Saturday, November 27, 2010

An accidental tourist

An old friend asked me if I feel like a tourist in India.

He should know for he said he felt like one in the US and in his home country too.

It was a very wise question and the answer is sadly, a resounding YES!

I am not proud of it. I wish I could truly call a place home. I didn't grow up in the state I am a native of. Ancestral homes merely made appearances on one or two short visits every few years and late night stories for me. And so after putting a lot of thought into the reasons why, the conclusion is unmistakable--the blame, I have decided shall rest squarely on my parents' shoulders.

My brother and I grew up in rather idyllic settings, away from the bustle of Bombay and at the overripe age of 16 when I was unceremoniously moved out of said idyllic settings into the real city, I was a mess. Unable and unwilling to adjust and eager to escape not back to where we came from, for that was impossible, but to somewhere that old place might be duplicated. It wasn't just that we were spoilt--not with material goods anyway, but with a lifestyle that can only be described as well...not healthy for an impressionable, precocious child. That said I had friends growing up there around us who seem to be well adjusted now. So lets just say parents' fault and oddball genes--double whammy.

Or perhaps I foolishly took all our privileges that came from being the kid of a highly placed dad seriously. The chauffeur driven cars, the palatial houses surrounded by fragrant Eucalyptus trees, the gardeners maintaining beautiful gardens around us. All that good stuff.

Or maybe it isn't just that. Old Indian culture was inculcated strictly and came easily in the form of dance and music lessons. But my parents were never involved in and therefore seldom exposed us much to the whole popular and/or Bollywood culture. For the first ten years of my life, our TV didn't work. After that isolated as we were, going to the movies would have been too much of a trek and so we subsisted on the Hollywood fare my uncle got us on his visits from Kuwait, farmers programming (amchi mati amchi manse for those who know), cozy old Marathi movies and the odd Star Trek I episodes and such that came on TV on weekends when we did have a TV that worked.

I wonder what it is then that makes me Indian enough to want to defend this country to people, to explain her follies. I am not indifferent to her greatness, to the wonder that is India. At the same time I defend America too with fervor, especially when people take potshots at her. It is a land I admire greatly.

Why does the Indian national anthem make me cry with a mixture of joy and pride every single time. The last lines of the American anthem also make me cry, and also with wonderful pride and happiness at being American. I love both these countries. One is my motherland, the other the land I "married into", my adopted land. I defend and love both with equal fervor. I detest certain things about both too with equal fervor.

So does that mean I belong? Does that make me a true Indian American? Or is that statement in itself an Oxymoron.

Truth is I wish I could actually spend my mornings in one place and evenings in the other or even one week here and the other here. I wish I could buy my vegetables at the bazaars here and my cereals in the local grocery in Lombard. That would be perfect. I have always liked having my cake and eating it too.

Of course that is not possible and so here I am. A tourist. By accident of birth, upbringing, education, years spent all over, over thinking, over analyzing.

My do I envy those who have a place, one place that is truly home.

Or perhaps for people like me, home can only be where the people I love are. My husband, my sons, my brother, my parents, my friends. But my dearest friends are now left behind in America!

If only I could somehow have everyone in one place, squeeze the world so the distances aren't so immense. Now that would be a perfect world.

That place, wherever it could be, would be home.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The beauty...the sheer beauty

I stopped by at Cottage industries and a couple antique shops a few days ago.

Cottage Industries works directly with artisans and so one can leave any manner of guilt about giving money to middle men at the doorstep. And I did.

The guard opens the door.

I step in and a fragrant whiff of sandalwood incense combined with a light rose scent trails into the nostrils. It's the smell, in my opinion of Indian luxury. Now as an aside, no one does luxury like India. Ironic given the state of some of her citizens but truly, between the silks and the diamonds and gold that women can be swathed in, not to mention the sweets and rich foods, warm lemony bowls to wash greasy fingers even in ordinary restaurants, kingly marble floors and rosewood and teak get the picture.

Where was I? Yes the scent in this store. A glorious, comfortable, old world and positively luxurious scent. One that you can just sink into. Imagine a warm, long afternoon with cups of tea accompanied by sweet and spicy snacks. Its no ordinary tea but the kind one can sip lounging and sunken lazily in silk cushions, having pleasant chatter with pleasant company.

Anyhoo, that was the first few seconds worth of effect on the senses. What was to follow was the kind of effect on the visual that can only be described as breathtaking. Embroidered bed spreads with mirrors glimmering here and there, as if partly hidden and yet partly visible, applied just so in order to entice. Carved wooden boxes, sculpted onyx vases, bronze Ganeshas and Saraswatis of exquisite beauty. Dressers, coffee tables, cupboards with inlay and carved facades. Ooh la la. Furniture one doesn't dare really use, so delicate are they.

Following that I visit a store or more like an island in the middle of Pune called Sanskriti. Once more I am surrounded by antiques and antique reproductions from all over India. I buy a round brass tin for want of better words with a sort of charming little padlock. It was used to store anything from money to rotis in Rajasthan, the glamorous, ex army wife owner of the store, explains in polished English. I also buy a pan box made of wafer thin bronze, probably made for a Muslim woman, the proprietor says. Of course, only a Muslim woman would be beautiful enough to use this as her beetle leaf box. I feel a thrill go down my spine. I must bring my husband to check out the furniture, I say. She uses recycled Burma teak for the antique furniture reproductions. Beautiful and responsible. Did I just die and go to heaven? I am in love with this store. With three cottages housing its wares and the cottages separated by lush lawns and gardens where one can imagine peacocks roaming around, this place is one I am tempted to move into.

Before I leave, I close my eyes, think of the hands that created such beauty, hands of artisans of such great calibre. I am moved by the beauty, the sheer beauty of their labor.

I leave, excitedly making plans for decorating my new albeit rented home.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How it all manages to work

Its been a day since my last post and things seem to have have solved themselves..

Not the dogs. Thanks to Ms. Maneka Gandhi's misplaced sense of animal rights, they shall continue to thrive and multiply. So no not that.

The people.

I am getting or remembering why this country manages to work. Why and how it all somehow manages to hangs together. I always wondered about how such a disorganized, completely haphazard economy works. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. The right hand doesn't even know for sure or believe that there is a left hand.

Here is why it works. The people may well be some of the most inefficient but they mean well and they are sweet. Oh so sweet.

My maid returned this morning and tearfully asked me not to please hire anyone else. I am a sucker for a sob story as anyone else and so told her the truth. I am not an easy one to please, I admitted. Can you do this? I'll pay you whatever you ask but the work has got to be purrfect. Sure, she said. All was well. No issues as they say here. Of course she did a brilliant job today.

Then I paid a visit to the furniture shop I had placed the order at. I went in with guns blazing but after five minutes or so of sparring, suddenly the man cooled off. He even timidly took changes to my order of our bed. I cannot imagine that happening in the States. It was so very easy. I explained to the carpenter, or someone who knew the trade what I wanted and he bobbed his head yes.

The notes he took about the order changes make me shudder though. The order itself was written on a piece of ruled paper in long hand with copious notes in the margins for my customizations--color of polish what have you, tiny sketches to explain everything. Spelling mistakes galore. No wonder they cannot make head or tail of my dining table, I thought. I looked around me. There were some very well crafted pieces. The modular kitchen was a beaut. And so if all goes well, Inshallah, I should have a pretty nifty bed soon.

I visited the Godrej showroom. The man who had taken my order was there--all honey and sweetness. This is the Indian way. He waited patiently as my mum and I stated categorically that the color we had ordered was in fact something else. Didn't lose his temper, didn't roll his eyes at us, which he was well within his right to do. Then he went on to offer us a completely different cupboard and again waited as we hemmed and hawed about that before finally agreeing to the new piece.

All was well. All is well for now.

So this is why it works. People have infinite patience with each other here. Yes they might jostle on the streets. Literally. Rickshaws collide with bicycles and motorbikes everyday. But speeds are low and little damage is done. Mentally and physically. A few curses are let out and everyone goes their way. Bigger accidents happen for sure but on a daily basis these collisions seem to be part and parcel of life.

It's as if everyone expects the worst and so it something good happens they are pleasantly surprised.

That and most people accept that others are quirky and imperfect. Why else would they listen quietly to my father's rantings whenever he is displeased with something?

People will wait and wait until you're comfortable, sure, happy. Its a combination of hospitality, manners, respect (for age, authority, status, if you're a woman).

India has always been described as a land that cannot really be described. It has too many facets. Too many colors, too many shades to have a few adjectives applied to it.

And just when one is tempted to write something off, a sweetheart of a person makes it all well.

Its the same of anything and anywhere I suppose. Delta screwed things up for us and I swore never to travel that airline again until we were seated in our seats on our last leg flying and our stewardess greeted us. Despite her sweet Texan accent, she might have been my mother, so attentive was she. I told her she might be the only reason we fly Delta again.

People--persons really. And India is full of such people. Sweethearts. Truly well meaning people.

I really need to simmer down and adopt a 'tomorrow is another day' attitude and all will be well.

One can but try, no?

Friday, November 12, 2010

What am I doing here??

Can't sleep. Stray dogs bark at night, They howl. They shriek. I want to shoot them all. With eyes tightly clenched I imagine myself wielding an Uzi or AK-47 or some such catastrophic weapon and gunning them all down. I am mad. I haven't slept in days.

The maid is another abomination. She thinks I am some sort of idiot. She has quoted a price for work 50% more than the average. I am mad. I will give her a thousand rupees more if she is honest. I refuse to be cheated. I tell her not to do the floors, just the dishes and that too so I don't go crazy with work. I wonder if I've done the right thing having her return to the place of work where she has been slighted.

The furniture I have ordered is delayed. I call and get a new person every time. I'll call back in half an hour, two days, one day, each one promises. I hear nothing. This from a Godrej dealer. Godrej, a leading Indian company! Right.

The dining table I have ordered cannot be done, they say now. The stand is a problem. Cancel the damn thing, I say in anger.

My husband has a stomach upset from the buffalo milk that he's using to make myriad cups of coffee.

Milk and water. A full time job. Boil each, save each, buy fresh milk everyday. Take care not to drink tap water. Wash the baby's mouth with boiled water.

I have a ball of knots in my stomach. I want to go back. I want to go home.

Today my parents left after having stayed with us through all of the troubles, through all of my whining, through all of my threats to go back.

I see them off in our rented car. I ask the driver to take them back to Bombay safe and sound. My mother waves goodbye, a sweet smile on her beautiful face. I know she wants to cry. I watch the car drive away.

I turn back, try not to cry as I take the lift back to our tenth floor apartment.

I know what I am doing here at last. I know. Milk, furniture, stray dogs and more nonsense, all notwithstanding, this has been the right thing to do. For now. For all.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Thoughts slosh about in the mind about new experiences witnessed, old experiences re visited.

Saw a woman on the street, her expression of resignation, nursing a baby. The curve of the baby's thigh, its face hidden by her sari, protected from the world if only for a short while longer. I think of myself and my baby. I feel like my heart is about to break. Is the baby a boy? A girl? Should I stop and give her money? How much is enough? Enough for her to buy a place to stay and educate her child? Enough for a meal? My car speeds by. I hold back tears. What use is my sorrow if all I do is watch? I feel anger at myself for hesitating and the moment and the scene has passed. I start to cry some hours later while telling my husband about it. He asks me to channel my sorrow.

India is too striking a land of contrasts. It is downright disturbing to see people checking out objects of luxury at swanky malls while right outside one sees the construction workers and their families building more swankiness to the shopping havens living in huts, their children running about finding play and joy in the bricks and stone and mud that form their parent's livelihood. Heartbreaking.

Compared to Bombay there aren't that many beggars on the street. Kids do approach us at certain busy street corners. But its rarer than usual here.

A Kashmiri trader of beautiful saris and shirts stops by. We met him at a home goods exhibition earlier and bought several kurtas/shirts. He has come to us bearing saris. Beautiful, hand-done embroidery on pastel georgettes and crepes. My mother buys a sari. I ask if the artisans might get some of the money that we're paying for the items. He says the artisans work on a monthly salary. I offer to pay him a bonus for the artisans. He refuses to take the money. Give them more work, he says, this isn't appropriate. It doesn't send the right message.

The same applies to the beggars, I suppose. Throwing small amounts of money helps feed them for a meal or two. But systemically, the solution is larger, so much more complicated. Education, work solutions. India has one of the smallest budgets in the world assigned to educating her people. Depressing.

But I feel a renewed sense of joy about getting involved in a local not profit, making a small difference.

I tell my husband. If we can help improve a handful of lives, help a handful of kids escape what is a small twist of fate--they were born in an inopportune place under less than ideal circumstances. My child could easily have been one of them and not the privileged little fella he is going to be and already is.

A handful of kids and a handful of women would be a good start.