November 25, 2009
We passed this elephant (and his handlers) while cruising up to Anjuna beach on our little Honda scooter, and we knew we had to come back and ride him. We didn’t know it was going to cost a 2000 rupee “temple donation” (approximately 40 USD), but like everywhere in India, if you’re smart you never pay sticker price.
November 25, 2009
So we’re both back from India — apologies to those who have enjoyed our adventures (and apologies from me, I wasn’t able to upload photos from past the first third or so of our trip, the north India section) but the writing will probably stop. I don’t know, maybe James wants to wrap up the trip from New York, or where ever he is.
I, however, will keep posting photos in the spirit of the photoblog, as often as once a day, when I can manage. There are still a number of good India photos left, and those I will post, and then you might start seeing photos taken in good old USA. I hope these do not disappoint.
November 25, 2009
November 20, 2009
During our visit to Calcutta, I have dragged Elliot to several sites commemorating the lives of two of my favorite human beings: Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Ramakrishna. We have traveled hours out of our way to visit the locations where these two amazing men lived their lives. Let me tell you a bit about each of them.
Rabindranath Tagore is often referred to as “the poet laureate of India”. He was the scion of a legendary Bengali family. His grandfather Dwarkanath was one of the founders of the religious movement Brahmo Samaj, which believes in the inherent equality of all religions and focuses on one all-encompassing deity. It’s basically the Unitarianism of India. Dwarkanath was so respected, he was referred to as “Prince Dwarkanath” and was awarded his own coat-of-arms by Her Majesty the Queen of England.
Rabindranath’s father was Debendranath, who was a famous leader of the Bengali Rennaisance movement. Like his father before him, he preached against archaic Hindu practices such as suttee (where a widow will self-immolate at the funeral pyre of her deceased husband). He was so respected, he was given his own title, “Maharshi”.
Rabindranath, however, is the most famous of them all. He became a prized poet and writer, and won the Nobel Prize for his poetic collection “Gitanjali” (Gitanjali can be translated into “Song Offerings”). Gitanjali happens to be one of the best poetic collections of all time, by the way. Fun fact.
Tagore was also knighted, but forfeited his knighthood in reaction to the massacre at Amritsar, when the British fired upon unarmed Indians. While believing that the West had much to offer the East, Tagore was an ardent patriot who counted Ghandi among his close friends. Ghandi referred to Tagore as “Gurudev”, making Rabindranath the third linear generation of his family to be so famous as to have his own unique title.
Rabi also founded his own university and ashram at Shantiniketan (Shanti = Peace, Niketan = Abode, hence “Abode of Peace) called Visvabharata. His students include very famous artists, and Indira Ghandi (PM of India) studied at Visvabharata.
We visited Shantiniketan on Monday, and walked through the same buildings in which Tagore had taught his own students. Ambling through the university, we marveled at the various works of art which had been installed on campus as expressions of the students’ artistic expression. I spied a young student drawing a sketch of a small banyan tree, and was so moved by the intellectual and artistic thirst inherent in this simple action that I felt obliged to compliment her on her drawing. She smiled shyly, and we moved away.
The classrooms at Visvabharata are all outdoors, with concrete semi-circles installed in a sweeping arborous landscape. We sat down for a moment and stared out at the dormitories, then continued on.
At the Bolpur train station nearby, we saw the actual carriage car upon which Tagore took his last trip, from Shantiniketan to his home in Calcutta. A day later, we visited Tagore’s home, with exhibitions showing Tagore in his travels. Towards the end of his life, Tagore traveled to several countries a year, giving speeches and sharing his thoughts on life, culture, and India’s spiritual heritage. I teared up when standing in the room where Tagore died; he happens to be one of my favorite poets.
Tagore’s writing is distinctly anchored in Indian society; it is arguably quite difficult to understand much of his mystical poetry without having a basic understanding of Hinduism, and the tranenscendentalist beliefs of Brahmo Samaj and Eastern mysticism more specifically. But at the same time, Tagore’s poetry is profoundly universal.
Since I cannot possibly do justice to Tagore through mere description, allow me to provide you with one of my favorite of Tagore’s poems. This is often referred to as “My Prayer” (Tagore often would not name his poems) from his Nobel Prize-winning collection, Gitanjali:
This is my prayer to thee, my Lord — strike, strike at the root of penury in my heart.
Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows.
Give me the strength to make my love fruitful in service.
Give me the strength never to disown the poor or bend my knees before insolent might.
Give me the strength to raise my mind high above daily trifles.
And give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love.
Later I’ll try to write a little something about Sri Ramakrishna.
November 19, 2009
November 19, 2009
I’m writing this post from the rooftop of the Calcutta Swim Club. Around me loom several 19th century buildings, their colonial brick walls propped up by bamboo scaffolding. Farther on, the lights wink off, one by one, from the floor-high window panes of modern office buildings. After a sweltering day, the air has cooled. My toes stretch out, into a small puddle caused by the recent rain. It’s 2 in the morning in Bengal, and the city is sleeping.
I’m thinking about Dharavi, the infamous Bombay slum which we visited earlier this week. It is reportedly the largest slum in all of Asia, with over a million inhabitants, and it sits squarely in the middle of Bombay. This, ironically, means that the land which houses this slum is some of the most valuable in the world. Dharavi is also a center of thriving mini-industry, where inhabitants make a living selling home crafts and running small recycling or manufacturing factories out of shacks as large as a walk-in closet. This economic model has brought in business leaders from around the world to visit Dharavi, to see what principles can be applied to their own endeavors. I can’t help but think of this cynically; powerful men in three-piece suits travel to visit the ‘least of these’, but only to figure out how to further their own fortunes.
It would be easy to paint you a compelling picture of the abject poverty that we found in Dharavi. I only would have to describe the naked children running near industrial machinery, or the garment workers sewing t-shirts in a poorly ventilated single room for perhaps 40 rupees an hour (a relatively good job, in Dharavi), or the piles of human refuse mixed with discarded trash that surrounded one of the few working toilets in the area.
It would also be easy for me to leave you with a sense of hope and affection for Dharavi’s people and its future. I could mention the piles of papadum that women would leave to bake in the sun, perched ten at a time on woven baskets. Or the crowds of smiling children who would breathlessly use their entire English vocabulary on us as we passed by. Or the female teachers, hired by the non-profit we were touring with, playing tug-of-war with their children in the newly built kindergarden toward the edge of the slum.
I myself reflected on something different as I traveled through the cramped alleyways of Dharavi, however. I asked myself, “Why, exactly, am I even here?”
I had felt compelled to see Dharavi ever since I began planning the trip. I spoke to several friends of my desire to tour the slum. Their response to my proposal was mixed, unconsciously echoing my own mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt that it would be an unpardonable offense if Elliot and I treated ourselves only to a sugar-coated version of India, immersing ourselves fully in its exotic flavor while keeping at arm’s length the parts of India’s society that wouldn’t fit well on a postcard. And in India, despite the widespread presence and high visibility of poverty, it is uncomfortably easy to do this. Elliot and I learned quickly to ignore the small children who tapped on the window of our taxi, the crippled men who brought their hands to their mouths in a pantomime of hunger, the young women with babies in their arms who called out to us in Hindi. In many ways, our response to Indian beggars is simply a response to American beggars: look away, continue walking. No one is proud of it, but we all do it.
In India, I felt, the sheer magnitude of the poverty present on the streets contributed to our ability to ignore it. It became the omnipresent background, part of the scenery. Something we passed through as we went on to our destination. I am tempted to conclude, based on my own observation, that this may affect the Indian mindset, as well. If so, such pronounced social stratification means that two Indians can live in the same society while occupying completely separate social spaces. There is a Delhi for the rich, a Delhi for the destitute. There is a Bombay divide that goes beyond North/South. Calcutta has its Victoria Monuments, and it has its Mother Teresas. Dharavi is literally in the middle of Mumbai, but for all intents and purposes, it is its own city.
I felt the need to see this side of India. On the other hand, touring the Dharavi slum seemed profoundly exploitative. Elliot and I were quite literally touring poverty. I worried that that, despite the assurances of the tour guide that we had the peoples’ permission to be there, the Dharavi citizens would feel like they were on display. A South Indian television station interviewed me as we were leaving the slum; I believe that they wanted me to cry out in horror at what I had seen, so that they could have a shot of the Westerner reacting in amazement to conditions in Dharavi. Little did they know that they were interviewing a lifelong b.s.er; I gave a ten minute interview without saying anything of substance. But my own concern stays with me, even now. Can we feel anything but embarrassment for temporarily acquainting ourselves with poverty, and then simply passing through?
I understate the altruism of the touring program when I say this; Reality Tours is an excellent program, and an NGO that has several projects designed to better conditions for Dharavi citizens, for which our tour money is earmarked. I would recommend them to anyone else. My criticism lies not with the experience, but with my own motivation. What was I looking for? And what exactly did I expect to do once I found it?
November 17, 2009
November 16, 2009
I thought, upon first arriving to India, that Elliot and I would end up losing weight during our trip. After all, we would be walking everywhere, and we’d mostly be eating vegetarian food.
We have been dangerously full more times than I can count on this trip. We started in the North, where the dishes were heavy on the creamy sauce. Butter chicken with naan, Punjabi style, was a favorite. I’d order seconds, and regret it later.
In Mumbai, the Sham family showed us no mercy. We would travel from streetcart to streetcart, eating freshly prepared sweets like mango tarts and custard apple icecream. At one point, the Shams took us out for an authentic Rajasthani experience. The food came in a large silver plate, with several smaller cups withi it. As soon as we thought we were done, waiters would come by and refill the plate. Mrs. Sham explained that the speed of service was deliberate; it was meant to bombard your stomach so that you were full quickly. That way, you wouldn’t linger at the table and abuse the buffet privileges.
This also meant that we were fit to burst upon completing our meal. When we were done, we rang a large bell to signify our contentment with the food. The entire restaurant staff yelled out “auhjo!” (I’m gessing on the spelling), a Gujurati word that meant “come back!” I don’t know how we could possibly come back to that restaurant, however, unless we fasted the day before.
We thought we couldn’t possibly get more full than Mumbai. Then the Poddars made a power move for the title, “make James and Elliot so full, they can’t think about food ever again.”
The Poddars, the family of my friend Harsh, are dedicated vegetarians. I assumed that whatever food they had couldn’t tempt me. I was wrong. Our first night in, they invited us to a large family dinner, serving us stuffed mushrooms, ‘puchkas’ with aloo (potato) filling, pasta, and nachas with Indian salsa. We ate to our hearts content, till our stomachs gently signaled surrender.
That’s when we learned that those were just the appetizers.
When the main course came, we were always convinced to ty ‘a bite of this’ and ‘just a taste of this one’. Our plates were refilled before we could finish our first helpings.
After main course, there was dessert. Three different kinds of dessert. After that, we had to drink some lassi, “just to help digest the meal.”
Mrs. Poddar says tomorrow she will make us an authentic Rajasthani meal. We know what that means.
And next week is Thanksgiving.
I don’t think we’re gonna make it.
November 16, 2009
I’m nothing if not excited by rich colors, and of course the blue hour (not even a full hour, really) just after sunset delivers. This church is just atop the hill in Shimla, which seems out of place until you realize that Shimla is a British hill station in the Himalayas, and was the British summer capital of India. Who wants to stay in Delhi May through September?
November 15, 2009
While we were in Shimla, and James was falling for beautiful Himalayan princesses, I was busy losing my senses over the spectacular colors of the sunset. I’d like to share a few of these with you — 3 to be exact. I took so many pictures I couldn’t pick one that really outshone the others. So let me know which one you like.