Saturday, April 26, 2008

Delhi to Helsinki

When I reflect on the last 14 days, I've been in 7 cities on 3 continents. Jet lag only begins to explain my state of mind. Our final days in Delhi pre-departure were replete with active days and nights, hot afternoons in CP, Bollywood hits, lunch coffees at Barista, a night of talking Harare politics over Tiger beers with two Zimbabwe friends, and fantastic steak dinner and drinks at Smokehouse Grill in South Ex. Before my departure, and hiatus in California, we organized a feast amongst friends at the apartment, and managed to convince three non-residents to make the trek to Gurgaon. As our conversations moved from the ethics of development to stupid humor, and as my house manager, Kapil, embraced me and apologized for any sins or troubles he had caused me, it only reaffirmed to me that bonds grow strong quickly in new worlds. I dismissed Kapil's appeal with my jocular nickname for him, "Sri Baba Kapil ji," but was moved by the extent to which relationships in India, despite their often disturbing stratification, are genuine, poignant, and resolute.

After a three-hour delay at the appalling Delhi International Airport (the worst capital city airport I have ever been to, except for perhaps San Salvador) I boarded my FinnAir flight to Helsinki at 4am. Despite months of joy, a few hours in Delhi International can affirm any seeded desire to return home, and leave you counting down the delayed minutes until departure.

But when I arrived in Helsinki, Finland, I immediately missed the chaos and color of India. I stepped into fresh, clean, Nordic air under a deep blue sky. Before me new C-class Mercedes passed one after the other as airport taxis, gliding over clean cobbled streets. Although with each breath into my lungs I felt as though I gained strength post-Delhi pollution, and although I could have eaten my lunch directly off the pavement it was so clean, I immediately missed the vibrance of India. I missed the camaraderie that is ubiquitous; I missed the smiles and the bobbles; I missed the momentary entertainment that is a rickshaw negotiation, a languid buffalo, a paan-wala tout, or a carefree shoeless child that protects a makeshift wicket with a stick. India is uniquely complex, and while riddled with problems, it retains an endearing quality that is deeper than the superficial foreign understanding of its squalor and crowds. India is alive.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

UP Nights... Films, Barat, and Kulfi

An afternoon by the Taj pool, and a fantastic book, "In Spite of the Gods" later, I embarked for a movie at the local cinema. The first Pakistani movie to show in India in many years, I chose to watch a well-rated film called "Khuda Ke Liye," or "In the name of God." Though the movie was in Urdu, its spoken form is remarkably similar to Hindi, and so I managed the basics that along with visual tips allow for decent understanding. Khuda Ke Liye was a fantastic movie that, while lacking in much acting prowess, articulated a complex modern Pakistani, and Muslim, dynamic in the post-9/11 world. A British Pakistani girl is married by her father, and against her will, to an extremist cousin in Waziristan, marooned in Western Pakistan to the chagrin of her feckless mother. Captive in a Pashto village, the protagonist battles between accepting a culture unknown to her, but her own, and squelching a hatred for her father. Her husband, a young musician turned rock-to-faith, joins in a battle alongside the Taliban as his progressive brother moves to Chicago to marry his American love. While one man lives free, another is persecuted as an extremist. All too familiarly, a World Bank friend explained the plight of a former Stanford classmate of ours who was deported, despite a fervid love of American opportunity, for having studied Chemical Engineering.

Exiting the theater, I used the local bathroom to don my Sherwani and I quickly made for my good friend's wedding. As I was escorted out the exit, half of the hotel staff offered a hand to shut the heavy door of my white Ambassador car, waving with smiles and compliments, and asking who my Indian bride was. At the residence, with photographs, marigolds, and bountiful traditions of puja and dance and incredibly loud band music, we began the wedding festivities. Though I've before been to Andhran, Keralan, and Maharashtran weddings, I hadn't yet been to one from Uttar Pradesh, or the North. The Barat, or procession, began from the groom's residence.

Fit with a white horse, twenty men to carry heavy lights atop their heads, a truck blasting the recent Bollywood hits like Darde Disco and Mauja hi Mauja, and even a small man pushing a generator, we danced for two hours down the streets. Snaking through the darkened streets, through air suffused with heavy heat, a lingering presence of the afternoon sun, we danced and danced as the white horse and my princely friend followed. Eventually reaching the wedding hall, Kushagra bribed his way inside, paying handsomely to the bride's sisters and family to make his entrance. As we tossed marigold petals atop their regal attire, and they exchanged flowers and furtive glances, they were slowly (quite) conjoined in marriage. To celebrate, after a liquor and contraceptive yatra for the newly interested parties at 4am, we celebrated by eating all of the remaining ice cream (kulfi) from the ceremony. An hour later I flew home and went to work, having only just changed from my Sherwani.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Now... Lucknow

After having been upgraded into a first-class sleeper, to my surprise and approval, I arrived in the capital of UP, Lucknow. I quickly hired an auto, and began site-seeing before the inevitable heat (105 F+) of the Gangetic Plain confined me to the shade. Though my morning bargaining skills were lacking, I secured a tour of various the sites of Lucknow, such as the Bara (Big) Imambara, a Shiite muslim shrine and the Chota (Small) Imambara. Within the Bara Imambara complex, there is an amazing bhulbhulayah, or labyrinth, that served as a protective surrounding to the Imambara. Nearly lost within its narrow stone passages, I contemplated climbing down a wall before I managed my way out. Like Theseus and the Minotaur, fortunately, my string and bred crumbs got out of the labyrinth, and back to the Taj.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

By Elephant or Indian Rail

On Sunday, after having hired an elephant for the morning to walk across the Raj Ghat corner of New Delhi, and after a four-hour, Moet champagne brunch at the Oberoi hotel, I boarded a third-class train car from New Delhi train station. I was bound for Lucknow, the capital of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh. UP, as it's shortened, has a population near 200 million people, and is one of the most complex regions of India to govern. It spans some of the most densely populated land on Earth, and combines a complex mix of topographic, linguistic, and religious differences. As I was dropped at the station by my driver, a man who explained to me last week how he had named his son after Saddam Hussein, the typical chaos ensued.

With a Moet-induced calm, I traversed a piling of bodies and bags outside the station, ducking my way under street lights buzzing with mosquitos, and shuffling past the burning metal of passing rickshaws and motorcycles. Once inside the station, having passed through a two-by-four 'metal detector,' I descended to the train platform upon which I was lifted and carried by an inching smash of human arms, bobbing heads, and fabrics. It was a festival weekend, and as a Bihari man explained to me on the concrete steps, everyone on the platform was bound for Patna for the long weekend. This man, the owner of a hot air balloon company explained to me how I could buy a second-hand Indian military helicopter, and then quizzed me in my minimal Hindi.

I was the only foreigner on the platform, but as I scampered over legs, past rice bags, under dupattas, between shoulders and through the heavy summer air that pinned me between bodies and a low ceiling, many helped me along my way. I managed to throw out a few high-fives before jumping onto my moving train, as my seats had inevitably changed and I boarded the wrong car. I eventually found that I had been upgraded, thanks to the Rail Minister Lalu Prasad's initiative at the helm of a million-person organization. Nine hours later I arrived in Lucknow.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

College Tour 2008

Today I spent meandering the campus streets of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in South Delhi with a Bihari friend studying in a Ph.D Linguistics program. Founded in 1967, JNU is one of a few Delhi academic institutions including the more urban Delhi University, and the famous Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). It is a school named after a man with one of the strongest Indian political legacies. Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, and longest serving, held the first post-colonial post from 1947 until his death in 1964. The school that bears his name is, as was explained to me, fairly liberal in its academic flexibility, but hasn't yet moved as far in the direction of development as its eponymous namesake could have hoped. Whereas campuses in Hyderabad host wireless internet, the classrooms and library at JNU are, while palatable, not modern.

Over a dhaba lunch, and a five rupee coffee, I realized that despite different appearances India is home to a surprisingly strong cafe culture. Similar to a weekend afternoon in Europe, scores of students sat around makeshift chairs, crumbled concrete cubes atop a dusty hillside, nursing small chai and coffees over long conversations. It's Indian dhaba culture, and I've noticed it across UP, Punjab, and Haryana.

Despite the tranquility of our sunny afternoon, my friend explained to me issues that cause academic concerns. In the past five years government scholarships have grown to address Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in funding, in addition to need-based funding for families who earn under 1 lakh rupees ($2500 per year). Preferential treatments, however, are controversial. Members of ST, and students who speak one of 24 specified languages, can take their pre-college exams in their mother tongue. Though locations change, some fundamental inequalities are issues that transgress international boundaries.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bollywood Politics

When asked by a DC friend how the China-Tibet issues were surfacing in India, I had to reply that I hadn't heard much about it recently, as the news has been dominated by far more important issues. Bizarrely, the quibbles between Bollywood and local regional politicians is more news-worthy than Chinese incursions and draconian actions against peace-loving people in Tibet. For example, in the past weeks, news has been drowned in the absurd dialogue between fringe-party Shiv Sena ("Shiva's army") and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackery of Bombay claims that the superstar, originally from Uttar Pradesh (UP) but made a star in Maharashtra, hasn't done enough for the state that brought him riches.

At the same time as Bachchan is derided by a xenophobic regional leader for his dismissal of Maharashtran issues, another Tollywood (not Bollywood) superstar from Karnataka, a ridiculous Sly Stone action hero named Rajinikanth, has been lionized by Thackery for his commitment to Tamil Nadu on issues related to local water. Despite his roots in Karnataka, Rajinikanth's siding with Tamil Nadu (TN) is precedent for Thackery's absurd public excoriation of Bachchan. It amazes me that this news eclipses neighboring China's aggressive measures just North of the Indian border. But when it comes to Bollywood and Cricket, the sub-continental notion is clearly "do not disturb."

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Worlds Between

After three months in India in 2008, bringing my time on the sub-continent to 9 months, I realize a sad and awkward reality that I belong in two places. In the words of my Indian friend, I'm wedded to the country, and torn between two worlds. I miss California, yet I am at home in India. I am pulled between relationships on two continents, and I harbor an elusive status that precludes the depth that is sufficient to satisfy. As I dined in a pillow-adorned buggy in South Delhi with an edgy and charismatic girl, as I landed in Hyderabad and was greeted by my driver and friends, and as I encountered a high-school friend in a South Indian bar, I am reminded of my tryst with two worlds. My worlds are multiple, and my experiences have afforded me an ability to recognize and understand pride in Spain, Switzerland, Ecuador, and India. But with each understanding I have gained, I have left those behind who might have become great friends. In the perpetual and elusive change, I am both broadened and saddened by my global friendships.

Over the past week, as I walked alone through Old Delhi's Chowri Bazaar, my thoughts tumbled slowly through my mind as my body negotiated the surrounding chaos. The dichotomies envelope my every moment, thought, surrounding, and intention. As a dusty man sleeps atop crumbled concrete, I dismiss my haste with a claim that I am powerless to help one man, and that I will devote my efforts to affect broader change. But sometimes the demands of time and commitment and comfort deceive the good intentions of decent people. Intentions become excuses and then they become the fodder for champagne toasts; they become the stories of reflective prose; they become a lingering guilt that grows into indignation and questions what others have failed to achieve, and not what one's self has failed to demand.

But as I've vomited bile from the window of a cab, alone in Calcutta, I no longer desired the hard adventure that ostensibly broadens us, and defines us in youth. I craved comforts, and I had the audacity to desire them as I passed Kolkata slums. Moments in India challenge compassion and humanity; they challenge self-definition; moments make us question who we are and what we believe in. Some raise a glass, and others raise a fit. The truth is, many people do both, existing in the hypocritical world of dichotomies that appeases both our human desire for comfort, and our privileged but genuine philanthropic vanity.