Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Feb
150

Glam Lit: Eight questions from the Jaipur Literature Festival

[This piece was originally posted on HMTL Giant.]

The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, held January 21-25 at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, India, is the biggest literature festival in the Asia Pacific region and supposedly the biggest free literature festival in the world. I spent the festival investigating the new culture of literary glamour that has arrived in the subcontinent.

i. Do glamour and literature make good bedfellows, or should they stop hooking up?

Jaipur is a city on the edge of desert. It is a few-hour or half-day drive from New Delhi (depending on who you’re asking), which is India’s publishing and intellectual capital. I’ve never been to The Hamptons, but Jaipur feels like it could be an equivalent, except the white linen and Bentleys are exchanged for multicolored, mirror-work ethnic wear and camel carts. It is also the bastion of very old money, meaning the town is populated with the offspring of an 11th century clan of feudal rulers known as the Rajputs, who built hundreds of opulent palaces, most of which have been turned into tourist attractions or guest houses.

Hearing writers speak under grandly decorated tents at a Rajput mansion built in the 1860s gives all of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s events (even a panel named “The Return of Philosophy”) an inherently glamorous feel. Glamour is defined as “the quality of fascinating, alluring, or attracting, especially by a combination of charm and good looks,” and it is the preposition that makes me suspicious when it comes to the literary scene. But maybe, just two months in to a year of living in India, I’m just not used to it. Because in my experience, book events in America are held in convention center rooms under florescent lights, or in the children’s section of a bookstore set with uncomfortable folding chairs, or in the usual stronghold of American literary glamour: the grimy bar.

The Indian English book market is supposedly outdoing America’s nine times over, which would seem a veritable reason for massive celebration. Maybe this is also why corporations such as infrastructure company DSC Limited bankrolls the event, along with sponsors like Merrill Lynch, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs and Shell, among others, but along with the fancy parties and voluptuous meals for writers—they also kept the daily events free for the masses, which included large groups of school children dressed in shabby blazers.

At a panel entitled “Migritude”, a term coined by Oakland-based poet Shailja Patel and having to do with migrants with attitude, Guyanese-born British writer and actor Pauline Melville opened by drawing the connection between forced migration and some of the more nefarious sponsors.

“This festival is for writers, people who are genuinely interested in the human condition, but behind us are the logos—staring at everybody—of the most pernicious organizations in contemporary finance,” Melville said. “Even as I speak, I’m half expecting to get a bullet in the back.”

ii. Is there anything more glamorous than controversy?

In the weeks leading up to the festival, Open Magazine (kind of a cross between Newsweek and Salon.com) writer Hartosh Singh Bal penned a piece that pointed out India’s continued deference to British literary arbitrators, the foremost of whom is Jaipur Literary Festival co-director William Dalrymple—who in terms of basic attire (polo shirts, khakis and sneakers) was entirely non-glam by Indian standards for the entire festival. Dalrymple shot back an angry response calling Bal racist, which earned another knocking for throwing around the weighty word. (I had a sneaking suspicion that Open Magazine, whose banner flew outside the gates of the festival inviting their readers in, was in cahoots with Dalrymple to strum up media, but my idea was shot down by a foreign correspondent at the NY Times who obviously has no sense of the glamour of conspiracy theories.)

iii. Is glamour bad for the aspiring writer who needs to learn to fail?

Junot Diaz, who Indians found incredibly glamorous, spoke at length about how the need for approval was the young writer’s worst enemy—a subject he has been adamant about since winning the Pulitzer.

“All of us are trying to do what the Latin teaches us the root of author is, which is to augment. Author: augmentus. You’re trying to add something, no matter how slight. …. Artists, by their nature, we’re kinda pain-in-the-asses. If you’re an artist because you want more friends, you’re like an evil artist. For real, you’re like a bad Jedi…. The good artist, of course, is not looking to make friends. In general, the good artist is going to do something that will discomfit. The very nature of the new is that you are going to make less friends than you would if you were just trying to gain approval. Because we have a society that so encourages everyone to seek approval, there isn’t much space for people to form an artistic personality because we spend our entire lives in a society that tells us: ‘Do the monkey dance, so we can clap for you.’ So many of my young artists that I work with, they are wonderfully talented, but they are so desperate for approval that they are never going to produce anything of worth that we need, not because I am the final judge, but because we know we need less applause and more conversation.”

Of course, this was met with wild applause.

iii. Who’s more glamorous: a Booker Prize winner, Nobel Laureate, a chick-lit writer, an elder statesmen, or a Bollywood lyricist?

Kiran Desai, winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Inheritance of Loss, was described as a “giggle head” by the Indian newspaper, Daily News and Analysis. That might have canceled out her glam factor—in the Indian media—if she weren’t in a relationship with Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, who spent much of his public appearances at the festival scolding audience members for their run-on questions and panel moderators for not fully understanding the importance of writing not in English. Sometimes grumpy can equal glamorous, I guess.

Other Nobel Laureate J.M. Cooetzee refused to engage with the massive Indian crowds through conversation and instead read a 45-minute story, “The Old Woman and the Cats” about a famous writer who has retired to a village in Spain whose son comes to visit from America. Over the course of the visit, the mother and son have a days-long conversation about her adoption of the feral cats in the village and why exactly she has taken in the village flasher. There was a horrifying description of the flasher’s teeth, which the son imagines the man has not brushed in years. I found Coetzee’s quiet, steady voice and blue-button down shirt completely unglamorous, in a good way.

India’s own Chick Lit ingenue Ira Trivedi, who described herself as an “author-turned-model” when marketing her best-selling 2006 novel What Would You Do to Save the World: Confessions of a Would Have Been Beauty Queen?, launched a new book about Wall Street internships and moderated a discussion with Candace Bushnell, one of the only major American women writers present. During their well-researched conversation, Trivedi asked Bushnell, 52, if she ever planned to have children. Even more glamorous than these beautiful women, was the festival’s sense of literary populism.

Opening guest of honor Dr. Karan Singh, elder statesman and bibliophile, put materialism in its place by saying: “In all my life, I haven’t bought cars, I haven’t bought jewelry, but I have bought books, … [if you come to my library], you’ll find 25,000 books that I have collected over the course of my lifetime.” In a rousing speech in Hindi and then translated to English, he reminded the audience that India has creative writing in 25 different languages. The glamorous block-printed gift-bags for festival delegates had copies of his anthology A Treasury of Indian Wisdom.

But Bollywood screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar won the glamour contest, because at the end of the day, it’s quite tough to compete with the biggest film industry in the world. When a tent with capacity for some 300 people was up to 600 with rumors of a stampede outside, I decided he was just too glamorous for me and escaped out a hole in the back.

iv. Does a glamorous, well-endowed prize matter?

One day I was sitting in on a conversation about how authors who sell books in India make no money from the sales—the average price of a book here seems to be 300 RS or $6, cheaper than the cheapest e-book in America. The theory was posited that the only way to really make money from selling books was to sell books in the UK or America. But how many people really make money from selling books?

Some of the glamour of the festival, especially the brand-new DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for $50,000, seemed to have been hatched to overturn that idea. Unlike the Pulitzer and the Booker, this prize doesn’t seem to have geographic specifications, only subject matter matters: “Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme.”

Bollywood-crossover star Kabir Bedi—you may recognize him as evil Bond henchman Gobinda from Octopussy, or his various stints as a regal Arab on various American soap operas—awarded the premier prize to first-time novelist HM Naqvi for Homeboy, which I assigned Nawaaz Ahmed to review in Hyphen last year.

Naqvi was sporting the very glamorous shaved head, unbuttoned shirt look of several male writers at the festival. Get a sense of his glamour in this video of him playing ping pong in boots and a wife-beater.

v. Is there anything that confirms glamour like a drunken fist fight?

During one of the festival’s nightly parties, poet, novelist and journalist CP Surendran, who looks very misanthropic in his Times of India column photo, mistakenly asked a man whose religion considers “smoking injurious to the soul” for a light—this lead to some violence. My favorite report of this incident was in novelist and comic book writer Samit Basu’s twitter feed: “Top #jlf moment. Watching Tarun Tejpal and Sanjoy Roy rescuing CP Surendran from angry punchy Sikh dude.” Like any glamorous high school party when someone from the uninvited crowd starts the fight, the fight has been used to talk about what’s wrong with “those people.” Obviously, the puncher is not familiar with the chorus of Sheila E’s anthem “The Glamorous Life”: “Without love, it ain’t much, it ain’t much.”

vi. Have discussions about displacement and diasporic writing lost their glamour?

There was a great deal of consternation about whose “Imaginary Homelands” might have actually been “Two Nation, Two Narratives”, which came from somewhere “Out of West.” (All event titles.)

The glamorously casual Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie pooh-poohed the question of displacement and diaspora, since even when she lived in Karachi, her writing was talked about as “showing the anxiety of displacement.”

“But far more interesting to me, was that as a child I lived in Karachi my whole life, and I was obsessed with reading novels and all the novels I read were in English and none of them were set in Karachi,” she said. “So that imagined world, which I spent just as much time in as the surroundings around me, was shaped by what I was reading. And my childhood novels were all set in a fantasy world, it was all time machines and dog heaven—and it took awhile to figure out what it was to write a novel in the English language about Karachi.”

Actually, I thought the most fascinating moment of diasporic writing came from Malyasian Australian rapper Omar Bin Musa who was part of the musical line-up one evening, and not just because I had never heard an Australian rapper before. Musa, from the rural town of Queanbeyan, spit lyrics about identity and politics over decently produced beats. But it was when he performed a song that was most definitely influenced by the Pitbull Miami hip hop sound with the chorus: “Pura vida mami” that I felt like I had witnessed something especially glamorous. I’m hoping Dalrymple will invite Jay-Z to talk about Decoded next year.

vii. Is it glamorous to put American writing down?

British writer Martin Amis, who is apparently moving to America, seemed especially intent in proving to Junot Diaz, Richard Ford and Jay McInerney that “The Crisis in American Fiction” was basically that “the senior generation of writers” have all died recently—meaning John Updike, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. The complete lack of women writers in the discussion and any mention of women writers (until Richard Ford quoted Eudora Welty sometime around minute 20) gave the conversation a feeling like it was at some writer fraternity where American writers have to be hazed by the grumpy Amis in order to later drink jungle juice out of a garbage can.

But Ford and McInerney did their best to defend the diversity of American fiction, while Diaz spoke about how maybe the issue wasn’t the novel’s fault but “the structural shifts in the society that have made contemplative life and the ability for you to sit and read a novel for two or three hours everyday threatened and almost impossible.”

Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and it’s success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel, …. There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humoldt’s gift, nothing happens at all.”

Ford, who I found most glamorous with his elegant Mississippi accent and white hair, may have put it best when he said: “When I break the threshold of inanition to perform something on the page, that’s where the crisis actually exists, not somewhere up above my head.”

viii. Are there things to learn when not being glamorous?

You know what’s not glamorous at all? Getting food poisoning on the last day of the book festival, and having to skip hearing Vikram Seth and Irvine Welsh and even the uber-glam party held at the Amber Fort replete with camels and dancing and drunk author antics. Instead, I spent the day in the bed of my well-appointed artist residency-esque inn on the outskirts of Jaipur, listening to doves and watching the paper kites sway where they have been captured by the trees. But there is a certain glamour in the way the cook and her daughter retreat to the balcony outside your room at noon to oil each other’s hair.

Perhaps it is an un-glamorous space like this that one needs to analyze the literati—the bird’s eye view as it were. I mean, the danger of the glamour is that it overshadows the very unglamorous space of the writer’s desk, or it masquerades as a consolation for the quiet time one must put in. I don’t write for the smart people with moneyed connections who put glamorous parties together, but for a reader somewhere who will connect with my work, right? As an aspiring writer myself, does a decadent party like Jaipur inspire me or spin my head in the wrong direction? Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe the hundreds of school children who hob-knobbed with the world’s literary stars came away wanting to be a writer, and maybe more importantly, wanting to be readers in a country where that is exciting, alluring and attractive.

One of my final views from the car on the way to the airport were polo players on the Jaipur Polo Fields and the sun setting on the Amber Fort in the distance. It was one of the most glamorous sights I’ve seen in my life.



Jan
132

Christmas in Chandannagore

India is all about the magic of standing in an ancestral home and thinking about who your mother was before you even existed.


My mother’s family is from a town about 30 kilometers from Kolkata called Chandannagar—once a French colony, it retains some of its architecture, especially at the promenade near the shore of the Ganges. The family home—a one story, three room building next to an open playing field, or maat—has been remodeled into a three story apartment building with flats for my mother, her three brothers and sister. It’s a common solution now to the often-contentious issue of real estate inheritance.

The old home was crumbling and dark, the blue walls water stained and peeling, but it holds some of my strongest childhood memories. Strange, since I visited only a handful of times as a child. I remember playing on the wide cement windowsills, the bright sun streaming in and striping the enormous beds through the metal bars on the windows. Whereas in America, beds were a private, solitary piece of furniture—at my mother’s home, the beds were large islands where my whole family slept together at night under the mosquito net, then again transformed during the day to be where other relatives or my mother’s childhood friends or the neighbors came to visit—tucking their legs up under their saris and balancing cups of tea and biscuits on the wide cushiony surface. It seemed so intimate—nothing like the formal living room where we entertained guests at home. Otherwise, it was where my brother and reclined most days, reading the exotic array of Indian reading material. We got by those trips on Amar Chitra Katha, TinTin, Asterisk and Archie comics. Occasionally reading some other British children’s books mostly by Enid Blyton. (When I got older, I brought my cousin V.C. Andrews’ books in exchange for Mills and Boon and Shoba De.) The only room in the old house which was brightly lit and sunny was a front sitting room, with dusty sofas that I loved and in later years, often found time to sit there and read or listen to the sounds of the busy market in front. My cousins and I would also escape to the roof, or chath, which in my memories seemed gigantic and the location for gossip and games of badminton and where I would be sent to dry my hair in the strong tropical sun. There used to be a guava tree next door and they would save the pink ones for me, since everyone here likes them when they are slightly harder. And there was the time in 1996, during a bad mango season, when two monkeys crept down the stairs from the roof and stole the mangoes off the table right in front of me after showing me their teeth in the classic monkey face. I swore loudly bringing people coming from all directions and my mother’s admonishment from the front room.


Now, my mother’s older sister has a two-bedroom apartment with a large sitting/dining area. Before, you could only enjoy the view of the sports field from the roof, but she has made one whole wall of the dining area into a sliding window, which allows you to watch the endless matches of cricket and football while eating breakfast or lunch. The field is next to a Bangladeshi refugee colony and I always watch as a woman hangs saris or lets her children run around naked. One morning, I watched a small boy trying to teach himself to ride a bike three times his size—his perseverance inspiring. A beautiful rainbow colored woodpecker jumped from tree to tree, and a large Brahma bull scratched his hump again a bamboo pole. Against the far wall there are the remains of the Jagadhatri Puja, held in November, during which the town floods with people. The room-sized beds still exist, and Robin spent an evening serenading my aunt and my cousin-in-law with tabla, while I sprawled on the bed and picked through old Mills and Boon romances for old times sake.

My mother’s apartment is equally as nice, with a large bedroom, small kitchen and large dining/sitting room. It is new and sunny and both Robin and I were eyeing it for future writing/tabla retreats. It actually gets a lot more sun than our apartment in Kolkata, though the dogs in Chandannagore have a more riotous nightlife than in the city—with ample moon-howling and other escapades.

My aunt Anubha made me regional sweets: sweetened wheat filled crepes or mishti doi (sweet yogurt) or dood pulley (steamed rice-flour pastries in a sweet milk sauce). We discuss family and loneliness, and for the first time I really asked her about her husband who died of a blood disease 12 years after they were married. She told me when I came to visit India when I was only two years old, I would play with a ring he wore on his finger. She also told me amazing stories of fighting back against sexual harassment or eve teasing, a major problem in India (and the world). Once, in 1964, in Delhi, she slapped a Sikh man in Chadni Chowk with her shoe, and again—near Howrah Station in Kolkata—when she was in her 50s, a man “misbehaved with her”, by which I think she means he grabbed her or touched her while walking by, and then got onto a tram car. She was waiting for a bus at the time. She said she stood there for some time and felt bad, that feeling of shame and helplessness, but then didn’t want to feel that way and saw that the tram was still waiting there. So, she marched onto the tram and slapped him across the face, then marched off. How heroic! (It reminded me of my experiences with Blank Noise when I was here in 2007. It looks like they are still going strong.)


I also got to spend time with my cousin Sayanti and her husband Anindya, who just had fraternal twins Titir and Titan—this past March—adding to the amazing parade of babies that the universe was blessed with in 2010. Sayanti and Anindya are both physicians and they are exceptionally hard-working, with Anindya commuting several hours to Burdwan a few days a week. But, being India, they also have lots of help: my aunt Anubha when she can come to Uttapara from Chandannagore, Sayanti’s in-laws, who live with them, a night nanny and a day nanny. But still, with twins it can never be enough. It definitely makes me think about how raising a child in the US is a barren, expensive, sterile experience. The twins are teething and starting to walk – which means sticking everything in their mouths and being able to reach dusty, dirty corners. This is when that whole building up your immunity thing happens for Indian kids. All of these (literally billions) of Indian kids are raised without child-proofing and car seats and they seem to be doing okay.


On a final vain note, Anindya is an eye doctor and he saw me wearing glasses while using my laptop and told me I needed to wear them 24-7. I first got glasses when I went to college and realized I couldn’t see the board from the back of the room, and since then have only used them for using the computer, going to movies and driving. He informed me that if I don’t wear them all the time, my eyesight is going to get progressively worse and that I could be in bad shape by the time I’m 50. So, I’m giving it my best shot to wear my glasses all the time, which is totally weird—mostly because the ground seems all wobbly and far away, but apparently I will adjust to that. Of course, it is also weird because when “wearing glasses”, one becomes a whole different category of person, almost. Will people think I am smarter? More intellectual? Nerdy? A four-eyed freak? If glasses were so prohibitively expensive, I would get a few new pairs to match my moods. Ever since seeing David Bowie get his contacts melted onto his eyes in The Man Who Fell to Earth, I’ve been terrified of contacts, so that’s not an option. Let’s see how well I do with my 2011 New Year’s Resolution of wearing my glasses every day.

Dec
3

Obligatory Domestic Help Post

As we make our way into our first solid month in India, almost two straight weeks in Kolkata, I found myself struggling against the urge to write about my experiences with the domestic help. It seemed so banal. A couple of years ago, I reviewed this movie, Lakshmi and Me, that played in the San Francisco 3rd i Film Festival. It is a beautiful documentary that details the filmmaker’s relationship with the young woman who works in her apartment and building, and though I appreciated it, I remember also criticizing it. I remember thinking at the time: How bourgeois to make a film about one’s hired help in order to ease one’s guilt for paying someone a pittance to sweep the floors. I’m not sure how different I feel now, sitting here at my dining table, while Sobitha — my hired cook and cleaning person — sings to herself in the kitchen. The criticisms still stand: bourgeois? check. guilty? check.  I am a highly privileged person, no matter if I am in the First World or the Third, but the concept seems less weighty and twisted here.

Class privilege and difference in India isn’t so wrapped up in national identity and race discourse. Here, there are lots of people who are poor, then lots of people who are middle class who employ the poor people, and a few people who are very rich, who employ even more poor people. I’m not sure I’ve ever met any rich people in India who pretend that they are poor, at least not the way you see this charade at expensive private liberal arts colleges in America. The myth of class mobility that America is built on — that elusive dream — doesn’t seem to exist here. [Of course, Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger was all about this and I think about the book constantly while I'm here and have been trying to goad Robin into reading it, so we can discuss it. Speaking of Adiga, read his wonderful essay about desire and writing and Delhi here.]

India runs on it’s service sector — with hired help in the fanciest  to the most-broken down elevators, pushing the buttons for a few rupees an hour. When leaving the airport in Delhi, there was even someone employed to lift the parking garage gate manually as each car exited. Here, you can get your clothes ironed and your food delivered and of course, your floors swept and washed. My father’s family had a long line of retainers. In those days they were men. These men ran the household and made sure things got done. My father and grandmother had endless stories about Mathura, their retainer, who was described as the most loyal and giving man in the world. My grandmother employed many poor people from her village, but also schooled them and employed them and helped them turn their mud and straw huts into brick and mortar homes. It was a fine balance of treating them like a different species, but also humanizing them with education and opportunity.

I mean, is it really so different in America? I was raised by a series of “housekeepers”, while my parents were at work. In my case, in Southwestern Ohio, they were older white ladies, quite poor, who worked for cash and took care of me from the time I came down for breakfast in the morning to when my mother came home from work at 5:30 p.m. There was Mrs. Miller,  a small woman with a pouf of white hair. My mother recently told me she fired her after she found out that Mrs. Miller had taken me to go pick up her wayward granddaughter without my mother’s permission. But mostly there was Edith Burris, a thick, hard-working older woman, whose people were from Kentucky, who lived alone and had a granddaughter named Janelle, who I remember had a rabbit fur coat and I thought was terribly glamorous. Edith watched soap operas while she ironed and pronounced the p in pneumonia, as in “You’re going to catch Pee-neumonia if you don’t wear socks.” She baked us the most delicious pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving and Christmas and her skin felt like dusty paper and she smelled like mothballs. She was there until I was in the fifth or sixth grade and then one day, we never saw her again.

Here, we’ve hired Sobitha, who cooked and cleaned for my grandmother in the last year of her life. She lives in the country, or as she calls it the “desh”, outside Kolkata. I asked her yesterday and we figured out she was about my age, maybe a year or two older. She calculated her age by saying that she was married at age 15, and that she has been married some 18 years. Her husband can’t work because a labor injury has left him with spondylitis in his neck. She also has been blessed with three daughters, whom she says will cost her one lakh (100,000) rupees each to get married off. She travels by train to Kolkata, leaving her home at 3:45 a.m., to come to work in several homes and an office before coming to our flat around 12:30 p.m. each day. She was close with my grandmother and says that my grandmother had promised to give her money to finish building her home, which she says will cost about 3000 rupees – for the bricks and labor.

She is funny and sharp-tongued and while I sit at the kitchen table and write, she sometimes squats on the floor at the boti (large stationary knife) and talks to me about her family and her village and her life. She has a younger sister who works in one of the buildings next door and sometimes she comes over to talk as well – the two of them sweet and funny. The second day they came, the sister peeked her head around the corner of the laundry room where I was soaking the clothes to say, “Didi, we like you very much,” and then ran off giggling like a little girl and not a 25-year-old mother of three. They think me strange and lonely, sitting here in front of this machine all day.

The food has been amazing! How nourishing to have someone bring you fresh vegetables and cook you warm food each day. True Bengali cooking: masoor dal and moog daal, okra with poppy seeds, white radish curry, cauliflower and potatoes, roasted eggplant with tomatoes and onions. And all kinds of greens: spinach and radish greens and lau (kind of green squash) greens and red greens. All of it cooked in mustard oil! I always complain that when you come to India you have to eat too much rice, and I just wasn’t feeling the rice we ate over the last few years, but rice here has a delicious flavor and I can’t get enough! I don’t know what it is, Sobita says it’s the water, but whatever it is – it’s amazing. She keeps asking for us to buy some fish, because to a pakka of genuine Bengali, a meal is just not a meal without some fish. Today, I scandalized her to no end when I told her for my predilection for sushi.

When Sobitha’s not cooking and gossiping with me, she tells me about home remedies like heated mustard oil on my temples and the bottom of my feet to get rid of a cold or explains idioms, like when a cat is pushed, it climbs a tree — to refer to doing something you don’t want to do but you have to. Or another one about how a bird-eaten Jackfruit will be bought by the poor people, as an analogy to why her father married her off to an uneducated man. She’s invited me to come and visit her home and I am going to buy her an alarm clock and a cloth bag — basic things she doesn’t have.

Meanwhile, our building also has a darwan, or security guard — an older man, maybe in his 50s. He lives in in a little nook on the ground floor of our building, a space that is also shared by a car repair shop. It’s just enough room for a bed and a television. Sometimes he cooks for himself on a little stove on the ground. Mostly, though, he watches his television at alarming volumes – or listens to the radio. Since his little alcove falls just two floors below our bedroom, it is very much as though the television and radio is being piped into our bedroom. In terms of security, he doesn’t make me or Robin feel very safe, in fact, it’s a bit of the opposite.

One of the first days I was here, he came up and rang the doorbell and asked me for money, 100 rupees. When I asked him for what, he said: “I just need it.” I wasn’t quite sure what I was to do in this situation, but it felt wrong. I know in the same situation, my grandmother would have been furious. But I felt helpless because I didn’t know how much he gets paid and how we have contributed to that. I knew  that we’d paid all our building fees, which must cover his salary, but I had no idea what kind of living wage that was. But I also didn’t want him to take advantage of me as an unsuspecting NRI.

At night, our dreams are infected with his hacking cough, which has worsened as the nights here get colder – but not made any better by his constant bidi habit. The kicker came last Friday night though, when Robin and I went out to Salt Lake – a Kolkata extension – where we met two of my cousins for a drink and some food. With traffic and all, the car ride alone took us over an hour, so after hanging out and drinking and eating, by the time we came home it was about 11:30 p.m. (Not an abnormal time to LEAVE the house for a night out back in the states). We found our gate locked and the lights off. We rang the doorbell and knocked, to no avail. After knocking and calling out for some time, we aroused the security man from his slumber, but also aroused his great ire and he began a vitriolic tirade against us in slurred angry Bengali that I could barely understand. What I did get is that he thought it was ridiculously late, and that next time such a thing happened he wouldn’t open the gate for us and other angry words. The tirade continued and we could hear it going on as we went upstairs to our bedroom. What we learned, after the fact, was that we should have given him a lock and key and let him know if we were going to be after 10 pm, which is when he officially goes to sleep.

Just yesterday we met our neighbor, a nice young woman named Aishwarya who works in market research for AC Nielsen, and has rented the apartment downstairs for some two years. She had all the same experiences with the guard: that he asks for money, that he blasts his television and radio all day, that he coughs up his lung all night, etc. She even told us that once she was coming home late from work and he had already locked the gate and went to sleep. She rang the bell and woke him up, but he refused to open the door. But she said he even got spiteful, he turned the light on, and smoked a bidi, but wouldn’t open the door and even turned off the bell so she wouldn’t keep ringing it. Luckily, she knew another renter upstairs who came down and convinced him to let her in. She said she complained to her landlord about this until they finally gave her an extra key for one of the gates – but before that, she said she would be out with friends and would have to run home early just so she wasn’t locked out by the doorman! How crazy is that??

For Robin and I, the doorman has really become to represent more and more the way we are dealing with the inconsistencies and maddening parts of India. If Sobitha is the warm and fuzzy part of the service sector — the way she clucks over us like a mother hen, taking special care to make sure she comes every day since we are new to India, the doorman is bitter — and rightly so — with his lot in life and his shitty job. More than anything, I want to have compassion for this man. He is obviously poor – he lives on a cot in the garage of my building for goodness sake. The neighbor told me he only gets paid like $2500 rupees a month ($55), for a 24 hour a day job. That comes to barely $4 rupees an hour. When he locked me out of my own building, my first impulse was to get him fired. I mean, he’s doing his job poorly and making my life inconvenient, yet — at the end of the day — he works for me. What our neighbor told us, is that if we were to replace him, a new 24-hour security guard like him would be closer to $5000 rupees ($100) a month and that the other condo owners don’t want to pay more, (even though we would pay more in a heartbeat.) We basically aren’t going to pay him more — so he is unhappy, or pay anyone else more to do a better job, so we’re stuck with a sort of bad situation all around. In the meantime, I have brought him down a thick blanket, aspirin for his fever, inquired after his needs.

At the end of the day, all I can do is set an intention to be kind to him and continue to try and process carefully, as always, the disparity and power dynamics around me.

Dec
124

Kem Cho?


I’ve traded the yellowing colonial balustrades of Kolkata for the crumbling stone darwajas, or gates, of Ahmedabad for ten days. Robin’s Ranchod Mama (Uncle) and his family (wife, sons, daughter-in-law, grandson, dog, mice, chipmunks) live in a wonderfully ramshackle old collection of rooms and ladders in the Old City, a neighborhood full of old mansions and blue doorways.

Gujarat is supposedly one of the richest states in the Indian nation due to infamous Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s support for industrialization. In fact, the Tata Nano (India’s Smart car) factory, that was originally going to be not far from my family’s ancestral village in West Bengal, was relocated to Ahmedabad after Leftist strikes supporting displaced farmers made it impossible for the deal to move forward.

I’m not sure if I thought, then, that the streets would be lined with gold, but perhaps I thought that the streets would be paved a little smoother, that the city would have more of a shine of newness and industry, but perhaps India can’t pull off that look. Ahmedabad’s streets are chaotic, nothing of the colonial grid-making of Delhi and Kolkata here, and there are cows and camels — but mostly cows — sharing the narrow streets with auto-rickshaws and bicycles and scooters and wedding processions, etc. Though, I did see the concrete signs of industrialization when driving out of the city — a row of smart looking factories with awards of excellence on wooden plaques outside abutted a river thick with the bright pink and gray foam of industrial waste.

The lack of colonization also means that English has less of a stronghold here and I am reduced to a lot of smiling, nodding and pantomiming. Gujarati is two steps removed from Bengali — certain words exactly the same and others seemingly from an entirely different root language. I realize how much of my personality is trapped in language: sarcasm, witticisms, idiom. In Bengali, my personality shifts again and I become someone new — less cynical perhaps, more innocent, still learning the spaces in the language for lewd jokes and poetry. In Gujarat, I have both the burden and privilege of not knowing 75 percent of what is going on at any given time.

My time here continues to be filled to the brim with people and experiences. I fell ill a week ago — the India special — and am only just feeling back to normal, which has made everything that much harder to process. The dehydration sapping my brain cells from any efforts to process things rationally, but my body also appreciated the two afternoons that were spent in dark, quiet rooms. I realize that I’ve been in perpetual motion for over a month and I think the illness was as much a result of that as it was whatever bacteria I ingested.

The most exciting part of this trip is connecting with the NGO Manav Sadhna, where Robin has spent years volunteering and his cousin-brother Jagat Bhai runs an amazing vocational arts program with youth from the nearby slums. Manav Sadhna is housed directly next to, and on the principles of, the Gandhi Ashram here on the Sabramati River. You can see Gandhi’s room where he spent many years writing and organizing for what would become the brunt of his work on the Independence Movement.

Robin will be working closely with a group of youth — 10-12 year olds — who are mounting a large scale dance drama production about one-ness, led by Nimish (Nimo) Patel, who some of you might remember from here. Nimo has been working closely with the young people for nearly a year and was hosting an overnight (18 kids!) at his house for the group when we first arrived in Ahmedabad. We were able to visit a dance practice and also accompany the group to a Mother Theresa home for the destitute and dying, where the children handed out biscuits and a sweet-faced nun named Sister Mary Joseph led me upstairs past the destitute to sit for a few moments with the dying. In these few meetings, I am already so inspired by Nimo’s process with the young people, which is about a wholistic improvement in their lives through creativity (and so much more that I am not ready to articulate yet). It reminds me very much of Raj Jayadev’s work with Silicon Valley De-Bug, in that it is about building community and process and not about product. [Not that product-based youth work doesn't also have it's own pluses ... having space from my work is helping me think things through for the first time in a long time and hope everyone will allow my ramblings here.]

I spoke with one of the founders of Manav Sadhna today about my own experiences working with young people over the past few years and how to connect when I am back in Ahmedabad in April. In the next few days, I hope to visit a street school program, a blind school and a leper colony to see where I can fit in my own ideas of how to empower these young people. I was also told about how to connect to the adult prisons and the juvenile justice centers here, where the rehabilitation is very much focused on yoga and meditation. I am especially excited to work towards bringing out my dear friend Josue Rojas to collaborate with Jagat Bhai and bring some of the graffiti and mural skills he has been spreading throughout the Americas to India. Robin or Nimo said today that Manav Sadhna was an incredibly fertile place where if you plant a seed, everyone will shower it will love and power and it will grow bigger than you ever imagined.


When we weren’t in Ahmedabad, we were visiting Robin’s parents’ ancestral homes, both sprawling extended family homes anchored on sweet shops. In his father’s home, we witnessed a special ritual aarthi, or candle lighting prayer ceremony for the goddess Kali Ma in a small temple his family has taken care of for years. It was a family reunion of sorts and as some 75 people gathered outside, Robin and I — along with some high-ranking family and children and the priest — squeezed into the small wrought-iron encased temple where literally hundreds of cotton candles soaked in oil and ghee were lit. Then, when the bhajans and drumming and bell-clanging and fires were at their peak, one of Robin’s aunts channeled the spirit of the goddess and went into a kind-of spiritual trance, during which she spit up blood-red kum-kum powder from her mouth and conjured a handkerchief from her throat, all while dancing and waving her hands in the fire. I’d never seen anything like it, (except for a recent yoga retreat I went to with my mother in Centerville, Ohio during which a former burlesque dancer embodied Kali Ma — but that was much more playful and this was much more … Pentecostal.) It was amazing spectacle though and Robin captured it beautifully on film. My own spiritual ardor either increased or dissipated — I haven’t quite decided yet — when burning oil from one of the flaming candles being swung around  dripped onto my leggings and burned a holy hole into my thigh.


Otherwise, we endured the joys and the trauma of interacting with family that are removed by continents and oceans and years and missed births and deaths, but who are suddenly up close and personal — the dust of their feet smeared across our foreheads in order to make it all up. Robin has had less time with his family in India than I have with mine, so the legions of cousins are more like strangers, but mostly sweet strangers who give up their beds for you. The Indian concept of hospitality continues to humble me and I owe much of my survival this last week to a long list of Aunties who cooked for me and fretted over me in the universal tones of love.


Today, we spent the afternoon walking through the slum that Manav Sadhna works closely with — a hot, dusty, powerful experience. When we first walked in, we crossed over a river of open sewage and Nimo pointed out some kids — maybe seven years old — who were wading through it in shorts with no shoes. He explained to me how if they have a cut on their leg that it would immediately become septic. But everyone greeted us with smiles, invited us in to sit in their tin-roofed shelters and the children all ran to greet me and shake my hands with smiles and hellos. I am so thankful that I have the opportunity to do some work here in whatever way it will shape up.


For our last few days in Ahmedabad, we are staying in Nimo’s spartan apartment not far from Manav Sadhna and I’ve been writing this while Robin and Nimo and the kids are at dance practice. It is the first time I have truly been alone, with the doors closed, for a week. Outside, a wedding band was blaring horns and melodies and then an arsenal of fireworks was set off, now the sounds have mellowed to the usual honks and hawker cries and construction. Dusk is falling and in a little while I’ll go meet up with Robin and Nimo at the Seva Cafe, where we’ll volunteer our time to feed people who will pay it forward.

The culture of service here is infectious and I know it will change the way I think about the world, but sometimes it seems at odds with the selfishness of creativity. I could only finish writing this by coming into this locked room. I came to India to find such a room and spend as much time as I could locked up in it. Yet, I know that service and especially youth work is about time and consistency and giving … Ahhh, the contradictions of India are pretty much the only thing you can count on to be truly consistent.

P.S. ‘Kem cho?’ is Gujarati for ‘How are you?’