Posts in 'India 2007'

Some housekeeping March 31, 2007 at 10:00 AM • Filed under India 2007

The posts below were written while I was on the road in India and have not been significantly edited since then. The only exception is the post directly below, which was written after my return. Photos from my journey have been posted on a separate photo-sharing web site. Contact me if you'd like the link.

Everything March 30, 2007 at 7:10 PM • Filed under India 2007

          Whoever chose the unflattering picture of Gandhi that appears on nearly all Indian rupees (every paper denomination shows the same etching of him looking toothless and befuddled) may have shared the unflattering view of Gandhi that I heard a number of Indians express to me while I was there. From the taxi driver in Aurangabad to the dental student at the Goa train station, these strangers told me that either they or "most" of their fellow Indians hold Gandhi responsible for "the Partition" -- the 1946 decision to turn chunks of India into Pakistan and Bangladesh, lands for India's Muslims. The Indians I spoke with believed that Gandhi was not strong enough in standing up to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim leader who most wanted the Partition to take place. As a result of the separation, they told me, there are still so many problems between Hindus and Muslims -- the latest being the Feb. 18 bombing of a train heading from Delhi to Pakistan, a terrorist act meant to derail the Indo-Pak peace process.
          "But Gandhi got the British to leave India," I said to these strangers, "and nearly perfected the art of non-violent resistance. Isn't he respected for that?"
          They'd all shrug at this, as if it were old news. And indeed, it is. No one below 60 bears any bodily scars from the British Raj -- how can anyone blame younger Indians for basing their opinion about Gandhi on India's more current problems?
          I began to feel as though the rest of the world pays more heed to Gandhi than young Indians do. But this may not be simply because of the Partition. It may also be due to this reason, expressed by a historian in Outlook magazine and reprinted in an article from The Independent: "[Everyone] deified him and buried him in institutions," the historian said of Gandhi. "He was conveniently portrayed as a saint so they wouldn't be threatened by his ideology."
          Isn't it true about our saints. At some point in our collective consciousness they become other-worldly, different from us, and that keeps us, in our "real world," from believing that we have the ability to reach the same depths of experience as they did. We project our goodness onto them and they carry it for us, unable to remind us from the grave that they were once like us and we can be like them. Gandhi was certainly a human being, but when Indians see him daily on the currency, see his dusty picture draped in flower garlands, and see him calcified in statues in almost every Indian city, they are more apt to believe that he was a god and they are not.
          A visit to one of Gandhi's former homes in India can knock the man back into reality a bit. You can see the mud floors on which he slept, see his wire-rim glasses and spinning wheel, even peer into his bathroom. But during my visit to Sevagram, his ashram near Nagpur, in central India, one statement from a tour guide reminded me of how courageous and unique his ideology was.
          I went to Sevagram one afternoon with Prem and Lalita, whose farm is two hours away by car. The word "ashram" for Westerners may conjure images of a place where hippies on year-long stints in India live with their guru and do yoga, but the Sanskrit word simply refers to the residence of a religious community. Sevagram is a collection of adobe-like buildings with small rooms in which Gandhi lived with his followers in the late 1930s and 40s. Aside from the leafy center square in which prayers took place, there is little of note on the property besides the buildings. Yet the feeling of peace within the compound is palpable.
          The building that served as Gandhi's residence features a long, wide porch on which the Mahatma often met with significant Indian and world leaders. Standing on the porch, I realized how disconcerting it must have been for such "important people" to engage in conversations on a dried mud floor in the sweltering Indian heat. (Could Dick Cheney have managed to cross his legs? Do you think he would have liked the dal?) On this porch, it is easy to get shivers from history. On this porch, Gandhi as a person, not just as a politician, makes sense.
          While we were on this porch, an elderly man came up to us, explaining that he was a tour guide and that he lived at Sevagram when he was a boy. (He didn't look old enough for me to believe this, but in India I learned to just go with things.) He began to speak at length in Hindi, with Lalita translating for me, explaining what the various buildings were used for. After some time I asked him, with Lalita's help, what his main impression of Gandhi was.
          "He was considering nothing to be his own," came the thoughtful reply.
          He was considering nothing to be his own. Meaning, he owned nothing. Everything around him was not his. He allowed it all to be used, or taken, by others. Everything. Once he even gave away the cloth he was wearing to a woman who confessed her shame that she had nothing decent to wear in front of him. It is easy to do something like that when nothing is your own.
          I've heard some people say Gandhi was an egocentric man whose demonstrations of poverty were calculated political moves. Maybe so. But does this change the fact that he chose a very difficult way of life that challenged everything he had ever known? It could also be said that he had plenty of followers who could provide him with additional material goods after he'd given "his" away. But he never surrounded himself with more than the bare minimum and he shared it all, unconcerned that others touched what he had, that they used what he was using.
          As we drove back in the van after visiting Sevagram, I felt overcome by the tour guide's statement. What would it be like if we considered nothing to be our own? Our dishes, our clothes, the rugs in our home, even our home itself, our food, our telephone, our bed. If none of it was ours, what would we be compelled to do? Give it to others if they ask for it, Gandhi would say. Share it. Don't be distressed if it is stolen. "But then what would happen to me? I wouldn't be able to eat, I couldn't phone anyone, I would have to sleep on the floor!" Maybe so. But what if life were still ok? And what if life actually improved? How can we predict the outcomes of our actions?
          The van rocked back and forth on the pockmarked road, forcing me to hang onto the window strap. The setting sun seemed eager to blind me. I stared at the Maharashtran countryside that flew by, stunned by how radical Gandhi's philosophy was and how no one prominent in Western society today is saying anything about unequivocal selflessness. Could I ever live the way Gandhi did? I felt the pit of my stomach drop out from under me as I thought about this. Imagine the implications -- both horrifying and exhilarating. Imagine.
          Mohandas K. Gandhi would say we could all live the way he did. He was human, after all, and so are we.

By the sea February 19, 2007 at 5:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          By the sea, the Arabian Sea, in the Keralan port city of Cochin, local fishermen stand under makeshift tents and sell tilapia, prawns and other seafood fresh out of the water. It's possible, as you stroll by them, to buy a piece of fish and walk to a nearby food stall to get it grilled and seasoned in front of you.  Seeing all the flies hovering above the seafood, I opted out of this choice but instead bought a small fish the size of my hand for a thin, weakling cat I saw sitting on the pavement. Bending down to pet her, I saw a thin film over her eyes and wondered if she was blind. At first, she played with the fish as if it were a soccer ball but then a fisherman offered to cut it up for her and she devoured her treasure as I walked on, smelling a mixture of sea air and garbage, and wiping the tropical sweat from my sunburned face.
          Also by the sea, just up from the fish stall, stands a ramshackle structure that appears to be fashioned of dried coconut leaves tethered with coir, or coconut fiber rope. It gets awfully warm in the structure, particularly at night when it's filled with dozens of tourists, so a fan is provided for people when they sit down. Inside here, every night, students from a Keralan school of traditional performing arts stage one hour of Kathakali dance, a haunting, 17th-century re-enactment of ancient Hindu myths using elaborate costumes, colorful makeup and hand mudras that resemble sign language. The characters are both frightening and inspiring, and I went back to see a second performance, mainly to hear the evocative chanting of the narrator, who I bumped into on the street the next morning as he put up fliers advertising that evening's show. I was humbled by his dedication to his artistic mission. Weeks earlier, after seeing yet another temple dotting the countryside and yet another plastic Hindu god mounted on the dashboard of a taxi, I remember thinking, "This country is
saturated with devotion." I was thinking about religious devotion, but this man's devotion to his art was just as compelling.
          Also by the sea, strolling along a sidewalk in this unusually walkable Indian town, I happened upon a crowd. Piecing together information from bystanders, I learned that a movie was being filmed. Bollywood? I asked. Well, not really -- a Malayalam-language film starring a famous Keralan actor. No matter -- I said yes when the assistant director asked me to be an extra in a scene. So I strolled past the camera with some other folks as a fight scene in a cafe was being filmed. I can say this: If you wait on an Indian street long enough, something interesting is bound to happen. 
          And by the sea, this sea, on December 26, 2004, 65 people died just 25 kilometers south of here in what only need be called "the tsunami." When I was told this, I looked down at the small doll that my friend Mae Lee gave me before I left. It was made by Indian women who lost their livelihoods after the tsunami and who are now selling these dolls to earn a living. The doll has been pinned to my backpack the whole time I've been in India. I believe in some way she has been helping me along.
          If all goes as planned, I'll be heading to Delhi tomorrow and spending the night at the Hotel Broadway, which I wrote about in an earlier post. I've asked for the same room, and will likely be woken at 6 a.m. again by the cries of the muezzin. On Wednesday, I fly back to New York. I would like to end these journal entries by summing up my trip in some way, but it's not possible, mainly because I feel the trip will go on, long after I return, as I process these experiences, share them, and observe how they evolve. However, I will post another entry here within a couple of weeks, perhaps to share a bit more, and certainly to let you know where I'll be posting some of my photos!
          Speaking of sharing with others, if you've been reading these posts as they've been written, if you've been following this trip as it's been happening, you have been with me. Thank you for lending your eyes to my words.  It has allowed me to see deeper into the meaning of friendship.

Pepper kingdom February 18, 2007 at 10:00 AM • Filed under India 2007

          Along the roads of Kerala -- the easy-going, tropical, Communist-led state in southwest India that teems with coconut trees, pineapple bushes and spices growing randomly in every nook -- tacky billboards line the roads, goading women into buying silk and jewelry. They are predictable, showing young women in heavy makeup decked out in gold necklaces or elaborate sarees. 
          Jacob Mathew has been asked to have a billboard placed outside his property, but he has declined. He wants to put up a different kind of sign.
          "It would say, 'Birds welcome, insects welcome, animals welcome. You all have a home here.' "
          By 'here' he means his 2.5-hectare "forest garden" an hour east of Cochin. The land once supported rubber and coconut -- Kerala's cash crops -- but after Jacob inherited it, he began growing spices on the land. And then in 1990 he read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and decided to adopt organic practices. 
          "I also began to think about the commandment 'Do not kill,' " Jacob told me. His family is Catholic, like many in Kerala. "And this is another reason I wanted to stop using pesticides."
          With his characteristic graciousness and warm and easy smile, Jacob will freely share information about Indian agriculture with guests at his peaceful homestay, which is called The Pimenta, or "pepper kingdom." I learned, for instance, that there is very little demand for organic products in his area, which is one of the reasons he has stopped selling his spices at the market. No one is willing to pay extra for them and give Jacob a profit.  
          So now he uses his home-grown spices in the Keralan dishes that he, his mother, and two hard-working helpers prepare for their guests, including those who take his 7-day Keralan cooking course. Keralan food is largely about the coconut, which is not a nut, by the way, but a seed -- the largest seed in the world. Its main use in cooking is as oil, but it's also used in chutneys, curries, alcoholic drinks, and numerous savory dishes. You can even drink fresh coconut water from a freshly plucked coconut, though it's a bit bland.  
          A friend has asked me to write about the food in India but I'm afraid I lack the vocabulary (and the time!) to describe it all. There's the smoky taste of a fresh, cooked curry leaf, the smooth and spongy texture of an idly (a thin, rice-flour pancake with a bulging middle), and the beauty of okra (you never knew okra could be a thing of beauty, did you!) cooked with cardamom, cloves and turmeric. In my herculean effort not to get sick, I have stayed away from street food and dairy products but I've managed to enjoy all my thalis (a meal consisting of little dishes of various concontions, plus bread, yogurt and something sweet). I've eaten pretty well with my right hand, as Indians do, although I've stopped short of mashing my rice and curry together into a little ball.. and I've tried not to watch it being done, either. 

         I spent a week at Jacob's, making a few day trips from there. One of the trips I took was to an elephant training center, where elephants are domesticated for use in temples and for forestry work. Every morning the elephants are washed in the local river, and visitors to the center are invited to help. I waded into the river and scrubbed one of the elephants with a coconut shell. Her power and energy were very much felt through the density of her dark gray skin. It was exhilarating to look in her eyes and see a very fully-developed personality looking back at me.
          But I was conflicted about the training center and its subjugation of one of the most extraordinary creatures on earth. If you read the excellent New York Times Magazine story on elephants a few months ago, you will know that they are extremely sensitive animals. They have elaborate family structures that, when broken, cause individuals to suffer the same symptoms of traumatic stress disorder as humans. They are so sensitive that the Bronx Zoo recently made a courageous decision to no longer keep elephants.
          If only the outdoor zoo next to the elephant training center were as enlightened. I made myself go in it, suspecting the worst but knowing that the best way to honor suffering is to bear witness to it. Inside, monkeys were clawing at the bars of rusty cages -- cages with nothing inside but puddles of water on the concrete floor. Nothing was provided for the monkeys to play with or climb on. They just sat there, looking out with their all-too-human eyes. A deer, alone, occupied a similar cage, able only to walk around in a circle, never run. Water birds with dirty ruffled feathers were being kept in cages matted with their own droppings. Indian tourists were walking around the zoo, laughing and pointing, not a care in the world. When they saw the tears streaming down my face, they stared. I have never felt so different from mainstream Indians as I did then.
          One of the questions thrown at people who feel deep compassion for animals is, Why do you care so much about animals when there is so much human suffering in the world?  Here in India, where humans and animals in pain walk side by side, I am asking myself that question. I cannot trust any mental explanation, though, only my instinct, which asks another question: If there is a difference between human pain and animal pain, can you describe it?  And are they not both a product of greed, hatred and ignorance?  It will take patience and some courage to answer these questions, or at least partially answer them, at least for myself. In the meantime, I realize that I cannot change Indian attitudes towards animals but can start reflecting on my own treatment of animals, particularly the ones I put into my own body.
          Back at the Pimenta, Jacob reminded me that he had recommended a visit to the elephant training center, not the zoo. Indeed, his advice and expertise in planning day trips made my week at his forest garden a special time. Most notably, I visited a hand-loom weaving center with a Swiss-English couple who grow olives for olive oil in Umbria, Italy, and I visited Munnar, a tea-growing region in the cool mountains, with a group of five very high-spirited and adventurous Londoners. More importantly, though, I spent a good amount of time sitting on the verandah of my bungalow, just sitting there, beginning to see (as if through the mist) some of the essences of my journey, such as trust, acceptance, and allowance, and beginning the very long process of sorting through the avalanche of impressions that have emerged from my experiences.
          A few days later I ran into Jacob at a cafe in Cochin and it felt like seeing an old friend. Between Jacob and Lalita, I have gotten to spend time with two Indian farmers who have taken an unusual path compared to their fellow countrymen (although the Indian organic sector is, indeed, growing). As Mrs. Mathew, Jacob's very sweet mother, told me, "We are not a hotel. We are something special."  I believe the organic farmers of India are something beyond special. 

Women's rites February 13, 2007 at 4:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          "Why?" they ask me.
          Well, let's see... How can I formulate an answer they will understand?
          "Why don't you live with your parents?"
          "Why do some American women never marry or have children?"
          "Why is your husband not traveling with you?"
          I am asked these questions endlessley as I bump up against Indians in trains, taxis, restaurants and shops. I was prepared for their preoccupation with marriage and family (I call it a preoccupation -- they would merely call it an interest) but I never expected to be asked questions that are rarely voiced in America unless a burgeoning friendship is apparent. It has made me glad that I bought a cheap gold-plated wedding ring on the Internet before I left and have worn it on my left ring finger while I've been here. Being "married" gives me something to talk about and deflects some of the inevitable astonishment that people express when they see a woman in her early 30s traveling India alone. 
          My "husband," when I tell people about him, has alternatively been an architect, an archaeologist, and a novelist. Sometimes I'm about to meet him at the next station, sometimes I say he is working in Mumbai while I travel the country, and sometimes I say he wasn't interested in coming to India with me. Saying these things usually stops the questions (unless they start asking about my children). It also lets Indian men know that I'm not "easy." Apparently, in most places here, if you're traveling without the accompaniment of a man (father, brother, husband) you're loose and up for grabs. If you're traveling like that at night, you're sometimes considered a whore.
          Honestly, as a woman born after the feminist movement, it has only been here in India that I have begun to truly appreciate the freedoms that I as an American women have. But while I get to go back to those freedoms, women here must continue to live in a society that Ramachandra Guha, an Indian sociologist and environmental historian, calls "caste- and kin-bound." And so most Indian women, kin-bound, are pretty much expected to marry young, move in with their husband's family, immediately have children, and keep the home. I have no doubt that many, many Indian women have no problem with this kind of life, and appreciate, even crave moving through the rites and rituals expected of them. But what about the ones who want something else from life? Particularly the poor ones, who don't have as much opportunity as upper-caste women?
          And what about the women who lose their husbands early on?  Widows here, mostly the lower-caste ones, are expected to wear white, aren't allowed to remarry, and are so shunned by society that they seek refuge in communities of other widows, further secluding themselves. Watch the extraordinary Indian film "Water" (banned from Indian theaters but recently nominated for an Academy Award) and you will learn, as I did, that Gandhi's legacy goes far beyond kicking the British out of India. He also set in motion a new, more compassionate vision of life for Indian women. Yet the discrimination against widows remains.
          What, also, about the female fetuses that are aborted after parents learn they are to have a daughter?  In Hindu society, sons remain with their parents all their lives (while daughters move in with their husbands' familes); for this reason, parents crave sons so they will be taken care of later in life. There may be other reasons why they crave sons, but the fact remains that families often keep trying to have a son, further bloating the Indian population (now at 1.2 billion, I believe).  
          And what about the poor women who can only offer a meager dowry to the families of their new husbands? I asked an Aurangabad taxi driver what the biggest problem facing India was. He surprised me by saying, "the dowry problem."  Poor women are sometimes found mysteriously dead, the victim of a "kitchen fire" or some other domestic hazard. Later, the authorities figure out they have been murdered by their husband's families so that the husband can remarry and obtain another dowry. My friend Dee forwarded me an e-mail from an American friend of hers who recently visited India and shared this story:

          On the 15th of December Sangita caught fire. Doctors say she burned for over 30 minutes. When I went to see her in the hospital on the 6th of January, 22 days after she was burned, her face was black with 22-day-old, 3rd degree burns... She was shivering uncontrollably, and looked to be in horrible pain... How Sangita burned is not a mystery, although she refused to tell the story. In Uttar Predesh it is not uncommon for a married woman to be doused with kerosene and set alight by her husband's family so that he may divorce her and his family receive a new dowry from another bride. This is most likely what happened to Sangita. Her in-laws were home when she was burning, but she had to call her brother who lives across town to come and bring her to the hospital. No one responded to her screams. Sangita has a four month old baby in the care of her in-laws, which may be some of the reason she did not speak up... Sangita died on January 13th, after I was back in the states. Her story horrified me, but what is even more disturbing is that in Uttar Predesh alone, over 2,000 burnings for dowry get reported each year, and this is believed to be a significantly low number.

          Here in India, I've been answering a lot of people's questions, but when it comes to asking them, I don't tread on territory such as this. But if I were to ask ordinary Indians why such things as dowry murder, the banishment of widows and female infanticide happen, what would they say?  Maybe they wouldn't know how to answer. Or maybe they would think, How can I formulate an answer she will understand?