Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hey, Bhagwaan! Oh, God! – Vingettes of India

peacock"Aa-yo" comes a piercing cry and this beautiful bird lands gracefully in the garden. With its bobbing comb, arched brilliant blue neck, and distinctive tail feathers, it prances its way towards the bowl of seeds kept especially for it. On the way, it detours to dip its head into a cuppa tea left accidentally nearby.

Driving here is a series of misses with a style characterized by: you inch forward, you wedge, you bluff, you honk, and you pray like mad. I sit with my eyes shut tight. Traffic consists of everything that moves: camels pulling hay carts, hand-push carts of produce, trucks, bicycles, cars, and cows with horns (going the other way, naturally).

horned cowNow, we're not talking measely bone protrusions here. These cows have H.O.R.N.S. If a car and a cow were to come in intimate contact, the car would lose badly by being picked up and flung into the other side of the highway. Unlike the dumb cows back home, these cows are brilliant. Relatives up north had a padlock on the double main gate into the driveway. They said that some cows figured out how to hook their horns into the top latch to open the gate.

rickshawOf a sudden, a three-seater three-wheeler rickshaw darts forward on our left, with four people in the front, six in the back, discotheque lights, and hopping music. A shared taxi ride for the weary back home.

Towing a car implies a three-foot jute rope tied from the bumper of one car to the other. At least it wasn't the way we came down the mountains of Kerala during our honeymoon, coasting in neutral with the driver leaning out of his window rope in right hand, and a passenger in the jeep in front holding on to the rope in two hands.

No matter the technological advances on the international stage, education is a huge struggle for girl children. If Priyanka, a student in the sixth grade, is attending school, it is all because of a gritty fight her mother has been putting up at home. For her father, a watchman, girls have no business studying and wasting money. "Mother who works as a house-maid," says Priyanka, "would have none of it. She fought with my father to ensure that I go to school and not end up washing utensils." Priyanka wants to be a teacher.

camelThe Indian camels are one-humped, unlike Bactrian ones. After having examined them closely, I cannot imagine how a love scene that I read couple years ago on the back on a moving camel is remotely physically possible. How do you, er, hump when there's that huge hump in the center?

History talks about the cradle of theology as the Middle East, forgetting that four religions with billions of adherants flourish here in the subcontinent: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism.

Mosquitoes are in great supply in the Midwest, but they cannot hold a candle to these bee-like Indian ones. The only way to deter them from sucking you dry in the night are via British-Raj-style cotton mosquito nets. Très romantique.

Medieval cupboards with hooks as well as wall hooks for clothes are still the norm for clothing storage. Wealthier people indulge in heavy steel vaults for jewelry, which is worn by even the poorest folks.

banyan treeCute donkeys with silky white mane, temples with amazingly delicate filligree stonemasonry and vivid painted scenes, a sudden swath of long-legged white cranes taking off from salt paddies, and enormously wide banyan trees line roads winding through fields of wheat and cotton. It's a reminder of the historically wealthy agrarian kingdoms of South Asia that were willy-nilly, and reluctantly, thrust into the Industrial Age by the advances of the British Empire.

Queen Victoria as Empress of IndiaThe world's most extensive rail system, the telegraph, the parliamentary system, and the English language employed so eloquently by Gandhi and Nobel laureate Tagore (much to the fury of Rudyard Kipling) are some of the many legacies of the British rule. Along with those are the memories of the brutal Jalianwala Baug massacre, theft of the Kohinoor diamond (now part of the English royal collection), and indigent poverty.

There are three taps of water coming into every house, none of which is hot. Water in one tap (i.e., bacteria soup) comes from the town for one hour early morning and one hour in the evening. So backyard tanks have to be filled up with water. Who knows when those tanks are cleaned. So now we have local flora and fauna flourishing in there, in addition to, city-provided bacteria. This water comes through the second tap. Water for drinking has to be irradiated, so there's a device for that and clay pots have to be filled. This is the third tap. Hot water has to be boiled on the stove, except for a special heater that is installed just for bathing water.

Father-in-law's temple is being designed by committee and architected by the entire village. So the, er, shape is unique—no two windows are alike and all the colors of the rainbow have been utilized with artistic freedom. Since the temple is being built for this ancestral village and is dedicated to the memory of his father who was head of the village, everyone just has a good laugh over every meal and is satisfied that the villagers feel ownership towards their temple.

At the end of the day, it's just that. Laughter. The reason that makes this country work and its people survive a 5000+ year tumultuous history. My entire year's laughter is crammed in these four weeks.

Friends and Romansistas, may your holiday celebrations have tons of laughter.

Historical Romance author Christine Wells has been traveling to all sorts of fun places for the last three months: New Zealand, Japan, The Great Barrier Reef, and a beach resort. Check out her adventures here.


Diane Gaston said...

Omigosh, that was beautiful and riveting, Keira! I felt like I was there.

I am so glad there is laughter!

I think Americans often think of non-Western countries in Travelogue terms, forgeting there are real people living--and laughing--there.

Continue to have a wonderful time!

Keira Soleore said...

Thanks, Diane. I'm glad you enjoyed these tiny stories. So much new stuff goes on here every day. My mind's awhirl and I do feel behind on everything, never quite catching up. But everyone's really nice. And there's much laughter, much practicality in attitude, and a habit to take what life dishes out on the chin.

The rhythm of life is slanted towards keeping on doing things the same old way. Hence a blender or food processor takes a few generations to enter a household. Most homes do not have washers/dryers or dishwashers. They have a servant who comes over to do that. If one day, the city decides to withhold water for one of its two slots or the maid has decided not to show up, then you have to do everything by hand the hard way. Imagine wringing king-sized bedsheets by hand. Ugh! Or scrubbing enormous pots in which food for 20 people was cooked.

Anna Campbell said...

Wow, Keira, that was gorgeous. As Diane said (hello, Diane! Waving madly! Happy Holidays!), it was just like being there. I'd love to visit India one day - it's definitely on the list. What really impressed me about your post was the incredible warmth of the people. It's something I've heard before about India. My best friend visited there a couple of times and just loved it. She said it's bustling and sometimes confronting, but the people really made it worthwhile for her.

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Ooooh, I have always wanted to go to India and you just gave me a little trip. Thanks! :>

What a delicious vignette of your travels. Oh, and having scrubbed a pot used for cooking food for 20 and I don't envy anyone doing that everyday! The idea of doing those sheets by hand though...urg.

Have a wonderful, laughing rest of your journey!

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

Oh wow, that was so cool Keira, now if I am ever asked if I have been to India I can say, kinda, sorta! I so hope the little girl gets to be a teacher and doesn't have to wash utensils. I don't know them but I am so proud of her mother.

jo robertson said...

Lovely, evocative post about India, Keira. You have a knack for the devilish details.

Great job!

Louisa Cornell said...

What a magical tour of India you have provided, my dear Keira! I can hear the noise of the traffic and see the colors and shapes that are India. Amazing, amazing writing! I had to giggle at your question as to HOW someone could make love on the back of a camel! Too funny!

I have a dear friend, Avril, who lives in Mumbai (she is safe, thank goodness.) When we were in grad school she would have us over to her apartment and would cook the most exotic and taste-filled dishes.

I love the idea of a culture so infused with laughter. People truly underestimate the power of laughter to make life wonderful in any setting!

Stay safe, my friend and Merry Merry Christmas!

Donna MacMeans said...

As to humping, dear Keira - I'd say where's there's a will, there's a way. *g* Hmmm...could that be what is meant by making the camel with two backs? Okay, I'll stop now (grin).

A truly lovely post. Most informative in so many ways. I think it is an amazing trip that you are experiencing - but I shall rejoice when you're safe at home. Have a wonderful holiday.

Keira Soleore said...

FoxxxY, you'd love to visit the palaces of Jaipur and Udaipur, the tea estates of Kerala as well as the backwaters, Dilwada temple of Mt. Abu, Varanasi, some of the Himalayan terrain, Khajuraho (think Kama Sutra in stone carvings on a temple devoted to the hedonists), and Taj Mahal.

The culture is chauvinistic and "confrontational," like how Italy is, but only more so, but the warmth of the people and the social inter-connectedness is unsurpassed.

Keira Soleore said...

Jeanne, if I've whetted your appetite for travel here, then I'm blessed. There's so much to love, so much to see, so much to experience. It is rather overwhelming, but it's a trip that would make an idelible impression on your mind.

Thanks; I'm going to remember that I must laugh. THE journey begins in three hours. I'm armed with baby wipes, two bottles of sanitizer, and a gallon of bottled water.

Keira Soleore said...

Dianna, I totally agree. It takes such guts on part of her mother to have and to hold that bright future for her daughter and to be firm with her husband in a societal class that would never countenance a woman from stating her views.

Keira Soleore said...

Jo-Mama, thanks for your kind words. The devil's in the details, right? At least that's what was drummed into me last year at Nationals.

Keira Soleore said...

Louisa, you must've worried so about your friend Avril. We feel lucky that with so many of hubby's extended family and friends living in Mumbai, all of them were from the terror. The length of time it took to resolve the situation is what made the horror terrifying. I pray for the ones who made it but are undergoing post-incident trauma.

I so agree with you about the laughter. The joking makes every situation in life, no matter how bad, bearable so that you can survive through it with equanimity and move on to enjoying the good.

Keira Soleore said...

Donna and Louisa, my imagination just doesn't carry as far. Er, why not be comfortable so your mind can concentrate on more "interesting" things, rather than worry about toppling off the blasted camel?

Donna, as you know, I am dying to return home. Five weeks is far too long a vacation for a homebody like me.

Keira Soleore said...

Thank you everyone for reading and commenting. This is my last post till I'm back in Seattle (and tons of snow...it's a very white Christmas there, my neighbor tells me).

Liz Maverick said...

Loved the post, Keira! Soooooooo jealous.



Caren Crane said...

Keira, thank you for posting about your exotic trip home! India is such a vivid juxtaposition of the old and new worlds. It's fascinating to see and hear about how people cope with the almost-new and the rather old at the same time.

I had to laugh about boiling the hot water. I spoke to my mother today and she just had her water heater replaced. It started leaking days ago, so she has been without hot water for several days. My brother-in-law knows people in the construction industry, thank goodness, so he got a plumber friend to bring over a water heater and install it. No small feat on Christmas Eve! If he hadn't called in a favor, we would have been boiling water (as Mama has been) for Christmas!

I hope you get to see the snow in Seattle before it all melts. Kirsten said they have a couple of feet in Portland. Safe travels to you and Merry Christmas!

Carolyn said...

That was so fun to read! Can't wait to see more pics, too.

Nancy said...

Keira, I heard you had a beautiful blog on India up, and you do! This was so interesting, and you described it wonderfully.

I heard about all your snow. Even mail delivery stopped, as I understand it. I hope the snow is melting now, with no flooding problems.

Happy New Year!

Keira Soleore said...

Liz and Carolyn: Thanks for stopping by. I should have pictures to put up on Facebook soon.

Keira Soleore said...

Nancy, thank you for your kind words. The last week was an experience of another kind. I'm still reeling from it. A follow-up to Hey, Bhagwan is burbling in my mind.

Caren and Nancy, snow seems to have melted off in most places in Seattle, except of course, our neighborhood on the mountainside. We have it in patches with the driveway a nice slick steep patch.

Keira Soleore said...

Caren, phew, on the new water heater at your mom's. Nothing like a houseful of guests expected and the water and plumbing systems to start acting up. It's always perverse.

Talking about a juxtaposition: Honking madly, we passed an aged rickety tractor jouncing along the road doing ten mph. The right foot of the farmer was up on the dashboard, his white draped pants (like a sari for the hips & legs) had fallen back to reveal a slender calf, and one free end of his white turban was fluttering in the breeze. As we came up in front of him, I caught sight of the mobile phone in his left hand.

Cara King said...

Finally got a chance to read this post, Keira, and wow! What a wonderful collection of verbal snapshots!

And I'm with you on the whole, er, camel hump. Can't even picture acrobats managing it. ;-)

I do love home appliances! I spent too many years without a dishwasher, spent one year washing my own clothes in the sink (it seemed better than the alternative), and spent a different year with such a shoddy water-heater that we often heated water for baths in multiple pots on the stove...

But now I have all I could want, including a disposal and microwave! Heaven...

Then again, I wouldn't trade my wonderful experiences in those not-quite-so-well-applianced years for anything...

Cara (who doesn't like work if she can avoid it)

Keira Soleore said...

Thanks, Cara. Amusing, odd things happen there every day. Indians find it funny, too, not just visitors. So many people, few resources, everyone has to be creative and snag every opportunity. That sets the stage for collisions of ideas and, er, things, and much hilarity.

I'm all for home appliances, though the best ones are to be found in the bathroom: shower hed and flush toilet. But I wouldn't sneeze at the clothes washer and microwave, either.

Imagine having to haul out a pot, every time you want to warm up some milk. So now you have pot, lid, and cup to wash, instead of just the cup. Oh, and since milk arrives unpasteurized, milk has to be thoroughly boiled at home. So, imagine a whining, hungry child and me emptying one cup of hot milk into the other with a span of two feet of space in between to cool it, over and and over and over.

Cara King said...

Wow about the milk. Yes, I can picture how difficult that would be!