Sunday, February 20, 2011

Happy 6 month anniversary, India!

Namaste! On Friday night, Rachel and I went out for our weekly Zagat Shabbat, during which we mark the Shabbos by trying out different restaurants in Mumbai. Some fellows celebrate at Chabad, and I eat my way through this delectable city. I find it an appropriate way to embrace my Judaism. Anyway, on this particular day we felt like we wanted to treat ourselves. I had spent the past four hours campaigning and walking through the slum, and Rachel, well Rachel just likes good food. We decided to check out this place called Souk at the Taj hotel. It was probably a mistake, but we thought we could get something for about $20 each, which was exciting, because I've only spent that much on a meal here once. The meal was wonderful, and it ended up being MUCH more than $20, and I freaked out because spending more than $20 on anything here makes me uncomfortable, since my monthly stipend (rent included) is $426. Rachel's solution? Stop worrying and drink your wine, we're celebrating our sixth month anniversary.

Over the past few days I have been reflecting over what having survived six months here means, and preparing myself for a daunting 5+ months ahead of me. Luckily, our midpoint retreat is next week, so I will get to contemplate many of my concerns on the beach, maybe while eating squid. Not sure if they have squid, but I can dream, right? But in the mean time, my thoughts:

Being in India has taught me a lot about being in relationships. I'm in a relationship with Mumbai. You don't just live in a place, you love it, you hate it, you fight, it gives, you take, you give, it takes. The communication might be different, that's a given, since Mumbai speaks in about 18 official languages, and about 100 others. I often tell India to go fuck itself, screaming at the top of my lungs, or as loud as I can without my neighbors referring to me as that crazy white person (probably already do), and it responds, with horns, with daybreak Hindu chants and afternoon calls to prayer and squawks from chickens about to be slaughtered, with didi, chocolate? biscuit? one rupee?; it forces itself upon you, violently lashing rain, emitting odors that could kill, wrapping your intestines in knots with invasive parasites. In that sense, India is no different than warfare: it permanently marks the enemy, leaves a reminder saying I was here, I overpowered you. But when India gives, does India give. It overwhelms you with generosity, even as it tries to take your every dollar. It's a place where you can connect with every single person you meet, where people seek connections, and don't isolate themselves. Meeting people, touching people, being touched- it's all inevitable. There's no room for it to just be you. Sometimes the touches are bad, but more often than not, they're in the form of handshakes from people who just want to say hello. There's no rush, unless you're getting on or off the train. I sometimes get angry at the lack of urgency, because it's too hot to just be standing around, but then I slow down, too, and look around. There's a mural that a man may or may not be peeing on, a man selling fruits that I've never seen or heard of, women weaving flower garlands for post-temple wear, and children playing cricket in every vacant lot. Granted, this might not be an entirely healthy relationship, but it appears to have a finite ending, so I'm in it till the end.

Here is my India top five list, of things I love and hate most about being here.

The Bad:
1. Dust
Nobody actually likes dust, but I've never realized how much I hated it until I got here. Part of this has to do with the fact that I'm allergic to it, so for other people it's just annoying, but for me, well I haven't been able to breathe through my nose since I got here, and according to Ava (so sorry, my dear), I've started snoring. But I also think the dust here is on crack. According to a recent NY Times article, the amount of dust in the world is increasing rapidly. Now that I'm living in a country in which it doesn't rain for eight months at a time and horrified that it will get worse as we get closer and closer to monsoon, something has to be done. Seriously. Today, I was cleaning the apartment, which we only really get to do maybe once a week, but in order for the dust to be kept at bay, we should do it every single day. I haven't even opened the windows since the rat moved in, and every single surface is streaked with dirt. Which brings me to my next item on the list.
2. Cleaning Supplies
What is up with India and improper cleaning supplies? For a country with this much dust, HOW has Swiffer not entered the market? I am Swiffer's biggest fan, and 1010 can attest to my love for the Wet Jet. Here, cleaning consists of sweeping and mopping, but mostly sweeping. Everyone knows that when you sweep, you move dirt, you don't make it disappear. And I don't believe in mopping. Perhaps I don't know how to mop, but I think that's also a task that involves moving dirt from one place to another. India hasn't really embraced the paper towel, which I guess isn't terrible, because it means less garbage, but it also makes little clean up jobs more difficult. Sometimes I use toilet paper, sometimes I use sponges, but I often use rags that have zero absorbency. The Bounty Quicker Picker Upper needs to get a move on here. Today I was trying to remove dust from the little shelf in the bathroom (not sure how the dirt got there, since we can't open the window because of construction men), and I ended up spraying the surface with our ass-sprayer (normally goes with the toilet) because the rag wasn't doing shit. Two weeks ago I bought a dust buster, because really, enough is enough. It's my new best friend.
3. Men
This isn't completely a generalization. There are a lot of men here who are wonderful, and I have Indian man friends whom I genuinely love. But men who make noises at me like I'm a dog and leer at me despite the fact that I hardly have any skin showing and drape a big scarf across my torso so nobody can see the outline of my chest, well I hate them. I understand that American movies portray women as leather-wearing, one-night stand loving, desperately seeking attention from anyone with gonads kind of whores, but in real life, we're not really like that. So when taxi drivers ask me to move to the other side of the car so that they can stare at me in the rearview mirror, please forgive me if I tell them in Hindi to fuck off (ganpa lath, for anyone in a similar situation). So a tip to any foreigner visiting India- PLEASE do not wear shorts. Do not wear spaghetti strap tank tops. Do not show your cleavage. Do not wear tight t-shirts. I know you think you want to wear as little clothing as possible because yes, it's hot as hell here, but you might feel better if you wear Indian cotton, which breathes really well and doesn't show your figure. Do it for all of our sakes.
4. Bugs
I know I'm supposed to love bugs, since I was that weird child who roamed the backyard finding specimens to keep in my little plastic bug cage, but I don't appreciate them in my house. Luckily we've had few full grown cockroaches, but the babies love the kitchen. The biggest problem is the ants, but surprisingly, when they're dead. At one point we had a bit of an ant infestation, but we filled the hole with chili powder. Works surprisingly well. We have a lot of spiders. I clear the webs all the time, but don't always get to the spiders. Since there are so many ants, the spiders always get them, and then dead, sucked-out ant carcasses fall to the floor. Or into our laundry bucket, or into our clean dishes, and probably all over me. And soon, when it's monsoon, I will hate the mosquitoes, but hopefully just because I'm itchy, and not because I have dengue.

5. Poverty
I know this seems really obvious, but it's not a general "India is so poor. People are always begging, and it's annoying." It's the kind of frustration that arrives when you see poverty everywhere, understand the causes and barriers to ameliorating poverty, and have to live every day without really being able to do anything about it. It's not annoying when kids run up to me and touch me, asking for food, money, chocolate- everything. It's heartbreaking. Technically, I'm not supposed to engage with beggars (AJWS policy) and I don't. While there are absolutely people who beg because they have no choice, there are a lot of people who beg rather than finding sustainable employment, and often use children who should be attending school in order to get more money. What's frustrating is understanding how to deal with poverty from a development perspective and watching as money that is supposed to go to education and employment schemes instead goes into politicians' safes in the form of gold bars, or when owners of subsidized food stores sell grains and other products on the black market, so those who need and have the right to the food get flour crawling with worms. I thought living in Mumbai would be really easy, because it has so much to do and many of the comforts of home. To a certain extent it's true, and this week I got my chick-flick fix (No Strings Attached was amazing) and got to eat chicken fingers at the Hard Rock Cafe. But it also concentrates India's poor and makes it hard to walk outside, sometimes. I don't think I'll ever get used to it, but at the same time, I'm not entirely sure that I ever want to, because that would mean I wouldn't care enough to try to do something about it.

The Good:
1. Women
I would not survive here without them. Oddly enough, or maybe not, my favorite women are the ones I can't really speak to. My Hindi is okay, but not good enough for perfect conversations. The women I love most barely speak English, but they like touching me and putting bindis on my head or inviting me over for chai. They hug me even when they don't know my name, and they want to find me good Indian husbands. This is not to suggest that more upper-class women aren't equally amazing, but I think their familiarity with westerners makes them more hesitant to act that way, since they know that's generally not how we act with each other. But they do try to find me Indian men, but they tell me they'll get me boyfriends, not husbands.
2. Generosity
I could combine this with women, but there are some awesome males out there, too. India is known for corruption, and when tourists are here, they probably feel more acutely people trying to get as many rupees out of them as possible. But if you live here, and sometimes just if you're lucky, you get a glimpse of how generous Indians are. Last week, when I was really sick, my coworkers took turns cooking me the cultural equivalent of chicken soup. Sometimes my boss makes me food if she thinks I might be homesick. Our neighbors invite us to join them for religious ceremonies and feed us more than our stomachs can possibly hold. Sometimes, when I get dropped off late at night, rickshaw drivers wait until I close the gate to our alley so they know I'll get upstairs okay. One time, when Rachel was over and ordered food in, they couldn't understand us over the phone, so the delivery man came over to make sure he got the order right. I really could keep going, but I think you get the idea.
3. Food
This basically speaks for itself. I kind of had to stop cooking dinner, because the food options are endless and amazing. When you think of Indian food, you probably think of samosas and chicken tikka masala, but when you live here, you realize that every community has its own delicious recipe cache. Maharashtra, where I live, is known for fabulous fried fish and sweet-spicy curries. Keralans, in the south, infuse most of their dishes with coconut. Most people in Mumbai don't eat samosas as street snacks, but vada pao or bhaji pao, which are yummy mini-sandwiches. It's kind of a wonder that I haven't gained weight, and I could basically eat here for the rest of my life. I didn't even get to Indian sweets yet... oy vey.
4. Public Transportation
The trains are sometimes a nightmare and there's always a serious danger of being elbowed in the face when you're one on, but I've grown to love Indian public transportation. It's more fun long-distance, like last weekend when I took a sleeper bus to a city called Aurangabad. I booked two berths next to each other, because otherwise I would have been sharing a mattress with a stranger.
I was supposed to share this.

I try really hard not to share my bed with people I don't know. It was surprisingly comfortable, and I almost liked it more than the long-distance trains because I had more than 2 feet of sleeping space. Unfortunately on the way back, my train ticket didn't get confirmed and I couldn't get onto a sleeper bus, so I took a non-AC seater bus for 8 hours. I complained for a little while and went to get a xanax at the nearest chemist shop (less than 5 cents OTC), but really, it wasn't that bad, once they turned off the really loud Bollywood action movie at around 1:30 am. And even if it had been terrible, my bus ticket cost less than $6. Amtrak, take notes.
5. Color
I had to add this. I'm currently wearing some sort of purple, which I would never do at home, and I don't think I'm ever going back to black. My food is a million colors, the saris are a million colors, even the political parties, which I hate, proudly show their bright, bright colors on posters all over the city. I could go blind, but it's a good blind.

Ok, longest post ever? I'm basically done, just throwing in a few pictures from our trek to Ellora and Ajanta, ancient cave temples.

They carved this top-down, which means they started at the top of the cliff, which is only a cliff because a bunch of monks spent 150 years "revealing" the temple.

In front of Kailasa Temple, the largest monolithic structure in the world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gay Bombay

Namaste! I write to you after what have been an eventful few days, culminating in a three in the morning visit from a rodent friend. We were hoping that it was a mouse, but alas, there was a rat in the bedroom. I managed to get it to run out the window relatively quickly, but you can be sure that we will never open the windows again, and the shower/bucket drain will be sealed. I understand that dealing with creatures is part of the experience, but I sleep on the floor. And the rat was on the floor. I don't need to be the lead in some cheap horror movie. Coming back to this a few days later (sometimes I'm too busy to write these things, you know), the rat came back. Even though I stuffed the hole, I haven't been able to sleep, even in the living room (hall, Indian English), because I just think it's there. Another fellow in Bhuj, a really conservative city, has mice that people won't exterminate because the god Ganesha is attended by a mouse, so that would be heretical.

Now that I've sufficiently grossed you out, let's talk about happier things, like rainbows. Two weeks ago was the Queer Azad Mela, or Pride Week. It was a week long festival with events like open mics, folk music night, poster-making parties, and plays. It ended with a march on Saturday.

We gave some street kids paper and markers. They drew the Playboy bunny, because nobody gets it here.

Our beautiful artwork.

Sadly, I never made it to the pride march at home, but it was really exciting to be celebrating everything here. I feel like it was probably similar, except people wore clothes, and the bystanders didn't wait for hours to watch. Caught relatively off guard, most looked amused and maybe a bit bemused, but only one was sort of hostile. Even the police were being supportive, which surprised me because in my line of work, police are the enemy. After abusive husbands and mothers-in-law.

And now, I will give you a brief synopsis of homosexuality in India. So back, back in the day, like way before the British arrived, people were getting it on with members of the same sex. Because people have done that basically forever, let's be real. Then the British came, with their recently developed concept of homosexuality, which had become a bad thing, along with other sexual "perversions." So the British codified the Indian Penal Code and added Section 377 in 1860, which stated, "Unnatural offences: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section.

I think Lord Macaulay probably didn't think it would be used to persecute gay people, but that's basically what happened. The British left, the law stayed, and technically, sex between men was illegal. It didn't really apply to women, because, well penetration isn't as easily identifiable. Although there was this one case in South India where they tried to determine if a woman had been penetrated by fingers by her lover in order to charge her under 377, but that's another story. A lot of people here think that homosexuality is a western influence, which is totally untrue. However, if tolerance of gay people if a western influence, I would be proud to accept that. There are a lot of gay people in India (population of 1.2 billion, it's inevitable, no?), but a lot of them don't really know what that means. Those who are of the lower classes might not have heard the words "gay" or "lesbian," and in fact there are people in India called MSM, or men who have sex with men, who don't identify as gays in the same way men do in the states because compulsory heterosexuality is the norm here. In other words, they have sex with men, but they're married to women, because that's the way things are. Lesbians face a lot of hardship because women here have to get married, again, because that's what people do, so after a certain point (her 25th birthday?), her parents might either suspect something, or just marry her off. Also, women don't really have financial resources here, because their jobs are rarely lucrative, so a woman can only come out to her family if she can support herself. Anyways, gays in the big cities started protesting, advocating, the whole shebang, so last summer, Section 377 was written down to basically only apply to child abuse. So now gay sex isn't illegal. Gay marriage isn't really an issue, because a lot of people here only have religious ceremonies and don't get civil marriage licenses. They don't get tax breaks here.

Whew. I'm tired. But still going... I cannot finish this without discussing hijras. And kothis! So hijras, in a reductive sense, are transgenders, or men who dress/behave/are women. Some of them are castrated/have sex changes, but it's not entirely necessary, depending on which hijra family she belongs to. They have their own social structures, and even their own god. They've been a big part of India for hundreds of years and played important parts in religious ceremonies. It's thought that they can bring bad luck if they show up to a ritual and you don't give them money. Now, however, they don't occupy that same cultural/religious role, and a lot of them are relegated to sex work. They also have a very distinctive clap.

Kothis are another subgroup of people who might be considered gay. I'm calling them queer. It applies to all cultures. Actually, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) in India can kind of go LGBTQHKP... there are lots of kinds of queers. So kothis are men who dress like women and have sex with men, but they're not hijras. They're the feminine halves of kothi/panthi, in which panthis are the more masculine "tops," or the "passive" of the ancient Greek active/passive relationships, if you will. Just an fyi, panthis aren't necessarily considered gay, because they're "masculine."

So that's basically everything I know about queering India. A note for my family who probably wasn't aware that I was so into this topic, I got it from Columbia.

Now the other part of the post... well I'm tired, so this is just going to be pictures of things I've done.

Rachel and I went to Elephanta Island, where there are cool cave carving temple things.

I know this is just a cow, but it's on an island. Just trying to figure out how it snuck onto a little passenger ferry.

Porters. Chilling on their moneymaking apparati.

Heyyy there.

So Rachel and I have this joke (no offense to my lovely friends who live here) that Indians don't really have a concept of lame. This illustrative picture is modeled after a man/boy (ages are really hard to guess here. Could have been 18. Could have been 26) did this approximately 45 seconds before I did. He did, however, laugh when he caught me copying him, so we're cool.

Grey horse for Grandma!

Could be Monmouth Park, no?

In our derby best (I didn't really bring nice clothes to India)

Off on an adventure to see MORE caves for the weekend. And adventure it will be. I'm taking a sleeper BUS. I'm going to feel like Harry Potter on the Knight Bus.