Tuesday, February 10, 2009

News of the Indian world

In scanning Indian newspapers for health-related items, I often come across strange news. As an amendment to my last post, I must say the Baltimore Sun has never reported on girls forced to marry frogs.

2-yr-old falls into pit: A two- year old girl reportedly fell in an open deep pit in Samaipur Badli in outer Delhi on Sunday afternoon. According to the police, Payal was playing with her friends near the pit when she went missing..."A two-year-old girl is suspected to be inside a pit which is around 4 ft. deep. The rescue operation is still on. But chances of her survival are unlikely," said police. [Times of India, February 3

Man Assaults Wife Over Jeans: A man kicked and stamped his wife because she was dressed "as a man"... The police promptly dispatched the women, who suffered the battery in full public glare [in Dabwali market], to her in-laws, terming it as a "family matter." No case was filed.. [Hindustan Times]

Seven-year-old Indian girls 'marry frogs'
Two seven-year-old girls from a remote village in India have married frogs in a bizarre wedding ritual. The young ‘brides’, Vigneswari and Masiakanni, hail from the village of Pallipudupet in Tamil Nadu's Villupuram district. The wedding ceremony, a highlight of the annual Pongal (harvest) festival, was conducted to prevent the outbreak of mysterious diseases in the village. The girls wore traditional gilded saris and gold jewellery and married their amphibian grooms in front of hundreds of villagers. The frogs were tied to long sticks decorated with garlands for the lavish marriage ceremonies. The subsequent celebrations had all the usual elements of a traditional marriage including a sumptuous feast. [Times of India, January 29]

First World Wake Up

I've been back in Baltimore for four days yet my body insists I am still in India. It's a hybrid existence that leaves me nodding out in 4pm meetings and waking up amidst 4am darkness. Although the east coast is unseasonably warm, a brief encounter with 15 degree winter the night of my bedraggled return has me still sneezing and sniffly.

To add to my body's confusion, the usual experience of returning into the smooth, safe First World wasn't there this time. The first time I returned from India I worried that I had gone deaf, it was so quiet over here. No wild multi-tunal honking, no shops blaring Bollywood, no puja prayer broadcasts from crackling loudspeakers. Either I'm used to India or the US gets more like what our parents called the Third World each day.

JFK airport, where I landed from shiny Doha-via-Delhi was crowded, littered and bird poo-ed--a small flock of birds were squawking above the Delta ticket counters. Baggage took eons to arrive--I nearly gave up to go nap. On benches, people squashed in from all sides. I fell asleep on my armrest, and awoke with my head on somebody's lap--do Americans not have space issues anymore?

At BWI, a tout spotted me with luggage and offered an overpriced ride home. The taxi descended from the I-95 flyover--oops, overpass--to meet crippled men clunking across abandoned streets to tap at the window. At Charles Street, desperate hands arrived with rags to wash our windshield. Our frozen lumps covered in tattered blankets could have used the fires people light on Delhi roadsides to keep warm on winter nights. The radio issued dire warnings about the collapsing banks and huddled masses of unemployed, 600,000 turned out in January alone (our government promises to put them to work building roads--like Rajasthan's famine relief projects). The taxi passed McDonald's, not Bangalore and Jaipur's shining-new restaurants proffering spicy, upmarket veggie burgers, but sagging with sallow, dirty arches: eateries hawking cheap food that would sicken one more insidiously than the pani puri snack stalls in the Indian markets.

The newspapers said, America's health system abandons the poor to impossible decisions between sickness or bankruptsy. Luckily, I had pills from India to mend my ailing stomach and help me sleep. I woke up in the moonlight, confused. A helicopter shuttled across the sky looking for a murderer.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Life in the Express Lane

Work took me yesterday to Chandigarh, a planned city of about a million forming the capital two states, Punjab and Haryana. The 56 year-old urban dream of idealist prime minister Nehru, Chandigarh is now one of the wealthiest places in India--highest per capita income, one of the best standards of living, etc. The city that Le Courbusier laid out is determined to live up to its progressive founders. Well-ordered streets meet roundabouts, traffic lights are obeyed and seatbelts worn religiously. Chandigarh was the first Indian city to ban smoking in public places, and it has one of the best health systems of the country--especially of the northern states which tends to lag behind the wealthier and better run southern states. Modernist architecture crops up in the oddest places, almost as frequently as a Gaudi structure in Barcelona -- a boxy red-lit cube of a lighthouse on Sukhna Lake , a statuesque wind turbine, and cement egg-shaped rubbish bin. With the tiny cars jammed chaotically together in lots, it could be Italy (however like everywhere in India, signaling while driving requires heavy use of horn). Even students drive cars--only a few rural chaps, riding in from the Punjabi countryside to sell corn on blankets in the European-style plazas, travel by bicycle.
Struggling with lingering stomach malaise, I couldn't fully appreciate the Chinese-Thai fushion food at Noodle Bar, in Sector 26--the city is neatly divided into 4-block districts--but the Biggie and Mos Def playing perked me up (10 years later, "Miss Fat Booty" has still got its kick). With the flat screen TVs embedded into the blond wood wall and casual-chic crowd of young modern Desis this could have been London.
One of highlights of my 18 hours in Chandigarh was the journey. How much Amtrak has to learn from the Indian railways! Let's put aside Amtrak's obsene pricing structure or limited routes (the poorest villager can get a seat on an Indian train to cart potatoes across the state--any city, any state). Rich people, too, travel better by train in India. Accustomed to riding trains here in 2nd class (a car with rows of 3 sleeping bunks, stacked to the ceiling with teaming families), my eyes were opened wide by the famous Shatabi Express, where I rode in an "executive" class that is available on few other routes. Guests on this Acela-caliber class do not have to uproot themselves to purchase overpriced pre-packaged food at a cafe car. On the Shatabi, uniformed servers offer several courses on trays with real silverware--included in the $17 rail ticket. There was tea, cornflakes, hot rolls, and then the main course, veg cutlets or omlette. Tea time arrived again. The Times of India, Hindustan Times, or Hindi language papers were offered. Fresh pinnapple or orange juice was served in glasses before passengers disembarked at their destination, a comfortable 3 or 4 hours later.
As the train leaves before 7, the green Haryana fields were veiled in thick mist. Blue and maroon turbans--Punjabis is home to many Sikhs--peeked above the plush recliner seats as passengers snooze. Closer to Delhi, mobile phones began sounding and expensive suits were smoothed out. Meetings were scheduled in a masala mix of Punjabi, English and Hindi. Briefcases were located, drivers met.
Civilization ended as everyone joined the conjested Delhi streets once again. Children and crippled old people paste faces to the car windows of the wealthy, staring and staring and staring. Perhaps the disembarked Sikhs, like me, were missing Chandigarh's wide, orderly streets with the feeling of possibility and progress.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Postcards from the Edge

Today I left Jodhpur on a jet plane, bearing an extra suitcase. Since I don't know when I'll be back to this "handicrafts" capital I loaded up on shimmery shawls and ganesha statues, prayer beads and shiny silver thali plates. This morning we made an emergency rickshaw run to a guy in the market prooffering the best of Taiwanese luggage, selecting a "Classic" blue and grey nylon suitcase for 700Rs. to cart this stuff to the airport.

Below, one of 5 floors at Maharani Arts Emporium, a wholesale depot stocking paisley pashminas, embroidered wall hangings, silk bedding and other textiles stacked from floor to ceiling and spilling out from mysterious back rooms. The ultra-charming salesman, a metrosexual who wrapped himself in each scarf before offering it, purred out the story of each piece: "This one is divine--so soft"; "kashmiri wool, very warm"; "Her-mees is buying this from us"; "Moskino likes this design" and the typical celebrity-shopper photo op, circa 1994, "Billy Corgen was just here, see photo?" One generally buys based on the look not the stories, which cannot be verified but are generally known to be false.

Goodbye, neighborhood cows. This informal herd hung out by Sun City Guest House waiting for their morning chapattis to be set out by Mr. Pushpendre.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Movie Making in Jodhpur

After the rush of big cities--Jaipur, Bangalore and Delhi-Jodhpur, a city of 1.2 million (give or take few thousand migrant families camped in front of the palace) seems positively provincial. Camel carts still stop traffic and roads in the poshest neighborhoods are cratered and chaotic with goats, donkeys and rickshaws. The majestic 16th century Mehrangarh fort sits unmolested at the serene summit of the city.

Time moves even in the parched heart of Marwar, the historic center of an ancient kingdom known as "land of death" in the local language. The middle class in Jodhpur gets their Pizza Hut fix and soon McDonald's will open (there are 3 in Jaipur). The kids in my local host family watch Indian version of So You Think You Can Dance, Indian Idol and music videos where movie legend Shah Rukh Khan shimmies with women in sequined bikini tops who are skinny even by international standards (plump heroines are longer in vogue). The family's 15 year old--like so many image-conscious American girls--is painfully underweight, refusing anything but toast and Pepsi, while their youngest has become a poster boy for childhood obesity.

The food is terrifically familiar. Chapattis, leaden and tasteless down south, are featherweight, slightly charred and plentiful, the better to mop up chili-speckled paneer (cheese) vegetable curry and spicy dahl (lentil soup) without the heavy cream base one gets in the states.

After months of searching in years past-Rajasthan is to yoga as Mississippi is to pilates--I've discovered a pair of yogis proffering sun salutations and advice about color therapy and other homeopathic remedies. Ravi Kant and his stunning wife Ruby work with a local ex-patriot couple who've built a palace of their own in the city's outskirts where they hold court with visiting furniture buyers and the filmmakers and photographers who love Jodhpur. The Darjeeling Express, I've learned, was filmed here at the desert heart of Rajasthan, instead of in the eastern Himalayas, as the title would imply. Liz Hurley's wedding was choreographed here for HELLO! at various palaces including pink topped Umaid Bhavan, where the local maharajah puts up. Most recently, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra has touched down to shoot a commercial for a local bank, exciting a flurry of front page news coverage.

Climbing up to the fort in the morning, before the sun gets too heavy, I feel like I'm in a movie. This is the view from the red turrets in the photo above, the lowest point on this multi-tiered monument

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Old is New Again

Bangalore's M.G. Road -- a namesake to make doti-clad Mr. Gandhi roll over in his grave--is the Oxford Circus of India. Lined with Tommy Hillfiger, Levis, Puma, and Ruby Tuesdays, the buzzy strip's watering hole du jour is the Hard Rock Cafe, predictably if mystifying bedecked with "SAVE THE PLANET" banners on its faux-castle-like exterior. Inside, waif-like girls in tank tops sipped cocktails, their bony elbows brushing boys in sunglasses. Phones trilled and evening plans were made.
My plans? To crash early and fly to Jaipur the next day on Kingfisher air, also The Hard Rock Cafe beer of choice. Kingfisher is India's answer to Virgin, the airline glamorized by daredevil businessman Richard Branson. Kingfisher CEO Vijay Mallya sports Branson-style rocker-rumpled hair and sunglasses and tells passengers in an on-air announcement how he carefully selects his flight crew. Indeed, they are immaculately turned out. Kingfisher stewardesses wear cheery cherry-red figure-hugging skirt suits and carry boxy 1960s-style totes in matching crimson--an enviable accessory that is unfortunately not for sale to dowdy passengers.
Even up in Jaipur, Rajasthan's dusky "pink city" of palaces, I noticed several new loudly-colored malls. The biggest emporium, fronting a busy traffic circle, featured a kind of amusement park with children bouncing up and down on a giant harness, like New York's trapeze school on the West Side Highway.
However, much of Jaipur still seems to operate around familiar North Indian landmarks: markets with oranges, cucumbers and limes piled high; women sitting sideways on the back of scooters their husbands pilot to pani poori snack stalls; tank-like Ambassadors hurling across roundabouts.

Fish were piled on wooden carts. For obvious reasons, one avoids fish in Rajasthan.

Friday, January 23, 2009

In Search of India

Losing patience with security checks, I entered a [hotel] on foot this evening, fumbling through a cloud of mosquito spraying. Guests sat to the right of the entrance inhaling chemicals with their expensive chicken tikka. Hotel had 5 power cuts during dinner, which guests ignored, persisting to follow their points as the room fell into oblivion-darkness. At one point we standing, were conversing near the buffet line, when the light went away. I panicked that I might not be able to finish my paratha, until the generator roared back to life.

For all its giant Levis stores and Land Rovers, Bangalore finds itself back in the subcontinent at the end of the day. The city's yuppie elite might celebrate birthdays at lavish terrace restaurants but they still wrangle auto-rickshaws for 30 Rs ($.50) at the corner.

Tomorrow, I'll visit some local NGOs to see the truly Incredible India behind this glossy international business centre.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama-ji Storms Indian Media

I watched the news of America's $170 million dollar inauguration preparations stream in from Indira Gandhi airport in Delhi, en route to Bangalore. My taxi driver had quoted me the figure in rupees when I told him it was a very important day for my country. "This very expensive day!" he pointed out, adding that he liked Obama and thinks he will work hard to make the world a better place. In clear agreement were the Kenyans dancing on IBN7 Hindi language news, which the producers cut to in between shots of Obama grinning in front of the YES WE CAN mantra.
Though losing ground to the news coverage of Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar nods (best picture, director and score), American inauguration coverage here has been nonstop.

Shri Obama, as he is likely called in a temple nearby, has a lot of expectations to answer to. CAN OBAMA CHANGE THE WORLD? screamed the Time Now network, and apparently, 63% here think he can (he looks a bit skeptical in the freeze frame). Times of India's front page announced his MISSION AMERICA. To watch the Big Speech on January 20, I begged the bar keeper to tune the flat screen at Amnesia club to CNN. The only patron I cheered the television and showed off my Obama t-shirt to the Nepali waiters, who were not impressed. Finally, one bored French IT consultant wandered in to keep me company at the bar for a glass of Maharastran wine. As the CNN anchors roared with excitment, he looked puzzled at the fuss, finally reflecting that it is a big step for America [to elect a black man president].

Aside from gawking at the glamorous new first American couple, what do Indians want from Mr. Obama's new post? The papers say Indians want a stronger economy, action on climate change, a better relationship with India. Mainly they want an end to terrorism. The frenzy of excitement over Slumdog Millionaire, filmed in Mumbai, must be rooted in India's post "26/11" pride--like New York became a proxy for the unflappably optimistic American spirit after 9/11, Mumbai is now a touchstone for India's strong nationalism.

As a visitor, the security here in airports, hotels and upscale restaurants is unnerving. To enter the Windsor, a Sheraton hotel, our car was stopped on the main road, before we turned into the winding driveway. The vehicle's underside was inspected with mirrors. We drove to the front of the Regency-era white colloladed structure and inspector #2 peeked under the car. Entering the hotel, our bags were thoroughly searched. At some hotels our bags have been scanned as in the airport. Finally admitted, we were forbidden to access wireless internet as an additional security measure. It all kind of put a damper on the gracious welcome the man in Raj-era suit gives as he opens the door, on the other end of the metal detector.