Sunday, December 23, 2012

Protesting Rape in New Delhi



Running away from tear-gas (the smoke that you see).
Tens and thousands of protesters with placards lined up the avenue from India Gate to the Rashrapati Bhavan, all the news channels reported, to demand justice for the gang-rape of a 23 year old in a public bus who is still in a critical condition at a hospital in Delhi. The politicians, the law enforcers, and the public, for once seemed to be on the same page in terms of condemning the brutal attack. I had to see it for myself for this, I felt, was a sign of a progressive India that would not stand for such heinous crimes.

Yes, there probably were about a hundred thousand people there, may be more.  It was heartening to see so many people out on the streets. The news channels called it the largest protest against rape in Delhi.

The warm fuzzy feeling in my heart subsided soon. Here is why:

Damper 1: Blood Lust

One of the many lamp-posts "occupied" by protesters.
Alongside the cries of “We Want Justice!” were the following slogans and placards:

-          Rape the Accused
-          Hang the Rapists
-          Goli Maro Saloko (Shoot the bastards)
-          Delhi Police Ek Kam Karo, Churiya Pehenke Dance Karo (Delhi Police do one thing, wear bangles and dance)
-          An Eye for an Eye – So, what for Rape?
-          Yes it is another story. It has to be the last story. Only Death Sentence
-          Law for Rapist – Hang till Death. Or no Vote.
-          Capital Punishment is not a Solution. Make the accused rapists suffer Castration.
-          We want Justice for the Innocent. Hang them to death.

While you could probably find a few who were against capital punishment, the popular demand of the day was for death, along with some sexist chants about effeminate policemen. They all seemed to be out for blood.

Damper 2: Aggressive Policemen

The protesters were out for blood, yes, but all they were doing was chanting and marching up and down. There were some who were trying to break down a barricade that the police had set up, but largely it was a peaceful protest. Yet, the policemen that surrounded the Presidential Palace felt the need to use tear gas and water cannons on the crowds. If the crowds were unruly, it was only in situations where people tried to escape the police attacks.

I was surprised. I could not understand why the police would behave this way. Do people not have the right to protest in democratic India? At a time when state officials spoke along the same lines in terms of condemning the rape, why do the state representatives on the ground (aka the police) behave differently?

Damper 3: Gnawing Questions

  1. If Delhi is the Rape Capital, why was this the first time that people came out on the streets in such large numbers? “Because it could’ve been me,” said a friend. And that is the harsh reality. When a rape takes place in a capital city, in a public bus, to an urban, middle-class woman, people identify with it and they protest. There is no such empathy for rapes that occur in rural areas and slums, for Dalit rape victims, for adivasi rape victims, rape victims in Kashmir or in Chhattisgarh. So, perhaps there will be some justice in this case, but rape will probably still go on.
  2. To what extent was this rape a product of “neoliberal India”? This was a case of poor fruit vendors and petty salesmen raping a middle-class woman. Were they reacting to the woman or to the system that creates these harsh inequalities in such a brutal fashion? Has the system, by focusing on economic wealth only, neglected those who were left behind, who can only find expression in such unimaginably cruel acts?


There is a silver lining, however: Today, the whole of India seems to be against rape. That may not be good enough, but it is a start; a start to understand that rape is not only about individual responsibility, but also about social responsibility.

 - Saturday, December 22, 2012

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Power, power, super-power!

 Yes, it was the world's "biggest" power-failure affecting 600 million people in the north and in the east. Yes, the metro in Delhi stopped working and many passengers were stranded. Yes, it happened in the world's largest democracy. And yes, if you happened to open Google News on July 31, you have seen coverage from across the world with not only descriptions but prescriptions for resolving power crises.

Points to ponder:

1)     It is via Google News that I learned of the power crisis. Why is this important? Because the culture of "power back-ups" may well have contributed to the persistence of an inefficient power system.

2)     Is this kind of power-failure a political move by the government? Anna Hazare seems to think so: a conspiracy to dismantle protest in front of Jantar Mantar by preventing people from attending the hunger-strike using metros.  It sounds a little too conspiratorial and too costly a move, but you never know, I guess!

3)     A reshuffle of the cabinet following the power-outage indicates that the government is embarrassed. And with good reason. How can India be the "next super power" with such power failures?!

4)     For neo-liberalized India, quick solutions are to be found in further liberalization, it looks like. Reuters ran a story yesterday on how to find hope in India's power outage, arguing this outage will spur reforms and investments and can change the experience of liberalization itself. Does anyone remember the sections on incrementalism in Stiglitz's Globaliation and its Discontents? Please review? 

5)     I think it's worthwhile to pause. Yes, 600 million people were affected by this outage for several hours. But, people are affected everyday by a phenomenon known as "load-shedding" which can last for up to three/four hours a day in some areas. How different was this power-outage from load-shedding for the aam (ordinary people)?




Sunday, July 22, 2012

The New India


When I went to India as part of the "Group of 27" in January, I had wondered whether the India we were experiencing was the "real" India as we tried to grapple with its many contrasts – the fancy hotels adjacent to slums; the 'mega' malls next to makeshift tea-stalls; the Mercedes-Benz riding alongside a bull-cart. In our attempt to understand the essence of India, we rode the metro, cycle-rickshaws, and auto-rickshaws, we shopped in crowded bazaars, bargained with road-side vendors, drank tea at rudimentary tea-stalls, and ate at road-side dhabas.  Even then, many of us came back to the US feeling that we did not mingle enough; that our presence was a bit 'imperial'.

This time, unaccompanied by my American colleagues, I wondered what would happen. And now that I am here, I am somewhat overwhelmed by all the glitz. I realize that as absurd as it may sound, my experience in January was one where I saw more of the "99%", if you will. Here are some examples:


·        Last time, the fanciest store we saw was Fabindia – a socially responsible local clothes store. This time, all the malls I've been to are much like the malls in the US, with even the same retail stores. From Puma and Diesel to KFC and Chilis, neo-liberalized India has it all!

·        This time, several people made comments to the effect "money is not an object", "money is not an issue" during conversations/negotiations, something I admit I only heard in movies till now. Some lessons in humility, perhaps?

·        Last time, we didn't get a good sense of the difference that caste makes. Perhaps I didn't look at the right place. The 5-page "matrimonial" section of the weekend edition of the Times of India not only highlights the importance of caste, but also class. The different ads are classified according to the key desirable criterion: Brahmin, Khatra, Aggarwal, Bisa Aggarwal, Sikh, and so on (I have to admit that I don't know what some of these even mean: what does it mean to be an Aggarwal?).  Most are accompanied by phrases such as "high status and respectable business family desirable". Invariably, the ads are placed by "extraordinarily beautiful, slim, and fair" women and "well-qualified, clean-shaven, handsome" men who are engineers/NRIs.

·        Last time, I didn't realize that Delhi wasn't a "safe place for women". Also, in some ways, being surrounded by white Americans had its advantages: no one would dare harm a foreigner (read white foreigner).  This time, I have to be more careful about what I wear and how I look. To add to the worries, the Chief Minister stated that "women should not dress provocatively" (ah, if a mullah had said this, all hell would've broken loose).









Sunday, April 1, 2012

India in the Classroom: What are our Students saying about Indian Nationalism?

Are our students able to engage material on India in a thought-provoking, intelligent, and sensitive manner? I present the thoughts of two students in POSC 364: Politics of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who ponder about the trials of the “nationalist project” in India in the midst of decolonization and take varied positions. How does Partition fit in within the context of independence from British rule, they muse.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

One morning in Delhi


One morning in Delhi, April, Dai and I walked in the direction of the metro station a few miles from our hotel where we would later meet most of the group.  We were walking on the gravel just off the paving of a fairly busy two lane light commercial road.   Just ahead of me and only a few meters to the left, a toddler in a short mustard-colored sweater, a boy not more than eighteen-months-old was squatting on the gravel pooping.  (I thought about using the word “defecating” but it seemed to erase the feeling of affection for this child that I wanted to convey); he looked to me like a brown version of our son, Ben at that age, and I was flooded with identification, a memory of the feel of baby skin and the joy of a beloved body doing its maintenance work.   

Farther to the left was a blue camping tarp held up by six or eight irregular poles, tree branches a couple inches in diameter and about five feet tall.   Next to the plastic-rooved but wall-less room was a small woman in a very beautiful turquoise sari, who appeared to be whisking something in a large metal bowl.  There was a man behind her who was calling to the toddler.  I felt like a voyeur and averted my eyes, but then caught the bed under the tarp.  A pile of familiar looking comforters was folded back, revealing white sheets; this bed could have been my own; I experienced that cold-morning-in-Hamilton pull of the warm bed. 

The cost of my hotel room could have fed this family for weeks, I thought.  What right did I have to be here with my significant carbon footprint, my ignorance of the language, my invasion of a family’s privacy first thing in the morning?  These thoughts did not erase the sense memory of that child’s skin, the pull of the bed, the brilliance of the turquoise sari.

I am not a naïve person, and I am well aware of my unearned privilege.  I am sixty years old, I have worked in shelters and taught in poor rural and urban areas of the US, lived in a village in Montenegro, and traveled in Central America and Palestine.   But this memory of the family on the gravel in Delhi has not left me for more than a few hours since we returned from India.  I can’t say what I am doing with it, only that I continue to experience the silent encounter as a gift, even as I make no new sense of  the cruel contrast of our circumstances.    

Barbara

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

India in CORE China

Workers in a denim factory, southern China.
Image from the documentary China Blue
Workers in the recycling industry, Dharavi slum, Mumbai
Source:Korea Times

When we returned from India in January, we had one week before spring semester classes began.  All I could think about was India, but I had to prepare a class on China.  More specifically, I had to prepare the class I teach for Colgate’s CORE Cultures and Identity program, an interdisciplinary course which lets me teach about Chinese history, society, political economy, art, religion, food, literature and anything else I can stuff into the 15-week semester.  Normally I love preparing this class, but this time my brain only wanted to think about Indian history, society, political economy, art, religion, food, and literature.  I found myself reading novels about India (Mistry’s A Fine Balance), histories of India (Dalrymple’s City of Djinns), looking up World Bank statistics about India, Googling Bollywood films…. I had to cut myself off and get to work.

I decided to sign up to teach my Nations and Nationalism course next year, so I could indulge in a whole unit on India.  (I wonder if I can assign all 944 pages of Ram Guha’s India after Gandhi? Will students freak out when they see its telephone book-like heft? But it's such a fabulous read!) 
But in the meantime, I want to find ways to bring India into my course on China. I always start off the course by giving students some statistics about China in comparison to other countries.  I don't give them any background or explanation, but instead let them peruse the data to see what they notice.   This year, I featured India prominently. For example, one of the tables I offered looks at GDP/per capita and growth rates:

Comparing China with Selected Countries 1980-2010
Year
China
GDP/per cap*
China
Growth rate %
US
GDP/pc*
US
Growth rate %
India GDP/pc*
India growth rate %
Syria GDP/pc*
Syria Growth Rate
1980
193
8
4999
0
267
4
1065
12
1990
314
4
12,186
2
374
3
955
8
1995
604
11
27,547
3
382
6
1218
6
2000
949
8
34,606
4
459
2
1209
3
2005
1715
10
41,833
3
762
8
1330
6
2010
4428
10
47,199
2
1475
7
1526
3
*current US $
Data from World Bank, World Development Indicators

As I hoped, my students noticed that China, India, and Syria are all very poor countries in comparison to the United States.  They also note that China's economic growth in the last two decades has been exceptional.  Compared to China, India looks like an underachiever.  (This is something that many Indians obsess a great deal about, as I pointed out in a previous blog post, “Chinese in India.”)  But compared to Syria (or Haiti or Indonesia or Romania or Nigeria), India’s economic growth looks very impressive. 

I also plan to bring India into class later this semester when we look at the manufacturing economy that is the driver behind China's economic growth.  In that unit, I have my students watch China Blue, a documentary about Chinese workers in a denim factory.  Students find this film eye-opening and often emotionally devastating.   They are appalled to see young men and women (mostly women) their age - and much younger - working to exhaustion to produce blue jeans for lower and lower prices.  They not only find the exploitation horrifying, but also express disgust at the living conditions for the workers: tiny concrete dorm rooms stuffed with eight or ten girls, squat toilets, no hot running water.  I have heard former students exclaim, months after they saw the video, that they still feel guilty every time they buy a pair of jeans.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Difficult Lesson


When we are young we understand only part of what travel is about: we think the point is to learn about other places.  Only when we’re older do we understand that travel offers us the chance to learn important things about ourselves.  And sometimes it doesn’t just give us the chance at such lessons– it forces them upon us.  This is the story of such a moment. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reflections: Faces of India


A month ago we were in Gurgaon and Delhi, on the last leg of our trip, wondering whether we have “taken in” enough of India to say something meaningful about the world’s largest democracy. Fearing that we hadn’t seen enough “people”, some of us scurried off to overly-crowded shopping areas such as Chandni Chawk and New Market, before joining the group at Nizamuddin’s Darga. “We will see ‘real India’,” we told ourselves.


A month has passed and I wonder, have we seen real India? What is real India? Who is a typical Indian? And here, I have to falter, as I process the images of the various faces we encountered:


• The bus-attendant who put out a stool and held our arms as we got off the bus every time.

•The bus driver who only smiled as we got on or got off.

• The various guides we had, each with different accents, but with grand stories about the places we were visiting.

• The street vendors who would not leave us alone.

• The coconut-water-wallah who gave me a brown coconut although I wanted a green one.

• The road-side chai-wallahs who thought I was an NRI (non-resident Indian).

• The road-side candy-wallahs who were surprised that all I wanted was aam-goli.

• The auto-rickshaw driver whose family moved from Pakistan in 1947.

• The store-owners in Chandni Chawk who said, “How the hell did they get in here?” referring to the group of four women who did not look like each other at all (Carolyn, Beth, April, and I)!

• Other store owners in Chandni Chawk who took us through alleys and winding stairs to their stores to show us beautiful sarees.

• The rickshaw-wallahs who were bemused by 27 foreigners riding rickshaws to Jama Masjid.

• The women in the “women only” section of the train who giggled watching Chris make self-deprecating comments about ignorant Americans to justify his presence.

• The half-naked priests in various temples who blessed us with garlands and rose-petals.

• Fully-clothed priests who offered us Prasad in the form of cookies.

• The hotel staff who were always, without fail, very courteous and helpful.

• The researcher who was very polished and well-spoken.

• The Colgate alum who started a new tourism company.

• The people in the “Muslim areas” who dressed very differently.

• The local tourists who were posing for photographs every now and then, very much like many of us.

• The “student” who was not a “guide” (but he was!).

• The group of protesters who looked like they were at a fair, having a good time.

• The tout who wanted to show me an elephant.

• The little girl who managed to sell me five necklaces, five pairs of anklets, and also got me to buy her ice-cream (she's the one in the picture; photo credit: Chris Henke).


I realize I can go on and on about the faces of India. And I also realize there is no one face. We probably have some notion of what a typical Indian looks like or is like, but that is also probably a constructed image that we have created out of the snippets of information we have on India: call centers, Bollywood, insurgency, Kashmir, IT, computers, Slumdog Millionaire, and so on! In a way, we really haven’t seen “real India,” but is there a “real India”?








Photo: Girl with the necklaces by Chris Henke.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Sunil Gaur, the naturalist who spoke to us at the bird sanctuary in Bharatpur, sent me these recent photos of some of the wildlife we were lucky enough to see when we visited. Sunil welcomes dialogue with Colgate naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

India in the classroom

One of the most memorable experiences I had in India came on the last day, when we visited the Delhi Handicrafts Museum. This is a museum where one can encounter not only works of art, but living artists, who come to the museum from all over India and produce their works and sell them directly to visitors. Visitors are able to meet and talk to the makers of the objects they buy.

During our visit, I noticed that David Dudrick appeared to be having a very intense interaction with a woman standing in front of some large painted scrolls. She was singing and gesturing to the images. David was clearly very moved by it, and I snapped his picture.

I stayed and listened a while longer. I learned that the woman, whose name is Mommi Chitrakar, is a maker of something called a "pat," a scroll that illustrates a song (or serves as an aide-memoire to the singer). She was selling scrolls that depicted a variety of stories, including an episode of the Ramayana (which, naturally, was purchased -- see my previous post, "Shadows of Homer"), as well as one about the Titanic (which seemed to be closely based on the movie). She was more than happy to sing all the scrolls' songs for us. Eventually, she showed us one about the 2004 tsunami. Here is a video taken by Dai Yamamoto of her singing this song: video link

Monday, January 23, 2012

Fire

If I'd been asked to guess before our trip what scents I would remember most from India, I would have been wrong.

I probably would have guessed "curry," which would have been wrong in several ways, not the least of which is that "curry" isn't actually a food category in India; it's a word that's been imposed by Western culture to describe a wide variety of different Indian dishes.

I might have gone on to guess "incense", or, maybe, if I'd been thinking about the more negative stereotypes, "sweat," or, "urine."

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Chinese in India

I can pass as a local in China,
 but not in India
In her post, “I Am a Good Muslim: I Wear the Veil,” Navine Murshid describes being mistaken for an Indian, and a Hindu.  Although Navine and I wandered through those alleys near Nizamuddin Dargah together, my experience was in some ways the opposite of hers.  In India, I felt like I found out what it's like to be white.

I have traveled in non-Western countries before, but only in East and Southeast Asia, where my Chinese ancestry gives me the privilege of hiding or displaying my first world, Western status almost at will.  In China, where I spent many years working and doing research, in Thailand, and Korea, I could choose to fade into the crowd (or be treated to cheaper prices) by speaking Chinese/keeping my mouth shut, modifying my posture, and inching away from my non-Asian travel companions (including my 6’2” green-eyed husband.).  When I wanted to be treated as a wealthy American (to get good service, or just to sail unquestioned into a fancy hotel lobby to use the toilet), I would lift my chin, put a confident bounce into my step, and (most importantly) chat loudly in fluent American English.

my top 25

Toward the end of our trip, I started asking many of my colleagues to tell me about their favorite moments from India, as well as their "not in Kansas anymore" experiences.  As I listened to their answers, I realized that it is really hard to pick just one example for each.  To process and distill some of my memories from the trip, I decided to make a gallery of just 25 of the many pictures I took in India.  It was really hard to choose just 25...and the exercise made me realize the limitations of photography for representing a place and the range of experiences that one can have there.  But in the end I tried to select photographs and write captions that convey some of the (often contradictory) emotions and encounters from the trip.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Jewbiquity

Early in the trip, we went to Auroville, a utopian community started by a woman called The Mother to live by the teachings of a sage by the name of Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo was educated in Great Britain, but later renounced his active life and settled in Pondicherry. He died in the early 1950s. His spiritual companion, the Mother, led the community and supervised the building of the shrine you see here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Processing

Like many of my fellow travelers, I imagine, I have spent the days since we landed re-acclimating, trying to right a wayward stomach, to persuade my circadian rhythm of the fact of Eastern standard time. Many times the past few days I have been awake when I ought to have been asleep (and vice versa, of course) and it is in these waking moments that I have given the India trip my most sustained thought. Much of the thought has been intellectual, but some of it has been purely visceral. I have felt profound relief and gratitude opening the tap and drinking the clean Hamilton water.

If potable water seems a luxury, all the more so a pantry full of food and a warm house whose construction has long been complete. A stable internet connection—something that eluded me the entirety of the trip—seems positively decadent.

I am a good Muslim: I wear the Veil

I have always been a bit wary about people who wear religion on their sleeves. Isn’t religion supposed to be a private matter? Why can’t I be a good Muslim without wearing a veil, or a good Christian without a cross pendant, or a good Hindu wife without the shakha or the sindur? Why is it important that others know what my religion is?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Drawing a Line in Water

Our visit to the dargah (tomb) of the Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya, in Delhi was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  As a scholar of popular Hinduism, our journey into the labyrinthine alleys that lead to the tomb was a trip into another of India's remarkable religious worlds, one that I had only read about it in books.   Dargahs are well-known as sites of religious syncretism in the subcontinent, open to people of many faiths.  It could have been places like this that prompted the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh (1615-1659) to answer, when asked to demarcate the differences between religions, "How can you draw a line in water?" Here, everyone who seeks inspiration can come sit in the presence of the deceased saint's baraka (the healing, empowering divine force that flows from God through those closest to Him).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Adaptāre


In India one becomes used to manifestations. The main gods are Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, and each has its own spirit: Shiva is the bad boy who acts first and asks questions later; Vishnu tries to maintain the status quo. But even Shiva and Vishnu, along with the Creator Brahma, are manifestations of the one Divine. Each of these gods has many manifestations: Vishnu, for example, is sometimes manifested as Varaha the Boar, who saved the earth from the ocean. The avatars of the various gods vary dramatically in form, but they all maintain the spirit of their god. For example, Varaha the Boar acts to preserve, as does Vishnu and his other avatars.

final pictures

Now back in Hamilton and recovering from jet lag, I've uploaded my final pictures from our last day in Delhi to my photo gallery.  I'm also working on a "greatest hits" gallery of my favorite 25 pictures from the trip, which I'll post later this week.  Let me know if you have any votes for which pics should make the list.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

I've posted an album of photos from the trip. I'll try to add some captions soon:
Reflections from India

Plus, a gracious note from Montek Mayal (Class of 2009), whom we met in Delhi:

Dear All,
It was a great pleasure to meet you all during your stay in Delhi and enjoy the Dargah in Nizamuddin and Karim’s after! Thank you for inviting me to join your experience and a special thank you to Professor Kaimal for making this possible!

I just wanted to congratulate on your unique, exploratory and intriguing trip covering the length and most of the breadth of the country. Being an Indian citizen, and moreover, being involved in the travel and tourism business myself I must point out that your itinerary was very fascinating and, though it had its appeal from a mainstream tourism prospective, it went beyond the usual realms of international tourism and covered the aspects of Indian identity, culture and indigenous knowledge. And I must congratulate you on this again!

I believe this stance Colgate has taken, defined in its theme of “Crossing Boundaries,” explicitly identifies the need for students and faculty to investigate and learn international cultures, perspectives, and history. Which I believe is highly important in today’s globalized concept of trade and economy.

As I had briefly mentioned during our meeting – I believe such exposure is highly valuable and I have a keen interest in promoting such a “discovery” of India.

I look forward to the next such trip Colgate plans and how I could possibly add value to the excursion!

Best regards,
Montek Mayal
Colgate Class of 2009

Taj Mahal: Where Love and Death Meet


It is difficult to write something about Taj Mahal that has not been said already. Anyone who has been there knows that the photos and the postcards barely do any justice to this magnificent monument. It is something that must be experienced, not just viewed.

The only parallel I can draw is this: it is the same kind of sensation as you look up at the falls from the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls. The difference is that at Niagara Falls, there are two falls; the wonder of the Taj Mahal is really a series of wonders.

As you enter the first gate, you can’t see the Taj; its dome quietly enters the visual space as you move towards the main gate: the gates of paradise. If heaven could be on earth, it would look like Taj Mahal.

As the structure with the four pillars, with the pool in front and the mosques (one real, one a façade) on the two sides mirroring each other confronts you, you are transported into, yes, paradise! You can only gape in wonder as you move closer and realize how intricate the details on the structures are, how symmetrical the entire composition is, and how much effort, resources, and love must have gone into building it.

Apparently, the popular story about Shahjahan building this as a symbol of love for his wife Mumtaz is a myth; instead, it is for self-aggrandizement. Even if that may be the case, today it is certainly a place where lovers become starry-eyed, and irrespective of whether the true intentions had anything to do with the pain of lost-love, the Taj Mahal has become a monument of love. Yet, it is difficult not to think about mortality. Why do we wait until someone dies to really appreciate that person, and yes, build a monument in her honor?

If you have been able to keep thoughts of mortality at bay until now, you will no longer be able to as you reach the last gate, the gate through which you enter the tombs. The beautiful Arabic calligraphy reads something akin to “get prepared to meet your maker”. It serves as a quick reminder that death is perhaps the only thing in life that you can take for granted. “That and taxes,” as Eliza Kent said.

Food for Thought: How can we reconcile the anti-idol-worshipping stance of Islam with shrines that appear to do just that?
Photo: The Gate of Paradise by JKlein

Other people's religions

On the next to last night, the penultimate night, we went to a Sufi shrine to hear the ecstatic singing that takes place every Thursday. The shrine is at the hidden center of a kind of labyrinth: long, narrow, winding corridor-streets (how many? at least two), lined on either side with exuberant, crowded commerce and people, people, people. I was there with Lesleigh and the two Davids, our task being (1) to meet the group inside the shrine, and (2) stay together. A trail of breadcrumbs? You wouldn't have seen them. So we traveled like this: one David, Lesleigh in a scarf, me in a scarf, the other David. Never have I felt so in need of a body guard, nor so happy to have such attentive and gracious ones.

And then the first corridor came to an end, with the usual set of merchants guarding shoes. Behind them was more dark corridor, but this time something a little menacing. We found out later that it was an exorcism. Go in? Not go in? Timid me, I thought I'd seen enough. The rest of the crew went along--as I said, they are really gracious--and we went to find a second entrance.

Second entrance: another corridor, more people, maybe slightly less impossibly narrow, more beggars. The opening to the shrine was more inviting. We left our shoes, we went in, and there on the edge of the dark mass of people listening to the singing was our group. The singing was in the center of the shrine (men sitting cross-legged), surrounded by concentric circles of listeners. The exorcism was to our backs, behind a screen.

At this point opinions differ. Most everyone, including the scholars of religion, felt comfortable and even welcomed. What I felt was danger--not so much an undertone of menace so much as a lurking awareness of its possibility. This is, after all, an Abrahamic religion, and all Abrahamic religions (I adhere to one myself) have their exclusionary undersides, which don't always remain undersides, and had anything like that happened here, in this atmosphere of ecstatic singing, there would be no way out. Of course nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the singing led into the call to prayer. Visitors started moving toward the corridors. I was relieved, but I also thought: stampede? Again, nothing of the sort. We paid for the return of our shoes and retraced our steps.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

back in the usa!

Half of our group arrived back in the US just after noon on Saturday...we are waiting for our other colleagues to land at JFK and then one final bus ride back to Hamilton. Wow, what a trip...hope you have learned something about India from our reflections here on the blog. Those of us who traveled to India still have a lot to process and will likely all welcome your questions, comments, etc about our adventure and how we can bring India back to Colgate with us.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

photo update, pictures from the taj and dehli

Sorry I haven't posted pictures in a day or two, but Internet access has been hard to get at our hotel here in Delhi. I've posted some new pictures from our morning at the incredible Taj Mahal and our excursions in Dehli yesterday. No time for captions right now, but I will try to post those later. Last day in India...coming home Saturday night!

Poem from Jaipur

At the Sun Temple

India teaches: let go of outcome
(The Stoics from Phoenicia knew this;
they opposed slavery and challenged Aristotle.)
Wealth is not required in the search for truth;
Pursue virtue!

The monkeys watched our climb to the Sun Temple
of Surya Deva
Children, families, sadhus greeted us:
"Hello"
"Hello"
"Namaste"
And after puja, on the way down
more smiles, handshakes, offers of
pakora, rice, halva
"Namaste"
"Namaste"
"Namaste"
"Namaste"

Free of bazaars and shops,
deference and service,
We were stilled for once

Thank you, India

As a human geographer, I am interested in how people strive to improve their livelihood opportunities given various locally-specific circumstances. During the trip, I tried to talk to people who live in India as much as possible. Although I had only short, casual conversations with most of them (and I have absolutely no intention to claim that I understand their lives—not even close), I do want to reflect on what I have seen in and heard from them. Nevertheless, given that we are all a bit sleep-deprived, I would like to leave that task to a latter day, and thought that I would at least post a photo-collage of those whom I met during our trip outside of the structured occasions (e.g., lectures, tours, etc.). To say the very least, they made this excellent trip even more enjoyable for me, and I would like to thank them all here.




Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Breaking down the "Global South"

So we're in Delhi now, in fact it's the morning of the penultimate day of the trip, and several ideas have been percolating in my mind for a while. The one I want to write about this morning, though, has to do with similarity and difference, the general and the particular.

So as I mentioned in an earlier post, for the first few days after our arrival in Tamil Nadu, far southern India, I felt all these flashes of similarity to Brazil.

Shadows of Homer

I've been thinking about the Ramayana shadow-puppet show we saw on the first day of our trip at Dakshina Chitra, the crafts museum of Tamil Nadu. The stage consisted of a large piece of white fabric, behind which were several people who manipulated colorfully-painted, translucent cut-out figures made out of goat-skin leather up against the backside of the screen.

Chris Henke's photo of the show
A bright light was positioned behind them, illuminating the forms and colors of the puppets. The people working the puppets also sang, and a third person played various instruments (a drum, tamborine and a small stringed piece I couldn't quite make out). In this way, they depicted an episode of the enormous ancient Sanskrit epic of the Ramayana, in which the helpful monkey god Hanuman delivers Rama's ring to Rama's beloved wife, Sita, who has been captured by the evil god Ravana. Hanuman then defeats several monsters and assorted bad guys.

It was exciting to see this performance of the Ramayana as part of a living tradition. This troop travels all around the region performing at religious festivals. The expectation is that the audience already knows the basic outline of the Ramayana story, as they will have heard about it and seen performances of it on many occasions; this enables them to enjoy this particular snippet, to appreciate the artfulness of the telling and to fill in the gaps of what has been left out.

I suspect that this is very similar to the way the Homeric epics circulated in antiquity. We teachers of Core 151, Legacies of the Ancient World (formerly Western Traditions), might sometimes feel, or might convey to our students, a sense that Homer's epics are Great Canonical Literature, to be admired and revered and pored over word by sacred word.

This is true in a way, but it is also true that in antiquity, these stories were deeply embedded in the culture. In addition to the recitations of the canonical text at religious festivals, there were all sorts of other performances and retellings and spoofs of the stories as well. The tales would also have circulated visually, as do the stories of the Ramayana.

I have made it something of a mission on this trip to acquire as much Ramayana imagery as I can; so far my collection includes a delicate miniature painting showing Rama romancing Sita in a garden setting, and a series of drawings of various episodes on palm leaves stitched together to form a fan-like object. I also bought two goat-skin puppets made by the troop we saw perform.

I look forward to sharing these materials with my Core 151 students this semester, as a parallel to the way the Homeric stories would have suffused the life and visual culture of the ancient Mediterranean.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day 7 - Video

Day 6 - Video

Breakfast in Bharatpur

On the cool morning of Day 9, I decided to take a little walk (again) around the hotel in Bharatpur. I began talking to a little boy and his father, sitting around the fire, and suddenly a handful number of children and adults gathered around me. I asked them whether it would be okay for me to walk around their neighborhood, and got their approval. Usual dogs, goats and cows were around, doing their own business. Since I came to India, they were increasingly looking like just one of us—eat, work, sleep, and wonder around. It has become part of the 'normal' landscape to me. I remember David saying, “why isn’t it like that in other countries?” I don’t know, but that’s probably what many Indian people would think when they visit other countries.

Pottering - Jaipur style

On Day 6, I decided to go for a little walk along Man Sagar Lake in front of the hotel before our evening meeting in Jaipur. As I was passing other people, three seemingly-local boys said “hi!” and I returned “hi!” Then we began talking, and I found out that two of them were in college, studying to become jewelers, and another was in high school. Sohail and Ali, the two college students, said if I would come to the old city next day, they could show me the city. We exchanged our phone numbers, and said good-bye.

Next day, after our late lunch at Indian Coffee House near the old city, I called Ali and asked him if we could meet. Finding and meeting with someone on Sunday on a busy street in Jaipur was a bit of challenge. Anyway, after the help of a few passersby, I successfully met with Ali near the Sanganeri Gate (Sohail could not come for some reason). His cousin-brother gave us a short ride to a narrow backstreet, where Ali’s home was located, on a motor cycle. Ali’s younger brother was waiting there, too. Ali said that “I’m a bit busy today getting ready for a trip to Thailand in two days, but my cousin and brother will take you a tour of the town.” “That would be great,” I said.

Day 5 - Video

Day 4 - Video

Fatehpur Sikri Detour: Mazar vs. Masjid

Salim Chisti, who was the Sufi saint who was finally able to help Akbar bear a son, has a mazar by the mosque in Fatehpur Sikri. The ritual there involved a process of tying a holy thread onto the marble screens on the window by the tomb. You are to make a knot and make a wish: one wish per knot. Then you circle around the room with the tomb in it, and then enter the room. You can place clothing items that you want "purified" onto the tomb: a man will recite a few surahs and return them to you (you are to wear them during prayers). You circle the tomb, and as you complete the circle, another man will "bless" you by tapping your head with peacock feathers. All the while, as you go around the tomb, you are to say a prayer or make wishes that Allah can grant you.

We were there when the azaan for Zohr prayers filled the air. To my surprise, not too many people answered the call to prayers; instead, people kept piling into the mazar. I, then, realized that the vast majority of the visitors were not Muslims. They were there not to pray but because they wanted the blessings; they want to tie their luck-thread onto the windows of the Salim Chisti's shrine in the hopes that their dreams will come true. 

Agra Crowds

I may not have mentioned this before, but what had surprised me quite a bit as we travelled around was the lack of people in the sites we visited. Today I sing a different tune. Fatehpur Sikri and the Agra Fort were both teeming with people: tourists, vendors, touts, tourist guides, photographers, professors(!) and so on.
As annoying as they may seem, I didn't quite mind the vendors. After all, I now own five pairs of payals (anklets) and five necklaces, thanks to these 'pestering' salespeople. I also acquired the local-English vocabulary to sell these things: "All five for hundred," "You don't have to buy – please look", "Just touch it", "Feel it, feel it in your hands", "You pay what you like" sometimes added on to "Minimum hundred. You can also pay 200, 300, 500". So, if I don't want these things later on, I know how to sell them!
There was a brief moment of fear, however, when a "student" who was helping tourists around Salim Chisti's mazar and tomb took me to a somewhat secluded area to show me an elephant "just around the corner". "How much will you give me?" he asked. I admit that at that moment, when I looked around and saw no-one around, I felt somewhat vulnerable. Thankfully, money buys everything in this world. 

Coming Next: Taj Mahal Musings

The Tourist Economy

Posted on behalf of Carolyn Hsu...

When we first arrived in north India, it was easy to be impressed.  The streets between Jaipur's airport and our hotel were wide, clean boulevards, unlike anything we had seen in Tamil Nadu.  This surprised both Maureen Hays-Mitchell and myself because we both knew that, according to World Bank statistics, Tamil Nadu is actually much more economically developed than Rajasthan (the state where Jaipur is the capital).

After a few days in Jaipur and Agra (in Uttar Pradesh),  we have solved this mystery.  These are places where the economy is built on tourism, whereas southern India's wealth comes from industry.  If you look past the wide avenues, hotels, and tourist shops, poverty is hidden in rural shacks and urban alleys.  A few blocks from the lovely hotel where I type, fires burn so that homeless people can huddle around them as they sleep on the street.

Birds

After what was an intense drive through traffic and narrow streets peppered with water buffalo, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, goats, cows, dogs, and plenty of honking, we arrived at our hotel in Bharatpur. We quickly dropped off our things and hopped back on the bus to go to the Keoladeo National Park, a world heritage site and bird sanctuary. It has a large lagoon in it's center, originally put in for hunting by Maharaja, which supports about 1000,000 birds per year, ~400 species. ~300 birds are resident and the other 100 are local migrants, from within india, or full migrants, from beyond India.

Reading Indian signs

As an English professor, I spend a lot of time thinking about how language works as a system of signification. When I knew that I was going to visit India, I decided to try to learn some Hindi. I bought several items in the Teach Yourself series, but made woefully little progress with spoken Hindi. (I believe that I could confidently ask someone whether he or she speaks English, but that's about it.) However, I did manage to benefit from an excellent book by Rupert Snell called Read and Write Hindi Script. Through its good offices I have been riding along in the north of India a little more aware of my surroundings than I otherwise would be.

Dung Fires

We left Jaipur and arrived at Bharaptur. For miles we saw areas where cow/water buffalo dung piles were laid out to dry. They were laid on the ground, on the roofs of thatch huts, and any surface on which they could dry. We also saw dried cow pads piled up in spirals the size of small cars. Some of the piles had walls with thatched roofs for storage. The walls themselves often decorated and an opening left to access the pads. These structures are called Betara. The dung is used for home fires and, we suspect, for many kilns we saw on route for firing bricks.


It is cold right now in Bharatapur and the air noticeabely thickened and smelling of smoke. All around us, families are cooking and eating over their dung fires (those who have wood also use wood). The poor air quality is a reminder of the many (approx. 70 percent in India), who are dependent on home fires for warmth and cooking and a leading cause of pneumonia and death for children under four years of age. These fires are also linked to devastating ecosystem impacts, including deforestation, nutrient deposition which alters nutrient cycles, and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

How to address the negative impacts of these home fires has been the work of many. Of note is the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves (http://cleancookstoves.org/) initiated by the Clinton Global Initiative and supported by UNEP. The initiative supports clean technology in homes to reduce emissions which has both human health benefits as well as natural resource benefits. Right now, when surrounded by thick smoke and thousands of small fires, it is hard to see how it could happen. However, I have worked in countries that have made the transition, for the most part, and know it can be done. I imagine the rate and efficiently will be determined by local governments as well as by local people.

To see some pictures: