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Posts Tagged ‘crazy’

There are days when I feel like I understand India. And then there are days where I sit agape, wondering how on earth I came to live in this country.

The sign near the border

Yesterday was one of the latter days. We had arrived in Amritsar in Punjab and decided to make our way to the Wagah Border to watch the evening border closing between India and Pakistan. We’d heard it was a spectacle not to be missed and so we left our hotel early to get good seats.  I knew the scenery was changing when I saw a sign letting me know that Lahore was only 23 kilometers away (apparently, before partition Lahore was part of Punjab with a thriving Hindu and Sikh community. After partition the non-Muslims fled the West and the Muslims fled East).

We approached the border and were swarmed by a sea of hawkers – this was not a solemn or serious occasion. We could buy DVDs, Indian flags or popcorn. We made our way through an immense crowd, in and out of security checkpoints and on to the ‘VIP’ entrance. Apparently being a foreigner makes us VIP. The Indians want anyone not from their country to have an excellent view when they put Pakistan to shame.

The inda crowd

We walked into a stadium that was already full an hour before the ceremony began. We took our seats as a bus was crossing from the India side to the Pakistan side – the Indians in the crowd cheered and waved.   The Indian guards in their fantastical fan-shaped hats stood stoically, trying to keep the crowd under control.

I looked to the left and saw Pakistan – they also had a stadium but it was mostly empty.  I kept wanting more of a glimpse; I wanted to somehow understand India’s neighbor from across the gate.

Running with the flags

As we waited we got a preview of how silly the whole ceremony would be.  They started a relay race with large Indian flags. Children ran giddily, gripping the flags. For some children the flags proved too heavy – and when even an edge of the flag touched the ground the guards would sternly chastise them and take the flag away, handing it off to the next participant. As music blared I started to notice that the Pakistan side was coming together. They too were playing music and someone was waving a flag around. As time went on both sides of the music grew louder and louder, as though diplomatic superiority could be ascertained by the decibel of sound blaring.

Dancing to Jai Ho

As the time grew nearer we were treated to a round of India’s favorite song – ‘Jai Ho’, which Americans know as the song at the end of Slumdog Millionaire – and a spontaneous dance party.  While the guards were blowing their whistles at anyone standing they seemed completely okay with the dozens upon dozens of women who had come down to the center to dance as vigorously and excitedly as they possibly could, as though their dancing could drown out the sound of Pakistan’s music.

Marching guards

But then it was time to begin. The eccentrically festooned guards marched into a line, legs kicking and hands saluting. They then began a call – it just sounded like someone seeing how long they could make a sound without taking another breath – that was immediately replicated on the Pakistan side. Indians cheered; Pakistanis cheered. I really couldn’t make out that it was anything more than a contest of lung capacity.

I looked over to the Pakistan side, which by now was mostly full. The men and women were separated on either side of their stadium. But I was struck with how similar the Pakistani women looked to the Indian women. Where I expected to see a sea of black, instead I saw mostly colorful saris and kurtas. Most of their heads were covered, unlike on the India side, but I wouldn’t have been able to easily differentiate the crowd. It was strange to see a place that we read about so often in a negative context or hear of as a place of danger. At that moment they seemed just like the Indians that they used to be so close to.

Flags lowering, with Pakistan in the background

The absurdity continued with long high-stepping and fast paced marching.  It was like something you’d see in an over-acted Gilbert and Sullivan spectacular. Their movements were so highly choreographed and theatrical I wondered how they did it every day with a straight face.

The gates between the two countries were opened so each side could furiously untie their flag rope, as though doing it faster than the other was another sign of dominance.  As the flags came down both sides tried to drown out the other with their cheers.  And then, with a flourish, the gate was slammed shut as hard as they could do it.

As we walked out I saw a sign proclaiming: “Welcome to India, the World’s Largest Democracy.” There would always be another opportunity to try and make the Pakistanis feel inferior. I’m not sure which side ‘won’ (or whether anyone could actually win at a display of complete silliness), but I certainly enjoyed the effort.

(I didn’t get a great video of it, but here’s a link to a good one if anyone wants to witness the craziness:)

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I sometimes forget that only a few months ago India was a complete unknown to me – I think and behave now as though I belong or that I have a deeper understanding of my adopted country. I haggle and head-bobble to the point of surprising (and maybe even disturbing) friends who aren’t accustomed to my adopted Indian ways.

But of course, every time I think I’ve got it all figured out, India reminds me that I know nothing.

Coming to Tamil Nadu was like a kick in the gut – my Hindi means nothing here in a Tamil-speaking stronghold. After being assured by everyone up and down that there was no possible chance of rain post-monsoon, we encountered an afternoon storm. Familiar food staples have been upended by a world of thalis and dhosas. Despite having spent time in South India in Kerala, Tamil Nadu seems like an entire world away from safe familiar Bandra – and every Tamil I meet is happy and eager to explain to me how different they are from ‘northerners’. I have to say, it feels amazing to be reminded that whatever Indians might call me-  white person, foreigner, gora or ‘Canadian,’ (what one Tamil person seemed to think the Tamil word was for Caucasian) – as a perpetual outsider I will always have quite a lot to learn and be surprised by.

Sri Rangan temple

Our time in Tamil Nadu has centered around seeing temples- another thing I thought I could no longer be surprised by. After Angkor Wat and Borobudur and Prambhanan and Ranakpur I sort of thought I’d run the gamut. But because I’m traveling with two friends who hadn’t been to India before I thought that temples were a pretty important stop – and I’m lucky they let me come along with them, because South Indian temples are unique and powerful unto themselves. Over the last four days we explored temples in Trichy, Tanjore and, today, the epic Meenakshi temple of Madurai.

All of us on a roof facing one of the Vimana's of Sri Rangan

In Trichy we saw the Sri Ranganthaswamy Temple (Or Sri Rangan for short, thankfully). Dedicated to the god Vishnu, it’s a massive temple within walls within other walls over 156 acres that has been continuously built over the last 1,000 years. The most recent tower was only completed in 1987, but others date back to what is believed to be the 11th century. We got all of this information from a guide named ‘Bruce Lee,’ who insisted on telling us serious stories about Hinduism interspersed with showing us his favorite Karma Sutra carvings.  He also showed us how to be blessed by an elephant representing the god Ganesh – I told M and K they’re probably going to have to fib on their customs forms when asked whether they’ve been near livestock (see video below to watch the elephant in action!).

Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjore

Our next temple was the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjur, dedicated to Shiva. Built in 1010 during the Chola Empire, this UNESCO World Heritage site boasts India’s tallest Vimana, or temple tower. Standing under the sandy-colored intricately carved granite stone, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the structure – how could anyone reach those heights and carve stones so finely without scaffolding or machinery? These thoughts kept getting distracted by the dozens of tourists hounding us to take our picture – I was once again reminded of how bizarre we must seem. Two white women and a white man wandering around their temple, snapping photos and laughing amongst ourselves. One man wanted to try on M’s sunglasses while children crowded to look at the magical photos popping up on the back of K’s camera. It was a funny sensation to be among the familiar- two of my oldest friends – while being treated like the most interesting oddities around.

Exterior of Meenakshi Temple

But we certainly saved the best for last.

Interior of Meenakshi Temple

In Madurai we got to see Tamil Nadu’s most renowned and beloved place of worship – the Meenakshi Temple. We were delighted to learn this was the only Indian Hindu temple devoted to a woman, Meenakshi (or Parvati), the wife of Shiva. It is one of the largest Hindu temples in the world and certainly one of the most elaborate. While the structure was built in the 17th century, it is believed a temple has stood in this spot since at least the 7th century – and today it represents the center of the sprawling, dusty, decidedly non-colonial city of Madurai.

Getting a bracelet knotted

It was hard for me to ever imagine a city crazier than Bombay, but I think Madurai is it. It is loud and bumpy and often incredibly over-run with advertising and run-down buildings – but it has also proven to be a place where M, K and myself have all relished in meeting and interacting with a population that wants to display their (self-described) southern hospitality.  Everyone we meet – even the people blatantly trying to sell us something – has wanted to convey to us that their portion of India has as much to offer as the more heavily-trafficked north. And our guide, Natarajan, at the Meenakshi Temple, made it a point of pride to try and make sure no one took advantage of us or sold us anything too expensive. It was wonderful to take in the beauty of the temple, but I think the highlight by the end was the jokes we could share with the tailors we were haggling with or the bracelet tied on our hands (for no money! no money!) by a shop-keeper.

Tomorrow we are leaving Tamil Nadu to go into the mountains of Kerala. It will be a sharp departure from the crazy city into the lush plantations, but I feel glad just to have gotten this taste of the south. And if I forget, I’ll be able to look down at the bracelet securely knotted on my arm and remember the place that helped jolt me out of my own India bubble.

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I know I’ve been having some technical difficulties here of late, but I didn’t expect for the actual sky to fall down.

Early Sunday morning, as I was just starting to wake up with my first cup of tea in my pajamas, I got a knock on my door from one of our downstairs neighbors.

“Do you mind coming to look at something? I’m really sorry to bother you,” she said, tentatively. I didn’t know what could be so important that early, but I said yes and started walking down the stairs with her.

“I just thought you should see this,” she said. I was now really curious. We walked into the apartment and I gasped- all of the plaster from the ceiling in their bedroom had fallen down. The light fixture was hanging by a cord, dangling precariously. I could see every beam and it was clear that the damage had come from some water damage above. Her boyfriend was talking angrily in Hindi to a construction worker who was assessing the damage. I realized we were standing right below our terrace.

“When did this happen?” I asked. I didn’t want to ask how it happened, since I was pretty sure it was coming from somewhere in our apartment.

She explained that the night before she and her boyfriend had heard a crash while they had guests over- luckily they had been in the living room. They came into the room and saw the damage. They had called their landlord who obviously had contacted the builder of the building.

We decided to go up to the terrace and try to figure out where it was all coming from. It became pretty obvious once we saw that the space where rain water was supposed to drain was directly above the area where the ceiling had collapsed.

The builder’s ‘man’ arrived and tried to smooth-talk us all. Oh, it will only take a few days to fix. Oh, it’s not a big deal. Oh, this is pretty standard.

We insisted on getting their time-line in writing. Suddenly they weren’t such smooth talkers. Eventually we got them to agree to a timetable in writing and we concluded that they would start working on Tuesday.

It’s sometimes a scary thing in India when you consider the lax building codes and standards. Another friend of ours also had her ceiling collapse a few weeks ago – and hers included beams and everything, so I guess we got lucky. In the US we take for granted the stringent standards and building codes – it would make news if a part of a building collapsed. But here, it’s not really something anyone would bat an eye at. Now I know this post has probably scared my mother so I’m going to say this: the areas of the ceiling that collpased were cosmetic and fell because they were damaged by water. All the structure and beams were thankfully intact and show no signs of wear! But its still a bit jarring to see everyone so blase about something that could have potentially been dangerous.

And I felt really bad for our neighbors – they were getting the ceiling of their other room checked out a well, which would mean a hole carved in their second bedroom’s ceiling. They had no full roof to sleep under! After everyone left, Daniel offered our neighbors some beer – I thought we might as well enjoy the terrace if it was wreaking so much havoc. They agreed and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon enjoying some beer, then lunch, then a cup of tea all a few feet from the drainage that had made their sky fall in. It was a lemonade from lemons moment – we all might have to deal with a lot of builders over the next few weeks, but at least we got to know the people who live in such close proximity.

We’ll see whether the builders show up tomorrow.

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