Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hyderabad - "Heart of the Indian Peninsula" Part 1

 "It is the sixth most popular city and the sixth-most populous urban agglomeration in India. It is known with the sobriquet 'City of Pearls', and referred as 'Heart of the Indian Peninsula' by the Time Magazine US. In 2011, The New York Times has featured Hyderabad in the list of must-see places of world."

July 27

By 10am the morning of the 27th, four of us left the hills of Sri Sailam. Shareef (our driver) and I sat in the front while my grandma and one of my aunt's friends - Lavanya - occupied the back. We got onto the one road running outside the compound which heads straight to Hyderabad - the capital city of Andhra Pradesh (a fact which is being hotly contested at the moment). The drive consisted of a descent through the jungle hills with scatterings of monkeys, birds, pigs, and other animals on the road attracted by food. The initial drive to Hyderabad was quick and simple, however it took just as much time traveling within the city limits to our destination. Hyderabad traffic puts Bangalore traffic to shame, plus the distances in the city seem greater.

This first day in Hyderabad, we reached our relative's home for refreshments and I headed out with our guide (Kiran) and Shareef to the Necklace Road/Hussain Sagar area for the evening. This area is home to one of the most iconic figures in Hyderabad - a monolithic statue of Buddha in the middle of the lake. To reach the statue, we walked through Lumbini Park - a fair with attractions, games, and green spaces in the city. Kiran told me that Hyderabadis consider this area as a beach to enjoy during the evening-time. Finally, we took a ferry ride to the middle of the lake and walked around the platform upon which the statue rested. There were tourists from around India, Asia, the Middle East, and the West. Hyderabad, like Bangalore, is another city that can boast of a modern, International urban reputation.

After arriving back at Lumbini Park, the three of us drove back to Secunderabad for dinner at my relatives'. The evening traffic was immense and we reached the home much later than expected. By the time I prepared for dinner, the electricity had gone out. Our hosts prepared a dinner of chicken biriyani, fried fish, and shrimp. After being served so many of these protein-heavy meals in homes. I've come up with a certain theory to explain this. For some reason, non-vegetarian dishes are considered a sort of "premium" in India. And therefore, our hosts want to provide us with the best to show that they are not cutting any corners. However, when you are dining at a different house every day, a meal of biriyani every night is genuinely tiring.

By 9:00pm, my grandma and I departed from Secunderabad for the guesthouse where we would spend the next few nights. Shareef took the passenger seat and Kiran took over the wheel - an efficient decision as Kiran knows the roads and can drive. To end the day, the four of us arrived at the guesthouse around 10:15pm. The room was large, air-conditioned, with two twin beds. I settled down, took a shower, and the lights were off by 11pm.

July 28

The night was extremely cold with the air conditioning set at 16 degrees Celsius and blowing straight at my bed. Shareef came by the room around 7am and we ordered a breakfast of idlis with chutney from a nearby outdoor eatery. After eating, the three of us wait in the room for Kiran and the car. Apparently Kiran is delayed in traffic, so Shareef and I leave the guesthouse for a brief walk around the neighborhood and end up sitting on the roof of the guesthouse. The roof hosts a spectacular view of the city -- and numerous temples and mosques. We spoke in Urdu about the places we would visit and the ubiquity of cell phones in India. At first, I had to strain my ears a bit and concentrate in order to understand his dialect, but with each day and each conversation, our discussions became more fluid.

We returned back to the room and Kiran arrived. We drive to Salar Jung Museum which hosts a variety of artifacts from around the world -- akin to a Smithsonian museum. There's one thing you need to keep in mind about Indian sightseeing -- Indians and foreigners are charged different entrance fees. For example Rs 10 for domestic visitors and Rs 250 for international visitors. I always buy the domestic ticket without a problem, however at Salar Jung, the guard seemed to have a reason to doubt me. The guard asked Kiran, "Indian hai yaa foreigner?" (Is he Indian or a foreigner?). The guard, still not convinced, had a test for me, "Us ko Hindi aati hai?" (Does he know Hindi?). Thankfully, I was able to respond in Hindi as if it was my mother language. WIN! After that, the guard let me go. :)

Outside Salar Jung Museum
We toured a few rooms of the museum and stopped by the food court for dosas and coffee for lunch. After lunch, we toured the upstairs before leaving the museum.

 Our next destination was the Charminar, another immensely iconic landmark of Hyderabad. The monument is located in the crowded, Muslim majority Old City -- full of mosques and bazaars. Shareef's family resides in the neighborhood and his cousin, Sameer, joined us after we descended from visiting the Charminar. With Shareef and Sameer, I walked to Mecca Masjid -- the largest mosque in South India. Sameer told me of how every Friday the entire area is full of people attending jummah prayer. On our walk through the mosque grounds, I learned that Sameer is sixteen years old and works at a family clothing showroom. His English was also rather non-existent, so the three of us spoke in Urdu as a common language. Leaving Mecca Masjid, we crossed the street to visit Shareef's aunt and uncle. His uncle owned a swimming pool -- which was surprisingly closed...surprising given the heat of the afternoon. I said my salaams...and we proceeded home to meet Shareef's aunt.

I had to duck my head a little to enter through the door of the  small house. Shareef's aunt was laying on a cot watching Telugu serials. We said our salaams and sat down to spend a few minutes chatting. She first insisted that we eat or drink something. She brought cold water for everyone, and as tempted as I was to accept, I had to refuse: "Yahaan ka paani mere liye bahut khatarnaak hai." (The water here is very dangerous for me). After Shareef also confirmed that I've only been drinking bottled water, she continued: "Theek hai. Thanda mangwaaenge." (That's fine. We'll order a soda drink). I again firmly refused not wanting to give them any trouble. We continued talking for a few minutes about where I'm staying and what I'm doing in India. We then got up, thanked her, and left to head back to the car.

On the walk back, Shareef suggested that Sameer take me to a nice place for real local tea. We headed to a crowded cafe just a footfall away from the Charminar. The place had excellent, sweet chai served with fresh cookies that literally melted in my mouth.

View from atop Charminar
Of all the experiences I had in India so far, the time I spent with Shareef and Sameer that afternoon was surely the most rewarding and insightful. For the first time, I used Urdu to break a language barrier with people whom I otherwise would not be able to converse with -- or spend time with. I had the opportunity to see the Charminar neighborhood with locals who knew the stories and rich history of the landmarks since childhood. Sameer was surely a great guide and it was personally enriching to interact with others my own age, but from a greatly different background -- with a different past and future. Moreover, the remarkable hospitality Sameer's family showed me was not surprising, but definitely appreciated. They seemed poor, yet so willing to accomodate me in any way to make me feel comfortable. They treated me like their own.
Shareef and Sameer outside Mecca Masjid with Charminar in the background
From the Charminar area, we stopped at Sultan Bazaar where Shareef and I browsed around for a while. Then, on the way back to the guesthouse, I picked up McDonald's for everyone. I was definitely looking forward to the chicken sandwich after my long stay in isolated Sri Sailam.  Back at the guesthouse, Shareef and I spent a long evening together while my grandma rested. On the roof of the guesthouse, overlooking the lights of the city, we discussed topics such as society in India, the lack of unity in Indian society, and the role of religion in India. I was shocked at how much we agreed on and how much our observations had in common. He confirmed a lot of my observations and I listened to his drama-filled stories about life in his town. We stayed up together until 10:30pm like this -- when the mosquitos began annoying me. By this time, I could understand his dialect much better and he told me my Urdu had become more fluent as well. Today was a GREAT day!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sri Sailam

Boarded the APSRTC bus to Sri Sailam, on July 22, at 5:07pm

With each passing week of my stay in India, I feel like I'm witnessing something closer and closer to "real" India -- farther and farther away from the malls and amenities of the upper crust and closer to what the average Indian witnesses in the course of his or her life. At the moment, I'm far from the swanky new Bengaluru International Airport and seated in a bus parked at Kempegowda (aka Majestic) Bus Stand. 

The India of the bus station (and of public transport in general) is unlike that of the more privileged private establishments. At these bus and train stations, people are forced to come together. Regardless of how they live their lives -- which stores they shop at, which neighborhoods they live in, where they work -- people come assemble to stand on the same platform at the rail station or outside the same door to board a bus. Sure, some might disappear into a comfortable AC rail car or a posh Volvo bus, but the fact that they must all resort to the same institution with a common purpose of traveling from the same Point A to the same Point B is what matters. It is really a pity that the United States does not maintain a similar institution when it comes to public transport accessible to the masses. 

The mood as passengers settle into their seats for the over 12 hour drive is actually rather festive. Unlike the ambience on airplanes or on the Volvo AC buses that I had previously traveled on, everyone was socializing and talking to each other. People were passing their babies around. Everyone was giddy and smiling as the bus departed. 

Still on the bus, at 8:11pm

I must admit that this non-AC bus has been much more comfortable and enjoyable than a Volvo Bus. The cool breeze from the open air is perfect compared to the freezing, stale air available on AC buses. For dinner, the bus stopped at a roadside dhaba. The place is dark and I can hear old Kannada songs playing on a set of speakers somewhere outside. Sitting in the bus, everyone is addressing each other by "akka" and "anna," it's become really difficult to tell who is actually family and who is just using that form of address with fellow passengers.

July 24

Sri Sailam, a very small town in the middle of the Nallamala Forest, is known mainly as a popular pilgrimage spot and, more recently, for the hydropower project established along the Krishna River. As engineering nor religion are of any particular interest to me, practically the only reason why this town is on my itinerary is because my aunt's family lives here where my uncle serves as Superintending Engineer for the project. This is one of the few places where I do not mind staying at home for the day. I feel at home in Sri Sailam, very relaxed and at ease away from the noise and pollution of the city. I passed a few days in just that manner -- at home with family, with our dog Preeti, and observing the activities of monkeys that visit daily.

On the 24th, we drove from the residential colony to the town of Sri Sailam to board a ferry ride that took us in a circular course through the gorge area and toward the dam. The amount of passion and pride my uncle can demonstrate toward the dam project is amazing. On the ferry he repeatedly urges me and my cousin to take photos and videos of the project. By the time the ferry ride ended and we climbed the stairs from the banks of the river to the city, we were drenched in sweat. In living in the hills, one doesn't realize how hot the weather truly is at ground level. On the way back home, we stopped at a new Biodiversity Park where research is being done on a variety of species of snakes, insects, etc found in the Nallamala Forest.

A strong theme during my stay in Sri Sailam is the amount of "perks" people of high positions in government circles receive in India. In previous trips to the area and on today's outing to the ferry, a man named Damodar (sp?) accompanied us and escorted us past lines, past ticket counters, etc. In the larger scheme of government, if people of such small positions are awarded special treatment as I and my family were, is it really surprising that the big fishes (the Chief Ministers and members of Parliament) are swallowing billions of rupees from public funds? Corruption starts small...and I have a lot more to say about this. Keep reading!

July 25

Today was a quieter day. We were supposed to visit the main Mallikarjuna temple in Sri Sailam today, but my uncle's calendar dictated that this day was not auspicious enough, so that plan was delayed. My response: "Isn't going to take a darshan from god ALWAYS supposed to be a good thing? I can't imagine that the deity shows varying levels of benevolence on different days. But then again it's's not supposed to make any sense." -_-

However, the day did consist of a visit to the Sai Baba temple within the residential colony. I visited this same temple and met the temple care-takers last summer along with an intelligent debate about the logical existence of god and the purpose/reason behind worship. The same debate continued this year when I went to the temple in the morning with my grandmother.

The discussion in Hindi led to a few questions on my part:

  • If god is benevolent, why are there so many innocent, good people suffering from war, poverty, natural crises, etc
  • If god is benevolent, why must we perform so many rituals and decorations of deities? Shouldn't internal prayer be enough? The money people drop into Hundis and use to adorn murtis with garlands, silk, and jewelry can be used for more purposeful humanitarian causes.
The answers I received were the same that any religious individual will tell you - just leave it to Baba (substitute Jesus/Allah/Krishna) and think about Him and everything will be alright. Needless to say, I was not satisfied. Nonetheless, I look forward to meeting this family and having these discussions. They and I come from such drastically different backgrounds and with such different perspectives that it's amazing we can come together and have a conversation together without any animosity. Sometimes the poorest people are the most open-minded and genuine; they hold their core beliefs close, but without the damaging ego and assuming nature that the rich possess. 

Today, I also got a chance to meet and talk to Shareef, our driver in Sri Sailam who would also accompany us to Hyderabad for a few days. It's rare that I get to meet people my age in India who are outside my family, and if I do, I face a language barrier. However, with Shareef, I was able to speak Urdu today and make conversation with him during a few hours in Sundipenta.

July 26

This afternoon, my uncle, grandmother, and I drove to Sri Sailam to visit the Mallikarjuna Temple. Apparently crowds were high in the afternoon and we even proposed shifting the visit to the evening. I visited the temple last year, and it's one of those places (like Tirupati) that doesn't offer much to non-believers. You need some level of belief to get super excited and wait for hours to see a black stone, which might also be hidden behind a curtain.

Once again we were accompanied by the Damodar character, he took us straight passed the lines, opened up direct pathways to the deities, held the crowds away from us so that we could spend time in front of the deities. Apparently a chief priest also recognized my uncle, and the result was a "superb" darshan and abhishekham.

Now, I have a problem with this, and I made it clear on the drive back home. There were perhaps thousands of devotees packed tightly, waiting in line, and herded like cattle, passed the deities. What is so special about our group that we should be permitted to walk right past these people? Isn't the satisfaction from the pilgrimage supposed to be earned from waiting in line and suffering in order to receive the darshan? Isn't everyone supposed to be equal in front of god? Does god really want a longer, more thorough audience with us just because we might have more money or status? The only reason our abhishekham was "superb" and the thousands of other dedicated devotees probably only walked past a curtained deity -- is money.

The response I got was that we have things to do and cannot afford to wait in those lines. I can guarantee that this isn't true. So many people are taking time out of their lives, sacrificing potential earnings to show their devotion. To those people without the status, a single rupee earned must definitely possess more value than it does to us. I didn't receive any other reason. My grandmother brushed it off with a "You don't understand..." I'm rather sure that is not the case either.

I get rather intense when it comes to the conduct I've been noticing inside temples. So much of the experience seems to revolve around financial capacity -- unlike what I've witnessed in churches or mosques. This theme will surely resurface later on.

Now a new day... on to Hyderabad!!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day Trip to Shravanabelagola, Halebid, and Belur

On Saturday, I took a day trip from Bangalore to the towns of Shravanabelagola, Halebid, and Belur. The tour was with the government-run KSTDC (Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation). The tour departed from Badami House in Bangalore at 6:30 am and the group was a mix of local South Indians, Indian tourists from other parts of India (I met a woman visiting from Mumbai), and international tourists (there were some Chinese, Swedes, and a few NRIs too).

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so with this post, I will let my photographs direct the narrative and raise some of my observances with the detail of each photograph. Enjoy!
Once on the highway, around 9:00am, our bus stopped at a small roadside dhaba eatery for breakfast. We bought tickets for a certain meal and walked up to the counter where people were dishing out plates and plates of idlis and vadas and cups of coffee -- surprisingly quickly and efficiently. The place and its itself wasn't inspiring; it was dark and crowded, but the food was excellent. Probably best of all. This meal cost around Rs. 25 or 50 cents!
Our first stop was the town of Shravanabelagola around 158 kilometers from Bangalore. The name of the town translates to "the white pond of the monk" and this pond can be seen on the left side of the photo of the town (posted above). This town is one of the most important pilgrimage sites of Jainism -- a religious tradition founded on the principles of renunciation and minimalism.

The journey to the top consisted of around 600 stone-carved steps to the top of the hill. We thought the ascent would be difficult and stopped every few minutes for a deserved "photo break." However, by the time we had toured the top, the rains had begun and the descent on the slippery, wet stone steps took longer than expected. A few times we saw women being carried in straw carriages by a group of four or five men to the top. The excess of labor in India leads to so many creative possibilities to make lives easier for the rich. 
After about another hour of travel, we reached Halebid. On the drive from Shravanabelagola to Halebid, we passed through many small towns and cities. Driving through these smaller cities in a large luxury Volvo coach bus really makes one aware of the privilege one has. While these buses might be ubiquitous in the metropolises, in these small towns, people take a good 5-10 seconds just to stare at the bus. You get the same feeling one might get when wearing large, gaudy jewelry only to dine at a fast food restaurant. You really realize that the vast majority of Indians could never fathom spending almost Rs. 1000 or $20 in one day just to tour temples -- people have more pressing concerns.
Of the three places sites I toured that day, Halebid was definitely the most impressive. In addition to the site itself, we had an excellent guide whose ability to exaggerate the splendor of the monuments was very applaudable. And his desperate insistance on connecting stories of Hindu mythology to situations in modern life were hilariously charming in his broken, yet confident English.
After touring the palaces and monuments of the great Islamic dynasties in Delhi last summer, this trip provided me with exposure to a totally different style of construction, design, and purpose desired by dynasties in the South.

It seems to me that the empires of the North (namely Mughal and Rajput) were both established by conquest and battlefield victories. Therefore, they constructed immense forts and palaces which were both opulent, yet easy to defend. They also were built to showcase power; the sites are large and towering, built on a large scale.
However, the design of the temples at Halebid and Belur were very different. It's as if the Hoysalas claimed divine authority; that is, they claimed they were a continuation of the gods and thus deserved such respect. The architecture on the the walls of the temple chronicle stories of Hindu mythology with each detail so carefully thought out. This attention to detail in each intricacy is spectacular. To truly appreciate these complexes, one must take a macro, close-up view of these panels.
Finally, after stoping at the KSTDC Velapuri Restaurant for lunch, we toured Belur for a little less than an hour. By the time we reached Belur, the weather was the worst it had been all day and the rains were unrelenting. We hurried to the inside of the active temple and our guide explained the meaning behind a few of the 48 pillars -- each different -- inside the temple. After that brief tour inside the dark, crowded temple, our guide basically abandoned us and the group was free to wander around the complex. But the rain kept most of us under a covered roof to take a few pictures before making the dash across the complex, under the gopuram (above left), and back into our bus for a departure back to Bangalore.

To see the photos featured in this post (and more from the trip) in original resolution, check out my Flickr set BEST OF INDIA 2011.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Russell Market

After so many trips to the various malls around the city, I've realized a a few days ago, that I'm immensely bored of them. I did not travel around the world to India to see this nation outdo the American concept of a mall. Furthermore, all the people I meet are convinced that there is not anything to do in Bangalore but to shop at these malls. The first things native Bangaloreans want to show me are these gigantic, modern, expensive shopping areas; I had to proactively tell them that I wanted to see something and experience a surroundings that I could only witness in India. I came here for India, isn't it?

So we went to Russell Market and the Shivaji Nagar area of town. We arrived and strolled down the streets. The roads weren't unusually narrow, but the traffic and amount of people on the streets were definitely noticeable. We took a stroll down a street which I later learned is called Jamma Masjid Road.

On our walk, we stopped by the 19th century Lakshmi Narasimhaswami Temple. The priest was a young boy, a few years younger than me. He took my grandmother and I into their house which is attached to the temple by a few stairs and served us prasaad.
Just down the street from the temple, was a large, ornate mosque – the Jamma Masjid. An article from the Bangalore Mirror provides this profile of the Masjid:
"The foundation for this architectural marvel on the Jamia Masjid Road (earlier called the OPH Road), with its impressively carved 90-feet minarets, Mughal-era domes and golden inscriptions in Persian, is said to have been laid by Emperor Aurangzeb."
"The legacy of communal harmony is, meanwhile, something that the Masjid is proud of. “Isn't it wonderful that it’s situated between two temples? And till date, neither the Masjid nor the temples have had any issues. In the history of Jamia Masjid there has not been a single religious clash on this street,” says manager Sayed Abdul Ali."
As we walked by the mosque, my grandmother mentioned that she always wanted to see this mosque, but never felt at the liberty to go inside. So I thought that given the number of temples I've already seen in India, my visits to mosques have been lacking. At the entrance, different people were telling us different things. One said we weren't dressed appropriately (neither of us covered our heads, and I was wearing shorts) and one said that only Muslims could enter. Finally, one man wearing a black taqiah walked up and happily welcomed us inside, “Koi baat nahin. Bhagwaan ek hi hai! Koi farq nahin parta. Andar aaiye!” – “It's no big deal. God is one. It makes no difference. Please come inside.”
After a few minutes at the mosque, we continued down the street, occasionally stopping at some small shops before finally reaching the actual Russell Market. The market itself was covered by an interesting exterior, but the inside was dark, with winding aisles of vendors classified by merchandise. Flowers. Fruits. Vegetables. Toys.
This was exactly like something one would see in an India guidebook. Once I pulled out my camera and asked – “Main tasveer khinch saktaa hoon?” – the vendors would smile and graciously make space for me to take the pictures I wanted.
Overall, I had an excellent experience visiting this small market. The experience was more interesting and satisfying than another stroll around the mall. Different people, different prices, and different atmosphere – isn't that why I'm in India?!

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Nothing's going to be solved here..."

In my opinion, there are two Indias: the “modern India” that is publicized in the West and the “establishment India” that actually runs the nation. One generates money for the nation, and the other swallows money from the nation. People would like to believe that they live in the former, when in all actuality, they live in the latter. The privileged want to stay far from this “establishment,” while the average Indian drowns in the madness.

In my past trips to India, I somewhat naively stayed inside the high, protective walls of the glamourous five-story shopping malls and the trendy over-priced coffee shops. It's important for people unfamiliar with India to realize that these glitzy, posh locations certainly exist. India cannot all be characterized by Slumdog Millionaire, but nor can it be summarized as being a Bollywood fantasyland of song and dance. India most certainly is not that either.

However, this trip to India is consisting of more diverse, mundane experiences – experiences which were not of luxury, but of necessity or function. These experiences are in a way democratizing. Malls and department stores are only for the rich; the poor do not dare approach them. However, paying the telephone or gas bill requires people from all walks of life to congregate at one building.

These buildings are often old, rotting buildings which are run with no concern for maintenance or proper (or even minimal) upkeep. My encounter with the ugliness of the Indian public sector came in the form of a routine trip to the telecommunications company BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) to enquire about a broadband connection at home.
My complaints about this establishment will easily turn into a rant, so I will list some of my grievances here in bullet form:

  • The building was in, I am yet to see a dirtier building in India that is still standing for a legitimate purpose.
  • Information is so decentralized that it takes around half a dozen people to answer one question. You are constantly pointed from person to person.
  • In addition to the inefficiency, the disorganization is unbelievable. India honestly surprises me; seeing all this, one is startled that the nation is even running. There were files everywhere: sitting in piles on every desk and in thousands (maybe millions) in storage rooms.
  • The definition of bureaucracy in India: people given offices to do absolutely nothing but keep pushing the work (and the customers) onto other people.

Finally, I can't always help but notice the connections between religiosity and inaction in India. I feel like people are so overwhelmed themselves with what is happening around them that they almost subconsciously give up, recognize their incapacity against the system, and paste god pictures and posters on the wall. One of the rooms we were pointed to was a two-person office with every single inch of wall space covered with two to three dozen different deities. Had it not been a bureaucratic office, the room was quite aesthetically pleasing, if nothing else. My reaction when I walked into this room: “ *SIGH* Nothing's going to be solved here...”

Sunday, July 3, 2011

I'm realizing that...

I needed to keep a running list of these, so I am starting this post:

I'm realizing that at least 95% of every phone conversation in India is spent discussing others' matters, not one's own. Surprising?!

I'm realizing that getting married in India is more grueling and rigorous than college admissions in the US. Your past, choice of extra-curriculars, career and salary, and education are considered. But even more, factors like caste, family, height and weight are even more closely inspected. You can't choose these facts; they better be appropriate, or you're screwed!

I'm realizing that I can't escape a darshan with deities anywhere. Calendar art renderings of gods are on every wall of the house, vehicle, outdoor wall (to deter public urination or vandalism), etc. Television shows are dedicated to religious ritual. And even when I close my eyes, the door bell plays the Gaayatri Mantra and the morning 6:15 alarm is set to Om Jai Jagadeesh. A bit much?! 

I'm realizing that the position of Muslims in India is very similar to the position of African-Americans in the US. They are the "ghetto-ed" minority. They are the first targets of suspicion and discrimination. However, when you look to the entertainment industry, both groups reign their fields (be it sports or music or Bollywood) and are adored by millions.
I'm realizing that in an effort to employ the large population, places are often overemployed. This applies to retailers, restaurants, and even airlines. For example, before boarding a flight, one attendant folds the perforated boarding pass and hands it to another attendant to tear it. Also, at McDonald's, people are expected to leave trays on the table so that a waiter can pick it up.

I'm realizing that I speak louder and often more directly than the Indian people I meet. I also notice that in the US we use so many words such as "Thanks" and "Please" and "Excuse Me" superfluously for any sort of transaction, big or small - whether we sincerely mean it or not. I often get blank stares of confusion when I thank people for small acts.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Post-Midnight Rant

In bed, in the dark, on July 2, 2011, at 3:25am

I woke up around 3am and I can't sleep right now, so I thought I might as well be productive and draft some sort of post. I'm assuming my sleep inconsistencies over the past few days and/or the fact that I attempted going to bed at 9pm – which is insanely early by my college student standards – have contributed to my bit of insomnia at the moment. is raining really hard right now. But at least that maintains a cool breeze through the windows and keeps the temperatures low, so nothing to worry about.

It has now been exactly 24 hours since my flight landed in Bangalore last night at 3:35am, and during my first day, the major story floating in the air was of a marriage alliance fixed by my grandmother who performs what she calls “social work,” but for all intents and purposes, she's a matchmaker. Considering how many people an Indian marriage involves, I guess it is fair enough to consider marriage “social work” in this country.

With this particular marriage alliance, the two “parties” (I believe 'families' would be a more appropriate term, but 'parties' demonstrates the diplomatic process that this system entails) had agreed to the match as of this evening. However, news that a family member of one of the parties had passed away had surfaced. This basically meant that the match was to be broken or delayed since “talks” or “negotiations” between the two families could no longer proceed immediately as scheduled. In effect, the alliance was broken.

Watching the development of this story over the course of the last day, I realized that self-determinism is not to be found within the bounds of a “traditional lifestyle.” With volumes of cultural law, superstition, and astrology as part of a daily existence dictating personal and interpersonal conduct, no wonder so many people turn to religion as a means of re-assurance. If they personally cannot make decisions without obstructions from ritual or custom, they hope a God can make these decisions for them. Because, obviously, the benevolent God can bypass these earthly customs.

Through a broader lens, this lack of self-determinism ingrained into society continues into socio-economic and political spheres as well. No one questions the concept of caste; the societal oppression must be of God's doing and therefore for the better. Or, caste discrimination must have been deserved due to the karmic concept of having performed adharmik acts in a past life. Either way, the oppression of one by another exists as it is. Punishment by law makes no difference if the victims themselves believe it is their role and proper place in society to be oppressed.  

OK...Finished ranting! I think I will lay here for a few more hours before I start a new day. :P

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Amazing Race to Bangalore!

In Bangalore, on Friday July 1, at 1:48pm

I decided to hold off on writing about the rest of my flights until some downtime in Bangalore largely because nothing too exciting or out of the ordinary took place over the course of the flights. However, I would like to summarize my overall impression of each flight.

Detroit – DC: An extremely short flight of around 90 minutes on a United ExpressJet with 1-2 seating. Fortunately, I received the single, window seat which allowed me amazing views of the Detroit area upon take-off, and the DC metro area prior to landing. The flight served a complimentary beverage.

DC – Dubai: The longest leg of my trip consisted of a 13 hour flight, trans-Atlantic, trans- Europe flight. Prior to boarding, security at Dulles went smoothly and quickly with many counters open to speed the transit. Upon boarding, the crew informed us that the flight was full. And that was most definitely the case. The crowd was largely desi families transiting through to South Asia and the flight service reflected this demographic. Two meals were served on the flight. Dinner service included curry and rice, and a pre-landing breakfast service was more curry and rice for vegetarians or a hot turkey and swiss sandwich – I clearly opted for the latter.

On a positive note, on a flight of 13 hours, getting along with the passenger next to you is much appreciated. I introduced myself to a tall, young Indian guy named Suresh. His destination was Chennai and his reason for traveling to India strengthened my confidence in the situations depicted in typical Hindi films.

He had apparently come to the US six months ago to work for the North Carolina government in Raleigh. Before coming to the US, he had promised his fiancee that he would return to marry her. And this summer, he was traveling back to Chennai for 15 days for his marriage. I told my friends that I hoped to sit next to someone interesting and profound on my long flight to Dubai. I guess this is the closest you can get on a flight of Indian families...

I want one...real bad!!
Dubai: I want to include a short note about my brief layover in Dubai. I loved the transit through DXB. Security was quick and very stress-free compared to that at US airports. The airport's interior itself is gorgeous and very characteristic of the city. I loved being able to read and understand the signs in Arabic. I felt very “at-home” in the environment. The diversity of the people passing through Dubai is stunning – truly a confluence between Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. I'm really hoping to explore the city sometime in the future though I feel there are some much grittier truths to Dubai under the visible blanket of gold and posh skyscrapers.

Dubai – Bangalore: An excellent flight. 3-3 seating. The superiority of these new Indian-owned airlines over traditional American carriers is stunning. I sincerely wish I was on a 13 hour long IAD-DXB flight with the Kingfisher crew rather than with the grumpy attendants on United. The cabin crew were attentive and welcoming, there was a generous amount of food and amenities (for a 4 hour flight), and the flight arrived earlier than scheduled.

Right now, I am happy to be off the plane and at my destination. Hmm...I am very excited to see what the next two months have in store...