Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sherwani Fingers

During my last weeks in Hyderabad, I’ve tried to take in as much as possible. Last Sunday was my day to don the Sherwani at my friend, Mandar’s, wedding reception. After a brief Saturday Maharashtran ceremony, we met up Sunday for some snaps with the couple, mingling, and banquet hall dinner. It was a fantastic night full of laughs, as friends from office came in jeans and polos while I dressed to the nines in traditional garb. Though I lacked the curl-toed shoes fit for Sherwani, my traded sandals with Sayeed, our driver, accented my attire, and saved me from the brunt of the jokes.

My one frustration for the night stemmed from the inevitable trauma that standing and eating creates. It’s worse in India, because not only are you standing and eating, but also it’s hot, and you’re eating with your hands. Sure, by using your hands you avoid those awkward fork-knife moments when gravity and dexterity demand the need for more hands, and there’s that unfortunate reality that one must hold the plate. But then there’s the added problem of sullied fingers… dal and rice in the nails, butter paratha smeared on the knuckles… and the non-existence of napkins! Oh no, I thought, in my internal Jerry Seinfeld voice, what am I to do? I had just finished dinner and conversation, was asked for a photo with a few new arrivals, and went briskly for a napkin. None to be found… and what with the plates, you might ask? Yes, I thought of that too. But the napkins were maliciously stacked in with the plates in an alternating color-coded pattern, white plates and yellow napkins, and all napkins from the top had been swiped. Think, think…

Now only napkins 15 plates deep still protruded their angular corners from beneath the circular rims of heavy porceline. I tried for one, but after a moment of slippery fingers sliding over the napkin, dripping delectable masala from their tips over the pristine white plates that would serve others, I cringed in embarrasment. Now what? Smiles, the offer to shake my hand… 'I’m sorry, one second.' All at once I was struck with an epiphany – my pants! Of course - beneath the side of my Sherwani lay a slit up to the thigh, and beneath, the textured cotton of my pijama that knows its place as substitute. With a deft and furtive swipe amidst askance onlookers, I made my move and shuffled the painted fingers over cotton, front and back. At long last, I was free… free of the dal makhani and murgh malai that had encrusted my right hand.

In a moment of triumph I almost called out, beckoning the curries. In perhaps my greatest challenge in India, I had prevailed. I had escaped the impossibility of the napkinless moment when my fingers became my nightmare.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Living on all Sides

I started my Saturday morning with the Times of India and a Kenyan coffee at Cafe Coffee Day. While not as posh as Barista, it's an Indian version of Starbucks that offers a cosmopolitan touch to any morning. From behind tall windows I sat inside over a frothy mug, staring out at the busy street ahead. Tall buildings and billboards surround, and only upon lowering one's gaze does one see the manifold rickshaws and passers by who betray the fact that I'm still in India. From the menu I cannot tell, but from the prices, it's apparent that we're not in Kansas anymore... ok, maybe Kansas.

Pockets of developed middle-class life exist in India for sure, but it's still pockets. In watching Guru, a recent Bollywood hit, this weekend, I see these pockets exemplified and magnified. Perhaps for few, but not for many. The Bollywood sets do bring India to life to the tune of a snappy beat and to the scene of a beautiful gyrating human, but it's India in a vacuum. I would never argue that Hollywood exemplifies realism in America, but I do think that more Americans can draw parallels and empathize with Hollywood storylines. The dichotomy between the average American life and the Hollywood movie life, and the average Indian life and the Bollywood movie life, is in my opinion, larger in the latter. But that's my opinion after 4 months and movies...

It's interesting to me because even after over four months in India, after two hours of watching Guru, beautiful Aishwarya Rai whirling under a Karnatakan waterfall, and second-class sleeper train Bollywood sets, I forgot that India has immense development challenges ahead. The Bollywood set glazed over poverty with a little make-up, avoided sanitation issues by showing Aishwarya plowing a pristine field in the rain, and convinced me that even a second-class sleeper car could be fun... with a soft 40-watt glow, bobbing beauties, and a bit of hay tossed on the floor for that agrarian touch, I had an idyllic longing to be stuck in close-quarters for an overnight journey... with Miss World Rai.

As I spent Saturday afternoon plowing through the Charminar crowds of central Hyderabad, surrounded by poverty, extreme population density, unsanitation, and the gamut of street animal life, I can only hope that my perception of Hollywood is less obfuscated by American idealism than Bollywood's is for India.

After shopping for glass bangles, and removing my shirt in-shop for a free Rajasthani block printing lesson in Charminar, we retired for dinner and later for drinks. As we paid the 1200 INR ($28) cover for Ahala, a posh Hyderabadi club, I looked around the linens and skirts that fluttered under the strobe light and undulated to the pulsing music. The pocket is undeniable, but in a city of 5 million, it's hard to imagine that many more people than were in the room could have afforded to be in the room. When we exited we got a hug and hello from a messy-haired guy in a Monaco Grand Prix t-shirt. Turns out he's a movie director. I guess if this is the life you live, the Bollywood set don't look all that inaccurate.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Extreme India

India offers, like most large countries, a diverse topography. From the dry Deccan plateau in the south, hemmed in by the Western and Eastern Ghats and sub-tropical southern lowlands... to the Gangetic plane in the North, spanning across Uttar Pradesh... to the tea plantations of Darjeeling, Scotish highlands of Shillong in the far North East... to the Himalayan hill stations in Himanchal and Kashmir in the Northwest, to the arid deserts of Rajasthan in the far West... it's diverse. Many of my Indian co-workers see it as unparalled in scope, but this is myopic, for America, even Ecuador, have impressed me with equal diversity. In truth, topography is never, or rarely, distinct. But one trip abroad will prove this.

In the last few weeks, I've experienced extremes of India. I participated in a Rajasthani pilgramage to Amer Fort outside Jaipur in the sweltering, parched heat of the desert, and two weeks later was admitted alongside sadhus into a South Indian temple for the solar new year in Tamil Nadu. Both locations meant friendly inquiries, crowds, heat, beauty and squalor. The walkway up to the Amer Fort in Rajasthan was lined with beggars of every deformity, in the worst states of penury. With an arbitrary flip of a coin, the sari-clad women ahead of me would pass unsentimentally to the top. My throat was clenched, and my coins were not enough. The futility, the sadness, the reality of life, the stoicism, the shallow feeling of support, the coyness of philanthropy, it was frustrating.

Two weeks later, on the road between Trivandrum, capital of Kerala, and Kanyakumari, the southern-most tip of the sub-continent, I stopped off at famous temple. I was traveling alone, and hired a car for the day, as the bus schedule would not permit for my hasty Hyderabad return. My driver, a worshiper of Devi -- an incarnation of Parvati, wife of Shiva, (yea, it's complicated) -- was pretty excited to be headed to Kanyakumari. It's not only the tip of India, but it's also a sacred Devi city, and the location of Vivekanandra's famous meditation and spiritual epiphany. And Sunday was a festival day.

So after roadside puja for the Devi idol on the dash, we stopped at a Tamil Nadu temple. At 7am I was admitted to the temple despite the fact that I'm non-Hindu, a rare event. Without a shirt or shoes (though not in mandatory dhoti or sari), I was allowed inside in Hawaiian-bought O'Neil boardshorts. I was the only foreigner, and stood alongside sadhus and other worshipers as we passed through the darkened, damp, stone passageways which were lit mainly by oil lamps. There were men chiming bells, many colorful women crowded around idols, waiting patiently to catch a glimpse of an elusive golden statue comprised of Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva, and shuffling past me with eyes fixed. Toward the end of my time in temple we encountered the hoisting of a Devi, Shakti or goddess, and Nandi Bull, carrier of Shiva, statue by a dozen skinny-armed, dhoti-clad men. Amidst candles and chanting, under the cool canopy of stone that encapsulated us in time and moment, the men hoisted the statues above their heads for a Tamil Nadu solar new year procession. It was truly exceptional.

We continued onto Kanyakumari, where I was taken in by a local Karnatakan family who escorted me around the Vivekanandra temple and monument. I survived the over-cramped barge ride to the island thanks to the reassuring grip on my bicep from my host-father. He did not speak English, but would nod and smile, and held both his 14 year old son, and my arm as he guided us onto the undulating barge.

Boarding anything in India is sheer chaos. The transportation is invariably moving, and single-file "lines" are notoriously wide and convergant. Once aboard, I was given a seat and a history lesson. The exciting thing about traveling solo in India is that you're never alone. My cricket jersey prompted innumerable questions about whether I was affiliated with the BICC, and my beard meant half the time the hello was in Arabic. Salaam Alaykum. At all times I was surrounded by five people asking where I was from, if I was married, and how I reacted to the spicy food. California, not married, food no problem. Same same. Sunglasses prove refuge from eye contact and engagement, and I found myself wearing them more to secure moments of solitude amidst the inquisitive but friendly crowds.

India's diversity allows a panoply of experience, sometimes extreme, trying, always fascinating, and invariably expanding.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Operation "Malaysia"

Over the long Easter weekend I was able to rally three others for a trip to Malaysia and the Petronas Grand Prix Formula 1 race at the Sepang Circuit. I'm not an F1 afficionado, but I firmly believe in coupling experience with exotic location. We did international cricket in Chennai, and a horse derby in Mumbai. If you're going to ride a camel it should be in Dubai. If you're wanting to ride an elephant and see F1, why not Malaysia?

Upon Friday arrival from Hyderabad via Chennai (Anna International Airport), we checked into the swish Mandarin Oriental at around 7am. Upon arrival we knew we were in for a weekend, as aside from innumerable Travel & Leisure awards, the lobby was adorned with the F1 Ferrari pit crew. I say adorned because an F1 entourage is comprised of more than just drivers and mechanics. Let's just say Ferrari isn't the only *model.

Our Petronas Tower suite was pretty sweet, and our 21st floor vista put us 20 under the double-decker skybridge that made 'Entrapment' more than just another Catherine Zeta-Jones film. We spent Friday meandering the city, snacking on dubious roast duck in a dingy streetside eatery, pondering the notorious Durian and its unfortunate smell. After Chinatown, we survived the scorching equatorial heat by absconding to the shaded park where the national mosque and butterfly farm were kept. And following a poolside evening, mojito in hand, watching the sun set over a James Bond infinity pool and South Asian skyline, we dined at a hard-to-find, but exceptional, restaurant.

Our concierge at the Mandarin, a man who not only remembered all our names, but our room number and preferences, recommended the Gulai House. A former mansion used to house visiting heads of state, when we arrived we realized that we were the only table. Dining with a wait-staff of half a dozen on an immaculate jungle-fringed, white-pillared veranda, we thought of our fortunate circumstances. As thunderclaps and gray rain clouds obscured the moon and bats circled above, there was an eerie perfection about our grand solitude and privileged night. But a car was called, and we returned to the Mandarin for our next adventure...

On Saturday we journeyed north two states to an elephant sanctuary called Kuala Ganda for relocated elephants. Surprised by the immaculate and streamlined Malaysian infrastructure, we were able to cruise at nearly 180 kph, autobahn-style. When we arrived, after feeding the elephants by handing them chopped bananas, cucumbers (which most did not enjoy), and watermelons, we rode elephants bare-back until it was time for them to bathe. With half a score of baby elephants only 2-3 feet tall, we splashed around in a muddy-banked Malaysian jungle river. Their vibrant energy, loud playful shouts and trunk waving induced euphoria in the cool water. Hairy-backed, big-eyed, and clumsily independent, the elephants were truly endearing. After an hour in the water, and half a day at the sanctuary, it was time to return to Kuala Lumpur (Kuala=river, Lumpur=muddy, this name in reference to its former history as a mining town, primarily for tin). Upon return to KL we unsuccessfully attempted to enter a VIP BMW F1 party. Given our elephanty smell and disheveled appearance, our surprise was that we were not ejected sooner!

On Sunday we made our way from the Mandarin to the Sepang Circuit, the F1 course 50km south of KL. Via subway, train, bus, taxi, running, and bus, we made our way to the race. The incredible infrastructure of KL proved itself again with enabled remote check-in for Malaysian Airlines from the train station, 12 hours pre-flight and 50km from the physical airport. Not to worry, we got our seat assignments, boarding passes, and confidently checked our bags before watching BBC and seeing Google news on the speeding bullet train to the airport. Coming from India, the word novelty is a relative understatement. Once to Sepang the traffic was appalling. A bus and taxi proved ineffective so we ran for it, 2km down a sweltering freeway through bumper-to-bumper traffic. At the checkpoint, the impetus for chaos, a cop asked us how we'd arrived. When we stated we'd ran, he smiled and said 'Welcome to Malaysia,' a funny line at the time given that his response indicated that he thought we'd literally run from abroad.

We eventually arrived at the Sepang Circuit about 20 laps into the 56. The audible buzz of cars signaled our arrival before sight could confirm affirmatively. We mounted the hill station that was our uncovered 40 ringit seat ($13), and endured the heat that was 56 degrees C' on the track. I'm not quite sure how we survived, but we managed to track Alonso and his McLaren car to the checkered flag, and enjoy our debut with the global F1 craze.

Next year, Monaco.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Indian Work Bash

Whereas in the States a corporate party will yield sparse turnout, terse small talk, jaded mumblings about office goings-on, and on the whole, the material that served as muse to Scott Adams and the director of Office Space, in India it's quite the contrary... at least at my job. Weekend offsites and team building camps are known to inspire 100 percent turnout, even when they spill over into other holidays. A going away party last week that ran late into the night proved no different.

After renting a local hotel space, and convincing (with little effort) 100 percent turnout, general revelry ensued. While we initially presented gifts to our departing manager in the form of framed pictures, books, a t-shirt, a 7 minute video produced by a teammate, the night soon devolved into a jack-of-all-trades variety show. The mike was passed, and no one could escape the eyes of 25 co-workers fixated on you as you had your limelight. Even those cowering in brightly colored saris could not escape the inevitable move of the mike, and one girl was literally forced into Kashmiri song.

I decided to make the most of my moment, as hesitation merely signalled weakness but offered little escape, engaging the rest of the group into chanting and clapping while I did my favorite Bollywood dance to the beat of Dhoom 2, a catchy number from a recent Little B (Bachchan) film. Others were far more cultured. Although we heard a less than PC impression of an American President, we also heard songs and dances from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kashmir, and Manipur. It was a fascinating look at the diversity of India. On my team of 25 we had six states represented in song, dance, and language.

Following a plate of Indian grub, more Bollywood dancing and multilingual songs, we took off for the night. Although this picture is completely unrelated, it's my good friend Arjun fondling his precious Luminary Award, offering at my request, lines from Lord of the Rings. As he speaks 15 languages fluently (including Swedish, Tamil & Swahili), he's lucky I don't ask but in English. Arjun is not only my cube-mate, but his namesake is the historical hero of the Mahabarata, the fabled archer who faces moral dilemma. I'm fortunate to still have my thumbs (see Eklavya).