. Even people I volunteer with, ostensibly kind and honorable citizens, will holler at the busboy or the driver for no apparent reason, as if the nature of their job determines the worth of their life. I was in an auto rickshaw coming home to the university, and we almost hit an old woman. She jumped out of the way...right into the path of a motorcycle which hit her with the worst sound I've ever heard. The basket of grain she was carrying (this was not a rich woman wandering around in the middle of the night I can assure you) scattered all over the road, mixing with the headlight of the motorcycle as it lay on top of her, still running.
And the auto rickshaw driver Wouldn't. Even. Stop. He wouldn't stop. I was screaming at him in my angriest Hindi, then switched to English because I didn't know how else to express my horror anymore. And he wouldn't stop. Later, my friends explained to me it was probably because of what would follow a scene like that---the driver of the motorcycle would probably get beaten up, even though it wasn't really his fault, and there would likely be a riot. I never found out, because the death of a poor working woman in the middle of the city was not enough to make the news.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
One of the side effects of studying English in India, aside from various gastrointestinal disorders, is a growing inclination for outlandish and mildly literary statements and a compulsion to phrase observations in the form of test questions.
Complete the following phrase:
a) Can't get used to getting stared at by dudes. It's happened nearly every day for months, and it still makes me uncomfortable
b) Love eating food with my fingers, be it rice, casserole, dal, bread, or gravy. Love. It. I'm pretty sure I'll refuse to go back to utensils.
c) Kind of stink at Hindi but now at least sound like a demented 5-year-old and can get my point across.
d) Get a kick out of how straight Indian men behave exactly like stereotypical gay American man. Man, they cannot get enough of each other.
e) All of the above
Living in India is kind of like putting on a sari, the traditional female dress which consists of 6 yards of cloth folded and occasionally tucked into a petticoat...and that's all that holds it up. Somehow, this attire manages to be appropriate to all types of functions--insanely elegant parties, professional occasions, and hard physical labor. At first glance, it's gorgeous...like India. Upon closer examination, you see that things we keep hidden in the West are very much exposed, and vice versa. Then you try to figure it out by yourself and it's confusing as hell...like India. And when you really think about it, the entire structure of the garment depends on one thing (the petticoat), which you can't even see. Gradually, though, the folds and twists start to make sense, but only with the help and friendship of people who live here...like India.
Bonus Poem I'm Inflicting on You:
Like a sari,
Dazzles at first glance
Hides many things
held up by the unseen work-a-day
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Sometimes I think I love India because I don't know how else to react. A few observations to which I can tie no stories:
- One of the things that I encounter every day is the concept of things lost in translation. For example, when we were visiting a museum in Pune, Friend and I quite enjoyed reading the captions below the artifacts. A sampling:
A weapon (really?)
A Hanging Pot
Cords for the string (…what?)
The only exit from the building
Just read the caption
- It's pretty easy for me as a native English speaker to get a good laugh out of these, but now I always seem to hear Salman Rushdie's words in my head: He said that of course there are many things lost in translation, but that there are also many things to be gained. And I agree.
- Today, I got crapped on by an extremely exotic bird.
- Even after being around an exceedingly large number of yoga-rific people, meditation still eludes me. The closest I come is being on a train. As the pitter-pat train rain that is monsoon travel rattles its way through the country, my mind slows as I watch little boys hanging out the train doors, surf-singing, shoeless and skinny. Births and berths intermingle and forty hours pass before I realize I’ve covered a semi-continent.
- I went to the Jungle and saw wild tigers. Oh, and it was the Actual Jungle Book Jungle. Oh, and I got to dance with a remote jungle tribe around a fire. I held hands with a little girl, and as we smiled at each other without words and danced, I didn’t know if she was leading or if I was. The next day we went looking for tigers, with nary a one to be found. And yet, sitting in peace with the ghost of Mowgli, there was a silent magic just knowing they were there.
- One of my favorite things to do in India is work at an orphanage. I love those kids...they're adorable and I don't have to make them fill out paperwork. On Sundays, I try to bring some other college friends with me so that more kids get attention. Last Sunday, as I was singing songs to the 12 children in my lap, I looked up and saw a lot of kids with formerly bleak lives getting love and affection from adults from America, Afghanistan, Germany, Indonesia, Canada, India, Norway and Sri Lanka. Sometimes, I apparently live in an after-school special.
- As I was trying to get on the plane to Thailand, I was told I couldn't go because I had left my residency certificate in Hyderabad (still paperwork is the bane of my existence). All my newly-learned swear words flooded through my head and I was in a panic. And then, through a combination of crying, phone calls, fax machines, and very nice people, I somehow got on the plane. It was so typically India: a stupid bureaucratic detail can completely screw you over, and then 6 people in two states will frantically work to help you break the rules. Oh, India.
- On the train ride back to Hyderabad, I shared a compartment with 60 college-bound, 19-year-old boys, all of whom insisted on having an oddly Russian-esque dance party for almost the entire 16 hours. Except one, who tried to convert me.
- One of the things you find out in India is where your lines are. What will you tolerate, and what will you not. It's as if I had drawn those lines with a big piece of chalk long ago, and I had thought the dust left behind were my lines. But the wind and the sweat and the monsoon have pushed that dust away...and shown me that the wide lines of dust were simply on top of thin lines drawn in indelible ink. And so in some ways I have become a much more tolerant person. And in some ways I will tolerate much less.