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.