Sunday, September 23, 2007

Communication in India

Many of you will be familiar with the Indian head wobble, that multivalent gesture which can mean yes, no, ok, maybe, and many other things in between. I did not know, however, until I reached Delhi that there is a North Indian and a South Indian version of the head wobble. I discovered this upon being told by North Indians that I have a very good South Indian head wobble!

I still have not mastered the Indian use of the word "only." It often comes at the end of sentences. I did, however, finally figure out that "this thing" and "this one" are the equivalent to "you know" in American English, also mainly occurring at the end of sentences. (Malaysians add "la" to the end of their sentences.)

I have to say I kind of got used to being called "madam." I was also introduced to another version of this formality, especially at hotels, in which "Miss" or "Mr." is added in front of your first name. I actually referred to my roommate as "Ms. Hanni" while speaking to the reception desk at one hotel!

22 September 2007: Homeward Bound

I experienced my only significant flight delay today, which is pretty good considering I had 8 flights in 6 weeks. After sitting on the tarmac for almost 3 hours this morning in KL and the engineering crew trying to fix a hydraulic pump, the captain finally decided that we would have to switch planes (better a late plane than a broken plane, I always say), and that our 9:40 am departure would be rescheduled to 2pm.

So my already long journey of 18 hours expanded to almost 24. I entertained myself on the plane with mindless superhero films such as Superman Returns and the two Fantastic Four movies. Despite how bad Ocean’s 12 was, I decided to give 13 a go, if for no other reason than to be entertained by all the pretty faces on the screen. It was pretty bad, but you can’t really ask much of a film when you’re looking at an 8 inch screen 1 ½ feet in front of your face. I also watched the excellent documentary Scorsese on Scorsese.

I have no words of wisdom to wrap up this sojourn as of right now. Just glad to be home with Karl and my kitties!

21 September 2007: Reunion

Today Chih Pei had a full line up of classes to teach, so I hung out with Elaine, another dancer I met in Bali, and her mother, Ann. They took me by the lovely KL Performing Arts Center (KLPAC), where Elaine and Chih Pei frequently perform. It is a fairly new development of a factory, featuring two theaters, rehearsal studios, a bar, and a prop shop. Kind of reminds me of Redcat in LA.

Then we went to a part of KL called Masjid India, because of both the presence of a number of mosques and of Indian shops and businesses (and also of converted Indian Muslims, called “mamas” in Malaysia). Because it is Ramadan, there were tents set up throughout the neighborhood, like a street fair, selling clothes and head scarves for Muslim women, prayer rugs, etc.

Next we visited the National Arts Culture and Heritage Academy (Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan, ASWARA), where my friends Firdaus and Zainal studied and where Chih Pei teaches. I was very happy to run into Firdaus and Zainal in the halls, and to peek in on a few classes, including a classical Malay dance class that Firdaus was teaching.

Later, we headed over to the popular (and posh) Bangsar neighborhood for snacks and tea (did I mention that Malaysians love to eat?). There we also located some durian fruit for me to try. Elaine was the whole reason I wanted to try it in the first place (she raves about it, her husband won’t allow it in the house), and she knew just where to find it even though the season is past. As we got closer to the market, I noticed a horrible smell, like rotting garbage. Turns out it was the durian fruit! At that point, I wasn’t sure I could go through with my tasting, but I put on a brave face. Evidently the smell of durian is so strong that it is banned from hotels and airports here. It also lasts for days on your hands and breath, so luckily the fruit seller had some plastic gloves for us to don. I did manage to eat a small bit, and got a glimpse of a sweetness, but mostly it tasted strong and almost garlic-y. I thought I’d done pretty well, but a picture tells a thousand words.

20 September 2007: Petronas Twin Towers

Today we drove into KL again, this time with Jing Wey in tow. We headed straight for the KLCC parking garage, which is located under the Petronas Twin Towers. I thought to myself, as we drove under the bustling office and shopping development, that this could never exist in the US, especially post-911, but even before that I think. The bottom 4 floors or so of the towers are an upscale mall called Suria KLCC. We had a delicious lunch at Madame Kwan’s there. I had flat rice noodles with greens (didn’t realize how much I’d missed them in India!) and egg and some other veggies. To drink, I enjoyed an iced black jelly. For dessert, we split a Malaysian specialty: crushed ice topped with rose syrup sitting over a mixture of red beans, black jelly, and some other items I couldn’t identify. Very cooling and refreshing! Then we went outside for a look at the towers. On the other side of the building is the concert hall for the Petronas Philharmonic Orchestra. As I understand it, Petronas is a private oil company that is connected to the government (owned by a minister, I believe).

Next we drove to the Crafts Complex for a view of traditional Malaysian crafts. By then it was time for Jing Wey’s nap, so we hit the road. We’d planned to stop by the Eye on Malaysia, the brand new ferris wheel which is the largest in Asia. But traffic was really crazy, so we kept on going.

Traffic is evidently especially bad now because it is Ramadan. Malaysia being a Muslim country (about 60%), the majority of people are fasting during daylight hours, so they all leave work around 5:30 in order to be able to pick up some food and be home to eat by the time the sun sets.

Later in the evening, we went out to dinner at a vegetarian restaurant in Klang. Evidently, Chinese veg restaurants (the ones with the fake meat) are usually Taiwanese because Buddhists in Taiwan are veg (compared to Chinese who just try to avoid beef). Afterwards, Chih-Pei’s husband Kee-Keat (“take the candy bar KitKat and remove the first t”) drove around Klang, pointing out areas of interest, including schools he and Chih-Pei attended, the former location of his grandfather’s rubber business, the McDonalds where they had their first date, etc. On the way home, we tried to find some durian fruit for me to try (you either love it or hate it), but alas it is out of season. Instead we picked up some lognan and lonkat fruits.

19 September 2007: Klang

Flew a redeye from Bangalore to KL last night, leaving India at 12:30am and arriving Malaysia just after 7am. Only, Malaysia is 2 ½ hours ahead of India, which means the flight was less than 4 hours, giving little time for sleep!

I was met at the airport (very efficient – I zoomed right through immigration and baggage claim) by my friend Chih-Pei, whom I met dancing in Bali. She drove me to her home in Klang, which is an important port city in West Malaysia, and which (depending on traffic) is just a half-hour or 45 minutes from KL. In front of her house she has a lovely water garden, with water lilies and lotus flowers growing in pots. Small fish in the pots eat mosquito larvae, preventing the garden from becoming a mosquito breeding ground and also providing a delightful flash of gold beneath the surface.

I freshened up and then we dropped her son Jing-Wey at preschool before heading to a local morning market. Many of the stalls were closing up shop, so we chose a local restaurant to have our breakfast of noodles and veggies in “curry” soup. Malaysia boasts significant populations of Chinese (who came because Malaysia was a key point in the spice trade between east and west) and Indians (many of whom came when both countries were still British colonies, recruited to work on the rubber plantations), creating some unique fusion foods. We also enjoyed a very cool and refreshing barley drink, and a vegetarian dish called “pigs intestines” (because of the way it used to be rolled, it resembled the innards) made of rice. Chih-Pei’s dance studio where she teaches ballet to children is located right down the block.

Tummies full, we went back to her house so I could take a nap before we ventured into KL in the afternoon. First we went to Jalan Petaling, which is the Chinatown of KL.

The street itself has become quite touristy, even being covered by a structure which reminds me of downtown Las Vegas. Chih-Pei said that locals don’t shop on the street itself, but on the smaller streets surrounding it. In fact, many of the stalls could have been located in any other city, selling knockoff Gucci and Chanel handbags and watches, sunglasses, bootleg DVDs, etc. I did find a watch in the style I’ve been wanting for only 10 Ringit (about $US3). Here we got another delicious cooling drink whose name I’ve forgotten of some winter melon and dried and sweetened longnan. Fruit stands featured many fruits I’d never seen before, or that I’d only had canned, like white and red dragonfruit, and two kinds of rambutan. Other stands feature cool slices of these fruits and I sampled both red and white dragonfruit. Yummy! From Chinatown, we walked over to the Central Market, which features crafts and goods from Malaysia, like batik, wood, and pewter. Finally, we stopped at a restaurant called Old China, which is located in an old laundry building. There I had yet another tasty cooling drink (very important in Malaysia!) of iced lemon tea. Lunch was yellow noodles (mie) with veggies and egg.

Tuesday of next week (the full moon on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar) is a mid-autumn festival, commonly referred to Moon Cake Festival. Throughout the day I got to sample different kinds of Moon Cake, including the traditional lotus, black bean, and jelly.

By this time it was rush hour, and we headed back to Klang, so Chih-Pei could get ready to teach her evening class. I took another nap so I could be rested for dinner at an outdoor Indian market with some of Chih-Pei’s high school friends (more fusion food!).

18 September 2007: Last Day in India

So here I am. Saying goodbye to India from the small, ugly Bangalore international terminal, already thinking of a research trip I could make next summer.

It’s funny to compare my impressions of Bangalore from 5 weeks ago versus today. I really disliked Bangalore when I arrived, especially the air and noise pollution. I thought, “This is the ‘Pensioner’s Paradise?” I was getting taken advantage of (especially by auto drivers) and knew it. But today I was very excited because every time I got into an auto, the driver automatically put on the meter, whereas not once before did they do that, even when I insisted. Maybe I seemed more sure of myself, seemed less like a tourist, or something. I considered it a victory! Last night, as I got off the plane from Chennai and was greeted by the lovely 21 C air, I finally understood why Bangalore is said to have a good climate, especially having just traveled from one hot and steamy location to another. Coming back to Nilgiri’s Nest was almost like coming home, with much of the staff recognizing me. Of course it is absolutely Spartan compared to the 4 star hotels I’ve been staying in the past 10 days, but in many ways it’s what I’m more comfortable with. Before I just couldn’t imagine ever living in Bangalore, but now I could. I guess in retrospect, it would have been better to go directly to Mysore first so I could ease myself into my India experience in a smaller city with people I knew around me. But hindsight is 20-20, la la la.

I am definitely very excited to be going home. I’m also excited to spend a few days in KL with my dance friends from Malaysia!

As of this moment, I don’t have any brilliant final words to record in my last hour in India. Perhaps some will come to me. Until then…

17 September 2007: Tambaram Clinic

Today we visited the third project of MAKE ART/STOP AIDS India, which is located at the Government Hospital of Thoracic Medicine in Chennai. Historically a TB hospital, Tambaram developed into an HIV/AIDS hospital as well in the 1990s, and now serves not only the state of Tamil Nadu, but also surrounding states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra. Many people newly diagnosed as HIV+ come to the hospital for a stay of one month (longer if they have a TB co-infection, or multiple drug resistant – MDR – TB) to start anti-retroviral treatment. Nalamdana, a street theater company, started developing theater pieces to educate the patients, many of whom are illiterate, about things such as how to take their medication, the importance of good nutrition, and how to prevent HIV transmission. With MA/SA, their innovative combination of entertainment and education has developed into a cable radio station heard in the wards across the hospital complex which features both music and health messages. When we visited the radio “station,” a woman who works as a sweeper at Tambaram was singing a traditional folk song live. People at the hospital really do feel it’s their station, and when we met with a group of patients from the ART clinic a short time later, they eagerly told us about their favorite programs, what they’ve learned from the radio station, and how the station responds to their needs and requests. Afterwards, we had the pleasure of meeting with the Superintendent of the hospital, who is a big supporter of the project.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

16 September 2007: Mahabalipuram

Ah, the glories of being able to stand up for more than one minute at a time! And to eat! And walk! Luckily we were staying in Mahabalipuram until 3:30, so I would be able to see some of the place. I hadn’t even seen the resort properly, since we checked in in the middle of the night.

I had a nice bland breakfast of toast and noted that there were more westerners (and non-Indian Asians) here than I’d seen since leaving LAX. Afterwards took a walk on the beach. Mahabalipuram is 50 km south of Chennai and is located on the Bay of Bengal. It was overcast, warm and humid but not too hot. The water was lovely, not cold at all. I had fun watching the small crabs scurry out of the water and into their holes.

Later I joined Rajeev and Devaki for a visit to the famous local temples. First we went to the Shore Temple, a Cholya temple that dates from the 8th century, and is now listed as a World Heritage Site. While it shows signs of erosion, it is in very good condition for something that old. I had the pleasure of paying the foreigner rate of Rs 250 (a little more than $US6), versus the Rs 20 (50¢) for citizens. It seems like a lot, but honestly I do feel it’s fair. Evidently another temple was revealed somewhere in this area in the wake of the 2005 tsunami. We enjoyed fresh young coconut juice on the grounds (also evidently good for the tummy).

From there we drove a short distance to the Five Rathas, a slightly earlier temple complex which was carved from large rocks where they stood. Evidently these temples were made as models and were never consecrated because the stupas were not detached (whatever that means). In addition to the 5 temples, there was a bull, and elephant and a tiger (?), all of which seemed haphazardly placed with no rhyme or reason. Perhaps it had to do with the original rocks used.

Next we stopped at the lighthouse area, which also featured a beautiful cave temple (carved out) with a small temple structure also crowing the top of the cave. Up at the lighthouse (the British attempt to visually assert their - phallic - dominance?) there were nice views, and monkeys, one of whom jumped on my open camera bag. Then we drove by some carvings on a rock face, and a huge boulder that looks like it is about to roll down a hill, but which is actually quite solidly in place. Its nicknamed “Krishna’s butterball.”

Soon it was time to leave the resort (first and probably last time I’ve stayed at one). On the way into Chennai, we stopped at Dakshina Chitra to visit a puppeteer friend of David’s. Dakshina Chitra is sort of like a Greenfield Village in Michigan or Old Sturbridge in Massachusetts, except it includes homes from all over southern India, and craftspeople lead workshops for a small fee on simple crafts that can be made. They also had some fortunetellers, including a parrot reading, in which evidently a parrot picks a card for you, and the reader interprets it. Unfortunately, the fortunetellers only spoke Tamil, and none of us did. The puppeteer makes shadow puppets out of a very thin leather that becomes hard, almost like a thin plastic. He is also a one-man band, accompanying himself on drums, and with other noisemakers and vocalizations. He is a hereditary puppeteer of this style, but there is almost no one left who does it, and his son, whom we met, is not very interested, although he does help his father out with shows. The sad thing was that he lost almost all of his grandfather’s puppets in the tsunami. Only one survived, an elephant dated 1945. It was damaged but functional. David’s kids’ school collected pennies and donated money to him, with which he was able to almost replace the puppets he lost (in number).

14 September 2007: Sex Workers' Unite

Kolkata’s red light district, Sonagachi, is both famous and infamous the world over. Over the past ten years, public health researchers and feminists have looked to unique grassroots organizing that has flourished there as a model of both women’s empowerment and successful HIV prevention.

Today we visited two different projects working with sex workers in Kolkata, each with very different philosophies and activities. First we visited Apne Aap, an organization dedicated “To end[ing] sex-trafficking of women and children.” We were particularly interested in the arts-based work they do with children of sex workers in Kolkata, including visual art which is collected in the book The Place Where We Live is Called a Red Light District. We visited their community center, which is located outside the red light district. They also provide vocational training for commercial sex workers, such as sewing, and educational programs for children of sex workers, which leads to mainstreaming them in schools, among many other services. The Indian Parliament is currently considering an amendment to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, which would penalize clients for soliciting sex from CSWs. Apne Aap supports this legislation because they see women doing sex work as victims, and therefore anything that criminalizes the sex work industry is seen as benefiting women.

From Apne Aap, we traveled to the Kolkata red light district called Sonagachi, where we visited the organization Durbar. Here’s what they say about themselves on their website (

“Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (or ‘Durbar’, which in Bengali means un-stoppable or indomitable) is a forum of 65,000 sex workers based in West Bengal, India. Durbar is active in challenging and addressing the structural barriers that form the everyday reality of sex workers' lives as they relate to their material deprivation or their social exclusion with the aim of altering them.

Durbar is explicit about its political objective of fighting for recognition of sex work as work and, of sex workers as workers and, for a secure social existence of sex workers and their children. Durbar demands decriminalisation of adult sex work and seeks to reform laws that restrict human rights of sex workers, tend to criminalise them and limit their enfranchisement as full citizens.

The basic approach of Durbar’s programme is pivoted on the principle of “3 R’s” - Respect, Reliance and Recognition. Respect towards sex workers, Reliance on the knowledge and wisdom of the community of sex workers and, Recognition of sex work as an occupation, for protecting their occupational and human rights. Durbar is committed to the 3 R’s in all its activities and involves sex workers’ community in all decision-making and implementation.”

Obviously, their approach is quite different from Apne Aap. When I asked the Executive Committee of Durbar (all CSWs) what they thought about the amendment to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, they responded immediately by saying that it attacks their livelihood, and that it won’t do anything to stop the trafficking of children, which they vehemently oppose. Durbar feels that adult women can make the choice for themselves to be sex workers or not, but that young women and girls under 18 should under no circumstances be forced (or allowed) to do sex work.

In addition to meeting the women who run Durbar, we also got to visit the STD clinic in Sonagachi (which I was interested to learn also treats many clients in addition to CSWs), and meet with people who run the collective bank by and for CSWs. Children of sex workers are employed by the bank to make daily collections from the members (perhaps only Rs 10, about 25¢, but it becomes a significant source of savings, and loans, for the women). To my great delight, we also got to see a performance by Kumal Gandhar, a dance troupe made up of children of sex workers. They were quite proud of a piece they performed about HIV/AIDS, which showed women becoming educated and demanding that men use condoms (a reflection of the organizing sex workers have done in Sonagachi), and I was blown away by a piece the girls did to a text with the refrain “I am that woman,” which addresses and blows apart the ubiquitous virgin/whore dichotomy that seems common the world over.

13 September 2007: Singing the Scrolls

The second MAKE ART/STOP AIDS project involves traditional scroll painters (patuas) of the village Naya in West Bengal. In this art form, not only are stories painted on scrolls, but they are sung as the scroll is rolled to show subsequent panels. The patuas began a few years ago to use their scrolls to educate people about HIV/AIDS, and as part of MA/SA they work in conjunction with community health workers to increase awareness and decrease stigma around HIV/AIDS. Today we traveled to Naya, located more than 100km from Kolkata, to film 5 patuas singing 8 different scrolls. These video documents will be used to complement the display of the scrolls in an upcoming international MA/SA exhibition that opens at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2008, and which will subsequently travel to Mexico City for the biannual AIDS conference, Brazil, South Africa, and India. Having heard a lot about the patuas and their scrolls, I was excited to meet them in person and see them perform. Each of them has their own painting, composition, and singing style, which was fascinating to see.

15 September 2007: Things Can Only Get Better

I will go back and add in the 13th and 14th, because they were really fun and interesting days...

So I had a great start to my birthday. We arrived in Mahabalipuram, a coastal town 50km south of Chennai just after midnight, and my colleagues and travelling companions sang a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday. After we checked in, Rajeev, the MAKE ART/STOP AIDS coordinator in India, said, "Shall we have cake now?" Thinking he was joking, I said, "Oh, Rajeev baked me a cake on the plane from Kolkata!" But he was serious, he really did have a cake for me, which he secretly got at the Chennai airport! He even got a candle from the hotel, and we all met in my room to enjoy a delicious chocolate cake while watching the India/Pakistan cricket match in South Africa. (If anyone can explain cricket to me, please let me know!) It was a great start to my birthday at 1am.

But then a few hours later... well, I'll spare you the gory details. Let's just say I spent half the night on the bathroom floor with food poisoning. No one else got sick, though, and we'd all pretty much eaten the same food, so we can't figure out what happened. Suffice it to say I spent my birthday in bed. Never even left the hotel room.

I'm much better today, and was happy to receive all of your birthday wishes via email and text message!

Rather than take this as a bad omen, I am going to take the approach that this is the worst it will get all year... things can only look up, right?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

12 September 2007: A Tourist in Kolkata

Since we were not needed in the meetings today, David suggested that Hanni, Brenda, and I see some of Kolkata. His colleague Samiran is from Kolkata, and declares that he both loves and hates the city. He suggested some places for us to visit, and arranged for a driver from the hotel to take us. We started by driving over the Ganges on the Second Hoogly Bridge (Vidyasagar Setu), a new bridge which connects Kolkata district to Howrah District, and which replaces the First Hoogly Bridge, which dates to the British. As we entered Howrah District, we hit the famous Kolkata traffic. When Samiran mentioned it, I thought to myself, “Hey, we’re all from LA – what’s a little traffic?” But really, there is nothing like this in LA. For one thing, on the 405 you have SUVs, cars, trucks, and the occasional motorcycle. But on the streets of Howrah, you have trucks, buses, “big cars” (which seems to mean anything bigger than an autorickshaw), autorickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, “two wheelers” (bicycles and scooters), pedestrians, and “school vans” which are bicycle rickshaws with a larger area for the passengers (all small children). It was 12:30 and we’d hit school traffic. Evidently, as recently as a few years ago there were still rickshaws pulled by men in Kolkata, but they have been outlawed as a violation of human rights.

The area that we drove through was likely not the poorest in the region, but evidence of poverty was everywhere.

Our first destination was Belur Math, a monastery where Vivekananda, the famous Indian monk and teacher of yoga and Hinduism, died. We arrived only to find that it was closed between noon and four! No matter, we got out of the car to walk to the boat launch for the next item on Samiran’s list. After a short walk through a winding alley past beautiful gardens and small apartment buildings, we came to the river. There we boarded a boat powered by a small engine and steered by a long pole. We sat with the other passengers cross-legged on the floor of the boat for the 15 minute or so ride to the other side of the river. Along the way we could see people here and there bathing (soap and all) in the river, which is considered holy to Hindus. I noticed other people on the boat (some young women students, young couples, groups of friends) dribble river water on each other’s heads, sometimes teasingly – which I took to be a more sedate way to invite the blessings of the holy water than plunging in. On the other side we all disembarked at beautiful Dakshineshwar, a temple and pilgrimage site dedicated to Kali.

Samiran told us that the ideal time to arrive at the temple is when it is misting out, as it makes the temple look wonderful. We saw a striking banyan tree there, carefully tended, which provided shade to people underneath and a playground for monkeys overhead. We strolled through the temple courtyards, noting the many stalls selling snacks, icons of gods and goddesses, and many sizes of Shivalinga. We got to the main gate of the temple and found it to be… closed. It would not open again for another hour. So we walked some more around the grounds, and soon were surrounded by children and one woman asking us for money. One little girl, probably 5 or so, held a tiny baby who couldn’t have been more than 5 pounds, and didn’t look like it would survive for long. One of the women I was with took out a pack of Kleenex, and the children each asked her for one. It was heartbreaking to see that really anything we had to give was worth something to them. I have to admit to being at a loss for how to deal with the children. There are so many that you can’t possibly give each of them money. A puppeteer I know, Anurupa Roy, works with street children in Delhi, and I saw her interacting with a group of children who surrounded us at Dilli Haat. She was so engaged with them, and really interacted with them as individuals. Of course, she speaks Hindi and could communicate with them. None of us spoke a word of Bengali today, so we couldn’t even do that with them.

At one point, we stopped to take some pictures, and some school boys started speaking English with another of the women I was with. Seems they wanted her to take a picture with them. She then asked them if they had email, and offered to send them a copy, and they happily provided her with one. I snapped a picture of the group, and as this transpired, more and more children came over to see what was going on. Then a young man from Bangladesh, a pilgrim to the temple, asked me if he could take a picture of me and “your sister.” I suppose that Hanni and I probably look alike to them, and Brenda probably seemed like our mother. We obliged and posed with them in front of a smaller temple. We then headed back to the boat returning to Belur Math.

Back in the car, we headed to a restaurant recommended by Samiran. Earlier in the day he made our mouths water with his empassioned descriptions of Bengali specialties. On the way to the restaurant, we passed the impressive Victoria Memorial, and a tower whose name I have forgotten. Many of the buildings in Kolkata hint at a former glory that is now in various states of disrepair, but some, such as the Victoria Memorial, are well-kept, providing a stark contrast to the bulk of the city. We arrived at the restaurant, Oh Calcutta, to find it, you guessed it, closed. Our timing was impeccably off by about a half an hour all day! So we went to the restaurant next door, which seemed like it would be cheesy (I think it was called Starstruck or something like that; it had Hollywood posters on the wall, and multiple cuisines on the menu). Hungry, we settled on Bengali platters (veg or non-veg) with tikka and dahl and other tasty things. The food was really good, and we couldn’t even finish!

Samiran suggested that after we ate at the Forum (a mall, really), that we go across the street to the Netaji Bhawan, a museum in the former home of Subhas Chandra Bose, a leader in the Independence Movement who split with Ghandi in 1938 over the best way to fight for independence. From what I gather, “Netaji” advocated for armed struggle, and was aligned with communist revolutions in other countries. West Bengal is to this day a communist state (one of two in India). Our hotel even sits on a street called Ho Chi Minh. As was consistent with the rest of our day, the museum had just closed, but we still got to see the famous getaway car that whisked Subhas Chandra Bose to safety in his “great escape” from house arrest, and to read materials posted on the outside of the building.

By that time it was after 5, and we needed to get back to the hotel before sunset so that Hanni could observe the beginning of Rosh Hoshana. We didn’t even get to the last two items on the itinerary, the Victoria Memorial and the Academy of Fine Arts. Still we had an interesting day, certainly not one on the typical tourist circuit.

Funny Signs in India

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

11 September 2007: 9-11

Here I am in Kolkata, having successfully flown Jet flight #911 on 9/11. My friend here convinced me in advance that it was like a double negative (rather than a bad omen) and therefore nothing bad could happen to us. I figured that a domestic flight from Delhi to Kolkata was not a likely target. Still, the coincidence of our flight number was a bit unnerving.

Kolkata is even steamier than Delhi – literally. Upon leaving the airport terminal, those in our group wearing glasses had to remove them because they fogged right up.

I know so little about Kolkata, but of course Mother Teresa and abject poverty is the first thing that comes to mind. We were surrounded by people begging at the airport, including a woman missing a hand, holding a child in her other arm. Then we show up at an upscale hotel (which has definitely seen better years), which really underscores the already obvious vast economic inequality. It was also jarring to see mega-billboards line the road into the city – far more than I’ve seen in any other Indian city so far. Many advertised new luxury apartment complexes (India’s version of a gated community).

9-10 September 2007: MAKE ART/STOP AIDS

For the rest of my time in India, I am traveling with my UCLA advisor, David Gere, and 3 other people to visit 3 projects of MAKE ART/STOP AIDS in India. MA/SA takes as its inspiration Douglas Crimp’s 1987 assertion that “Art does have the power to save lives,” and works to organize and activate artists to participate in the fight against AIDS on the one hand, and on the other hand to use the power of the arts to educate about HIV/AIDS and mobilize people to combat the epidemic. Last year, I worked on MA/SA at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, recruiting LA high schools to bring students to see live performance and visual arts exhibits about HIV/AIDS, and leading educational programs for these visits. I will do similar work this coming academic year on a new exhibit that opens at the Fowler in February 2008. Last spring, I also prepared a booklet highlighting the accomplishments of the MA/SA projects in India, including a mobile version of the Fowler exhibit, street theater and community radio programs at a government AIDS hospital in Tamil Nadu, and the painting and performance of traditional scrolls used to educate about HIV/AIDS in West Bengal. Now I will get to see these projects first hand, and meet in person the people doing all this incredible work! In addition, I will be able to sit in on meetings with groups like UNAIDS and NACO (the National AIDS Control Organization, the government agency which addresses HIV/AIDS in India).

Saturday, September 08, 2007

8 September 2007: Delhi

Two things hit me upon getting to Delhi: the heat and the high prices. But so far it actually seems more manageable than Bangalore. I'm meeting up here with friends and colleagues from UCLA and MAKE ART/STOP AIDS, so it's nice to see familiar faces.

On the drive to the hotel from the airport, we passed the Catholic cathedral which had one of those signs with the stereotypical trite messages on it, only this one seemed written just for me: "Worry is a misuse of imagination."

7 September 2007: Do I look like I want a fucking toy helicopter?

So, I’m back in Bangalore, back on Brigade Road, back in Nilgiri’s Nest. It almost felt like coming home. Traffic from the train station was really bad, and autos can’t drive down this section of the road, so the driver dropped me at the corner of MG Road and Brigade Road, and I had to walk the few short blocks to Nilgiri’s. So I’ve got my big hiking backpack on my back, and a smaller (but still quite big) laptop backpack on my front. Basically, I’m carrying probably half my body weight. This guy tries to stop me and asks me to buy a toy helicopter, which he is dutifully demonstrating. Excuse me, but do I look like I want to stop and buy something??

Having dropped my bags in the room, I went down into the bustling street to get cash and top-up my cell phone. Nilgiri’s is best known to people as a grocery store and restaurant, and on the way back to my room I stopped by the ready-made food counter. I’m at the point in the trip where some western food sounded good, so I got an egg and cheese sandwich (with a little spice – it is India, after all!), a sweet lassi, and a brownie. For those of you paying attention, this was the best chocolate I’ve had in India! A yummy dinner in my hotel room, with MTV India on the tv to drown out the honking from the street below.

Moving backwards in my day, I took the train back from Mysore, with a 2nd class reserved seat. This was my first time on the train in India, and it was fine, kind of like the local trains in Europe. I had a single seat near the window which you can open fully, and luckily the seat across from me was not reserved, so I had a place to put my bag. Throughout the trip, vendors went up and down the aisles selling tea, coffee, and tindi (snacks). Krishnaveni had loaded me down with snacks so I was fine. One guy stopped next to me to make snacks for the people across the aisle, and he gave me some to taste. I don’t know what it was called, but it had puffed rice, grated carrots, some oil and a white sauce (yogurt?) and spices – it was quite good. I read the whole way – García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I’m going to try and finish tonight so I can leave it here. Just can’t carry one more thing! The scenery was really nice – lots of rice fields, and some rock formations. The ride was nice and smooth compared to the bus, too. It was more expensive than the bus (Rs 121 vs. Rs 72), but still, door-to-(almost)-door with autos and the train, I spent only $6. No one came around to collect tickets – hmmm.

Had my last class with Krishnaveni today – can’t believe I learned all three pieces! Of course they are far from perfect, and I’ll need to do a lot of work on them, but I actually got all the way through the 20 minute piece, including the last (and most difficult) section, without significant problems today. I was very proud, and she was happy, too.

According to MTV India, “Silkky Kumar is your love monkey.” He’s their “buzz worthy artist of the month.” Thought you’d like to know.

6 September 2007: Mysore Aramane

As one of my few acts of tourism on this trip, I went to the Mysore Palace today. Had to pay the foreigner entrance fee of Rs 100 (vs. Rs 20), but got a nice little booklet that locals didn’t seem to receive in exchange. You can only take photos outside, so I wandered around the grounds first before going inside. The big 10-day festival of Dussehra is coming up, so there was lots of work being done on the grounds. I was excited to see 4 “oliphants” chilling and eating grass. I was going to call them royal elephants, but since the palace belongs to the state now, perhaps they’re better called ceremonial elephants. When I looked though my photos later, though, I realized they had a chain on their front legs, which made me sad. Camera deposited (Rs 5) and shoes removed (50 paise), I entered the palace. It was especially exciting to visit the palace because my Bharatanatyam teacher’s guru, Padmabushan Venkatalakshamma, was a court dancer here during the reign of the last two maharajas. The last majaraja ruled until 1956 when Karnataka state was formed, at which time he was elected governor. In southern India, the royal courts were important patrons of the arts, including dance. Mysore style Bharatanatyam, which flourished in the court, is known especially for its abhinaya, which can be translated as story telling and expression. The maharaja’s heir, with no official title or duties, still lives in the western wing of the palace. This particular palace was built when the previous wooden one burnt down in 1897. It was completed in 1912, and while they boast that much of the artisanship brought to bear on the palace was local, the architect was British, as were the designers of other key features of the palace. I don’t know why that surprised me. I guess I thought in the middle of an occupation you wouldn’t turn to your occupiers to design your royal palace. Carved teakwood doors and ceilings, brass gates, stained glass ceilings, marble, ceramic tiles, ivory inlaid doors, murals… the interior of the palace is really quite spectacular. While ropes kept us moving in the right direction and from getting to close to the exhibits, I was surprised to see people touching the teak doors and marble columns without getting yelled at by guards. Emboldened, I did the same! Lonely Planet warned that the separate Residential Museum “is rather dull,” and they were right.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

5 September 2007: As Karnataka Turns

I’ve been watching some of the Kannada serials with Dr. Srivalli. Since I can’t understand most of the dialogue (I’ve only had two weeks of Kannada, after all), I focus on what I can see. Rarely does anyone smile, and each scene seems to be a family crisis of one sort or another. Each scene is much longer than in U.S. television. The actors remain fairly static in the scenes, except for an occasional entrance or exit. Characters are rarely next to each other, but are staged throughout the room, U2 style. Many shots are straight-on close-ups, often framed by a piece of furniture from a wacky angle. I’ve seen an indoor swing (long straight bench hanging from two fancy chains) in at least two different shows, and often someone is sitting on the swing. In one scene, the person not on the swing was framed by the swing chain as the camera slowly zoomed in. In another scene, a man leaned against a new-model Mercedes, while a woman sat on steps of a house across from him. Almost all shots of her were framed by the car, variously showing the model number, Mercedes hood ornament, etc. It was a very serious discussion about work. “I feel sad,” the man said in English. Sometimes in scenes, there are extra people in the room who don’t have any lines, but are just there for the reaction shots, invariably accompanied by what I like to call “crisis music” (especially that exploding music sound, you know what I mean), and in some shows by dramatic camera effects. If the news is shocking, this “reaction extra family member” will be shown in close-up looking from person to person. If the news is sad or embarrassing, the eyes will quickly be cast down and slightly to the side. If the tense discussion is ongoing, the reaction look may be widening eyes. Often someone will break down and cry. This usually signals that the half-hour is almost over, and the final 5 seconds will likely be without dialogue, but just reaction shots with a musical climax, with a freeze on one key face. The End. Tune in tomorrow for the next installment of…

4 September 2007: Happy Birthday Krishna!

When I got back to the house from dance class this afternoon, full preparation for Krishna Jayanti was underway. I realized that this is like the Thanksgiving-Christmas season in the west, with one festival coming after another. And indeed the altar looked a little like a Christmas tree, complete with blinking colored lights. Gowri Ganesha (on my birthday this year) is evidently the big one for South India. Dr. Srivalli said that normally she wouldn’t make such a big deal for Krishna Jayanti, but her daughter and grandson Arnava will be gone by Gowri Ganesha (which she does celebrate in a big way), and Arnava wanted to do something, thus the big to-do. I helped Arnava stuff the Prasad bags with different snacks. People came over between 6:30 and 10, and the proceedings were similar to the Lakshmi festival I attended my first night in Mysore. Arnava dressed up as Krishna, which was very cute, but then he had a temper tantrum and tore off his costume. He begrudgingly allowed it to be put back on a little while later when more people came over, but then took it off again. I was able to get a few pictures of our little “angry Krishna.”

Lots of people came over, both relatives and friends. I finally found out why people introduce relatives as “my husband’s brother’s wife” or “my mother’s sister’s eldest daughter.” It’s because in Kannada, there are words that are that specific. So that while in English, my mother’s younger brother and my father’s younger brother, and my father’s sister’s husband are all “uncle,” they are soderamawa, chickappa, and mawa respectively in Kannada. And if my father had an older brother, he would be dodappa. I need a chart to keep it all straight!

The Drink Most Likely to be Hated by Helen

This is essentially orange soda with pulp. Less sweet than many of the other bottled juices, it hits the spot on the walk home after a long dance class.

p.s. If anyone can tell me why photos that are upright on my computer never upload correctly to blogger, please send me a comment!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

3 September 2007: Thought for the day

In Mysore you don’t have to worry about stepping in dog poop on the sidewalk/the side of the road, but you do need to watch out for fresh cow dung.

2 September 2007: Krishna the Communist Playboy

Krishna Jayanti is in two days, and Dr. Srivalli is getting ready. More and more Krishna statutes keep appearing, and every time I look, there are new decorations and jewelry covering them. Yes, he was a naughty boy who ate the butter, and yes he was a playboy who chased all the gopis around. What I didn’t know is that many people also see Krishna as a social reformer. Seems he would gather up his friends and, Robin Hood style, steal butter and milk from those who had a surplus to share with those who didn’t have enough to eat. Dr. Srivalli said proudly, “He was like a communist!” in that he insisted that things be shared among the populace. He is also the one who told the people that they shouldn’t worship the god Indra, but those things around them that sustain them, like the cows and the mountains. Indra became incensed upon hearing this, and sent torrential rains. To protect the people in his region, Krishna lifted a mountain with his little finger to provide them with a shelter from the storm. Later, when a poisonous snake took up residence in the local river, Krishna wrestled with him and defeated him, returning to the people a source of their livelihood and day-to-day sustenance.

1 September 2007: 2 down, 1 to go

In dance class today, I was able to explain to Krishnaveni in Kannada why Dr. Srivalli was not with me. At least she said she understood. We finished the javali today, and she says we will finish the padawarna in 2 days. So the last few days of class will be for practice, practice, practice! I guess this all is pretty impressive, given that I’ve just been here just 8 days.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

31 August 2007: Madame!

Lonely Planet India says “It’s not unusual to end a day in the Mysore streets and markets wearing a pungent rainbow of scents – sandalwood, jasmine, lotus, etc – in jumbled-together patches on your skin.” This was certainly my experience today upon my first visit to the Devaraja Market. I could take no more than a few steps without someone calling after me, “Madame! Madame!” Store owners would let it go when I kept walking, but enterprising mobile salesmen will walk right alongside you. “Where are you from Madame? What’s your name Madame? Small price! No buy, just look! Looking is free!” One such guy somewhat interested me because of an instrument he was playing, which he said he made himself. It is a hollowed-out calabash with a hole in the top to blow through and two reeds coming out of the bottom, one with finger holes on it. (Yes, Frank and Sharon, I am describing Ben’s next instrument!) When I was hesitant to buy anything, he asked if I wanted to see incense being made, and said he would take me to his friend’s shop. (Aha! Western tourists will want to see this!) In fact I did want to see that, so I let him lead me to his “friend’s” stall (I wonder what sort of commission he gets?). In fact I think the incense making (which was actually very interesting, in that I learned the substance is rolled on the bamboo stick, rather than dipped as I previously thought) was just a lure to try and get you to buy oils. Some of the oils are quite nice, but I wasn’t really interested, so I just got some incense. While I was waiting for my incense, a Dutch couple were brought in to the stall by a boy for the same show that I had just gotten. They were much less willing to listen to the spiel than me, though, and left with only their “gift” incense (the ones made in front of them).

30 August 2007: Random thoughts

Today I bought some chocolate and cookies. Chocolate was Cadbury, but it didn’t taste like the Cadbury I’m used to – in fact, it tasted like India. The ingredients didn’t include any spices, but I could swear there was something in there. The cookies were advertised as “the world’s best moulded chocolate chip cookies.” I guess they were “moulded” in the sense that they were square and had ridges.

I am staying in the Kuvempunagara section of Mysore. Around 4:30 the park across the street is full of young couples courting, sitting next to each other on benches, feet on the ground, arms crossed or at their sides, not touching, talking quietly. From the helmets and scooters, it seems this is a date destination. I notice the park transforms into a site of older people’s evening constitutionals just 2 hours later.

Most laundry detergent that I’ve seen here comes in a bar. I did get a small packet of “jasmine and rose” Tide powder, with instructions on it for bucket washing, and although it calls for a “Tide scoop’s” worth of powder, there is no indication how much that might be. I think I have finally made friends with “the bucket” – it really is a versatile item.


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