Monday, January 28, 2008
Delhi to Dharamsala
Well, so much for my new year's resolution of blogging every single day. As we used to say Back In The Day, I "fell off" for a while.
Fortunately, in a few weeks it will be Losar (Tibetan Lunar New Year) and I will have a chance to resolve anew.
So as to end the mind-numbing suspense, yes, I was FINALLY granted the (very brief) visa extension, just long enough for me to get out of the country without a fine.
Then I was kidnapped by an emerging colony of underground artists deep in the bowels of Delhi's Lajpat Nagar and am only now emerging from the subterranean lair to tell the story.
Members of this collective include a Japanese public-art pirate and a Mandaya Indian stop-motion filmmaker. We've got Warhol's Factory beat all to hell, now all we need is drugs and money.
Seriously, this was my first experiment with the traveler's space-sharing project Couchsurfing. So far, so good.
The road to procrastination is paved with good downloads. We had fully intended to attend the Republic Day parades in the morning. But, since we ended up watching the Bob Dylan interpretive-bio flick I'm Not There till about 2 in the morning, this was not to be.
Instead, Indian Republic Day (Jan. 26) was spent pigging out South Indian stylee at the Karnataka cultural center, then hanging out at Tamil Sangam auditorium with fantastic tribal folk dancers from Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Lakshadweep, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Meghalaya, Rajasthan and Punjab.
My favourites were the ethereal dancers from Bhopal, a hybrid of Masai warriors in full dress and characters from the movie The Fifth Element, swirling to hypnotic sounds of a dissonant gong.
As bus rides to Dharamsala ("I Mean McLeod Ganj") go, I had the absolute best 14-hour bus ride ever, crashed out in the cabin (driver's compartment). I managed to nab a 250Rs ($6.00) a night room at OM Hotel with a valley view.
I was miffed to see that the McLeod landmark Sunrise Chai stand is no more. (This place is a real institution on Bhagsu Road.) It's been replaced by - wait for it - a Kashmiri emporium ! Just what McLeod needs more of. The neighboring Moonlight Chai stand remains, but Sunrise will be sorely missed.
Now in Dharamsala ("I Mean McLeod Ganj") for just a couple days on an administrative mission. More news as it happens....
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Since all I've done is run to offices the past 24 hours, this seems like a good time to mention other sources of Siren-based content on the web.
First, there is my YouTube channel, SirenTV.
As some stupid folk singer beat me to the username "Sirensongs," I had to register as Sirensongsindia. Connections and bandwidth are so poor here, I have only been able to upload 9 videos so far, each one taking at least half an hour.
The most popular has proven to be that of a young Bharatanatyam dancer (viewers recognized her and wrote in that her name is T. Sangeeta).
My favourite is one from the Mahabodhi Society in Sarnath, showing four young orange-robed monks chanting the Buddha's first sermon in Pali language, by candle-light.
YouTube seems to attract very abusive commenters, for some reason. After five various abusive, profane and disgusting remarks from users, I disabled the Comments section.
Judging by the names (south Asia is a lot like Africa in that you can determine "tribal" affiliation by names) alone, two abusive commenters were Indian men, one Nepali male, and one Sri Lankan male. I had my own south Asian diversity-program of verbal abuse!
Welcome to my world
What is it about the internet that brings out the absolute worst in people?
The derogatory comments included the predictable - "Why don't you include the so and so. You really know nothing and are not a real blah blah and a REAL blah blah would do such and such, and...." (no extra points for guessing this nationality was -- drumroll please - Indian!).
Naturally, this guy had nothing up on his own page, he just roamed around criticizing others.
...- to surprising allegations and ethnic slurs ("end the slave culture of child abuse that is Buddhist monk culture"; "you MONK-ees have to understand...")
...- to the outright vulgar ("if you like the Kumari so f**ng much why don't you make your own f**ing daughter the Kumari").
I guess it really sucks to be a mama's boy all your life and be spoiled rotten the first 18 years and handed everything you ever look at, then get out into the big bad world and realize it isn't going to be like that. This appears to be the disease afflicting a lot of south Asian men.
However, my page is not the place to vent your spleen. That's the beauty of the net, you can have your own page to spew onto. (Don't worry, either your Mom or your dutiful wife will clean up after you.)
Eye of the Siren
The other Siren-supplemental audiovisual site is my Flickr account.
Organized into geographical sets, this features about 600 photos from my travels all over India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
For whatever reason, the Flickr community is far more laid-back and less confrontational than that of YouTube, which explains why I spend more time there.
Here are just a couple of photos from my Flickr.
At left are women of the Lambadi/Banjara group, originally from Rajasthan. They had migrated to Pune for construction work. I met them on the job site.
They were building - one head-load of cement at a time - a high-rise mall, the kind they would almost certainly not be allowed to enter themselves once it was completed. (Such malls 'reserve right of admission.' Gypsies like these are considered, sometimes rightly, to be habitual thieves).
Amazingly, they wore their full traditional garb during work hours as well. This photo was taken after hours at their "hutment" or corrugated tin hut erected as temporary housing on the building site.
The masked skull dancers in the photo above are novice bhikkus or young monks at Thiksey Monastery, Ladakh, at the annual Thiksey GuStor festival. They are all dressed up as the Cemetery Lords or harbingers of death. These young dancers get license to run about and tease the audience, sitting on laps, messing with cameras and so forth. The idea is that Death makes a mockery of us all!
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Since I am trapped here for a few days, thanks to the dilatory FRRO, I finally found the good food place.
I may have mentioned that Paharganj is the primary budget traveller's area in Delhi. This area is positively flooded with foreign tourists of all kinds, genuine neighborhood locals, and then the touts and insufferable rickshaw sharks that are only there to cheat the foreigners. It is good for certain things: cheap accomodation, meeting other foreigners, good internet with updated equipment, buying and selling used books, decent food (Indian, 'foreign' and Nepali), having a beer in a reputable rooftop bar. (Most Indian budget bars are not places a woman can go at all, let alone as a single person. )
There is a road near P-Ganj called Arakasham Road (aka "Ram Nagar") which features some more expensive, usually better quality, rooms in a less frantic, more "family" oriented atmosphere. There is scarce internet here and all the keyboards stick like hell. That's where I am now. It's mostly Indian families and some foreign tourists, who mostly flock to the upmarket Ajanta Hotel. (At $30 a night, I can't afford to stay there. I can only afford to have breakfast there.)
I like this particular hotel (Arya Tourist Lodge) for its "family" type qualities.
In India, "family" (as in "family restaurant") means "women friendly, not too sleazy." For one thing, some of the cheaper hotels (ie, in my budget range) rent rooms to gangs of young men who are looking for a place to party, drink, watch Hindi movies very loudly, smoke like chimneys and make noise all night long. "Family" hotels avoid renting to these guys.
For another, there is a woman working behind the desk here. A genuine auntie, with henna-orange hair, gold nose pin, Punjabi suit and a big smile. This adds to the wholesome environment. So do the Nepali room boys with their customary Nepali sweet shyness.
The owner, Mr Arya, is an old-school Brahmin whose dad started the operation. Dad's portrait hangs over the desk, garlanded with plastic flowers in memorial, keeping a watchful eye. In his office Mr Arya keeps his own watchful eye via closed-circuit cam on the front desk.
Occasionally he has to come to the rescue of the 2 desk managers, who don't speak so much English. He emerges seemingly at random from the sanctuary of his office to intervene when there is a misunderstanding. At first I just thought it was synchronicity. Then I saw the closed-circuit cams on his office computer screen.
Anyway, after a few days of "Corn Flex Hot Milk" and "Banana Pange" from room service I finally found the good food place.
If you continue up Arakasham Road, you get more and more rickshaws annoying you and touts hissing "Yessss?" There is a vague smell of urine and cigarette smoke. The hotels get older and more run-down, and there are fewer foreigners.
Finally you turn the corner and are in a different world.
This road is called Multani Dhanda. Now, you are in a real Indian Neighborhood. You smell it immediately. Instead of urine, it smells like spices, cooking food and incense. Real people live here, not just fly-by-night drifters.
Unlike much of Arakasham Road, here there are women - of all ages. School girls hand in hand on their way home, grandmothers also hand in hand waddling from samosa stand to general store with their canes and saris, aunties running corner shops, young mothers with their kids.
The shops sell - rather than bus tours to Manali, soda pop and internet - the items required to sustain a normal Indian life. Dry fruits, gents' tailoring, Ayurvedic medicine (increasingly infiltrated by allopathic and international brand names), watch repair, mobile phone repair, dairy sweets and lassi, stationery, giant open sacks of corn flour and sesame seeds.
It's easy to make friends with local shopkeepers - there are very few foreigners here. The guy who runs the tailor shop won me over immediately as he was feeding a bunch of stray dogs. He bought chappati from the shop next door and milk packets, and the dogs actually took turns eating from a steel dish. "My best friends!" he said proudly, putting his hand over his heart and bowing. He looked for all the world like the Indian Airlines "maharajah" icon.
It was here that I found Grand Madras Hotel.
How to find good food -- for beginners
If you go to look for the Grand Madras, or a place like it, don't let the name mislead you. It is neither grand nor a proper "hotel." It is a tiny open-front shop that can seat all of 15 people, even by Indian seating arrangements. But it has all the signs I look for in good local food.
First of all, I look for a clean place (clean by the standards of someone living in India for 5 years. This means, you have to learn to distinguish between clean dirt and dirty dirt. Maybe that should be another post).
You want it to smell like food - not grease and sweat and stale air. For myself, as a pure vegetarian, I just look for south Indian. Yes, I am biased!
"Pure veg" as it's usually called means no eggs, meat, chicken or fish are used anywhere in the restaurant. I'm not sure, but I think this also used to be called "Brahmin meals." (You can still see places advertising 'Brahmin meals' in Kerala for example. I think that means it is actually cooked by a Brahmin man. Part of the Brahmin orthodoxy, found only in a few enclaves today, meant that an observant Brahmin must eat only food cooked by another Brahmin.)
"Vegetarian" (not 'pure veg') places can include eggs, but not chicken or fish.
All Indian veg-pure veg places also serve dairy products such as yogurt, milk and cheese. The concept of veganism is nearly unheard of in India. I love yogurt too much to ever be a vegan.
"Jain meals" or "Jain items available" means they are cooked with no onions or particular spices, which are prohibited by Jain custom. Saravana Bhavan advertises "Jain Sambhar Available" (sambhar is a spicy gravy). Since Jains are primarily an urban bunch, you don't see this much outside major cities and the Jain pilgrim circuit (I saw it also in Bihar near Jain historic sites).
And finally, "Non-Veg" means they serve eggs, fish, chicken and meat, with the exception of Beef, which is hard to find in India outside of star hotels. I saw one food place yesterday that openly advertised "Non Veg - No Beef Used Here." (they spelled it "Beaf")
Within non-veg, "Halal" is a particular type of preparation required by orthodox Muslims. It involves meat slaughtered in a certain way conforming to their rules, which I think involve the animal's welfare. Someone told me it means the animals should feel minimal pain upon slaughter. Maybe a reader out there can add something to this. Halal places are meat-places, heavy on the mutton, very often decked out in Islamic green colours and there is little for me to eat there.
There is far less possibility for contamination with vegetarian food than with meat, particularly in a humid environment (we are not in Ladakh anymore).
Vegetarian joints are also far less likely to allow smoking inside.
The Gods of Good Food
Signs of south Indian food: - South Indian names (names referring to south Indian gods like "Om Murugan," "Shri Balaji," anything with "Madras", or rather long names like "Saravana Bhavan". South Indian names frequently have lots of double letters in English).
-Pictures of south Indian gods. Ayyappan (always shown squatting with an "Okay" mudra), Murugan (youth carrying a spear, accompanied by a peacock) and Sri Venkateshwara - the one who looks like a space alien with a big Vee over his eyes.
(Before someone writes in saying "It's not a big vee, it's a blah blah blah and his eyes are covered because his gaze will incinerate the world, and he is not a space alien..." I know all these things, I am just trying to break it down for newcomers. Kausalya supraja rama purva sandhya pravartate and all that.)
-Guys wearing lungis (the south Indian traditional men's dress, like a sarong).
-Signs in the "squiggly" scripts of South India - Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada. The letters don't look like ordinary North Indian script.
-And of course, it is a completely different cuisine, with rice-based dishes called idly, dosa, masala dosa, uttappam, pongal, South Indian veg thali.
I also look for a place with some "transparency" (are they cooking out in the open? or down in some smelly basement with bad drainage?). A high turnover is a good sign of freshly made food.
Grand Madras Hotel is a good find. First of all, I can get idlys at any time (traditionally they are a morning dish only). Their Veg Thali is only 45Rs with refills. And, they have the delicious brewed South Indian coffee ("Madras coffee" to distinguish it from instant Nescafe).
Different regions have their specialities, and in an Indian metropolis you can sample them all in the same block. South India has its rice-based delicacies, but Punjabis make my favourite lassi (yogurt shake). On the opposite corner is the Amritsari Dhaba. A proper Punjabi lassi is verrrry thick and rich, with real rose water added and a big thick blob of yogurt- fat in the middle. (Rose flavouring, which is a bit like old ladies' perfume, is fairly common in Indian sweets - something unheard of in the west.) For 15Rs I get a big steel tumbler of gulab (rose) special lassi.
Now I'm hungry. You know where to find me!
Friday, January 18, 2008
It is Friday night, and I'm in Majnu Ka Tilla, Delhi's Tibet Colony. I need to get my Delhi-ing all in one location. MT is good for accomodation, but a lousy location with boring food. Paharganj is a good central location but too noisy and crazy.
There's lots of arguments about who should get this year's Bharat Ratna (India's highest civilian honour).
Mostly, it's Indian career politicians arguing about whether their cronies should be nominated.
The Indian Tibet Support Networks as well as other Indian Tibet activists, however, say it should be the man who is, if not the last true Gandhian, certainly the most prominent and beloved example of non-violence living today- HH the Dalai Lama.
The Bharat Ratna need not be given to Indians per se. Previous recipients include Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.
Seeing as how the Central Indian government, back in November, directed Cabinet ministers NOT to attend a Delhi reception for HH upon his return to India from receiving the US Congressional Medal of Honour, this seems a distant dream.
It seems all the cabinet ministers dutifully stayed away, though one former PM did attend. Here's what Inder Kumar Gujral had to say.
He told the Dalai Lama that India shares the honor of the U.S. medal because it expresses the philosophy of modern India's spiritual father, Mahatma Gandhi.
"This inscription on the medal by itself embodies Gandhi in spirit and Gandhi's message, and your presence. And when the Congress presented it to you we felt honored, because we thought that this was a message which was not only given to you, but to the Indian nation also," he said.The world's most coveted photo opportunity - a shot with the beaming bespectacled monk -
is also the most taboo for politicians.
Come on, guys. What is REALLY going to happen if you do it? China's going to stop sending over crappy plastic toys? flat screen TVs? running shoes maybe?
What were all those decades of anti-imperialism for if you can't stand up to the fastest growing empire?
What good is all the talk of independence and sovereignty if you live in fear of retribution for having your photo taken with India's greatest living saint? You wouldn't let America boss you around like that!
I dare ya! Honour HH Dalai Lama with the Bharat Ratna.
"A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything."
Thursday, January 17, 2008
I was just sure that if I went to the wireless place, I would be able to come up with something for today's blog. So far, it hasn't worked.
I spent today mailing my sisters' pashmina/wool shawls at the Guru Bangla Sahib GPO. Soooo many foreign writers have detailed the experience of the Indian post office, dare I try to join their ranks?
Then I went walking around Chanakyapuri in a vain attempt to find the International Youth Hostel.
It wasn't totally in vain, because after about 2 hours of walking and a rickshaw ride I did finally find it.
I also found Assam House, Orissa Bhavan, Arunachal Bhavan, Ashok Hotel where a wedding was taking place complete with uniformed marching band and white horse for the groom to ride in on; another youth center called Vishwa Yuvak Kendra, the Indonesian embassy and the embassy of the Holy See - in other words, of the Vatican. I didn't even know they had an embassy.
The Youth Hostel would be a great deal if you were doing an internship or working in some embassy in Chanakyapuri. As it is, it doesn't make any sense for me as it's the same expense as a hotel (about 350Rs per single room) and you would have to eat all your meals in their dining area, as there is nothing at all in walking distance.
The hotel says the police inspector / immigration officer/ whoever has still not come calling. At this rate the 2 week extension will be up before I even get papers declaring it was granted.
Here is a link to the news story I should be writing, if in fact I had been able to travel to Gujarat to see HH Dalai Lama.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
They're all male ("of course," says a voice in my head) and range from ages 15 to late 40s. But even the older guys "feel" much younger...like a bunch of teenagers. The fact that they are skipping either school or work in the middle of the day probably contributes to that.
Normally, the chowkidar (doorman/watchman) would shoo them off. But even he doesn't have the heart to stop their viewing the India vs. Australia cricket match. From where they are standing, they can just see the Shiva DX Hotel's big flat-screen TV, nestled over in the corner of the glassy, glossy marble lobby, near the glass coffee table arrayed with today's newspapers.
I can't pretend to begin to understand cricket (seems to be baseball with more rules - and I don't even understand baseball. Having more rules is somehow considered "better" over here - complicated things are somehow conflated with intelligence). But it has dominated headlines here for the past week or so (that and The Ugly Car, of course).
Something about an Indian player supposedly insulting an Australian, or maybe it was the other way around, or maybe it was both. India was threatening to withdraw from the matches (don't beat me up if this is wrong...it's just what I can gather from the news which is rendered in code for those who already understand the game. Nothing is explained fresh in such a way that newcomers could learn about it).
Headlines announced that it was "a matter of Indian national honour" so this particular match is fraught with meaning. The doorway guys' faces are dead serious. They stand poised in various tense, macho stances with arms folded.
Even the desk man pretends not to notice the "room boys'" who are not on their "duty" quite as they should be...rather lingering around the flat screen as long as possible.
It's really nice to see this type of intersocial-group solidarity and cooperation. It's just too bad it only seems to emerge in opposition to something "outside."
The immigration office/policeman/whoever the authority figure is assigned to check up on me was meant to come over before 1pm today. At 1.15 there was still no sign. I tried explaining it to my desk guy, who nodded solemnly (I know he speaks very little English). I think I managed to get across that someone very important was going to come asking after me, and to expect a visit from "police," which probably scared the hell out of the guy.
Even at the FRRO, they could NOT explain to me (no matter how I phrased the question) whether I actually had to BE PRESENT at the hotel when the officer came, or whether the officer would just check in with registration to make sure I was signed in there, or whether the man in question was even a police officer, immigration officer or other type figure. The FRRO seemed to be suggesting that I sit in my hotel and not leave at all for "two three days." "Go back to your hotel and wait 2, 3 days" !
"Three days! I will have to leave sometime. What if the officer comes when I am not there?"
"When will you be there?" they asked.
Like it matters!
So I told them, Wednesday before 1pm. I'm sure when the guy finally shows up, it will be MY fault for not psychically knowing to be present when he arrived.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Supposedly, it will unblock blogs that are blocked within Pakistan, China, Iran and India. (Didn't know any were blocked in India...but I have a lot to learn.)
At least one person has used it to access my blog, which is how I discovered it (thank you, Site Meter!).
I wish I had been able to get the whole Taj without including the ugly metal fence in foreground.
I mean, India has always made such a big deal about doing everything on their own terms and in their own way...why are they racing to match the standards of the developed world in all the least desirable categories?
Monday, January 14, 2008
It's PONGAL, and I am not in Tamil Nadu! Not even close, not even in South India! However, I can still eat sweet pongal (and ghee pongal) at the Saravana Bhavan here on Connaught Place. (sigh)
'Thai Pongal', as it is popularly called in Tamil Nadu, is a thanksgiving ceremony celebrated by Tamil farmers to thank the spirits of nature, the sun and farm animals for their assistance in providing a successful harvest all through the year.
The festival is spread over four days, from the last day of 'Margazhi' to the third day of following month 'Thai' as 'Bhogi', 'Thai Pongal', 'Mattu Pongal' and 'Kannum Pongal'.
"We may have settled here, but we haven't forgotten our traditions. Almost all Tamils in Delhi celebrate Pongal the same way it is celebrated in Tamil Nadu," Natesan, secretary of Tamil Youth Cultural Association, told.
It's also Makar Sankranti, which has something to do with the movement of the sun through the Vedic zodiac, and the approach of spring. I believe the sun is entering the sign of Capricorn (in the Indian zodiac, which calculates differently from the Western one).
The best Makar Sankranti ever was at the Kalachakra 2 years ago. The whole town of Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh was alive with Tibetan and Buddhist festivity anyway, and then added to that was the Makar Sankranti observance (dressed-up cows and bullocks, street musicians, and special, extra- elaborate kollam designs in front of doorways). Here's the best picture I got that day...it's one of my best "India" photos ever, IMHO.
Pongal is not just one day, but several, including my favourite, Mattu Pongal or the day to honour cows and bullocks. In the Madurai area of Tamil Nadu, this has traditionally included a kind of bullfight or bull-run called Jallikettu. This year the whole area is up in arms (declaring a "black Pongal") because the Supreme Court has banned the practice, declaring it inhumane and cruel.
I have a suggestion - they should do what Nepalis do at Gai Jatra, and instead of using real cows, dress up humans as cows. Then they could see how much fun it is to be chased, poked , stabbed and have their tails pulled. It's quite amusing to see all the Madurai Hindus defend their "400 year old tradition" - what about the much older Hindu tradition (about 4000 years old) of honouring the cows?
Sunday, January 13, 2008
All parcels to be sent through the mail are required to be sewn up in plain white cloth. Supposedly, this prevents theft. No one explains HOW it prevents theft...I suppose it makes it more difficult to open, but you could always just steal the whole thing.
First, I had to get an appropriate box. In this case, I had to go to a gents' tailor shop and buy a shirt-box for 15 Rs. (they wanted 20.)
Then, I folded the shawls into their separate and sealed them with . THEN I put them into yet another plastic shopping bag and sealed it up too. You never know what kind of inclement conditions a package will be exposed to internationally.
Then I sealed up the shirt box on all sides, with brown shipping tape.
The tailor said a place called Rainbow Shipping and Parcels could stitch it, just up the corner. Most touristed places will have lots of shops for this, but any ordinary tailor should be able to do it, and probably for less money.
The Nepali boys working there wrap the box in off-white coloured cheese cloth, just like wrapping a present. But instead of taping it shut, they bunch up the excess cloth and sew it closed with white thick thread.
The stitching cost 50Rs. (they asked for 75.)
Then, I took a black Magic Marker and write the "TO" address in big block letters on the front, and my FROM address on the back.
The Nepalis (who were all neighbors from Nawaparsi, near Lumbini in the Terai region of southern Nepal) recommended I go to Bangla Sahib Gurudwara GPO.
I asked the (typically sweet, shy, polite) Nepali boys how they liked living in India. "Conditions are better," one said, "money is better, we are getting some 5000 Rs Indian a month. " That is about $120. In Nepal, they said, it would be much less for the same job. "But people are not so good here...more cheating...more lying...." he said, shaking his head and frowning.
I knew that Nepalis will not eat anything (I mean, almost anything) other than momos and Dal Bhatt (a rice and vegetable thali prepared in Nepali style - heavy on the spiced potatos). "Where do you get your dal bhatt here in Paharganj?"
They directed me to the Everest Bakery and Cafe. "This is such good dal bhatt. All people working there are Nepali, and music is always Nepali!" they enthused.
It's also possible to have the Rainbow Shipping guys ship your parcel for you, but I just couldn't resist standing in another line.
Next stop: the GPO.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
So here's the upshot (not the end!) of yesterday's Foreigners' Office story. (I am so sure you are fascinated....)
I returned (along with many others) to the Home Affairs Ministry at 4.30 pm to await my fate. While waiting I met some Ugandans, Pakistanis, and a Mexican Hare Krishna devotee wearing full dhoti and kasturi tilak. The Mexican man was married to an Indian citizen, but this didn't help his status much within the country.
An Indian-origin woman living in Miami, was having trouble getting an extension because she had now been a US citizen and passport holder for 37 years. The office claimed there was no proof of her Indian origin, which technically, I suppose, was true. Her US passport said "place of birth: INDIA," but "even that is not enough, they say."
All these people, including myself, were petitioning for permission to stay a bit longer on this visa. But one Norwegian couple were desperate just to get out, and couldn't even get the exit permission.
How had this happened? Why was it so difficult to get OUT of the country?
The Norwegian woman, who was in tears, explained the story to me. They had first been in Varanasi, where all their bags, passports and everything, had been stolen. The Norwegian Embassy had issued an emergency passport/travel document - but of course, this did not contain any evidence of their original proper Indian visas. Under such circumstances, you must get permission from Home Affairs before exiting the country.
As if it wasn't enough to be robbed blind, the man had then dislocated his shoulder in a surfing mishap down in Kerala. (I didn't know people surfed in Kerala; learn something new every day.) They were told they could not fly home directly from Kerala, but had to report to Delhi for exit permission.
I could see the lymph fluid (or something) oozing from his shoulder and seeping through his cotton shirt. He must have been in a great deal of pain. They wanted to leave the country for Norway right away.
As it was a Friday, the office claimed they would have to wait the entire weekend till Monday when the case could be reviewed properly. (I think I mentioned before that the office only accepts incoming applications from 9am to 12pm. The couple had made that deadline, but for some reason weren't going to be given a result the same day.)
Finally they were given the fateful sealed plain brown envelope, to be opened only by the FRRO in RK Puram, another part of town. They set off full of hope (and probably full of painkillers) at 4.45 pm in an Ambassador taxi.
The rest of us received our plain brown wrappers with instructions NOT to open them, and to report to RK Puram office on Monday morning. Which for many of us, means an entire weekend without valid papers. Fortunately, I've learned to live with a great degree of ambiguity.
Friday, January 11, 2008
I had two hours, so I went round the corner back to Gandhi Smriti. Today the power was on, and I enjoyed the exhaustive and state-of-the-art interactive museum upstairs on the first floor. There are all manner of multimedia displays and lots of great vintage film footage.
Still, the most effective parts of the museum are the most personal and the simplest. This time inside Gandhi's room, I noticed something in the corner I didn't see yesterday. Two pairs of the wooden sandals, and a walking stick. These weren't in a glass case, but just leaned up against a corner, as though Gandhi were coming right back for them. I just started crying.
Fortunately, there was a modern metal chair right there (maybe other people have been overcome seeing the room) and I sank down into it. The shy young museum guide in her khadi uniform was watching me from the corner, halfway pretending not to notice, and halfway curious. Finally she approached me.
"I am from USA," I said, choking back tears.
"You are very inspired by Gandhiji?"
I nodded mutely, sniffing.
She smiled as knowingly as a 20 year old possibly could. "I think you are a friend of Gandhiji," she said, as though I were someone who had actually known him.
A friend of Gandhiji. I had to smile. "Yes, a friend." I was trying hard not to cry openly as I knew I had to look decent to go back to the Foreigner's Office and I didn't want to have a red nose and runny kajal down my face.
Ruby turned out to be a history major who was volunteering in her spare time. I was extremely heartened to hear that people are still majoring in history. All I have met since I arrived in India are engineering and B Comm students.
Anyway, the wireless place is closing now and I have to sign off.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Thanks to my incredible lack of foresight, I have only a minute on the laptop battery this time, but that's enough to tell about a very overlooked, and centrally located, Delhi historical site.
Most guidebooks mention Raj Ghat, the location where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. (This site was in the news in 2006 when George W. Bush paid a visit. Some people complained about the hypocrisy. I think, if anyone ever needed to get Gandhi's vibes, it would be Dubya.)
But very few guidebooks (none that I have yet seen) seem to mention Gandhi Smriti. This is the house and gardens where Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist hardliner, and died on 30 January, 1947. The road is now called Tees January Marg (30th January Road). The building was formerly known as Birla House. For various reasons (explained in the exhibit) Gandhi stayed, for the final 144 days of his life, as a guest of the wealthy Birla industrialists, rather than among the poorer neighborhoods as was his habit.
Admission is free, which seems appropriate, but I certainly wouldn't mind paying a bit to support it.
It's more than worthy of your time. At the moment, Gandhi Smriti hosts an exhaustive photo exhibit of events leading up to the 1857 War of Independence (formerly called the Sepoy Mutiny). It all looked very informative but I just could not digest all the historical information in one standing - I was too overcome with Gandhi's vibe.
I'm neither one of those foreign Gandhi-worshippers who think he was a saint, nor one of the cynics who takes joy in poking holes in him. To me he was a man, and that makes what he achieved and represented all the more amazing.
I am also aware that some historians, and Indians, and Indian historians, say he and his contributions aren't all they were cracked up to be. I'm sure they have a point, and someday I will get around to reading the rebuttals. But today I just bathed in Gandhi's energy, which is still all over the room and garden.
Especially moving is a glass wall case holding his very few worldly possessions, including the famous pair of round eyeglasses. I got a weird flash-forward (or is it backward?) to John Lennon and his schoolboy specs.
In keeping with Hindu tradition (but rather eerie for those not accustomed to this) are the footsteps set in stone, in the shape of traditional wooden sandals. I think they are called paduka. They immortalize Gandhi's last walk from the ground-floor room, where he lived on a jute mat and mattress on the floor, to the garden for the final prayer meeting.
A flowering tree with vivid pink blooms grows right above the doorway, showering petals down on the path. I picked up a handful and placed one on each paduka. I was surprised that more offerings weren't there. The exact spot where Gandhi fell (uttering "hey Ram") is marked with a marble column.
The final panel in the Independence exhibit was headed, "Let it not be said that Gandhi was party to India's vivisection." He is then quoted as saying something along the lines of "I pray that God not let me see the division of India" (Partition of India and Pakistan). Since I am neither Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Muslim nor Hindu, I can't explain logically the very deep resistance and resentment I have always felt about the Partition. But at least I know I am not alone in my strong feelings.
A power cut stopped short my viewing of the indoor exhibits, which seemed strangely appropriate. And so, too, is my laptop battery cutting short this post.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Agra, Uttar Pradesh
As fate would have it, I ended up being convinced to go along with my new friends to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal (for the first time). We just barely managed to catch the 4.15 train leaving from Nizamuddin Station in Delhi. I wouldn't recommend it for a longer journey (say, an 18-hour train ride), but "ordinary sleeper" is just fine for 3 hour trip and provided my friends with their first-ever Indian Railways experience, while I crashed out on the top bunk.
"Seeing" the Taj was only partially successful. Even when you're standing near it, it doesn't seem real, hazy as the polluted air is. The people who complain about the pollution in Agra are not exaggerating. It's all you can do to see or get a clear photo of the most famous monument in the world. At first, we thought it was just the north-Indian morning mist. So romantic!
After a few hours it became obvious that the mist was not going to burn off. It was semi-permanent haze. All our photos are in soft focus. This same pollution is evidently damaging the white marble permanently.
Perhaps something so hyped up can't help but be a disappointment. I have a few more grouses:
- Why is so much of the monument closed off? There are all kinds of upstairs balconies, adjacent buildings with turrets and towers and the four minarets. None of them are open for viewing (except the main rooms of the 2 flanking mosques, which in a way I liked better than the Taj itself).
-The museum, which is meant to be included in the huge ticket price (750Rs, about 300Rs more than it's worth) is closed now for repair. Of course, no one warns you of this when they sell you the ticket.
-The city immediately around the Taj ("Taj Ganj") is a very unpleasant, broken-down, dilapidated area. All manner of blocky concrete buildings have been allowed to spring up, which obscure any distant view (or any view at all) of the Taj itself. It certainly doesn't feel like the entrance way to one of the wonders of the architectural world, let alone to the universally recognized symbol of India. Ick.
-For ALL the money being dumped into it every single day, the waterways (an essential element of Mughal architecture) should have been restored by now. Fountains, channels, reflecting pools and so on.
-The explanatory plaques are so verbose and badly written as to be unreadable. I tried to read one of them twice and felt like I had been hit over the head with a thesaurus. I actually felt more confused after reading it than before.
-Inside the tomb itself there is absolutely no artificial light. You really can't see and appreciate the intricate stone inlay work the tomb is so famous for. And the centrepieces, which are the cenotaphs of the Emperor and his favourite wife, are nearly invisible. A wooden screen has been built around the original marble jali screen that prevents you from getting anywhere near the detailed work. Since you are not allowed to bring in any bags at all, none of us had our flashlights to illuminate the interior. Disappointing.
On the plus side:
-Everyone we encountered in Agra, including the persistent touts, were very kind and pleasant. The rickshaw pullers, the hotel guys, the police at the gate of the Taj, everyone was really lovely. Of course many were pushy with their sales technique, but they did take no for an answer...after about half an hour.
(However, they are allowed to solicit you right up to the bag check room at the Taj Gates. I mean, almost as you are checking in your bags, they are still pleading with you.)
-Best thing to do is arrive very early, about 7am, and wander around the outside rose garden at the West Gate. (Just pay the gardener, who appears magically from the mist, 50rs or so "as you like"). The mist (as opposed to smog) is still on the ground, the roses were in full bloom, and the Hindu temple next door set up a lovely wail of devotional music just as the sun was rising.
This was really the best moment of the day.
-You get great perspectives of the Taj itself by going into the 2 mosques flanking it from either side. They are warm brown sandstone and have the feeling of chocolate cakes placed next to the Taj's frothy wedding cake. Views of the Taj from inside these mosques are some of the more well-known images of the building.
-A community of craftsmen are still hard at work chipping and carving away, to restore various panels on the outbuildings. It is mind-boggling to watch the precise "chink, chink, chink" of the shilpas, changed so little since the days of Mumtaz Mahal. For some reason, the ASI has put up signs saying "construction and renovation work in progress, no photography allowed" - I can't imagine why not. India is the last place in the world that still has all the masters of these traditional skills, and watching them at work is a real delight for those of us from mass-produced societies.
So, we snapped some photos of the craftsmen anyway, before some fat bearded guy chased us off.
-Even when it is crowded, the structures are so vast that the people seem like scurrying ants. In fact some of the better photos we got show visitors floating through the oceans of marble terraces and platforms, dwarfed by the minarets and walls.
-I was also happy to see quite a few less-affluent Indians, who seemed to have come from villages, enjoying the Taj, dressed as they were in colourful Rajasthani turbans and flowing dhotis. One defense of the outrageously high entrance fee is that it "subsidizes the poor Indians." Of course, it is not my responsibility to do that, any more than it is an Indian tourist's job to subsidize poor Americans, but I was glad to see that perhaps the inflated foreign fees do help some less fortunate Indians enjoy such an experience. The Indian middle class do not seem eager to step forward and subsidize this activity themselves, as is their civic duty.
-One thing I didn't manage to do (this time) was cross the Yamuna river and view the Taj from that vantage point. An enterprising local was offering camel rides there over on the sandy river bank. Another guy is offering rowboat rides past the Taj from that side.
We did notice that, on the Taj side, down by the river bank, there were sandbagged soldiers with machine guns camped out. Sad, but a reality. Anything that is a symbol "of India" these days (like the India Gate I saw a few days ago) has to be carefully guarded.
From racing to get the train and then getting up so early, I was too burned out to take in the Agra Fort or Fatehpur Sikri. Maybe some other time. My friends and I were on a tight schedule but I think the best thing would be to rent a bicycle and explore all the historic monuments at a leisurely pace, for a day or two.
Sunday, January 06, 2008
Really, really wiped out after a full day of sight-seeing (yes, sight-seeing - I've never done this in Delhi) with 2 brand newcomers, Jeff (Canada) and Susanna (Holland), both of whom just arrived at about 4am this morning. It was great fun to see India through the eyes of total newbies, and for my hard-earned local knowledge to be appreciated, but I am exhausted.
I set out a blueprint for "your first day in Delhi" at about 11am, and we followed it almost to the letter. I am glad to say it worked out very well, especially considering it was all stuff I've never done before.
Goes something like this:
2- Autorickshaw to the Red Fort . --From Paharganj, 40Rs. According to Jeff, just the auto ride was "better than anything at Disneyland!" It was fun seeing the chaos, cows and oxcarts through the eyes of newcomers.
It was their first-ever auto ride - they had arrived from the airport in proper taxis.
3-Red Fort - for foreigners, 100Rs or $2.50. A good start, but frankly Humayan's Tomb is better in many ways. The Red Fort, though, is very centrally located and walking distance from 2 more attractions (below).
4-Walk directly across the street (an adventure for Jeff and Susanna) dodging traffic to the Jain Temple and Bird Hospital. (Voluntary donation; I gave 10rs).
Note: if you are going into the Bird Hospital, do not leave your shoes at the temple gate like they ask you to. The birdhouse floors, as you can imagine, are filthy and wet.
The Bird Hospital housed many many pigeons, quite a few parakeets and the classic green wild parrot, and three forlorn peacocks/peahens. One, the steward told me, had been hit by a golf ball at the Delhi Golf Course. The other 2 had fractured legs from various mishaps.I especially liked the naive-folk wall murals depicting all the heinous fates that can befall a bird. Dog attacks, cat attacks, ceiling and desk fans, hunters, kite entanglement, and so on. I never would have thought of kite entanglement.
There's also a big mural on the office wall showing the Jain legend of a king who sacrificed his life to save a pigeon and a crow. The moment he died, the 2 birds automatically reverted to their true states - they were deities in disguise. The two deities (Indra, god of the heavens, and Varuna, the water god) blessed him and said they had come as birds to test him.
5-Walk most of the way to the Jamma Masjid, the biggest mosque in all India.
6-Finally give up a few 1000 feet from the Masjid entrance and get a cycle rickshaw directly to the gate. Otherwise, it is a long, long slog through a few acres of cheap sweaters and an open-air goat market. --30Rs for three people.
7-Have fun watching the bewilderment and awe on your friends' faces as we approach the enormous, overwhelming front steps of the mosque. It's actually more fortress-like than the Red Fort. "THIS," said Susanna, "is what you imagine India to be." Meaning, I think, ancient buildings, calls to prayer and loads and loads of people swarming every which way.
8-Entrance to the Masjid is free; but depending on the time of day, you must wait for the appropriate time. We had to wait some 30 minutes because prayers were going on. We managed to photograph some shy young ladies seated on the steps, but the elder Muslim ladies with their orange henna hair generally said "no."
Jeff and Susanna were mesmerized by the swarms of activity and people-watching. However, the mosque demands a 200Rs ($5) fee for each camera taken into the mosque. We thought this excessive and eventually decided to pay for only one camera, and share the results.
9-At this point it was 4.30 pm, so we wandered around the vast expanse of red sandstone enjoying that twilight haze. (I think it accompanies a mental haze, but that is still theory.)
10-Beat a retreat out the side entrance - to avoid the madness out front - and go via cycle rickshaw through Chandni Chowk's famous silver jewelry market and flower market, to Haldiram's for dinner. (The ride was an overpriced 50Rs, but we were very very tired at this point, and the driver was a good guide, pointing out stuff to us.)
The back alley markets below Chandni Chowk are fascinating in themselves, and had we not been so tired, we definitely would have gotten down from our chariot and walked around. Maybe some other day.
11-Watch as your friends' eyes widen at the crowds in Haldiram's. Order for them as they have no idea what most of the food is (in fact they requested that I order for them). Send one of them over to fight for a table and hold down the fort till the food comes.
This is the one thing that was not perfect in the day. Haldiram's was tooooo crowded, and I can get a better veg thali elsewhere for half the price (mine was 102Rs). Madan in Paharganj would have been much cheaper, closer to the hotel, and less frantic.
11-Autorickshaw back to Paharganj - perhaps overpriced at 60rs, considering we only paid 40rs to get there in the daytime, but it was nearly 7.30 everyone was asking outrageous prices. The traffic was pretty crazy at this point so the guy had to take a circuitous route.
As am I at this point, so I am signing off for now.
Friday, January 04, 2008
Chanakyapuri & Nizamuddin, Delhi
After spending the better part of a day running from one office (used to be the Foreigners' Regional Registration office, but that shifted some three years ago...not reflected on maps of course) to another (yes, this is the FRRO but you need to go to yet another Foreigners' office, in another part of town) to yet a third (yes, this is the right office but despite the fact that we're all present and it's only 3pm, you will have to come back Monday between 10 and 12 only) - after such a day, what I wanted was a little escapism.
(Just in case you have to pay them a visit, the FRRO is currently out near the Hyatt Hotel in an area called Bhikaji Cama Place, Ramakrishna Puram. None of the guidebooks show this yet. They all show it as still in Hans Bhavan near Pragati Maidan. )
(Long ago, back in the heady days of the early 80s, I owned an ancient James Brown 45rpm record called "Escapism (Parts 1 & 2)." For those of you who have never seen a 45rpm, Part 1 was on side 1 and part 2 was on what we used to call the B-side. James pronounced it eee-SKAY-pizm. It's probably worth a lot of money now, wherever it is. Other than a chance to mention James Brown, there is no point to this anecdote, so I will stop now.)
As I have mentioned before, Delhi has a lot in common with Washington, DC. Both cities are national capitols, obviously, but it goes beyond that. They share very well-planned streets, meticulous greenways, many museums, lots of white marble, and lots and LOTS of memorials.
Luckily, the third office (called Jaisalmer House, for the curious) was walking distance from the giant Arc-de-Triomphe-like India Gate, which I had never seen properly, so I took a stroll. India Gate and surrounding well-groomed grounds were full of tourists, hawkers (selling everything from cotton candy to plastic beads to slices of star-fruit to my favourite orange popsicles), armed guards and police, and the crew of men erecting scaffolding and awnings for upcoming Republic Day (January 26).
Republic Day is an annual mega-spectacle of patriotism, pageantry and military might. I have never seen it on location - frankly you probably get a better view with less hassle on the national TV coverage. I love the way each state chooses a theme for their parade float. Bihar, surprisingly enough, usually chooses "the Buddha" rather than kidnapping or corruption, and Gujarat has chosen to stay away - so far- from the popular "communal violence" theme. I think this year the float will just be a giant mockup of Narendra Modi's big fat face with dozens of people wearing the Modi Mask riding aboard.
The India Gate is essentially a war memorial, engraved all over with names of Indian who gave their lives in various wars. I wondered if there were always so many armed guards - you can't even walk under the arch or touch the pillars (which are at a considerable distance from the arch itself). Are all national symbols being guarded so fiercely in today's terrorist environment? Or, was it just in the run-up to Republic Day?
For those of you who haven't been to India yet (like my 2 sisters -though they say they are coming this year), watching the tent-masters erect these pavilions and awnings is a uniquely Indian experience. Very few buildings are large enough to house Indian crowds, so we just make a temporary "building" outdoors.
If you have seen the movie Monsoon Wedding, you have some idea of the process. Out of nowhere, a green field or dusty lot will be transformed with cloth walls and roofing (and sometimes even jute carpet flooring) for 1000s of people. Using bamboo poles, hand-made bamboo ladders, kilometres of jute rope and acres of cloth sheeting, the tent-wallahs were constructing awnings, railings and so on to protect 10s of thousands on Republic Day. A street dog had found a comfy bed, crashed out atop a coil of rope four feet high.
On the peacock lawn
Dusk was approaching and I realized I was a Delhi stone's throw from Humayan's Tomb, a World Heritage site that has been on my to-see list forever. So I splurged on yet another autorickshaw (40Rs from India Gate) to Nizamuddin. Admission is supposed to be $5 for foreigners, but as they have set the rate at 250Rs it is now $6.00.
It's worth it. Humayan's Tomb was the first of its kind (Mughal four-quartered gardens with tombs) and evidently the prototype for the Taj Mahal. It's not just one tomb, it is an enormous enclave of geometric gardens, waterways, fountains and several giant tombs, built in the 1570s - any one of which would be worth seeing on its own. The purple haze of twilight gives the buildings a romantic, lost-civilization feel.
Since it was nearing closing time, I hurried through the first two mausoleums, which already felt like something from an orientalist Arabian Nights scenario - octagonal buildings of marble, onion domes, marble latticework windows surrounded by date palm trees. In fact I would recommend going in the morning - the complex opens at dawn - in hopes of seeing sunlight filter through the intricate patterns of lacey marble.
Then I caught a glimpse of the main attraction through the mammoth arched gateway. I couldn't help breathing "Ohhhh!"
The actual tomb of Humayan is a dream, glowing in red sandstone. It is elegant and ornate without ever being garish or baroque. Every one of its many marble-jali windows seemed to have a different geometric pattern, echoed in the marble inlays on the floor.
A gaggle of western art students emerged from the front archway, clutching their sketch books, now filled with the geometric designs. As the sun sank, a call to prayer went up from the neighboring DhamDhama Sikh Gurudwara, with its own dome visible just over the ancient fence. Okay, wrong religion historically, but to hear such devotional music in that setting at sunset really makes my spirit soar. Bright green parrots shrieked as they streaked around the sky.
On Global Voices
Yesterday's post about dynastic democracies made it to Global Voices. If I had known people were actually reading it, I would have put more work into it....
Thursday, January 03, 2008
News from south Asian neighborhood
It was a big week for South Asian politics. Bhutto's assassination, the capitulation of the democratic Nepal Seven Party Alliance to demands of the Maoists to somehow guarantee they will get rid of the monarchy (when previously they had promised to hold a referendum for the public to decide), and the first ever election in the now-former kingdom of Bhutan all would seem to spell change. So why don't I smell change?
Amid all the mourning of Benazir Bhutto and descriptions of her as a champion of democracy, her apolitical 19-year-old son has been appointed her successor. There are also reports that Bhutto "willed" leadership of the Pakistan People's Party to her husband Zardari, as though it were a personal possession. Which, let's face it - I suppose, it actually was.
When is a democracy not a democracy? When its leaders are appointed by non-democratic methods, for one thing. When heredity is 9/10 of the law; and yes, the same formula applies to the Gandhi-Nehrus and Thackerays of India, and many others.
Of course, after the elections of 2000 and 2004 were hijacked by our very own Bush dynasty, Americans aren't much better off.
An article from the Indian Express explains the south Asian grafting of dynastic family structure onto democracy.
Royalism has been democratised in South Asia. In turning our backs on monarchy, we reinvent ourselves as republicans. But this is often a fragile and tenuous republicanism, as the political parties in our democratic polities are mini-kingdoms each with its own royal family.
My own observations: south Asians value stability over change, progress or principles. The continuity of heredity, with all the social expectations of a dutiful son or daughter carrying on the family legacy, is the best way to ensure that.
And, south Asian understanding of family as the most fundamental paradigm overrides any consciously learned, abstract concepts. When all you have is a hammer, everything you see looks like a nail. Unlike most of the west, where the individual is the basic unit, south Asian society seems to be irreducible to any unit smaller than that of the Family.
Therefore, because the current Nepali king was at first given benefit of the doubt, but has proven to be a rotten apple, the whole family has to go. Forget the outrageous Prince Paras who was always out of the question; there is no room to consider the well-behaved daughter or a regency for the very young Prince Hridayendra, grandson of the current king Gyanendra. They are not and cannot be seen as individuals; that's the whole point.
While the Nepali monarchy will suffer an uphill battle to retain even ceremonial kingship at this point, the Bhutanese palace is conversely struggling to encourage its subjects in baby steps towards the electoral process. Evidently most of the political parties were formed at the behest of the King - why doesn't that sound right? - following strict guidelines concerning the nature of such parties. "The king says we have to form some parties, I guess we had better" doesn't sound like a good start on democracy to me.
That other Himalayan monarch, HH the Dalai Lama, is not fareing much better encouraging his people to adopt democracy. He's been pushing the democratic process for decades; the government in exile has now elected a Prime Minister and other officers. In preparation for his inevitable passing, HH continually tries to delegate political tasks to these and other figures, hoping to train Tibetans to look toward other sources than himself for answers.
Within what are ostensibly republics in South Asia, thus, we remain at heart subjects rather than citizens, people who need and love royals....
Old habits are hard to break.