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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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Of all the many things I love about Indians, one thing I particularly adore is their love of celebration. There are so many holidays, so many festivals, so many excuses to dance and party and sing. And with numerous religions and cultures and languages smashed into a city like Mumbai, we certainly see all of them in full swing.

We are now in full force of one of my new favorite festivals- Ganesha Cahturthi, or known more commonly as Ganpati (Don’t know how it’s spelled, but that’s what everyone calls it!).

It’s an 11 day Hindu festival to celebrate the birthday of the Elephant God Ganesh, who is the god of wisdom and prosperity.  It’s sort of reminiscent for me of Christmas in some ways – it’s a birthday celebration where people put up lights EVERYWHERE and everyone is constantly singing. Like Christmas you could not escape the joy of Ganpati – people are swept up in the spirit everywhere.

And that spirit has come out every night since Ganpati started last weekend – people come out into the streets, sing, play instruments, and push statues of Ganesh around on a cart. This will all culminate next Wednesday (the 11th and final day) when people will push their Ganesh statues into the sea for reasons on which I am still unclear. I am determined to find out though, and certainly I will blog about it.

But just to give you a sense: Below is a compilation of celebrations on my 15 minute drive home tonight. There was not a moment where you couldn’t see a crowd gathered around their community’s Ganesh statue. You couldn’t help but be happy. You couldn’t help but want to join in and thank Ganesh for bringing everyone a bit of joy and laughter.

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Chaos. Vibrancy. Overstimulation. I’d missed that potent Mumbai blend. I wanted to be thrown right back into it.

So on our way home tonight I asked our driver if we could stop at Muhammed Ali Road. Most people only see it from above the flyover (or raised highway) on the way from South Bombay heading toward Mahalaxmi. It’s one of the Muslim areas of Mumbai and normally not particularly notable. But at night during Ramazan (the way Indian Muslims pronounce what we know as Ramadan) it comes alive.

A view of all the action on the road in the dark

Because Muslims fast all day during Ramazan, at night it’s time to celebrate. And Muhammed Ali Road is the center of Bombay’s Ramazan action. And tonight was the last night before Eid (the celebration of the end of Ramazan) so I knew we’d have to make it a priority today (jetlag be damned!).

Nisha, who is Muslim, had told us this would be a great place for us to go. She thought we would have a lot of fun. Our (Christian) driver was not so convinced.

“Ma’am, they are all gangsters here. They all get together to beat people. Look at the drivers in this area – no discipline. Why do you want to come here?”

“I don’t think it’s that bad in the main areas,” I said, trying to be tactful. I knew plenty of people who had ventured out perfectly safely to eat and celebrate. I had a sense that while there may have been some grain of truth to parts of what he said, it struck me as probably one of the many stereotypes fellow Bombayiites had about other castes and neighborhoods that they probably knew very little about.

People crowding into stalls

Besides, there was nothing but excitement and food and salesmanship surrounding us. Everywhere you looked, food was cooking on indoor and outdoor stoves, men sold bangles and kufis, stilettos and hijabs. Sellers negotiated animatedly with potential buyers. The scene goes on and on like that for miles. You can stay on the main road or venture down side streets where the food can range from typical rice dishes to the more adventurous (brains and tongues and any other animal part you can name). And if you’re driving in, don’t be in a rush. It’s wall to wall traffic as everyone tries to push their way through the crowd.

It’s hard to describe the feeling that was in the air but I guess as a Jewish person I could relate to it somewhat – after all day of fasting on Yom Kippur I’m usually giddy with excitement to eat. If I could multiply that by an entire month of fasting each day I can’t imagine how elated I would be every night just to eat and soak in the energy. It seemed sort of fitting that we were going to see Ramazan’s end right after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year. For us and everyone around us tomorrow is a new beginning.

It was a good welcome back.

One stall with one tiny light

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We marched out of the Dharavi hospital with a sense of purpose. I’d come back to begin my project here with the domestic violence prevention center. I’m going to be documenting the work they do and so I’m starting by shadowing for a few days.  I’d met up with the supervisor in the main office, but he was taking me to the field office, in the heart of the slum.

We had to go single file – there are no sidewalks in Dharavi that I’ve seen. We were walking along 60 Foot Road, which is named quite literally for the width of the street.  It’s a bustling thoroughfare with shops on either side and then trucks, cars, motorbikes, people, stray animals, and trash all crowding the road.  Because of the monsoon everything is wet and mud sticks onto my feet and legs within the first steps. At times I had to breathe through my mouth when passing a particularly garbage-filled (or excrement laden) area.

I tried mostly to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and following my leader. I kept one eye on his black shirt in front of me and one eye on the ground so I didn’t fall or step on anything that could hinder me. We maneuvered through large good carrier vehicles parked on one side of the road while cars and motorbikes went around us on the other side. It’s like an elaborate game of Frogger getting through the Dharavi streets, and you can’t stop paying attention for more than a moment.

But when I could steal away moments of attention, I tried to take in the energy of the place. It’s like it’s own small city in the middle of a metropolis. The commotion has a pattern and every shop and stand is bustling with the breath of the community. It’s colorful and chaotic and exciting – even while you’re trying not to get run over.

By the time we got to the office my sandals were soaked through and the bottom of my blue kurta was splattered with mud and dust and who knows what else. The office is mostly just an empty room with no windows and no formal door – paint cracked on walls that were entirely empty except one team photo. Everyone sat on the floor, paying no attention to the one piece of furniture in the room, a desk with an unused old computer. But the circle of women that occupied the space filled the room with their vibrancy.

I took my shoes off and sat with the women, who were diligently writing in notebooks on wooden trays perched on their laps. One volunteer, who had been brought along to translate for me, alerted the group to my presence. In Hindi she explained who I was and why I was there. Everyone looked up and smiled at me – without words I knew I was welcome.

Through slow translations I began asking questions. The most vocal of the group, a woman of approximately 30 in a blue kurta with her hair pulled into a tight bun, started by explaining their day to day activities. In the morning they document the previous day’s work (hence the writing when I walked in) and do office activities. In the afternoon they hold sessions.  The sessions consist of groups of women from the community who want to talk about any issue that’s bothering them, whether it be sanitation concerns, food rationing, or safety. The field workers try to use these sessions to solve community issues as well as raise the problems of domestic violence.  Even though all of this was being said to me in Hindi, the woman speaking looked straight at me as she talked, as though she wanted to make sure the message was coming through.

I asked why the subject of domestic violence had to be addressed in such a roundabout way. A quiet woman in an orange sari with a slew of bangles and earrings responded animatedly once my question was raised. She said it’s an impossible topic in Dharavi. No one would come to their group sessions if they were just speaking primarily about domestic violence. Most of the time, if a woman raises the issue, she begins by saying she has a cousin or a neighbor who is experiencing violence in the home. Then the workers have to approach her later to find out if it is really she who is in need of help or counseling.

We talked for over an hour through translations about the various work they do beyond the group sessions – outreach campaigns and talks and films, youth groups and now even a men’s group. They have an upcoming campaign August 15th for Indian Independence day where they will try to recruit new members. They’re also now training more active members in how to deal with domestic violence throughout the community beyond the group sessions.

The women truly lit up when I asked why each of them had decided to make a career out of community work. All the field workers are originally from Dharavi and all the ones I spoke to had originally gotten involved through the groups they now lead. Most of them originally didn’t even know you could have a job where your duties were just helping others. But as every one went around the circle and told their individual stories it was clear that each had been inspired by the small changes they could create and now all were devoting their life to it.

We took a break for lunch before they went out into the community for their afternoon work. I sat, hesitant. I certainly didn’t want to get sick from eating street food in Dharavi. But even before the Hindi was translated I could see that they all wanted to share their food with me. They all now had questions for me and it was my time to share. As they pulled out their rotis and various vegetables they started quickly asking questions to my translator while motioning for me to eat.

I didn’t want to be rude. I couldn’t be rude – they had answered every question I had and had welcomed me in without hesitation.  And now they wanted to share with me.  So I took a roti, said a little internal prayer hoping to not get sick, and ate. As I ate I answered all their questions – why was I here in India? What country did I come from? Did I like being in Mumbai? Did I miss home? Did I like Indian food? Through the translation they all laughed and smiled and kept asking more and more questions.

And when lunch was over and they were off for their afternoon work I said goodbye and made my way back through the crazy streets of Dharavi. I’d be back the next day to see the group sessions and I already felt truly lucky to be able to watch them work in this place they loved so much.

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One of the most interesting effects of the monsoon is how it can stop anything in an instant. And in a city as vibrant and full of life as Bombay, that truly is something.

Rickshaw in water

You can be driving along a road at a normal speed in normal traffic when suddenly the rain comes out of nowhere. It only takes a moment sometimes; clear-looking skies and dry weather are overtaken first by small drops, then persistent rain, then a heavy downpour, then rain so thick you can’t see your hand in front of you. And that whole shift can take place in a matter of seconds.

In that instant, the traffic snarls to a halt. Windshield wipers are practically useless in the deluge. Hazard lights are turned on just so that each car will know where the cars around them are basically located. A trip that could take 30 minutes suddenly takes two hours.

You can always spot a few victims once the rain lets up enough to let you see out. Usually in heavily flooded areas you’ll see abandoned rickshaws, not strong enough to get out of a flooded area.  Parts of roads will remain flooded for hours afterwards, since the water has nowhere to drain.

I’ve gotten sort of used to living this daily rainy existence – there’s never a full day respite, but some days aren’t so heavy or often it’s just a light drizzle. And I know what to expect once heavy rains start to fall.

But the one thing I can’t get used to is our internet connection.

Our high-tech cable running from our roof to our neighbor's roof

It was installed as soon as we moved in, and the process itself was humorous. A cable was run from a few buildings over – over and around and up the side of our apartment building the cable went. It’s not underground, it’s not through a wall, it’s just across some buildings and drilled neatly into our wall.  But it’s a cable and it seemed simple enough. We bought a wireless router and thought that that would be that.

However, nothing is so simple. It stops working at best for an hour a day. Sometimes, like now, it stops working for a few days at a time. And every time Daniel calls up the company they say “nothing works right in the monsoon.”  If the power goes out in one of the buildings along our one cable line, no one has internet (At least, this is what they say. I don’t know if I actually believe that this is the real reason).

Now, I understand why our cable dish doesn’t always work in the monsoon. We get a message on our tv saying something is wrong and I think of the small dish trying to get a signal through the deluge. But a cable? What could be so wrong with this cable every day? How can the monsoon be an excuse for constant failure of an entire product?

Our television during heavy monsoon...

Yet it’s everyone’s excuse here – our carpenter was late because of the monsoon (what exactly about the monsoon, we don’t know), people are always late to dinners and meetings because of the monsoon, our shipment was late, items can’t be delivered because of the monsoon. Doesn’t this happen every year? Don’t you think by now people could have figured out how to work around it? It’s a bad rain, but its just rain.   It apparently is also a great excuse.

So today I am only connected to the wider world via a wireless card Daniel can plug into his computer. It’s slow but it’s a useful backup – after all, there’s still another month of monsoon. Who knows when our internet will come back on again.

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As our dinner wound down we were warned, “Make sure you leave before midnight. That’s when the bandh will start and you don’t know what kind of protests there will be.”

We’d been lucky enough to be invited to the home of a friend who lives with her family in South Bombay. Being in a home around a family made Mumbai feel like my own safe home. But we had to escape the previously safe roads before the city turned into the proverbial pumpkin at midnight.

No one knew what the scale of the bandh would be – but we didn’t want to be out and about to find out.

A bandh, as I had learned earlier, is the Indian version of a strike. This one was called by the opposition parties over rising fuel prices and the end to some fuel subsidies.

Unlike any strike we see in the US, this bandh was stopping a billion people from working, shopping, going to school or safely traversing their streets. And even more unlike the US, while the opposition parties sponsor the bandh, it doesn’t just effect the supporters who decide to come out and rally– it shuts the whole country down. It would be as if the Republican Party declared a strike against the health care bill and every person across every state in the nation stayed home for an entire day.

It doesn’t mean that the whole country was necessarily in agreement with the bandh or that every part of India was massively affected. Some cities saw much more active protests and riots. Other cities didn’t appear to participate on any large scale. And even on a more individual level, most of the people we spoke to here in Mumbai were closing shop or staying home more out of a fear for safety than a sign of solidarity with the protesters.

News coverage of the bandh in Mumbai

Then again, there were reports of protests turning violent even in Mumbai, so there clearly was anger over the issue for some segments of the population.

We’d been warned that if we did go out, we should wait until the afternoon, since the protests usually were more active in the morning in order to catch the news cycle and get coverage (some things NEVER change wherever you are).

Last night was our final evening in the guesthouse, since our furniture had arrived and we could officially move in – so our plan was to head over to the apartment in the morning. We figured since we live in suburban Bandra (and most of the municipal buildings and transport centers are in South Bombay) the likelihood of the protesters reaching us seemed slim. But as we watched news coverage in the morning of some of the protests across the country and in Mumbai we decided to heed the warning of the native Mumbaikers we’d spoken to and wait until the afternoon to gather our suitcases and make the short 5 minute drive to our apartment.

An empty Turner Rd - one of the main streets near us

When we left the guesthouse, the street was as empty as if it were 3am – but the sunny skies turned the scene upside-down. Shops were closed and very few cars drove in the streets. The frenetic soul of Mumbai seemed to have vanished and all that was left was the city’s shell.

But the emptiness didn’t seem fearful. Our gut instinct about our portion of Bandra not being a target appeared correct, and we made it easily over to our apartment (so much easier than normal, in fact, since we had no insane traffic to contend with).
We lived out the rest of the bandh in our own oblivious unpacking mode. By the evening both the traffic and the monsoon had returned – all was back to normal. It’s yet to be seen whether the bandh has any political impact. But whatever the outcome, I have to admit that I, at least, was impressed by the massive feat of stopping approximately one out of every six people in the world in their tracks for a day.

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I am beginning to understand the root of “Indian Time” a little bit better. It’s not (as my Indian friends at home would have me believe) just an Indian way of life where they are allowed to be late to things because its inherent to Indians.

I think in actuality it’s related to something much simpler. Indians are late to everything because, at least here in Mumbai, there are NO STREET ADDRESSES.

That’s right. Street addresses do not exist. In fact, street names are barely recognized. Instead, there’s a system, that doesn’t work, of just telling someone what ‘landmark’ you’re near, and then hoping for the best. But when they say landmark, they just mean another place or business. So when we give someone directions to our apartment, it goes something like this:

“It’s La Paloma, it’s on St Cyril Road across from St Anthony’s road. Do you know it? Ok, well do you know where Turner Road is? It’s off Turner Road, towards St Andrews College. No? Do you know where Holy Family Hospital is? How about the American Express bakery? Yes? You want me to meet you there and then show you? Ok. I’ll meet you at the bakery.”

This is really how it has to be done. Because you can’t just say “Oh when you get to the bakery go straight, turn right on St Dominic and then left on St Cyril because NONE of these roads would have a sign indicating that that is actually the name of the street.

Not to mention that the main road, Turner Road, actually (if you look at a map) technically changes into Gurunanak Marg right before our house – but no one knows that. To them it’s still just Turner Road. Even after it THEN turns into Perry Rd.

And you’d think you could solve this problem with a driver, but you can’t. Today I wanted to go a store to buy some Indian style clothes. The store is well known and its called FabIndia (I could delve into the awesomeness of that name, but I won’t now). And when you look it up online the address is: Navroze Building, Next To HDFC Bank, Pali Hill (Yes, that is the actual full address). So you’d think you could find it easily – but you would be wrong.

When we went to Pali Hill (an area in Bandra), near the market there is an HDFC Bank but no FabIndia. We drove around, asked around, looked around. Nothing. We finally called FabIndia and solved the mystery. We were meant to know its next to the OTHER HDFC bank in Pali Hill. Up Zigzag road. Not by the market. Obviously.

This applies to any address. For example, one of my personal favorites is the address for Phoebe’s groomer. It is (and I mean this is the actual mailing address):

Tail Waggers Pet Salon
Near Hotel Mini Punjab
Pali Village Behind Hawaiian Shack
16th Road
Bandra West, Mumbai 400050

It’s hilarious, completely Indian and yet an all encompassing theory to explain the Indian loose relationship with time. It’s inherently frustrating but you can’t help but love a city where people find their way around SOLELY based on trusting everyone’s local knowledge.

So if you want to come visit me, just remember: La Paloma doesn’t exist. Just go to the tree in the middle of the road in St Anthonys Rd next to the hospital, next to Lemongrass Restaurant, next to CitiBank, next to Crosswords bookshop. Then ask someone where to go. And don’t worry if you’re late- we’re all on ‘Indian Time’ here.

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