Sunday, April 29, 2007

The third way

In "White Skin, Brown Soul," an HT reporter takes on an interesting phenomenon -- white, natural-born citizens of India (primarily "the children of foreign immigrants — missionaries, social scientists, businessmen — who came to India in the 1950s and the 1960s").

Reporter Riddhi Shah exposits, "Much has been written about the NRI experience -- their conflicts, their battles, their struggle to come to terms with their mixed identities. But the stories of these reverse NRIs -- white on the outside and brown on the inside, 'white chocolate' to the NRI's 'coconut' -- have gone largely untold."

The story itself leaves a lot to be desired -- it's only about 300 words and attempts to synthesize the narratives of five or six people, all without really offering context or relaying the particularities of any one person's situation. Still, the topic poses interesting questions about identity and belonging in a world in which traditional boundaries are increasingly blurred. It stings when I hear people calling me gori and firang, and when children point, laugh, stare, sing songs. But I can only imagine how it would feel to have grown up in the subconty, to consider oneself Indian, and to experience the same day in and day out, endless explanations of life never quite either here nor there.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A life less ordinary

Internet has been down here for awhile, and I've been taking the opportunity to do some reading. Just finished A Life Less Ordinary, an autobiography of Baby Halder, a domestic worker (it was originally written in Bengali and published [in Hindi, I believe] as Aalo-Andhari).

It's a quick read and a powerful story -- she offers a glimpse of the life a woman who was married and a mother by 14 who, after years of harassment from her husband and the community, picked up everything and disappeared to Delhi; after a few bad jobs, she found herself working for a man who caught her looking at the books on his shelves and, rather than remonstrate her for slagging off on duty, gave her a pen and a notebook and told her that she should think of reading and writing every day as one of her daily chores.

I don't have a coherent perspective on the writing/execution/style of the book (largely because I find myself confounded by the tension between literature as literature and literature as therapy or social tool), and I haven't read a great deal of other subaltern autobiographies, so I'll just highlight two passages I found particularly compelling:

"One thing that had become clear to me by this time was that man or woman, everyone was basically concerned about themselves and about having enough to eat. Had I understood this wisdom earlier, I would not have had to suffer so much."

"I like cooking for people and feeding them and even when I was with my husband, any time I made something new, I would share it with everyone around. Perhaps that was what made him so unhappy with me! I also liked looking at cookery books as much as I liked reading books and poems and stories. Reading the newspaper had become like an addiction and everything that Tatush read to me or told me about was a new discovery for me. Perhaps this was why I waited at the gate every morning for the papers to come."

Juxtaposing them, I guess what I like is that, despite an absolutely bleak outlook on the state of humanity, she still finds something, some way, to make her life positive. I've been accused of being an incurable cynic, so to try and capture some of this attitude in my life would probably be beneficial; shitty things happen, and sure, people are jerks, but there are too many good things to get caught up in feeling sorry for myself.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Better health through impoverishment!

India's Ministry of Health has just debuted a Web site promoting awareness about health. While I applaud them for providing information on disease prevention, nutrition, and healthy lifestyles, I'm a bit disturbed by some of the content I found in a section entitled "Indian values."

Next to a picture of women carrying earthen urns on their heads, text reads: "The glory in carrying an urn, Health through carrying an urn These women rarely developed cervical spondylosis. They were physically active and many of today's diseases were thus prevented."

Then, by a woman grinding wheat on a millstone, comes this reproach: "Health through grinding your own flour in glorious India. These glorious Indian women never developed a frozen shoulder. They were physically active and home ground pure whole grains were being consumed which are very healthy to the body. Health was through eating whole grains, health through physical activity through their daily chores."

The key message seems to be right on -- physical activity is good. But the subtext seems to be that women, in embracing urban lifestyles, are dooming themselves to unspoken tragedy. This wouldn't bother me so much if there was also a section on how men should return to the agrarian life, say, urging them to embrace manually sowing fields, but there isn't. Instead, it is presumed that women should stay in their traditional places, shunning convenience for the sake of slaving over an open fire to provide the family endless freshly made rotis (and, of course, waiting until the men finish their meals before serving themselves leftovers).

Sunday, April 22, 2007

My 'Ind'cyclopedia

In the Times of India today, Shashi Tharoor introduced an intermittent series, "A glossary of Indianness." Today he highlighted India exemplified by the letter A: for example, Ambassador (car) and Amitabh (star).

Inspired, I decided to take a quick alphabetical stab at how I perceive India.

A: Autowallahs -- they're aggravating, uncouth, and often outlandish, but their buzzing buggies are so typically India that green-and-yellow plastic rickshaws are hot sellers in the tourist trap that is CP
B: Bureaucracy -- wait in a line for four hours to have a simple yes or no question answered, then be openly mocked by the attending counterperson; infuriating and byzantine, and yet, the system (somehow, mostly) works
C: Caste confusion -- a code I can't parse; trying to sort out Yadavs, Patels, Nayyars, and Chatterjees feels like trying to read Ulysses without Cliffs Notes by my side
D: Dilli darshan -- constant exploration of the seven cities; there's always something new to see
E: Excreta -- even in Defence Colony, it's the nalla that defines the sweet smell of succes
F: Family -- the bonds are immutable, at times overwhelming; at times, I envy the uncomplicated allegiance S has to his bawdy clan
G: Gol gappas -- the best street food I've ever encountered, a complete explosion of the senses (sweet, salty, sour, crispy, wet, messy, addictive); so popular, it's inspired a nouveau cocktail including at an upmarket Delhi restaurant, featuring flavored vodka and a Kingfisher chaser
H: Hot hot heat -- when I read Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, I imagined it was dramatization. I guess this web-footed Oregonian should have watched the Weather Channel before she left the balmy Northwest for the Deccan plain
I: Izzat -- honor is paramount, and crossing the line can lead to some unhonorable consequences
J: Jewels -- rubies, emeralds, pearls, gold, all my wedding ornaments all in a row
K: K serials -- ludicrously overwrought, my co-workers can't seem to stop gossiping about these trashy soaps
L: Love -- I came, I saw, I met my husband!
M: Mystery -- regardless of how long I live here, I suppose there will always be something new to learn, an air of the unknown hanging as thick as the smog around the towering Qutab
N: Natkhat -- possibly my favorite Hindi word in terms of mouth feel, it's also the preferred moniker for my catty-kin
O: Overcrowding -- in a country of more than a billion, it's inevitable that one will sometime feel the crunch; on the bus, on the street, in chaotic lines, at the grocery store, out for dinner, it feels almost decadent to imagine asking for peace, quiet, or personal space
P: Page 3 people -- obnoxious social climbers in bejeweled, overpriced, ostentatious outfits; they're in TOI and HT, and they get lots of free drinks, but conversation begins and ends at dropping clues about how fabulous they are
Q: Qutab -- World Heritage in my backyard, but no one really knows the original purpose of the Qutab's construction -- mosque, watchtower, tower of victory?
R: Railways -- on the Shatabdi or trying to sleep in the dodgy classes on an overnight ride to Faridkot, riding the rails in India provides a glimpse at a broad slice of the subcontinent
S: Shanti -- overwhelming traffic got you down? No one will renew your visa? In laws asking when you're going to produce a son? Shanti, shanti, shanti
T: Touts -- no, I don't want your chess set; no, I don't want a squeaky puppet; I'm not interested in a slithering wooden snake, I have no use for a rudimentary copy of a Mughal miniature, and for god's sake, I don't need any Punjabi suits or cashmere stoles
U: Unbelonging -- no matter how hard I try, I'll never fit in. And that's precisely why it's so wonderful to live here; it pushes me, forces me to confront what I don't like in myself and others, and requires that I actively pursue change
V: Vexatious -- my time here has been high on character building, which is good in the long run, but in the moment? Absolutely frustrating. But, in the words of one of my journalism profs, "Bad for me, good for the story"
W: Weddings -- whether glistening five-star affairs or my own disaster-riddled court ceremony, India certainly is a land of romance
X: X marks the spot -- for a significant slice of India's population, illiteracy is still a plague, and thumbprints count for signatures
Y: Yamuna -- it's a stinking, filthy cess pool that used to be a pristine river; nonetheless, it is (or was) lifeblood for disparate communities -- drum makers, food vendors, families, Hindus, Muslims, and more
Z: Zed -- somewhat sweeter than "zee," adapting to a different ending for the alphabet song is just one of the myriad adjustments in my life in the last few years; once I embraced the Oxford comma, I knew my life would never be the same

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Happy shaadi, Abhiash!

The subconty can finally calm down: The knot is tied, the deed is done, and, with any luck, the compound "Abhiash" will fade from our collective conscience.

That's right, the "world's most beautiful woman," Aishwarya Rai, married India's "most eligible bachelor" (and heir to the throne of Big B), Abhishek Bachchan. There was hand-wringing about the horror of Rai being a manglik, there was invitation drama, there was even a woman who slashed her wrists outside the Bachchan residence on the day of the wedding, claiming that Abhishek had slept with her and promised to wed her.

I give up -- there's not much more to say, other than that it was an affair entirely befitting this pair of Bollywood blockbusters.

(At left, an overleaf advertisement for Loreal, for which Aishwarya is a spokesperson. It was wrapped around the Times of India, with a message inscribed on its reverse: "Hearty congratulations and best wishes to Aishwarya as she begins her wedded life. Aishwarya Amber is the shade that she had chosen for her beautiful occasion. It's a limited edition shade specially designed by Loreal Paris to bring alive the brilliance of the gorgeous bride ... Because she is worth it." Nothing quite so romantical as kissing your husband with lips that are bought and sold for a few paltry rupees ...)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Intolerance rears its ugly head

I keep hoping these stories will become less frequent, but they just don't: certain parties of the Indian polity appear preternaturally threatened by any divergence from what they presume is the norm, and they're willing to become violent to express their discontent.

Exhibit A: At a high-profile event to raise money for AIDS awareness, Richard Gere hammily kisses Shilpa Shetty on the cheek. News outlets, high on the scent of Bollywood/Hollywood celebrity, print the picture and replay the event ad infinitum.

Rather innocuous; he's not kissing her on the mouth, he's clearly showboating, and it's exactly the sort of overdramatic, I'm-a-hero blockbuster crap that should go unnoticed, or, at worst, ridiculed for being unnecessarily cheesy.

Not so in the delightful subconty; no, Gere is being harangued to tender an apology, people in Mumbai are burning effigies of Shetty (and, apparently in some cases, screaming "Death to Shilpa!"), the BJP insists that "Such a public display is not part of Indian tradition" (what about kisses in Bollywood movies, though?), and the Shiv Sena describes the event as "an attack on India's cultural ethos," and the involved parties are explaining that it was just, you know, a thing that happened, certainly not obscene or meant to harm anyone's sensibilities (on target, misguided, or otherwise)

Exhibit B: Members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena in Mumbai attacked the offices of Star News in protest over their coverage of a Muslim and Hindu girl eloping. An executive editor is injured; the property is damaged, and more than 40 cars are smashed with hammers and iron rods. While the news channel certainly may have "glorified the love story" (what channel doesn't exploit ANY story they see as capable of driving ratings?), I fail to see how this can be construed as "anti-national," as the Hindu Rashtra Sena claims.

There are certainly many people who think these reactions are insane, overwrought, and completely unnecessary, but the fact that the BJP is once again gaining political power (e.g., regaining a simple majority following the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections earlier this year) is a bit unnerving when they appear to be tacitly (or explicitly) promoting a sort of close-minded provincialism.

I suppose what it comes down to for me is how flummoxingly protectionist people can be about a culture that is persistent, resilient, and vibrant as India's, while at the same time boasting about how strong India is, how it will become the world's next superpower, &c. It seems like simple logic that if India is to influence hundreds of countries across the globe, it will have to witness some things that are a bit "foreign" to its storied history, as well. It happens in the U.S. as well, lest we overlook examples such as (successful) attempts to legislate about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. Am I being too optimistic, assuming that eventually people will come to their senses and acknowledge that, although it might not be the path one individual might choose, another individual still has the right to live his or her life as he or she chooses, sloppy kisses and all?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Visual culture in South Asia: Hindu nationalist greeting cards

I blogged earlier about the fellowships at Tasveer Ghar, so it's only fair I point again to a new feature on their Web site: user-contributed galleries and essays re: art, technology, and visual culture.

The first, by Christiane Brosius, is "Celebrating More Than the New Year: The Hindu Nationalist Greeting Cards." A concise essay accompanies eight images of cards, primarily by the artist B. Highly recommended.

For information on applying for the fellowship (last date to submit? April 30! Hurry!), go here.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Weekend reading

I'm recovering from food poisoning (damn you, resto-bars of Gurgaon!), so chew on this: A nice story from the south about a group that's trying to stamp out bribery.

A snippet of the longer story:

In the secret language of corruption in India, an official expecting a bribe will ask for Mahatma Gandhi to “smile” at him. The revered leader of the independence movement is on all denominations of rupee notes.

With rampant dishonesty ingrained in the bureaucratic culture, an anticorruption group has decided to interpret the euphemism literally by issuing a zero-rupee note.

A direct copy of the 50-rupee note, including Gandhi’s portrait, it is designed to be handed out to officials who demand backhanders.

In the place of the usual promise of redemption by the central bank governor, the new pledge is: “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe.”

(The group behind the drive is 5th Pillar, an NGO dedicated to fighting corruption.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Anda ke funda

A few weeks ago, I decided I needed new shoes. NEEDED them, and not just any shoe would do. They had to be special, and no, I didn't want to go to South Ex or Khan Market or anywhere else I had already seen; I wanted a clean slate, a totally new experience.

So S took me to Shahpur Jat, an "urban village" that also features a number of hoity-toity shops, such as The Shoe Garage, where I bought what can only be classed as hooker heels. But that's neither here nor there, because what I really want to write about is the place there where we had lunch.

Pam's Breakfast & Food Center is a fairly nondescript little joint -- clean, minimalist, festooned with posters highlighting the excellence of eggs. The day we visited, in fact, they were having an omelette festival; we ate something called a "pillow omelette," which was OK, if a little gooey, presumably because they had to stuff the eggs with a mass of processed cheese the size of my closed fist to make the dish look like a pillow.

Anyhow, you know, not the best breakfast I've had, but certainly not the worst, particularly in a city where it's damned hard to get a "Western" (i.e., not puri/sabzi or paranthas) breakfast anywhere outside of Hippieville (also known as Paharganj, where most backpackers/budget travelers stay). With our check, we were presented a comment card and a pen, the waitress hovering expectantly as I dutifully rated the food, service, and ambience.

And then I made a fatal error: I wrote down my real e-mail address, in addition to some candid remarks S urged me to record ("The omelette was alright, but it was a little ... wet."). The following Monday, I logged into my e-mail account, I was confronted with this message:

Dear Zoey,
Thank you for visiting PAM's for the Omelette Festival with TWIST.
You liked the PILLOW omelette, but, found the inside too wet and gooey. Well we have gone further and developed a mix veg omelette where we keep the cheese minimum and not all that gooey whith veg and tomatoes and cheese altogether.
We look forward to seeing you again with your friends and family. However, please ask the Table Waiter to ask the chef to make the omelette not wet inside.
Capt. Jatindar P. Shad

Whoa. Now THAT'S service. I now receive spam from them at least once a week, but at least it's inventive and mildly hilarious. And the proprietor seems to be a most intriguing man -- on the Web site, Pam's advertises free services, including individual counseling with Capt. Shad ("There is no problem of life that you cannot discuss with Capt. Shad and after you have spoken to him - you will find a new meaning to life. So let it be a difference with your associates, your boss or for that matter with your spouse, you siblings, your parents - any one - come and discuss this openly with him and find how simple it is to Be Happy."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Confronting abuse

The Ministry for Women and Child Development (supported by Save the Children and UNICEF) has just released the results of an empirical national study on child abuse that spanned 12,500 children and 4,800 young adults in 13 Indian states. And it's a blockbuster: It asserts that two out of every three children have been physically abused and more than half of the respondents were subject to sexual abuse.

I'm a bit skeptical, primarily because none of the stories I've read have defined the exact boundaries of physical or sexual abuse, nor have they addressed the issue of methodological rigor. Prayas, the NGO that did the data collection, offers some insight on its methodology on its Web site, but a little more clarity would be nice. Statistics conceal as much as they reveal (or, in the words of Andrew Lang, "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts -- for support rather than illumination"), and everything, from the phrasing of questions to the people deployed to collect information, can distort reality.

Regardless, this report seems like an excellent opportunity for some thoughtful follow-up reporting -- whether to broach the reliability of such surveys, to address the issue of gender as it affected the findings, to discuss ways of raising awareness and bucking the trend, &c. Will any media outlets take up this challenge, or are they content to simply project images of young girls playing barefoot in the dirt under headlines such as "Girls want to be boys"? I'm not so optimistic, but perhaps someone will prove me wrong.

For once, I'm on the side of the 5-0

Today, in a quote rail accompanying a story on the Delhi Police's crackdown on routine traffic offences, Pawan Kumar quibbles:

"The new fines are highly unfair. I earn Rs 2,000 a month, so how can I possibly pay a fine of Rs 600?"

It would be a much more defensible position to take if he hadn't just run a red light. See, the point is, modify your behavior, or spend one-third of your monthly income on a traffic fine. Don't do the crime if you don't want to do the time, jerk! (Furthermore, this anecdote stinks like patchouli -- Kumar is characterized as a "marketing executive." Now, I can't tell if he's lying about his income to dramatize his plight, or if there really *are* such woefully underpaid execs, but come on. Something just doesn't add up.)

And seriously; is taking personal responsibility for one's actions that out of fashion? Like when the copy machine runs out of paper, and there's a stack of paper sitting on the desk to the right of the copy machine, is it that much to expect for someone to simply load the tray, instead of calling IT and asking them to fix it. Or when I want to go to the bathroom and everyone is avoiding one stall like someone who used it experienced severe gastrointestinal distress, when really the stall's simply out of toilet paper, is it that insane to expect that someone will grab the readied roll, conveniently resting on a shelf for just such occasions? Ay yi yi.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Enchanting eateries

Not since spelunking through Bangkok and Cambodia have I been so entranced by wayside eateries. (Perhaps it's because I've thrown dieting to the wind and could thus enjoy plates upon plates of momos and thick slices of Tibetan brown bread slathered in butter.)

The Moonlight and Sunrise cafes are flush with one another and seem to serve exactly the same menu (chai, omelettes, what have you). But no, my friends, don't be fooled: The Sunrise Cafe actually serves -- I kid you not -- "the best chai in Asia." It sounded like a gauntlet, and S and I were eager to disprove the haughty man at the grill, but I'd be a lying, sinful blogger if I said my cuppa wasn't among my top five chais of all time.

I suspect that we could have had an excellent brew at the Tea O'Clock Cafe, but the shutters festooned with flyers about finding my chakras and learning traditional Tibetan massage perhaps indicates that the proprietors of the Sunrise Cafe ran them out of town in some sort of West Side Story-esque turf war, punctuated by an extravagant Lhamo operetta. That's OK; at our flat in Delhi, it's always tea o'clock, and we won't even glare at you if you malinger or start singing along to the Bob Dylan playing on a loop.

Sidewalk sellers of the ubiquitous fried/steamed momos were plentiful, and we availed of their goods no fewer than thrice. These men were selling freshly made spinach momos, though they weren't as chipper as some of the women in the lane, chatting and joking as they despatched the steaming plates. Nonetheless, and despite what all the fast food chains say, the food tastes just as good without service with a smile.

Although Chuki's Restaurant was being renovated, and we thus could not sample their earthly delights, the establishment wins my vote for best exterior decoration. However, some Googling indicates that the food is every bit as good as the vibrant political statement being made.

And thus concludes our abbreviated tour of McLo gastronomique -- it's round about tea o'clock, and a soothing mug of Kangra green tea is calling my name.

TOi's new editorial policy: A triumph over capitalization!

'So where did i go wrong?'
'Coming as i do from a family of government servants ...'
'Like the government, i'm all for kiranawallas.'

I'm not sure how long it's been going on now, but it seems the Times of India is fighting a scourge worse than communalism, casteism, and sexism combined: the capital I.

Tongue firmly in cheek; still, I would really love to understand the rationale behind the consistent lowercasing of the of the personal pronoun (which, at this time, seems confined to the editorial spread). I can't write it off to poor rapporteur -- clearly, Shashi Tharoor and Gurcharan Das are aware of the rules of the English language.

So is it a conscious decision on the editorial board's behalf, perhaps a silent rebellion against the strictures of an imperialist tongue? A sweet subversion of society's myriad norms? Can someone PLEASE tell me what's going on?!

Tashi delek!

Just returned from a short jaunt to Dharamsala/McLeodganj, better known as the seat of the exiled Dalai Lama. Peaceful, restful, restorative; much off-roads rambling transpired, as did considerable and indiscriminate photographing of hand-painted signs, which is becoming something of an obsession.

At left, the old Nowrojee store, established sometime in the mid-1800s. Still sells sundries -- primarily newspapers and magazines, but also saw evidence of colas and candies being peddled; more interesting is the store's interior, which is dappled by ancient signs, dusty glash shelves, and long-expired provisions, such as several dented vat-like cans of shelled peas. Certainly an interesting visit, and a good place to meditate upon the confluence of culture, old and new, tradition, modernity, and finding a fine balance.

More to come ...

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Delhii Heights (the extra "i" is for illiterate!)

According to the annual Mercer Quality of Living survey, I reside in the world's 148th most liveable city (by measures of criteria related to health, sanitation, recreation, schools, housing, &c., and out of a total of 215 locales). Bottom of the heap, unsurprisingly, is Baghdad.

Take that, Chennai (no. 177)! Suck on it, Mumbai (no. 209)!

Possible city mottos, in recognition of this tremendous feat? Let's see...

Delhi: Proudly in the Third Quartile!
Delhi: Up Two Whole Places!
Delhi: Poor Waste Removal and Sewage Systems, But at Least the Americans Have Only Invaded Khan Market!

Monday, April 2, 2007

Breaking news from Bihar: shiny techno toys NOT a solution to corruption or poverty

In an effort to cut out the middleman paying workers governed by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Central Bank of India debuted a biometric ATM -- essentially hoping to democratize access to banking by finding a way for illiterate people to interface with financial institutions.

Problem, though? Probably not a good idea to roll this bad boy out in Bihar, where the local honcho is refusing to deposit wages into the bank, because "it's a complicated process."

The story about it in the Indian Express was a bit heartbreaking for me, especially reading about the daily wage earner who took part in a ceremony to celebrate the introduction of the new ATM; after flashing his thumbprint, a Rs 1,000 note was dispensed -- and then promptly recovered by the bank, because it was only for show. '“Since then, I have been waiting to use the machine again, but the mukhiya doesn’t let us,” [the daily wage earner] said.'

Sometimes, the strangest things make my heart hurt.

Fashion schmashion -- I want pasted-on eyebrows

Another one bites the dust -- yes, friends, Lakme India Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2007 has come to a close.

I could wax philosophic about the nascent fashion industry in the subconty, rant about the irony of Fashion TV being banned during fashion week, discuss the rise of the consumer and the urge toward luxury brands, or perhaps even gossip a bit about how cool it would be if Tyrant Banks brought her unholy prote-bitches to walk for a show in Delhi.

But I'd much rather let one iconic image speak for itself: Behold the unusual stylings of Vikram Phadnis, who sent an army of models down the catwalk that were attempting to bring sexy back by hearkening to the halcyon days of the Marx brothers.

Nothing says "that's haute" quite like two caterpillars pasted onto a beautiful woman's (transexual's?) forehead.