Friday, August 27, 2010
As soon as we learned we'd be going to India, we wrote to our dear friend Rishi, a former student of ours who hails from outside of Mumbai. He immediately wrote back with wonderfully detailed advice about each of the cities we'd be visiting, and told us some good news: He'd actually be in Delhi at the same time we were there, so we'd get to meet up!
That was the good news. But here was his unvarnished take on the city:
New Delhi - Hot and really really disgusting, in almost every way. I'm actually sad that I'll be seeing you in this truly terrible place. The Commonwealth Games - the Olympics for the "we used to be part of the empire" world, are beginning in October in Delhi. The city is scrambling to make all sorts of deadlines, including construction of a whole lot of crap. The Delhi Metro (which everyone will tell you about) is also under construction, and it means that the shortest driving distance will take hours.
Now, Rishi is a champion complainer. He has the comic's gift for complaining about everything, big and small, but being so entertaining about it that you would never ever say he has a bad attitude.
So we took his condemnation of the city with a grain of salt. And thus, with our expectations properly in check, we arrived in Delhi late one hot and rainy afternoon, and met up with Rishi, who whisked us around the city on a whirlwind tour.
Aside from the day we landed, our duties with the Consulate had us scheduled to within an inch of our life, so we really didn't get a chance to see many of the monuments the city is famous for.
But on that first evening, Rishi ushered us into the Jantar Mantar ten minutes before closing. It's a huge astronomical observatory built in the early 1700s that today feels like it was made for amazing photo ops.
And then we saw the Gate of India, both a memorial to Indians who died fighting for the British in both World War I and Afghanistan, and a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Turns out it's also not a bad place to buy postcards.
We concluded the night with a leisurely meal at Veda, a very hip, newish restaurant from the fashion designer Rohit Bal. It feels like a hangout for sexy Indian vampires, as envisioned by Moghuls who dabble in time travel and have a penchant for perfectly cooked kebabs.
We would have liked to see the Red Fort, but alas, time did not permit. Rishi described it so vividly, I'm going to share his description with you anyhow:
I would really recommend seeing the Red Fort, it was built by the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal, and it is absolutely beautiful. The ceilings in some of the outdoor rooms were once studded with gold, diamonds and rubies - incomparable. Its also deeply depressing as, when the British invaded, they built their barracks in front of the fort, ousting the emperor. The gold and diamonds essentially became their personal piggy bank in the backyard, and they plundered like it was their job (which it was).
We got to see Rishi once more, following our performance. He and Prabh (another Colby alum, though not one of our students) took us out to a private club that Prabh is a fourth-generation member of.
These clubs are a big deal in India. In no small part because alcohol is heavily taxed all over India, except at these private clubs, which the government treats as non-profits. It's quite a loophole. Prabh's parents put him on the waiting list the day he was born. (Ok, maybe the day after.)
Afterwards, Prabh gave us a ride back to our hotel. He was driving his mother's car, and the amusing thing about this car was that it had both a Colby sticker on the back, and a stuffed lobster within, which Prabh say have been there ever since he was accepted into Colby.
So though we didn't get to see too much of India's capital city, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with Rishi and Prabh, who gave a very human and personal touch to our time in Delhi.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
This lush, fascinating city was a wonderful surprise, a real high point in our time in India thus far. Of the five cities we are visiting on this tour, it was the only one neither of us had heard of prior to the invitation, but now that we've visited, we can't wait to go back.
Here are four highlights of our time in Hyderabad:
1. Attending the Night Markets around Charminar during Ramadan
...and then going to the famous Irani hotel, Medina, and ordering haleem, a dish they only make during Ramadan. It's made of mutton and wheat and ghee, and lots of spices, and it's all boiled together for at least 12 hours.
And how was it? Well, both Mike and I really liked the flavor, but the texture takes some getting used to. Basically, the meat is boiled until it disintegrates into long stringy pieces, so you can't tell the meat apart from anything else. A kind of meaty pudding, if you will.
It reminded me of the recent season of Top Chef Masters, in which Marcus Samuelsson showed off his African cooking skills, and the judges were like, "These flavors rock, but, um, is the texture supposed to be this way?"
And he was like, "Yeah. Totally."
And they were like, "Oh. Ok. You win."
2. Conducting a workshop with up-and-coming young theater artists
These are some of the participants, having coffee and cookies with us in the courtyard of one of the buildings of the famous Nizam who once ruled all of Hyderabad, and whom Time magazine put on their cover in 1937 as being the richest man in the world.
Also there was one of those incredibly sharp Indian mutts, whom Mike and I have taken to calling "The Great Indian Street Dog." Smart little guys, navigating busy streets at just a few weeks old when I can barely do the same at 33. This one was particularly charismatic, and managed to cajole at least a dozen cookies out of the participants (and none from us, the dog-worshiping Americans!).
3. Walking barefoot across the white marble of a Hindu temple
After Mike launched the workshop, I walked up the hill to this all-white, glowing marble temple, one of many throughout India built by the wealthy Birla family.
Sadly for this post, no cameras were allowed inside, but I can tell you that it made the whole experience like a peaceful dream.
We checked our shoes at the door, and it's true that there's a connection you feel with the ground when barefoot. You become so much more aware of your every step.
The path through the temple wound us round and round the marble edifice, until it led us to its heart, where holy men laid their hands on people.
I had no clue what the customs were; I just watched everyone else and they were tolerant of me, the only white face in the bunch. As people left they marked each other's foreheads and laid pieces of rock sugar on their tongues.
I noticed that some of the mothers holding young children also had markings on the side of their necks and cheeks--from where the foreheads of their little ones had rubbed against them, I realized.
The whole temple sits at the top of a hill, so a welcome cool breeze blows throughout. Overhead, falcons circled, and incense seemed to be wafting from the surrounding green treetops.
It was absolutely wonderful.
4. Performing our show about technology and lust and consequences for a packed house of IT workers and business students
The thing about theater is that you can't distribute it as easily as you can a movie or even a book. Mike has to be there each and every time the thing is shown, and he's only got 365 days in his year, just like the rest of us.
So it really was an awesome treat to get to perform this show for a crowd of young IT workers and future business leaders. It was probably worth the whole trip to India, just having this time with these people, for whom China is not a far-away place, and for whom the implications of the shifting market are very, very real. It was a gift.
Hyderabad is a huge IT hub, rivaling Bangalore, and the hall where we performed was just down the street from a huge Microsoft campus--the first one built outside of my home state.
And sure enough, we had lots of Microsoft employees there, iPhones in hand, eager to discuss the piece afterward.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Awesome email from my mom, who's taking care of this dude while we're in India:
Baci is very disappointed because the squirrels took the ripe plums and peaches leaving nothing to pick or drop to his level. He is a perfect gentleman. Andy took his chew toy and went to work on it--he gently tried to get her attention, gently squeaked, circled her a few times, finally licked her, then lay down in front of her so she wouldn't forget that it really was his toy. She continued to chew and ignore him until she finally went to bed and he got his chance to enjoy the chewy. I have never seen such a gentle patient dog.
You should be proud of him.
And here they are, Baci and Andy together. I call them "Salt & Pepper."
(What's that you say? This is much less interesting than India? You want pictures of the Taj Mahal and sadhus and IT workers and night markets and bangles? Ok, ok, jeez...back to work.)
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Chennai was our very first stop in India, and I thought I'd take a moment to list some quick impressions and surprises. Also, there will be some photos, because Tarina has asked for them.
--ornamentation: On cars, on humans, on doorways, folks here are really good at adding color and character to the everyday. I particularly like the designs made of flour that are drawn out on the sidewalk in front of a home to protect it through the day. I think someone told me they are called kolom, but I have no idea if I've remembered that right.
--jasmine: Many women wear jasmine garlands in their hair, and drivers sometimes hang jasmine garlands from their windshield. Pushed up against someone on the bus yesterday, I found it a welcome scent.
--dress: Before I got here I thought that saris would be more for dress-up rather than everyday. Not so! Almost every woman I see is dressed in a sari, and a few in salwar kameez, and all in very bright, vivid colors. I am struck by how plain and colorless my garb is by contrast. Even the women cleaning the theater and sweeping the floors with long twig brooms were wearing beautiful saris.
--hair: I also feel like the only woman in all of India with short hair. Will this change when I get to Mumbai and Delhi?
--markings: I expected bindhis and red dots on the foreheads of married women, but I didn't expect the metallic markings some men wear, including a man I saw on the street with three lines radiating out from his third eye, or the gold smudge that glowed from the forehead of the man in charge of lighting at our theater.
--bobble heads: It took me a while to get used to this very Indian head movement, a kind of side-to-side wobble of the head that indicates the listener is hearing you, but that I first took as a kind of annoyance or signifier that what I was asking for was impossible.
--language: My ignorance of the diversity of India was pretty astounding. (I still know very little, but I'm learning.) There are so many languages here! In Chennai the theater technicians all spoke Tamil, with someone there to help translate for me, and here in Hyderabad it's Telugu and Urdu. But even that makes it sound more streamlined than it actually is. Most Indians speak two or three tongues in addition to Hindi or English.
And now, some pictures, accompanied by guest commentary from Mike!:
View from our hotel room. I feel like this illustrates the nature of luxury in India--when it exists, it exists in islands, and the state of one's surroundings makes it clear the vast differences that exist right next to each other. Perhaps this is why the hotels try to be more like fortresses, locking the luxury in and the squalor out.
A roadside shrine. These are everywhere, and the colors are intense--the ones with huge Ganeshes are my favorites.
A comparatively calm street scene in Chennai. I love the retro seventies filter on this, achieved accidentally by the polarization on the US Consulate vehicles we were riding in.
Me posing next to an image of myself. This started a furious round of picture-taking.
Talking with folks after the show. The performance was extremely well received--Indians, it turns out, love to hear someone who knows very little about their culture provide insights into their fundamental natures. The fact that Foxconn has factories in Chennai doesn't hurt, either--it really makes globalism feel like a real presence, instead of just a dry business concept.
The day before we left for India, we had a huge party to celebrate my father's 80th birthday. At this party, our dog helped himself to not one but two gin and tonics that a guest graciously left on the floor for him. This was in addition to all the human food he managed to cadge.
By the time the guests had left and it was time for Mike and me to pack, Baci had passed out on the middle of the bed, drunk and stuffed. He was snoring, with the tip of his pink tongue hanging out. He remained passed out like this, completely immobile, until it was morning and we shook him awake to say our goodbyes.
While in India, my mom and dad are taking care of him. Lucky pug.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
I have always wanted to go to India.
As a child, I was immersed in Indian folk tales and mesmerized by Indian fashions. I read the Ramayana three times over the course of my public school education in Seattle; in the fourth grade, I played Ravanna’s evil sister, Surpanakha, who tries to seduce Rama and steal him away from Sita.
(Other favorite stage roles from that era include the Native American wicked witch Swayook, the vain and imperious goddess Hera, and the baby-stealing, hard-bitten Imogene from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. By twelve years old I’d discovered that playing the villain is always more fun than playing the ingénue, even if they do get to wear a prettier costume. At thirteen I got cast as a girl who kept accidentally beating up boys; we did eleven shows a week, which meant I only had to go to school on Mondays, and the money I made eventually went to paying for the first show I directed and produced my senior year of high school.)
(But I digress.)
In the neighborhood I grew up in there was an older couple who lived a few doors down from us who went to India to do Peace Corps. When they came back they told us stories of their time there, including time spent working with Mother Teresa. I was in awe. And when I said, rather wistfully, “I want to go to India,” the woman punctured my wist with a very matter-of-fact, “Well then you will. If you really want to, then you will.”
And now, here I am.
But it’s a funny thing. I have many friends who have come here. They saved up and planned for this trip for months, sometimes years. One followed her guru here. All of them came as backpackers, staying in humble accommodations, traveling like locals, making their money streeeeetch over the months they had to spend here.
Me? I’m in a funny place. Because I didn’t spend months/years planning and scheming. It fell into my lap. I looked at it and said, Really? But I'm tired. Despite this, it was still in my lap. So I said, Ok. Let's go.
Now, we’ve been running hard this year. In 2010 we’ve been in our Brooklyn home a total of maybe 21 days. That’s it. The rest of the year we’ve been in DC, Tallahassee, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Sydney, Hong Kong, China, Ireland, New Jersey, Cape Cod…everywhere but home. So we were looking forward to a very quiet August. Lots of rest. Lots of not going anywhere.
But then in May we got an email from the US Consulate’s office asking us if we wanted to go to India in August. Five cities, with one workshop and one performance in each, and the monologue of our choice. How could we say no?
We couldn’t, so we said yes, and then we kept running, busy with all our other engagements up until the moment we left, pausing only to pick up a guide book which we didn’t even have time to open until we were on the 24-hour plane over.
And now, here we are.
A well-traveled friend of mine wrote me today with these words:
“And India, man.... It took me two solid weeks before I could even begin to relax just a little bit. But when you do, it's all the sweeter for realizing that in so doing you have accomplished something. You realize that you're still alive. And what's more, that you were ALWAYS okay. And that you're stronger than you'd given yourself credit for being. You're going to be a-okay!”
That’s how everyone I know who’s come here talks about India. As the most intense experience of their lives ever. Like love, like war.
I keep telling myself that our experience isn’t going to be that way. Thanks to coming through the State Department, we’ll be staying at fancy hotels. We’ll have drivers to whisk us from the airport to the classroom to the theater. We’ve given ourselves advance permission to relax, to take it easy, to not cram every moment we’re not working with essential India moments. We are willing to exchange stories like
sitting on the edge of an open train whisking through the countryside while drinking chai out of a clay cup
sitting on the edge of a rooftop pool while happily surrounded by wifi.
But I have to report that even as I write this from our HOTEL FORTRESS, I am already overwhelmed. This place has armed guards out front, mirrors to check the undercarriage of cars for bombs, $25 lunch buffets...
Feeling like a caged bird, on the first day I tried to go for a walk.
Took me about twenty minutes just to cross the street. Traffic is intense! Everyone beeping! No crosswalks! I made it across to the meridian, hung out there with a leper before I worked up the nerve to cross the rest of the way. Very Frogger-like.
Then yesterday we went to the theater for a site visit and found out that everything that could be misunderstood about our tech has been. I mean, we decided to make this thing as easy as possible: it's basically lights up, lights down. And yet! Everything becomes complicated! Meetings that were scheduled to take 30 minutes take two hours! During which time...nothing was actually accomplished!
But today is the real test, because tonight’s our first show. And I'm just so curious as to how the audience will receive Mike. They don't have any tradition of this kind of performance; not even stand-up. The interview I heard Mike give over the phone this morning was hilarious in how clearly the interviewer had no idea who Mike was or what he did.
MIKE: No, there's no music. (pause) No, I don't sing. (pause) No, no, no poetry. I just sit there and tell a story. (pause) 58? No, no, I'm 37. (pause) Self-taught. (pause) No, I will not recite a line for you. That's not how it works. (pause) Well, just because it's not written doesn't mean it's not composed. (pause) (pause) (pause) Well if you don't understand why Indians would care about what's happening in China--when you're both competing for the same markets, when corporations are moving their operations from China to India because they want to use your people in the same way they've used the Chinese--if you can't see why that would pertain to you, then you're just blind or have no imagination. (pause) Yes, thank you for your time. Goodbye.
I’ll keep you posted.