My Trip to India

Or why my western mind is having trouble with the apparent contradictions of the east...

Such a trip- it will take some time to settle my head, which is certainly reeling a bit right now.

We got to see all of my husband Ravi's family and many friends. We also got to see his sister's wedding in Chennai (Madras), we visited Bangalore (beautiful and cool in climate), we stayed a few days in Mumbai (Bombay) in the village suburb called Virar, and were based for most of the trip in Hyderabad, a tough working city fighting for the chance to become India's cyber-capital and highlight of Bill Clinton's upcoming trip. If you are in the mood for a lengthy travelogue, read on. I can only hope you are half as fascinated reading about India as I was seeing it.

First off, let me say my new family was wonderful, welcoming, and most generous. I became particularly attached to Ravi's mother, a dryly witty lady who enjoyed giving me recipes and telling me Hindu stories. His brother and sisters were also wonderful, as were various aunts and uncles. Everytime I went to a new house a small ceremony was performed where kumkum (red powder) was applied to my forehead (third-eye region) by the lady of the house, and I would receive a gift for our marriage- most often it was cloth to make a sari blouse and a silver cup for our kitchen. Often it was a piece of jewelry- overall I received 3 new pairs of earrings, one new silver necklace, two silver bracelets, one gold necklace, one gold bracelet, one gold ring- the largesse was overwhelming. Candy and other sweets were often in the mix too. I was made to feel a very welcome guest everywhere I went and for this I am most grateful and feel very blessed.

All of what you have heard, both good and bad about India is true; it's a land of major contrasts in terms of beauty and garbage, poverty and new technology, struggle for survival and attention to spirituality. Somehow, I am slowly coming to understand how X and Y can be opposites, yet both be true, and can exist side by side simultaneously.

Overall, the people were fabulous and kind, and very curious about the obvious traveler. Schoolkids in particular would come right up and say "You are from?" and "Your name is?". When you are 5'10" and blonde you cannot blend into the scenery, even when you are wearing local garb (as I often did, called salwar kameeze- long 3/4 length tunic with big trousers underneath and a dupatta slung casually over the shoulder or around the neck.) I wore my mangalasutra (literally "thread of bliss") which is a marriage necklace used in parts of India and I could see people look at me, then at my necklace and then at Ravi. I experienced no "Eve teasing" (sexual harassment that is said to often happen to foreign women who are thought to be a bit "loose") and wonder if that was because it was obvious I was with someone and not fair game.

In the cities the major transportation source (besides buses) were autorickshaws- canopied, three-wheeled, open-on-the-sides-with-a driver-in-front and as many as you can jam in the back vehicles. Being so open felt a little vulnerable to me, but it was a blast once I got it through my head that while yes, there was a ton of traffic, and yes, it was awfully close together, and yup, people practically threw themselves into your driver's path (it is like a video game to watch all the things come into and go out of your line of travel)- once I accepted this and realized that the synergy just WORKED it was ok and fun.

We visited many cool places- in Hyderabad, we saw Golconda Fort and the tombs, visited a huge always-under-construction temple (the builder had a dream that if he stopped he might die and his business fail), and a massive Buddha in the city lake made from one 2400 ton piece of rock. We also visited two Hanuman temples at my request. You may have seen this man/monkey Indian deity on some of my pages, and he is above and below. No, I have not become a Hindu but it's easy to see why I find Hanuman's story compelling. He is a being of questionable ancestry who was ordered to forget the strengths of his ancestors by others, and he was a tireless devotee of Lord Ram, with whom he worked and battled an evil beast's army to create a reunion with Ram's wife, Sita. Lack of knowledge about ancestry, reunions, fighting for a cause- sounds adoption-related to me!

In Madras we were occupied with the wedding but were there long enough to see Snake Park, Marina Beach (by night) and to note that it is right HOT in that area due to the humidity. The wedding was gorgeous at one of the many-hued temples, and I watched as Ravi's sister was garlanded and received her thali (a marriage necklace used in the far south).

Bangalore was beautiful- green and cool and a real contrast from the dry brown of Hyderabad. Bangalore is the current technology capital of India and the new place of the nouveau riche from the software crowd. The streets were clean and the pollution minimal. We visited many of Ravi's friends and family here as this is where he grew up. We also backtracked and saw his old neighborhoods, schools and temple.

Bombay blew my mind. Never have I seen such a big city so jam-packed with people, and the contrasts of wealth and poverty were most obvious here. We passed glamorous hotels and new apartments, while children and lepers thrust their hands into the taxi looking for money. Taking the train in Bombay's main station was an adventure to say the least since everyone rushes the train to try to snag a seat- you really have to jump into the fracas and charge too or you won't get on the train. We visited Gateway to India, the Queen's Necklace, and Victoria Terminus, which was overwhelming in its beauty and architectural magnificence. Here too it was quite hot and very humid, and I sweated madly while walking the streets.

The beggars in India could give lessons to the ones we have here. The people fairly aggressively come at you, and they make a universal gesture anyone can understand- tapping the gathered fingers on the lips mimicking eating food, while making the most pathetic and sad face. As a female, I was often addressed in voices that were almost child-like, using the word for "mother"- a high-pitched "Ma!". I do not mean at all to sound flip; the poverty is sad indeed and you have to come to the conclusion pretty quickly that you cannot help everyone. I usually let Ravi make the call on who should get how much. Generally people unlikely to get a job, the sick or crippled, and the elderly got a little something, while kids and the able bodied did not receive much if anything. The kids were heartrending but they had time to try to break the chain of begging (and many of them do beg at the behest of their parents). I learned that if you give money to a leper you want to be sure to put it directly into their palm because if they drop it they may not have fingers to pick it up. If they do have fingers, leprosy has likely made them numb and so they cannot feel pain- and thus can scrape themselves while picking money off the pavement.

Rivaling the street people are the dogs- so many dogs and puppies! As an animal lover it took all my strength not to croon to all the lonely and underfed critters I saw, but I had to- these dogs are wild, not socialized, and some are potential rabies carriers. I did make friends with one street dog who had recently been taken in as a watch dog by Ravi's sister's family. This dog growled at me in a business-like way the first two days but a few biscuits made me look less like an intruder and more like a friend and soon Pisu was sleeping outside my door and letting me play rough with him with no threat- he would wrestle with my hand in his mouth and never bite down.

The food was a real switch and I confess that in my suitcase I had packed 40 beef-jerky sticks to ward off any cravings for meat that I might have. I did get a few meals with meat at some of the better restaurants but by and large it was not easily available, at least not at places Ravi's family felt I should eat. I loved some of the cold vegetable dishes in particular, some of the hot ones too (particularly eggplant) and I really loved some of the breads- dosas and chapatis. Dosas remind you of pancakes but are made with bean flour and can be made thin and crispy or thick and doughy, and they are never served sweet. Chapatis were an everyday staple of pan fried (very little oil) whole wheat flour, and you tear small pieces of this and use them to pick up bits of the various vegetable preparations. One other staple is idlis, a small soft and moist rice cake often served for breakfast with coconut chutney. And someone is always making you tea, creamy and sweet and good for the soul.

One funny thing that kept happening was the discovery that little chips of music were used in several Indian products- notably doorbells and in cars as a signal for when the driver is reversing. The chips are probably made in China and the music has no meaning to the people who hear it, but to me it was hilarious: the doorbell would ring and you'd hear "Silent Night" or "The Surprise Symphony" or "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". Someone would throw their car into reverse and you'd hear the strains of "Theme from Love Story" and "Fur Elise"!

You do not have to look far to see any of India's former opulence- palaces, forts and museums are easy to find and the architecture is wonderful in many places and quite old- especially some of the Zoroastrian buildings in Bombay. Even many of the new buildings look old- much of the construction there is with cement and the combination of pollution, little rain and much heat means these take on a dingy patina quite fast.

My health was good during most of the trip and I scrupulously stuck to bottled water (of reputable brands in sealed containers). "Bisleri" was my best friend. I brushed my teeth with toothpaste and Listerine to make sure I wouldn't swallow any water. Still, I managed to ingest something at the local fair (called the Hyderabad Industrial Exposition) that gave me the trots, Montezuma's Revenge, or amoebic dysentery. We think it was the glass of sugar cane juice- the makers said they had added no water, but we now think otherwise. Anyhow, I woke at 4:30 in the morning with fluids jetting from both ends of my body, and this was repeated every hour until 9:30 when I stopped throwing up and could finally sit quietly on the toilet and deal with the leftover symptoms. I was weak for two days and did not feel like eating, but was otherwise fine. The puking was unlike any I'd ever had- so violent that my stomach muscles ached for days. I was soooo glad when it was over.

I also later got some allergic reaction, the source of which was never found. My palms and fingers itched like mad and developed tiny blisters, and then my ears blew up until they were huge. Luckily Ravi's doctor brother was visiting and he got me on steroids and antihistamines quickly. When I left Hyderabad and went to Bangalore I stopped the drugs and was fine. When I returned to Hyderabad the symptoms did not resurface.

Lastly, I caught a bad cold right before leaving- one that begun with Ravi's sister and went to his mom, then to me, and now Ravi has one himself. It's just your basic cold with cough and we're doing fine.

I very much enjoyed the arts in India. There is much pop music available because of several TV channels featuring it, and most of the hit tunes come from new movies. Most Hindi movies are romantic musicals, where the boy and girl end up running through a field of daisies or rolling down a hill together. It has some traditional sound to it mixed with a hip-hop beat.

I also got to sample a new hot film in India called "Hey Ram" which is the object of some controversy because it is said to represent Mahatma Gandhi in a negative way. I do not agree with this opinion- and even if this movie DID do this, it still should be shown. Anyhow, the storyline is this: Ram's wife is raped and killed by Muslims during the partition and formation of Pakistan. He begins killing Muslims as retaliation and ultimately becomes a Hindu fundamentalist. In the meantime he marries again to a pro-Gandhi girl from a village who becomes a symbol for the Gandhian sector of Indian. While this happens he becomes more embroiled in his underground Hindu group which holds that Gandhi is to blame for all the troubles with the Muslims.

To appreciate the one pivotal scene, you should recall Hanuman, the monkey god who was the protector and servant of the ancient Lord Ram and Queen Sita. In his story, at one time Hanuman is asked how much he loves Ram and Sita, and in answer he tore open his chest to reveal that their pictures were on his heart.

The Ram of the movie (not to be comfused with the ancient Lord Ram) visits his sponsor and mentor in the Hindu fundamentalist group because he is dying in a hospital and Ram is at his bedside. On the wall is a picture of Hanuman, and on a table is a box. The mentor, lying in bed, tells Ram to put the box on his chest, and then tells him to tear the box open, in a symbolic parody of Hanuman. In the box is a serious gun, and Ram is told he must use it to assassinate Gandhi.

A long side story develops (in which Shah Rukh Khan, the current Indian heartthrob features) in which Ram meets up with one of his old Muslim buddies who attempts to help him find his lost gun, knowing Ram was not the sort of person to do anything rash with it. The belief in him by his Muslim pal goives him pause as he sees his friend can think past "sides" and see him as a person. To make a long story short, the friend helps him, then he helps the friend protect a large group of Muslim women and children from Hindus who sought to kill them. It is in this scene where Ram really begins to grasp the importance of recognizing humanity and not simple factionalism. Still, he is on a mission and uses some connections to get friendly with Gandhi.

One his first meeting with Gandhi (called by most Indians, Gandhiji, the "ji" portion being a suffix conveying respect) the old man tells Ram that he has heard how Ram saved all the Muslims despite the fact he was a Hindu, and how commendable that was, especially in light of all the madness going on between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhiji goes on to say the future of India lay with such people as Ram who could see beyond religious conflict and seek to save humans.

By the next day Ram is having some second thoughts about killing Gandhiji, and finally he approaches Gandhiji on one morning and says he needs to confess something to him, something important. Gandhiji is on his way somewhere and says they can talk about it later. Ram elaborates a bit and is told that it is of no consequence, that it's ok, they will talk more later. And Ram watches in horror as moments later Gandhiji is shot by someone else. It is horrifying to see all that Ram a has gone through in terms of loss, militancy, and finally conversion only to see the worst happen despite his decision not to kill, and his powerlessness is palpable.

In a similar vein to the anger from some quarters at this movie, another movie is being made and protested now called "Water" by the director Deepa Mehta. The film deals with the widows of Varanasi, some of them child widows who are condemned to a bad life because they now have no husbands. Some beg, some turn to prostitution, some simply suffer. While the film may focus on some extreme cases, it is largely true about how hard it was (and may still be) to be a widow in India. Ms. Mehta is already considered a controversial film maker because of a lesbian film she made called "Fire" where abused women turn to each other, unable to face more possible abuse from a man. In any case, her reputation preceded her and while she got proper clearance to make her film, some private (some religious) organizations are claiming it is too controversial to be made and have put pressure in various places to refuse her the right to film there. Ms. Mehta was asked to show favoritism to someone's family to get cooperation and she refused, and now the whole thing has snowballed into objections over a script no one has seen lately but everyone is sure is horrible. India's conservatives sound much like our own - "for the good of the people and to avoid upsetting the people (and possibly inciting riots) this film should not be made." Sounds fairly censor-like to stop a film not even near completion and impose such strictures because of what people MIGHT do. Kind of like opening records- you can't keep them closed because of what someone MIGHT do.

And speaking of adoption- there seems to be two very separate ways it is handled in India. Adoptees going to Western nations come through agencies but adoptions where the child remains in India seem to come only through orphanages. If you are an Indian citizen wanting a child, you go to the orphanage. Here you will be likely to find kids who really are orphans with no family left. If family had been left, it is very likely they would have claimed the child. There seems to be none of the attendant shame of single parenthood we had (and maybe still have), and while the mother would not be likely to raise the child, someone in her family would. The India I saw was extremely family-oriented and the loss of a family member to adoption seems pretty unthinkable. It does happen where a woman who cannot conceive with her husband might have a sister give her a child to raise, especially if the sister has many children already. The kids in the orphange who are not adopted do not have good lives, and when they leave the orphange they do not seem to have been trained in much. Ravi's ailing mom had an orphan cook who came in once a day and though this woman cooked for 5 or 6 families she probably made about enough to survive daily, but not to save. Also in the news over there was the story of a young boy who was orphaned with no other family and the entire apartment building he lived in is undertaking to raise him, feed and clothe him- and while this may not be the greatest in terms of family security, it does say something about the generosity and kindness of the people.

In any case, I have much food for thought from this trip, and many images keep passing through my head. One of the light-hearted ones is seeing a turbanned Sikh looking very cool on his scooter, whizzing through Hyderabad's streets. Another is a woman stepping over a pile of garbage outside a slum in a brightly colored sari with fresh jasmine in her hair. The whole trip was sensory overload from good cooking to diesel pollution, from a very gentle country of sweet people who honk loudly at one another in traffic. How so much can exist simultaneously, how opposites can co-exist, how beauty and ugliness can live so obviously side by side is something my western mind must come to terms with.

In the meantime, there's laundry to do, unpacking, and settling back in. The list has lots of new people to process and lots of back mail to read. I expect to be relatively quiet for a while why I get things sorted out, both on the list, in my life, and in my head. It's going to take a while to digest all I have seen and lived through and try to make it jive with what is here and now.

To read one of the stories about Hanuman, click HERE.

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