Monday, October 04, 2004

Vande Mataram, Maharashtra

3 October, 2004
MG Road, Pune, Maharashtra

Dear Mom and Dad:

Sorry for the delay in replying. I was in transit for a full 2.5 days from central Kerala to Pune (pronounced POO-nuh - the official slogan is "City of Festivals," but they should consider "The nice city with the silly name") in Maharashtra state. Normally there is a 24 hour express train, but since an accident in May, the Konkan line is closed for repair (that's a good sign in India, if they actually stop to repair something). So I had to take the looooonnnnng - that is, more than 40 hours! - train trip in order to retrieve the correct documents, aka No Objection to Leave India Letter ("N.O.L." they call it), so that I can go to Sri Lanka, so that I can come back with a fresh Visa. I expect the whole procedure will take at least 2 more weeks.

The first 7 hours of the train ride were lovely; we passed through the lush, verdant coconut-tree forests of Kerala and then through the foothills of the Western Ghat mountains. They look alarmingly like those of Tennessee - gentle, green and sloping, except that the valleys hold fresh spring-green rice paddies, banana trees and tapioca farms, not fields of tobacco and cotton, or shopping malls and parking lots.

Then there's a section on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border where we reach the Ghats proper, and it's so dramatic - the mountains become wildly misshapen hills that look just like those in Chinese watercolors, warped green gumdrops welling up out of the steamy earth.

It's a magical stretch that's all too brief; after Ettimadai, the terrain alters drastically; there are 2/3 fewer trees and the suddently encroaching presence of The Sun - we're now in Tamil Nadu. Lettering on the sign-boards changes abruptly from the fat, squoonchy, playful curlicues of Malayalam (if a kid invented an alphabet solely for the purpose of being fun to draw, it would look like Malayalam) to the more upright, rigid cuneiform of Tamil (Malayalam's ancient ancestor and the grandaddy language of south India). Vannakam (welcome!)

As the sun sets behind the technicolor wedding-cake forms of Tamil temple spires, you fall asleep to the vendors' calls of "choy, choy...cap-eeee, cap-eee" - and awaken, 12 hours later, in the harsh, red, arid landscape of Andhra Pradesh. It's a seemingly endless state that knows no winter (and very little water)....even through the solar-guarded darkened train windows you can feel the oppressive glare of the sun. With the rocky hills in the distance and yucca-type vegetation, it really resembles the setting of a Western. The Andhra language (Telegu) is as musical and flowing as the landscape is dry and hard; the script itself looks like words on a psychedelic poster and seemingly every word ends in a vowel (usually OO), which has led to TeleGOO being dubbed "the Italian of the East."

Here the ubiquitous angry buzzing of motor-scooters, burly Tata trucks and mini cars falls away, to be replaced by bullock-drawn (Brahma Bulls, we call them in the west) produce carts with wooden wheels, piloted by ebony men with drooping moustaches and sweaty heads in turbans...scenes literally unchanged for centuries, if not a couple millenia. It became a surprise to even see the occasional scrawny telephone wire strung across the dusty plains.

Maharashtra: another state, another landscape, another culture, another cuisine, another language, another alphabet. The diversity of India is almost attention-deficit in quality and quantity; you get the impression of constantly flipping channels (even if I were to master Hindi, which I can read but not fully understand, the locals can always switch to Marathi or Urdu, both commonly spoken). Though Maharashtra (literally "great state") is technically part of the South, the influence of North India is more evident here in style of dress, cuisine, and number of Hindi speakers.

Today is Mahatma Gandhi's Birthday. "Vande mataram" (hail to the Motherland), the national anthem, blares from many a streetcorner.

Till Monday,
your faithful south Asian correspondent

Thursday, July 29, 2004

The 7 Habits of Highly Indian People

India-Are You Experienced?

As many of you know, I am in the process of applying for an Indian Residential Permit. In the good old days, it was just a matter of the right baksheesh to the right peon at the right time, but when I arrived at the Embassy I was asked to take the following multiple choice quiz:
I. Sensitivity Training
1. Someone wanders into your place of business asking directions to the nearest internet facility. After staring at them a suitable period of time, just to show them who’s in charge here, you respond:
a-"Just across the street, three doors down, can't miss it."
b-"Opposite, eenternet you will get it."
c-"You-Are-From!” (no question mark)

2. The correct plural of "footwear" is
a-Trick question; "footwear" is already plural

3. You answer the telephone by exclaiming:
b-“May I help you?”
c-“TELL me!”
d-all of the above in rapid succession

4. The phrase “No problem” means:
a-"There’s a problem"
b-"I don’t speak English"
c-"I do speak English, but I’m not listening to a word you say"
d-"You are going to be overcharged"
e-Quite possibly, all of the above

5. Match the communication with the vocalization.
a."You disgust and/or exasperate me".................................
b."I am listening and I understand" (North India)..................
c."I'm just clearing my throat"........................
d. "I am listening and I understand" (South India).................
e. "I really enjoyed my meal"..............................
-----Match with:
1. "chere, chere"..............................
2. Impatient clucking sound..............................
3. Excoriating round of throat-clearing, hacking, and nose-blowing,
which in Western countries would solicit the Heimlich maneuver from bystanders..............................
4. "Accha, accha"..............................
5. A wide-open resounding belch...................

II. Cultural Diversity
6. As a foreigner, you know not to drink local water. However, you attend a puja at a temple and are offered holy water. The correct response is to:
a-ask with a straight face, “Is this mineral water, or filtered?”
b-Pretend to sip it, then smear it on top of your hair while mumbling a mantra
c-Slurp it down with gusto – how can holy water possibly hurt you?

7. In India, it is traditional to sit with legs folded, concealing one’s feet.
The little-known reason behind this custom is:
a-It awakens your Kundalini
b-It is considered disrespectful to sit with feet pointed towards others
c-Otherwise, the mosquitoes will bite the hell out of them

8. One advantage of Pondicherry's hot, tropical climate is:
a-It's spiritually purifying
b-It opens your pores
c-It forces even the French to shower daily

III. Way To
9. You are "residing in" a third-floor flat.How many flights of stairs must you walk up to reach your flat?
c-You use the lift even to go down one flight; only servants take the stairs.

10. Your third-floor flat (above) is located at Second Main, Third Cross, "Old Number 52." This means it must be "New Number":

a- #17
c-#149OldNo522ndMainRd3rdCrSt5thExt1stRightTurnAskthePCO onthecornerwhereisBrindavanNagar2ndStage...... is the "KARREKTA" address

11. You are strolling the city streets and feel the call of nature. You instinctively:
a-Wait till you get home
b-Find a shady corner
c-Head for the nearest hotel with "Park" in the name

IV. Home & Garden – One and the Same?
12. You switch on the bathroom light, step inside and are greeted by a scurrying grey-green lizard. Your response is to:
a-Scream and run for high ground
b-Call the “boy” to get rid of it
c-Greet it by name, thank it for eating the mosquitoes and ask it politely not to doo-doo on your toothbrush (like it did last week)

13. The ideal material for window drapery is:
a-Pure cotton with an ethnic block-print pattern, made by a village women’s co-operative
b-Whatever shade matches your grey-green lizard
c- Poly-plastic with lurid floral design, also suitable for use as a picnic tablecloth

14. The primary ingredient in a “green salad” is:
a-Romaine lettuce
b-Dehydrated carrot slices resembling poker chips
c-Sliced red onions the size of drink coasters

15. The ingredients for a cup of masala chai, in order of predominance, are:
a-Water, milk, tea, spices, sugar
b-Milk, water, sugar, tea, spices
c-Sugar, sugar, sugar, milk, sugar, water, spices, tea, and sugar

V. History and Current Affairs
16. Ratan Tata, Salman Khan and MGR are, respectively:
a-The sound made by a backfiring autorickshaw, a Moghul emperor, and an Indian news network
b-A small wicker ottoman, a seafood entrйe and a British sportscar
c-A steel tycoon, a Bollywood hero and a film star who rules Tamil Nadu from beyond the grave

17. While campaigning for election as Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi was often greeted with cries of:
a- "Gandhi-ji Ki Jai!"
b- "Sonia Rocks!"
c-"Auslander Raus!!"

18. When vacationing in the Bandipur National Forest, it’s most essential to bring along:
a-Mosquito repellent
b-A letter from Delhi stating that you are not Veerappan
c-A ransom note thoughtfully written in Tamil

19. Railways minister Laloo Prasad recently created a stir with his radical proposal that:
a-Fares be lowered
b-All Railways tea be served in earthenware cups, rather than the current plastic ones
c-Perhaps the tracks could, conceivably, smell of something other than sun-baked urine.

section I:Question 1: A = 0 points, B = 3 pts, C = 4 pts - add 1 if you manage to ask “Your-Good-Name??”Question 2: A = 0 pts - what are you, an English teacher?, B = 2 pts, C = 3 pts and leave them at the door!!Question 3: A= 2 pts, B =1 pt - far too polite; C=3 ptsQuestion 4: A = 2 pts B = 3 pts C = 4 pts D = 5 pts

Section II, Cultural: Question 5: A = 0 pts, B = 1 pt C = 3 pts plus 1 extra point for not hesitating, 2 extra if you use only your right handQuestion 6: A = 0 pts, get your head out of Yoga Journal; B = 2 pts, C = 3 ptsQuestion 7: A=1; B=2; C=5; D=1; E=4; 2 pts for each “karrekta”

Section III: Way To: Question 8: A = 0, B = 2 pts, add one extra point for walking as slowly as possible, in the dead center of the stairs so no one can pass you; C = 4 pts and please adjust your pallu properly!Question 9: A = 3 pts, B = 3 pts, C = 3 pts; all have an equal chance at being “karrekta”

Section IV: Home & Garden: Question 10: A = 0 pts, B=1 pt, veddy good Memsahib; C=3 ptsQuestion 11: A=0 pts; B=2 pts, but you must live in Auroville; C=3 ptsQuestion 12: A=0 pts; everyone knows lettuce is only a garnish; B=2 pts; C=3 pts and add 1 extra point for serving it with a bottle of ketchup

Section V: Current Affairs
Question 13: A=0 pts, B=0 pts, C=3 pts; add 1 point if you can tell Salman Khan from Shahrukh KhanQuestion 14: A=0 pt; wrong Gandhi; B=0 pts; C=3 pts, but only if you also, in broken English, criticize her ability to speak Hindi Question 15: A=1 pt B=2 pts C=3 pts; include a ransom note written in Tamil

SCORING: 15 pts or less: Go to America. Go directly back to America. Do not pass "Go," do not collect 200 Rupees!
16-35 points: Where have you been living, in the cantonment? Your knowledge of India comes primarily from Merchant-Ivory films. Get out of the five-star resorts and take a local bus instead of a taxi once in a while.
35 points and above: Felicitations! We now pronounce you “Foreigner for life!” Well, you didn’t actually think…? I mean, you can live here for 25 years, marry the Prime Minister, raise two Indian children and speak fluent Hindi, but you’ll always be… a “foreigner.”

All the best!