28 January 2009

Name, worship

Returning from India, the brain is a bit befuddled, a bit of soul-lag, a bit of weirdness: the cab I caught this morning driven by a Sikh man and yet it was a yellow cab, not an Ambassador car, with a working meter. Weird. So there are some adjustments going on. I am, however, also beginning the teaching semester, half-a-brain down and half-a-soul still in transit across the ocean. I'm telling you, we need to go back to ships. Jet travel is great but it messes with the balance of the universe too much.

In this half-baked light, I note simply that in one class I have a student named Aarthi and in the other a student named Pooja. Both names describe different forms of worship. This strikes me as balanced, from the doubled vowels to the visions of lamps and ghee and offerings along the Ganges each evokes. Not the people necessarily, but their listing on my course roster. Worship itself moving among us, elbowing Old Testament figures and Korean emperors for space on my class lists. Maybe I've been reading too much magical realism lately, but it makes me happy to witness this conjunction.

Welcome to the new semester.

21 January 2009

Water, or lack thereof

News stories in Delhi tell of well-off neighborhoods purchasing water from private companies in order to have any on hand at all; the guest house where I'm staying has at least 6 huge storage units for water (two below in the rear, two in the central basement area, and two on the roof). Water is a huge problem in Delhi and in the world more generally; we just take it for granted in the US.

Obviously you don't drink the water that comes from the tap in India--this is the one way I've gotten sick thus far (knock on wood). But you also are advised to be careful with the water you use for washing, both in terms of ingesting it accidentally and in terms of simply using too much.

So how little water can you use for bathing? This is sort of a challenge--I've managed to get clean with about 2 gallons of warm water, and then brushed my teeth with about a half a cup of bottled water. Bathrooms in India include a bucket and a small plastic pitcher so that you can bathe fairly easily and thoroughly in this manner.

I completely understand the luxury of the long hot shower and I certainly get the luxury of the hot tub or bath--but are we headed for a time when everyone will have to assess their impact on the planet through water consumption? Maybe this would be a good thing.

The other thing that strikes me as odd is the way in which we become socialized/disciplined into particular bathing rituals at an early age, and then these develop and continue over time. But I do get a sense that we all have a "proper" way of bathing and to do something different, even in the privacy of your own bathtub, is odd and radical and weird. No one's looking, right? Why not bathe in 2 gallons with a bucket? What's stopping you? (Aside from needing to get a bucket into the bathroom, which I admit is a small hurdle.) It strikes me as remarkable that we (I?) remain societally and behaviorally disciplined even in this arena.

20 January 2009

Obama: Good peoples

My rickshaw-wallah made the above statement yesterday morning once he discovered (where from, ma'am?) I was from the US. "Big changes" "Good for India" These things are part of the discourse on the streets of Delhi, with every passing mention to South Asia in the confirmation hearings reported with headline-level coverage. We'll see if it's good for India or not. I'm not entirely sure. With the Taliban shutting down schools in Pakistan's Swat district, disallowing girls from returning to the classroom after the winter break, I hope the Obama folks in charge of the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India region have a plan of some kind. Because Pakistan seems to be getting worse...Let's hope that Good People can get something good done.

18 January 2009

I Tried

I know, as an American, I'm supposed to be a football fan. And you see, I was a huge football fan 20+ years. But since the age of Tivo, it's become increasingly difficult for me to watch the game. Three years of following International Rugby has only compounded my distaste. So aside from the Super Bowl, I've only watched about 5 games over the past 5 years. But it's Championship Sunday and my 'hometown' team is playing. So today I tried to watch football.

It didn't work.

I get the cultural phenomenon that is American Football - lots of people, lots of bad snacks, lots of time together, etc. But the game itself? It's horrendous! And I think it's only got worse over the past 10 years. The game takes forever (4 hours!?) and yet nothing ever really happens. There is no flow, no rhythm to the game, and every single play has to be replayed a minimum of 3 times. You get a couple of replays for a 2 yard run up the middle; if somebody actually scores a touchdown - that's worth 12 different looks from every angle imaginable. But I think the thing that really gets me is that football in 2009 - perhaps unlike Football in 1995, the last time I paid close attention - is all about the DEFENSE. And Sports where defense is primary just aren't as enjoyable to watch (see NBA, Detroit Pistons, circa 1989; cf. NHL, New Jersey Devils, circa 2000).

To my eyes, football is mostly a chaotic mess - the defense tends to blitz somewhere between 2 and 788 players. The offense tries desperately and frantically to avoid those blitzers. The vast majority of plays do NOT go well for the offense, and then occasionally they get lucky and hit for a big play. If you are watching Baltimore play Pittsburgh, don't count on seeing many scoring plays. And overall the game is all about physical strength: e.g. quarterbacks aren't tall and lean any longer, because the key requirement for a quarterback is that he survive the season. The game has no grace to it, no beauty. Maybe it's always been this why, and it is I who have changed. But I'm afraid I'll have to stick with hockey, and re-double my efforts to find a way to watch the Six Nations this year.

14 January 2009

a taste for proxy penury

I was bothered yesterday by the fact that Slumdog Millionare (Slumdog Crorepati!) has taken over the news here because of the Golden Globe wins (first Indian to win a GG, for the score of the film). I couldn't quite pinpoint it. Something about the fact that the film has yet to be released in India (it comes out on the 23rd of January) and yet the press is falling all over itself in praise for the film. It will be interesting to see reactions of those who go and see it finally, after all the hype here.

What bothered me wasn't quite that, though--it was more than just the unjustness of India's massive movie-going public being last on the list of those who get to see the film. The film about India. The film that many are marvelling at--how real it is, how it gets into the depth of the slums, etc. Critics in India's media are talking about how it took a foreign director to film in the real slums--the assumed corellary that an Indian director would put together a film set in some backlot in the Bollywood film cities.

But this wasn't what was bothering me. Then I read this somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece in the opinion section of the paper this morning (the TOI, Times of India): Slumdog Solution. It doesn't hit my discomfort quite on the head, but it gets close: isn't this just the west fawning over a depiction of the non that it really really really needs right now: hey look, they're poorer than us. Like really a lot poorer. Wow could it be worse. But hey, they have hope, so we should have hope, no? Out of the muck, beauty rises.

And yes, like the lotus, so the characters in Slumdog. The idea of slum tourism that the article raises at the end (Beggar & Breakfast) echoes existing forms of terror tourism in places like Israel (okay maybe not this month, but...) and Ireland. Books like Shantaram also provide some voyeuristic insight into slum life, although that book is closer to a memoir and doesn't sugar coat much (vide the scenes in the prison). Fiction like Mistry's A Fine Balance does a better job of revealing the horrors of mafia-controlled begging rings and the resultant loss of human potential. And by "better" I mean no, it doesn't get better. Not after 300 pages, not after 500. It only gets worse.

I suppose that while I enjoyed the film, and thought the first 2/3rds to be beautifully filmed, well directed, wonderfully acted, and yes, very "real" if that can be ascribed to a film, I had trouble with the salvation bit at the end, and with the fact that the torture in police custody bit was filmically placed at the beginning but temporally co-existed with the moment of highest hope. Tension and contradiction, to be sure. But how much of this is, as the TOI asks, poverty pornography? How are we culpable for this? What are the ethics of the celebration of Slumdog in a moment of downward economic spiral in which those already at the bottom will in all likelihood only get crushed more?

13 January 2009

secret coffee recipes stolen from the Cuban Armed Forces

I am writing this in a Barista coffee shop, one of a chain that serves all your Starbucks favorites and gets its coffee from Lavazza, of Italian espresso fame. They also have smoothies, granitas, and gelato, along with a rather American assortment of muffins, scones and cakes. Their livery is a soothing orange and brown, but not in a halloween type way. Their suggestion/complaint cards include the above phrase. Priceless. I come here often, for coffee is important no matter where you are. And it's warm, a huge benefit in comparison to my guest house.

I'm in Connaught circus, which is really a horrible place to be--crowded, dirty, with too many tourists. But I did get my shoes shined in front of United Coffee House by two lovely men who not only shined my shoes but identified that my heels were coming up out of them (They are Danskos. This is normal.) and thus they did not fit me properly. I thought they were going to replace my insoles (which, to be fair, have multiple holes in them and should by all rights be replaced. The shoes are at least 6 years old, possibly 8 years, and my only pair of black "dress/professional" shoes for many of those years.) and I was a bit alarmed since despite the holes they are thick, good, arch-supporting insoles. Instead they simply wanted to add a layer of insole such that my foot fit better in my shoe. Very kind of them. It makes sense that they would be feet experts, given their line of work. All told I paid at least twice, possibly three-times Indian price (this is also normal)--about three US$, or Rs150. (Last time I was in India I paid Rs20 for just the shoeshine in Jaipur, while I was with the Indian guide and he was breathing down the shoe shiner's neck.) I have never gotten a shoeshine in the US. How much do they run these days? The bonus this time was that I got to practice a bit of Hindi (Purana joota hai--ji ha, abhi naya joota hai, na? Ha ji. Bahut dhanyavad.) and sit unaccosted by vendors in Connaught (since one vendor already had me in their proverbial capitalist claws). So all is well with the world. And my shoes have never looked newer. Huzzah.

12 January 2009

Written on REST TIME

REST TIMING for Microfilm/Microfiche Readers are given below:
2:45-3 pm
3:45-4 pm
4:45-5 pm
5:45-6 pm

It is unclear from the instructions at the Nehru Library whether the rest time is for scholars or for the microfilm. I imagine the latter, but it is refreshing to be forced to take a break, one 15 minute period out of each hour. And so here I sit not resting but instead writing a blog entry. My US/UK-paced life coming through in the face of India time. I can, however, hear the woman behind me typing away just as I am, so that makes me feel a bit better about not truly resting.

I'm intrigued as a simultaneous participant and observer in the relation between culture shock and its rearrangement of the body, timing of daily cycles, and the shaping of one's daily rituals, from brushing teeth to resting for 15 minutes out of each hour. Despite the fact that I tend to take a zen-style, go-with-the-flow approach to India (for anything else is madness), the body still resists moving into new patterns, breaking old ones, groping futilely to anticipate the next challenge to the old order. How will disciplinary power emerge today, I ask myself each morning. In hourly breaks from the microform. Unanticipated, clearly.

And from the research bin today: Nehru wrote in his prison diary that he missed the sound of dogs barking at night, his sign of ultimate isolation. I can hear them just fine each night, all night. No worries.

10 January 2009

Lost in Translation

As I sat in an autorickshaw in traffic today, first on the Mathura road and then later trying to get across town for some food, I had a moment of Bill Murray-ness, swept along in the slow-moving tide of cars and rickshaws, between canyons of packed buses (run on Clean Natural Gas (CNG)! Green Delhi, Clean Delhi) and massive cargo lorries. What a completely bizarre place we live in, this world of ours. How do people live here? Ah modern alienation. The ennui of hazy distanciation from the real, unbroken even when the real reaches into the rickshaw with a stack of Booker Prize winning paperbacks and says: madam? madam? book? Aravind Adiga's White Tiger? madam?

09 January 2009

Library smells

I spent the day at Teen Murti Bhavan, Jawaharlal Nehru's former residence--technically next door in the new modern library building. I discovered over the holidays that a fragrance manufacturer has synthesized "In the Library" which I pondered purchasing for my mother (a librarian) but then decided that that is exactly what she needs: to smell like her workplace. So I didn't do that. I will say, however, and I am going out on a limb because I have not, in fact, smelled the above scent, that the perfumier had never been in the Nehru Library, for he would have had to add 'eau de mothball' and waft a bit of DDT-level bug spray into the mix. Smelling (and seeing) these things at Nehru's library was disturbing (and headache inducing) but then you think: wow. what would this place be like without them? Gross.

08 January 2009

Sanjay Gupta, or: Obama in India

Obama appeared twice in my day today, as I wandered around the capital city in a bit of a post-flight, post-Britain haze, not at all lightened by the actual haze in Delhi's air, something one does not think about for too long when one is here.

First, below the fold in the front page of the Times of India: "Obama wants Indian doc as surgeon-general." with a little pic of Gupta and a list of all of the PIOs in Obama's transition team (persons of Indian origin--keep up people!). The article claims this post has had "Indian" written all over it--a statement that I think only could be made without retribution in an Indian paper on Indian soil, given the stereotype of diaspora-Indian-on-path-to-med-school it raises. But there you are. He also features on p. 17 of the first section, under the title: "Sanjay Gupta was on sexiest men of 2003 list," showing that the Times has its priorities straight. There it reads a bit like a matrimonial, listing his degrees and achievements, before mentioning he's now married.

Second, while at the Gandhi Museum this morning, a lovely man was trying to talk to me with my broken Hindi and his broken English, and asked where I was from (always the first question) and then mentioned Obama's name. Except he said Osama. Sigh.

It's Muharram julu (processions) and majlis (gathering/sermons) tonight and so I am staying in, despite some small bit of desire to go and see it. But the 98% of the brain that is, well, aware of the goings on in Gaza and the recent bombings in Mumbai and the fact that Pakistan is getting the blame here is, well, staying away from crowds of (however peaceful) Muslims mourning the martyrdom of the Prophet's gransons, Hasan and Hussain. Next time. Muharram Mubarak.