Monday, January 21, 2013

Not My Country and/or Closure?

This is what two hours of sleep looks like at the Taj Mahal
Almost one month ago, I left India. So, I have been back home for 1/4 of the time I spent most decidedly not-home. Is this enough to gain perspective?

Here's a wrap-up of my last few weeks in India. I finished my Independent Study Project on a "topic important to Indian literature, theater and feminism" (most people in America don't know what "modern representations of Sita in performance" means), finished up my abroad program with one very memorable week, did a two week apprenticeship at the Akshara Theatre in Delhi, and had a ball performing and hanging out with amazing people.

Shouting in TV cameras in front of India Gate in Delhi
During my last two weeks, this really bad thing happened. Maybe you've read about it? Anyway, it set off riots and protests and unrest and talking and discussing and re-evaluating and a whole lot of other things which rocked the country of India. I was there for some of it, I was angry too, and I participated. But it was not my country.

It got me thinking about my place in India—as a visitor. As an American. I am not Indian, nor will I ever be. If anything, something my time in India really brought home to me (haha "brought home") was that I am actually American. The way I think is American. The way I approach issues is American. The way I walk, talk, and socialize is American.

[NOTE: Please remember—ask me to define what I mean by "American" and I probably to definitely couldn't tell you exactly. This theory needs some more thinking on my part].

When I am in India, I am an outsider. I felt that in my research, as I was analyzing a topic dear to the Indian consciousness. I definitely felt that in my everyday life, as I attracted gaping stares wherever I went. Because of that, I looked at the country as an observer, being careful not to judge or even really question—just take in what was happening. Is this the correct approach to living in a foreign country? I have no idea, but it is what I did.

Example: one day I was on a train with my study abroad program going to a Himalayan hill station (Mussourie). We stopped at a station, and I looked out the window to see a man in his underpants running around the platform. I start to giggle because this is funny, right? A man is in his underwear dancing around. A police officer walks over and appears to start trying to get him to stop. The officer, like most officers in India who are not armed with giant rifles, is carrying a cane. I'm now giggling at the scantily clad man trying to reason with the officer. Then, the officer brandishes his cane and starts beating the man with it. I immediately stop laughing. I'm scandalized, but then I check myself, reminding myself not to judge.

But how would I have felt about it if it was my country? If it was my government allowing my police officers under my laws to beat people for a not very good reason? If it was my people getting whacked with a cane for the horrible crime of not wearing pants? I probably would have been angry, but since India is once again, not my country, not my culture, not my anything, I just observed and didn't make any judgements.

Even with the rape protests, while I was angry, and had felt the effects of India's attitude towards women during my 4 months there, it was still not my country. I could sympathize, I could chant slogans in Hindi, I could march towards potential water cannons and tear gas shells, but I couldn't own it in the way that Indian people could. Is this a step towards becoming that "citizen of the world" that study abroad programs say that you can become? Is realizing that you do belong to the country you grew up in, meaning that you realized that your home country shaped who you are, a part of finding your place in a global society? Do you have to acknowledge your own subjectivity before you can try to form opinions on the rest of the world?

Well, how's that for some closure? In other news, I also gained confidence in myself, became a better problem solver, am a lot less pleasant to mess with, learned a bit of Hindi and other blah blah blah that is actually true and makes me sound like a study abroad advertisement. My fall semester was complicated, but it was also wonderful. I did wonderful things, met wonderful people and had wonderful experiences—both good and bad.

I think a sign of how much you loved a place or a time is how sad you are when it is over (is this a good approach? Maybe I'll revise that later in life), and if my unabashed sobbing black tears (I was wearing a lot of eyeliner—I literally ran off  a stage right after bows and had the entire cast of the show take me to the airport...thanks again guys!) while checking my bags and getting quizzed on whether or not I was trafficking drugs means anything, I can say with confidence that I loved my time in India. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

There's No Place like Home (?) For the Holidays

It's holiday season! Well in America—here, its just wrapping up with wedding season (so so many weddings in Delhi means random decorated elephants and horses walking around, cars with flowers taped all over them and coming home to a big party outside my neighborhood playing "I'm Sexy and I Know It" by LMFAO). I'm back in Delhi after a great two and a half weeks in Chennai. South India was great, and has the BEST coffee everywhere so I drank a ton of that and twitched for two weeks (too much caffeine). Note: In Chennai it's still hot enough for it to be inadvisable to walk around between the hours of 11 in the morning- 2 in the afternoon. In Delhi, it's actually getting cold and no one has heating so its sweaters and socks all the time. Seasons...who knew.

Anyways, over the past month, we've celebrated a bunch of holidays, some American, some Indian, and one especially for me courtesy of my home stay family. The holiday season I'm talking about kicked off with Halloween. People in India don't celebrate Halloween, and most people have no idea what it is, which means I really stood out walking around Delhi in costume all day.

Too accurate, from Lynn Hong

Still, us American students celebrated anyway. A lot of people dressed in the Western clothes and were themselves for Halloween, although another student and I went all out. If you can't guess, I was a crazy cat lady: I wore a big flowery black hat and a nightgown, both give-aways from my program director who was cleaning out her closet, my glasses, a shawl, running shoes (cat ladies need practical footwear), and labeled my bag "BAG O' CATS." I can't really say I was greeted with more stares than normal, since looking as foreign as I do I tend to attract attention. I even showed up to an interview with a writer later that night in full costume—turns out she loves Halloween and was so happy to see me dressed up she gave me a jack o'lantern she carved.

A mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism: HAPPY HALLOWEEN  

I, of course, took the jack o' lantern home to Vasant Kunj and began to educate everyone on Halloween. I started by opening the door, giving my homestay mother a bag of candy, closing the door, opening it again, yelling "TRICK OR TREAT" and taking the candy from her. I proceeded to make her, my homestay brother, and his two friends do the same thing. 

Forcing children to take candy from me—teaching life skills?

Now that the candy part was down, I taught everyone about costumes by dressing them up with random stuff from my suitcase, and then proceeded to lead the whole motley crew on a parade down to my Massi-Ji Number Do's house while singing the Harry Potter theme song. My homestay mother in particular embraced the idea of Halloween as well as her costume of "ghost going to a party." See hand motions below!

My host brother's friends + Willy Wonka +
ghost going to a party + a fancy dementor

Next holiday came while I was in Chennai, and it is the Christmas of Hindu holidays—meaning its a really big deal. Its called the Festival of Lights celebrating good triumphing over evil and all sorts of other things you can google. People all dress up in new clothes, clean house, gather around family and friends and light TONS of stuff of fire. Everyone just lights fireworks like mad basically all day. I spent Diwali with an English girl from my hostel who had just arrived the day before. We walked on the beach, enjoying the fireworks going off, saying how nice and beautiful this holiday was. Then, we attempted to walk back through the town to our hostel. 

CRAZINESS THINGS EXPLODING EVERYWHERE. I ran into a cow. Multiple times we were corned by fireworks going off at all sides. Of course, all of the indian children were super nonchalant about all the stuff we were shrieking about. Then we joined a parade. I couldn't get a clear explanation on what was going on, but hey its India—stuff just kind of happens, its usually not explained, you just kind of roll with it. 

A sample of what we tried to walk through

The week after Diwali, it was Thanksgiving. I'm not terribly sentimental about Thanksgiving, but I like holidays in general, so I felt like I had to celebrate. I made a few friends at my hostel that day, and we ended up having a bit of a day and ended up going for a bit of a ride about Chennai dancing to Jay-Z and then had dinner at the only restaurant open after midnight. I made everyone go around the table and say what they were thankful for, which was meeting each other. Awwww!

My Thanksgiving festivites continued all weekend, as when I got back to Delhi, my dad was visiting. His company had sent him on a business trip in Hong Kong over Thanksgiving, so he stopped over in Delhi for the weekend to hang out with me and make me feel cool for showing him around the city.

Dad gives a big THUMBS UP to the Red Fort

In honor of my dad visiting, and because I had missed actual Diwali, my home stay family had a "Choti Diwali" (little Diwali) celebration for us. Everyone made a big dinner, had a lot of sweets, and lit some firecrackers my family had saved. My host mother made my father and I light at least one of every firework. I thought I was going to die. I didn't. 

So this is a summary of my last month via holidays. What is really strange is that it was my second to last month in India—I'll be home (2 days before) my next big holiday coming up. I feel like by now I've actually managed to make myself a little life here—I don't want to leave it and go back to my "real" life. However, I am currently living my real life right now. I think I've mentally removed "my life in India" from the time line of "my real life." Like right now, my "real life" is just on pause while I go and be in India. How is this going to feel when I get back? 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The "Detroit" of India nothing like anyone's been telling me.

I've been in Chennai for 3 and a half days, and its been great so far—and really unexpected. My hostel is beautiful beautiful and clean clean clean (surprise!), and the people here (outside of rickshaw drivers but what's new) have been remarkably kind. A man saw me arguing with a driver today, so he hailed a few rickshaws and bargained for me. A canadian couple adopted me as a fake daughter as we waited for a dance performance and we tried to discuss American politics with an Indian electrical engineer-cum-journalist who knew way more statistics than all of us put together. A teenager girl chased me down the street when she realized she had given me the wrong directions. Outside of people,the landscape of Tamil Nadu (where I am currently) is amazing, too—big big trees, hanging moss, huge leaves. I'm walking distance from the second-longest beach in the world.

Two of said kitties +  my gorgeous hostel

There are a bunch of kittens that live on the floor below me. It may be hard for life to get better.

I'm alone, but I chat with people. So far, on day 4 of the all-Michelle-all-the-time two weeks in South India, I've been reaaaally liking the "do whatever I feel like whenever I want" thing. Do I just want to eat a banana and some nuts right this second? I'm going to do it. Do I want to sleep for three hours, get up, shower, wash my clothes in a bucket and then sleep for five more? I'm going to do it. Do I want to wander around Triplicane for two and a half hours before I find that temple I was looking for? I'm going to do that regardless of whether I want to or not, and no one is going to get annoyed with me!

I'd love to sum up the "character" of Chennai, especially in relation to the "personality" of Delhi (whom I've come to really love), but I can't, especially on 4 days experience. I thought the other day that I wanted to grow up to be the kind of person that can discern the "personality" of cities. Then I realized that the last thing I ever want to be is pretentious. I'm not sure if you can have both.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Appreciating Delhi

I've finished my first complete bottle of malaria pills, and have returned to Delhi from traveling for the (second to) last time. We have been traveling all over the place for the past month and a half, and seeing a lot more of India than just its capital city, Delhi. As I came back to Delhi last week (from an overnight 18-hour train from Jaisalmer...which sounds awful but sleeper trains are awesome and we get bunk beds), taking the metro from the train station back to Vasant Kunj, I found myself feeling something surprisingly bordering on comfortable, and happy to be back. This week, I've been traveling all over the city interviewing various people (and, let's face it, doing a bunch of shopping) and feeling cosmopolitan. I sat outside at Dilli Haat today, drinking a lime soda and reading, and it was kind of the pretentious people-watching-y cafe experience that I never thought I would find in Delhi.

Someone is a bit too excited about sleeper car bunk
 bedsat 2 in the morning—SPOILER ALERT: it's me 

This is a marked change from the first few weeks in Delhi, which honestly kind of feel like you're being beaten over the head all day. The city is GIGANTIC, and has piles of trash everywhere, and packs of stray dogs roaming the streets fighting each other. There are so many people, and so many cars, and so many honking noises and just plain so many. Due to its size, Delhi is definitely not a walking city—to get anywhere except your own immediate neighborhood off a main road, you have to take a combination of metro and rickshaw rides. Usually a rickshaw to the metro station, a quick, efficient, AIR-CONDITIONED WITH CELL SERVICE metro ride, and then another rickshaw to your actual destination.

Getting on the ladies car of the metro because I am a lady
Walking to your destination from metro stations is possible of course (I usually walk from my home to the metro), but is a bit more fraught with obstacles than just taking a stroll down the street. Delhi is not a place where you can just kind of zone out—it keeps you on your toes. Literally. You have to remain alert to dodge things like cars, rickshaws, bicycles, that guy taking a video of you on his phone and street hawkers, constantly watching your feet to make sure you don't step on that dog "sleeping" (hopefully) over there, or trip over that cow randomly lying next to the road, or fall into one of many pits full of grey sludge.

Now I know what people mean when they say "grey sludge"
Then there's the actual task of getting where you mean to go. As a person in a constant state of being lost, never knowing where I'm going isn't really a new thing, but Delhi is something else. I've just kind of relied on rickshaw drivers knowing road names and landmarks that I tell them, and that seems to work pretty well ("pretty well" is a relative term).

If you haven't noticed, a considerable amount of blog entry content is about public transportation, so you can see what occupies my mind most of the time.

The city is arranged like no other city I've ever been in (in my VAST EXPERIENCE in cities): there are big neighborhoods all over the city connected by metro stations and main roads, and they're all fairly spread out—for example, I feel like its hard to get anywhere within a half hour, but that might be me.  Off the main road, you get the actual houses, shops and markets of the neighborhoods. And here's where I get to what's great about Delhi: all of the things! I don't know what else to say besides that there are so many things here! You could find ANYTHING in Delhi I'm sure of it—the thing is you have to know where to look. Including things like Pizza Hut, although you'll find "paneer masala" as a topping option here. SIDE NOTE: Pizza hut is infinitely better than Dominos here, which is actually disgusting and occasionally contains "liquid cheese," something that should never touch food ever.

Also, appearances are deceiving—while it may look dirty and run-down and have a bunch of guys spitting red paan-juice and gambling for something in front of it, the actual building may be sparkling and beautiful. For example, I was in the Spanish Cultural Center last night watching my host sister's classical Indian dance performance. Firstly, there's a Spanish Cultural Center here, and they host dance performances. Secondly, we were on this back alley in Connaught Place behind a glittering Hanuman Temple, and there were sketchy groups of what I think were religious asectics? (they had matted hair, and that's supposed to be a cue, but I'm also not a great judge of this) hanging around the gate. But once inside, it was a fabulous facility where everything was white white white and shiny and they had great lecture halls and auditoriums. The outside appearances of anything—neighborhoods, markets, restaurants—doesn't belie in the least what's inside.

An example of "Clean Delhi-Green Delhi," a phrase on signs all over
 the city. Also, notice the "Cheer Up Point" in the center of this photo. 
I'm pretty sure it's been said before, but that's because it's true—Delhi is a city of contrasts. Grimy shopfronts conceal slick electronic stores, bumpy rides in (again) grimy rickshaws lead you to the greatest and cleanest metro I've ever seen, stands with piles of clothes all over the place actually sell beautiful handmade fabric and beneath a sky that orange-ish colored from all types of pollution, the city is full of greenery. This includes people—while you will see a lot of women in saris and salwar-kamizes (all traditional Indian clothing...more on that to come), you'll also see a ton of girls my age wearing western clothes. I mean, there are an awful lot of people in outfits we were consider a bit strange, like loose-fitting jeans, Teva-like sandals and age-inappropriate t-shirts that say things like "Girls just wanna have fun!" in bubble letters or weird TV show references like "F.R.I.E.N.D.S...if you buy me a diamond," but still.

This brings me to another feeling I had upon returning to Delhi: it's so modern here. I can get food from any part of the world here, and I won't feel horribly out-of-place (I said "horribly") if I'm not in a sari.  I never thought I would think that Delhi is modern, but after seeing more of India, its very clear how cosmopolitan and worldly Delhi is.

While the city is certainly easy to hate, there are so many thing that are wonderful about Delhi—if you go looking for them. Delhi isn't going to just open up to you; you have to make an effort. And once you do, you'll realize that there is always something great to do here: there's always a performance (usually free!) to go to, a restuarant to eat at, or yet another really really old monument or temple or an entire fortress-city (what up Tuglaqabad on the outskirts of South Delhi) to see. At least this is where I'm at in "my relationship with Delhi" right now. It'll probably stay that way cause I'm leaving for Chennai in a week and a half—which has been called the "Detroit" of India. We'll see how that goes.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What I Do Here

So I've been in India for pretty much 6 weeks (and actually writing a blog entry...I'm trying not to write something I'll cringe at tomorrow. So far, I've been unsuccessful). By this time, what may have warranted entire blog entries of me ranting/being amazed by/freaking out now are just routine. So, to give you an idea of what I'm actually doing across the world, I'm going to go through a "typical day." Of course, in my experience so far, literally NOTHING is "typical" in India. Everything is different. Example: the light switches are the opposite way. I still have not gotten used to it. But hey—today was a great day. I got fair rickshaw prices, managed to get myself to more than one Delhi neighborhood within three hours, had friendly negociations with some shopkeepers in Hindi and found a bagel place. Days like this kind of make me feel like I'm getting the hang of things...that is until I come back to homestay to discover that there is bat in the laundry room and I have the unexpected reaction of shrieking and diving under the table when it flies out. Don't worry, cause my homestay mother took pictures.

I love India.

So, I rise every morning at 7. Well, that is a lie. 7 is the goal. My Massi-ji (that means mother's aunt in Hindi, and it's what I call my homestay mother) makes me some breakfast and chai tea, which is milky and sweet here and doesn't resemble chai tea at home in the least but in a good way. Also, just as I love breakfast in America, I am a gigantic fan of Indian breakfast food.  I run downstairs to meet another girl from my program, who is staying at an apartment within my complex. Her homestay family and mine are extremely close, and I call her homestay mother my "Massi-ji Number Do (2 in Hindi)."

Where I'm living—my homestay sister says our part of Vasant Kunj
 is the best because "there are a lot of rapes in the others." Hooray!
We walk up to the main road and hop in a rickshaw to get to class—well, I wish it were that easy. For some background: a rickshaw is a small open-air car and the main way of getting around Delhi. Even if you take the metro, you usually still have to take a rickshaw to where you want to go, because area-wise (and everything-wise) Delhi is huge. But, rickshaws are not taxis—they may have a meter to tell you how much your ride costs, but the driver is going to say it is broken and refuse to turn it on. You have to negotiate a price with him, which is FRUSTRATING. And then it's not guaranteed that the rickshaw driver is going to actually know where you want to go. I have more than a few stories of nightmare rickshaw rides—including one that was over an hour long, costs far too much money and involved the driver getting so lost for so long that not only did he stop to phone a friend, he also stopped to pee. He offered to stop to pick up some food, but I put my foot down.

Bane of my existence?
 I, along with most of the other people on my program, did feel for a little while that rickshaw drivers were the antagonists of my life.  However, I've (kind of?) gotten the hang of them now, or at least gotten used to it. Plus, once you are actually in the rickshaw and heading the right direction, it's totally fun! Like a go-cart! Only with higher chance of death because Delhi traffic is actually insane and there seem to be no rules keeping the cars and trucks and motorcycles and rickshaws and bicycles and cows from crashing into each other except everyone's mutual fear of death (excluding the cows—COWS DON'T CARE. I am continually in awe at the extreme apathy of cows).

Once we are set up in a rickshaw, which usually involves my friend, who is Nepali and looks significantly more Indian than me (not hard),  pretending she doesn't know me and speaking in her fluent Hindi to the drivers in order to get a good price, we proceed to our program house for class. We begin the day with two hours of Hindi—sounds dreary, but our Hindi teacher calls our class "Thori Hindi, Thori Masti," which means "a little Hindi and a little fun." Example: a few days ago he forced all of us to improvise songs to introduce ourselves, and then danced along as one girl made it rain Sikh men during her introductory rap.

Aside from Hindi, we can have any number of lectures, some by our main professor and program coordinator, Storm-ji and a lot by guest lecturers discussing their specialities. The lectures all either themed around national identity and the arts (what our program's about) or anthropology ethics and such to prepare for our big INDEPENDENT STUDY PROJECT in November—a month we get to do independent research pretty much anywhere our budget can take us on anything we can think. It's awesome.

Smiling at Sulabh! (as per instructions on the signs)

Sometimes we have field trips. One day, we went to the Sulabh Museum, or as it is more colloquially known as, the Toilet Museum. Strangest (but greatest) museum experience of my life: after we received a tour of all the toilets and the history of them, we were taken to a board room, given cookies and juice boxes, and a group of women who used to have the job of picking up sewage with their hands came in to meet us. After that, we all went outside to take a picture together, and a man came out and gave us a self-help speech about succeeding in life. Then the women presented us all with sandalwood garlands and scarves.

One a week, we have practica, which is a fun class where you learn a skill. We can choose from a few options, and I am taking cooking! Yes, I'm totally continuing my quest to learn how to feed myself. I have still yet to light something on fire, and I stuck my hand in a huge clay oven fire tank last week.

Massi-ji and homestay brother, after a slight mishap with the flour-making machine that resulted in a bit of a flour explosion

After classes are over, I usually try to explore Delhi or run errands or whatever. Then, I go home to Vasant Kunj Sector A Pocket C to my Massi-ji and my homestay brother, which is honestly one of the best parts of my day. My Massi-ji is a stay-at-home mom who also teaches English to children who can't afford to go to good schools, teaches abacus on Sundays, used to teach computers, designs furniture, gets up at 5:30 every day and is in general a superwoman. My homestay brother is a clever little 9 year old boy who thinks I am a complete joke, especially when he wipes the floor with me in something that he likes to call "survival badminton." We all watch Hindi soaps as I do homework at the kitchen table, and then I stand over my Massi-ji and write things down while she cooks. While they both speak English, there is definitely a language gap—needless to say, I'm learning a lot of Hindi. And making a lot of faces at my homestay brother, which contributes to the "thinks I'm a complete joke" thing.


We have fun. My homestay brother's birthday party was this Monday. I was the picture-taker, which was super great since there was a BOUNCY HOUSE and a cake SHAPED LIKE A RACE CAR. Last week, we went to the huge, gigantic mall in Vasant Kunj that has a Chilies and a bowling alley, had a food orgy at the food court, and then played hide and seek in what looked like India's version of Wal-Mart for two hours.

My homestay sister putting us to work—arts and crafts hooray!

As for the other half of my homestay family, there is my Massi-ji Number Do and her high school age daughter, and the girl from my program. My homestay sister often recruits us Americans to help her with her homework, which occasionally includes arts and crafts (yesss I love them). They are some of the sweetest people I have ever met, and they make everyone feel so incredibly welcome in their home–which is also full of magazines, and I have recently become addicted to "Femina," which is like Cosmo but with less sex and crossed with Women's Health and human interest stories.

Basically, my homestay is absolutely wonderful and I'm going to miss them so so much. I love being able to come back to Vasant Kunj and have my Massi-ji drink some tea with me while I share all the things I learned in Hindi class and my homestay brother laughingly corrects my pronunciation, or go down stairs and have my Massi-ji Number Do give me a hug, giggle about the day with the girl from my program and have a long chat with my homestay sister.

To continue my summing-up, I love India. It definitely takes some getting used to—I swear the first two weeks in Delhi I stumbled around with my mouth open in shock/disgust/awe/amazement. India is exciting, and fascinating, and beautiful, but as our program director puts it, "its not all elephants and jasmine." Also, I'm not going to lie—India at times has definitely made me want to throw in the towel, sit down in the dirt next to the nearest pile of trash and cry. There's a lot of grey sludge and creepy men and fear of strange diseases, but all of those things are so small compared to everything else. Everything here is an adventure, and I'm starting to have more stories about India than I can remember. Plus, there's Mother Dairy Kulfi on a stick here. What can beat that? 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Time I May Have Witnessed A Minor Miracle, Or My Experience With Religion in India After 3 Weeks

[DISCLAIMER: So I totally wrote this for Argus. But the whole I-didn't-have-internet-excluding-my-program-house-for-a-month thing kind of killed blogging impulse? Updates to follow]

Two weeks ago, I (along with my homestay families) witnessed a minor miracle.
I had gone down from my homestay mother’s apartment to visit at my second homestay family’s (yes, my homestay mother is best friends with another homestay mother) place just as my homestay sister, Chandni ,and another girl from my program were running out the door. Apparently, Chandni had gotten a call from her mother, who was in the neighborhood at a puja, a Hindu religious ritual, a picture had started sweating holy water. Of course, we all had to go check it out.

We enter the house where the ceremony was being held to see a group of people sitting on a rug in a white room filled with chandeliers (there were three) in front of a large picture of a smiling man placed on a wooden swing and dripping with white fabric, pearls and glittering stone. A heavily embellished chair was placed to the right of this picture, and flowers ringed the whole set-up, with candles and flower petals strewn on the floor. We were directed to go to the front of the picture and bow with our foreheads to the floor. After that, a man with near-perfect English lead us into a bedroom off the main room to show us a picture of that same smiling man, only it’s much smaller and there are four rivulets of condensed water apparent beneath the glass.

The smiling man is called Guru-ji, and he was explained to us as a real person, who only died in 2007, with had the ability to link others to God. Because of that, people worshipped him as above God, since it was only through him could they attain a divine connection. What had happened was that Sunday morning, the father of the house woke up saying that Guru-ji had told him in a dream that he was present in the house and to look for pictures of him. The family knew that the way Guru-ji shows his presence is by one of his pictures producing water, so they began to tear apart the house, finally locating the sweating picture in a back room where they store their food.

After examining the picture, we joined the rest of the group in the main room, who were all (apparently, I don’t speak much Hindi—yet!) sharing their stories of being helped or cured by Guru-ji. We all received prasad, sweets that one gets at a temple as a blessing from the gods in exchange for offering yourself to him/her/them. As the discussion progressed, Chandni began to ask questions (mercifully for me, in English). She questioned how they knew it was really Guru-ji who was helping them, and how people who did not even know about Guru-ji could be helped by him.

What I noticed was that the rhetoric for believing in Guru-ji was the much the same as the rhetoric for believing in any Christian religion: you just have to have faith. However, with Guru-ji, the God was expected to provide proof of his powers of because, in the words of a man at the ceremony, “How can we believe in a God that does nothing for us?”

Is that symptomatic of Hinduism’s polytheistic worldview? Does the fact that they have multiple Gods to choose from mean that a God has to prove himself in order to get followers? In all my lapsed Catholic experience (and I assure you, it’s not much), I don’t think I would have ever heard that sentence come out of a Christian’s mouth.

In general though, my experience with religion in India (after these three weeks, and without seriously studying that vast and complicated subject), has been one of glitter and immediacy. I’ve been to a grand total of two temples, and both were dripping with sparkle, crowded with intricate statues of Gods and practically bursting with color (my poor photography above doesn’t do it justice). Even the small neighborhood temples I’ve seen seem magnificent compared to even the catholic churches in my own town. I’ve also been a part of a puja to Sarawsatwi, the goddess of knowledge, organized by the program to give us luck this coming semester. The ceremony was on the roof of the center, only a big picture of Saraswati laden with fruit and flowers was brought along with a fire pit and mounds of spices.

This brings me to my other observation: the lines between public life, private life, and religious life seem so thin here. This elaborate (at least to me) ceremony to Saraswati, where we threw spices into the fire pit, offered up flower petals and received red string around our wrists, all took place the same place we eat lunch, and the entire thing was mobile. When we walked into the ceremony for Guru-ji, we first walked past two kids watching cartoons on a bed before we reached the shrine, and the house doubled as a place of worship and a house (the sweating picture was displayed in a bedroom). Even looking around, you can see small temples everywhere, gods displayed in almost very cars and rickshaws and people throwing flower petals at statues on the side of the road. Not mention Guru-ji’s picture producing water—I feel like if something like that had happened at one of my local churches in New Jersey, it would have at least made The Independent Press, if not national news, but here, people didn’t even seem to be that taken aback.

Compared to my experience with Christianity in America (and granted, I do not live in a particularly religious place, I’m not from the Bible belt), religion here doesn’t seem to have to take place in a Church or a special building away from daily life. It’s in living rooms, next to sidewalks, and above rickshaw drivers’ head.  And (if you're lucky) miracle pictures dripping water are in the pantry. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Too Many Things Rhyme With Delhi

"People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home." - Dagobert D. Runes

Like any good high school graduation speech, I'm starting this abroad blog (ABLOG!) with a quote. Yes, I got it off a page called 'The 50 Most Inspiring Travel Quotes of All Time." Forgive me—I was getting excited. Anyway, it makes me consider that I'm going to India, a country I've never been to, that (reportedly, I don't know yet) is much much different from everything I'm used to. Everyday things will seem terribly exotic to me. This quote just makes me think am I going to be learning more about a different culture and way of life, or more about my own culture and myself while submersed in something so foreign?

Well, that's probably the type of deeper question I should be thinking about. Mostly I was spending my time thinking far too hard about what to call this blog. The problem is, too many things rhyme with Delhi (where I'll be this semester...should I have started this off with saying I'm studying abroad in Delhi, India for 4 months on the SIT program National Identity and the Arts?). One of the things that rhymes with Delhi is Shelly, a nickname for Michelle that I actually DESPISE. I have very few pet peeves (I mean at least I think so...anyone else have anything to say about that?) and the nickname Shelly is one of them. So I settled on this blog name, which kind of sounds like Shelly anyway BUT WHATEVER I decided I'm done.

Anyway, I'm flying to Delhi today, starting my abroad adventures, and beginning my malaria pills. I would love love love it if you people kept in touch with me—send me updates on your lives, I will literally be estactic I'm sure. And here's another quote, this time stolen from my abroad program's facebook page (I'm nothing if not original):

Mark Twain on his three months in India: "This is India! the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations--the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien persons, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that allmen desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined."

!!!  Isn't that awesome??? I'm sure I'll appreciate it even more if I don't get malaria.