Original Chennai tranquility

It is 6.30pm on a Friday evening on the outskirts of Chennai. That means it is rush hour, which is a bit ironic in any language but especially here because it is anything BUT a rush. The streets are so full of absolutely anything that can move: buses, auto-rickshaws, and scooters but also bullock-wagons, hand-pushed carts, the occasional suicidal bicycle driver and inevitably a few cows. I am squished with half my body hanging out into the back of a rickshaw. Originally meant to seat three, this three-wheeler has a total of 11 people (plus driver and 1 child). 2 are hanging out the sides in the front, almost sitting on the drivers lap and the 9 of us are somehow crammed in 3 rows in the back. Getting into the Rickshaw was an even funnier story.

First one has to understand the traffic rules here which are pretty easy as there seems to only be one: “Might is Right” which means Buses and Trucks will blare their horns and travel at a fairly consistent speed, scooters, rickshaws, people, dogs, goats frantically jumping out of their way (they will, however, stop for cows). In between the buses you have the large SUV’s and cars and in between those the auto rickshaws weasel and snake their way around. The scooters, while definitely losing out in terms of size (a shocking 80% of all fatal road deaths are scooter riders), use their small size to their benefit and manage to squeeze with incredible agility through tiny gaps, road shoulders, pavements and the opposite roadside to the front. When the light does finally change, you have a line of scooters, several rows thick that shoot off, eventually overtaken by the larger buses and cars and then the whole thing starts again at the next stop. The “Might is Right” rule gets really interesting when you throw elephants into the equation which, unfortunately for me but fortunate for everyone else, have disappeared largely from the cities.

In all seriousness though traffic here is actually quite okay compared to elsewhere in India. That essentially means that on large roads people tend to stick to their side of the road and they obey for the most part traffic lights. Right hand turns (the Euro-American equivalent of left hand turns) are quite an adventure here on any 3 or 2 wheeler vehicle. 50 meters before the turn the driver will generally veer off onto oncoming traffic, forcing and wiggling his way to the very opposite side of the road, horn blaring all the while. He will then proceeds to turn right (still on the wrong side of the road) and drive for another 50 or so meters before employing the same horn-blaring, stop-and-go tactic to get to the left side of the road. Why they don’t just wait for the turn signal still completely evades me but it is quite an amusing, if somewhat terrifying feat.

However back to me being squished into a rickshaw. So the buses in India are “somewhat” irregular and during rush-hour if they show up are generally crammed to the point that you literally have people hanging out of the windows. Generally the next option is to take a taxi or a rickshaw but finding an empty one is quite impossible. My work colleague who has been designated to take me home, is already a bit anxious about travelling alone(Indians do not travel much and after spending an hour and a half to travel what turned out to be about 15km I understand why).
Usually I would have just walked, minus the dirt and pollution and relative danger of being a pedestrian—in the “might is right” rule you are right there just below cows and just above dogs and goats—I love walking in India. It is both interesting and exciting, there is something invigorating about jumping out of the way of racing scooters and rickshaws, dodging the rogue cows (and the rogue cow dung ), jumping over the potholes in the street. And best off all, there are people selling just about everything you ever need on the street so if you get hungry or thirsty, if your sandal breaks or you feel the need to pray to a foreign god, it’s all right there! However as a young, unmarried, white woman I am treated like the precious fragile gem that I am and whenever I am out with Indians they will always make sure I come home safely, often accompanying me to my very door. But back to my original story…

So when a rickshaw pulls up, my collegue grabs my hand and we sprint to the auto which is rapidly getting crammed full. She literally dives head first into it, pulling me behind her and I am tumbled into a smelly tangle of laps and arms and faces and armpits. I am repelled backwards as the auto speeds of and luckily the tangle of legs hold me from falling back onto the street. With half of my behind falling out the side I have a perfect view of the absolute chaos in front of me. Nevertheless there is something oddly relaxing about my cramped and squished position. I am forced, for one of the first of many times in India, to do absolutely nothing. Amidst the spluttering, horn-blaring, revving engines, the spitting, cursing drivers, the noise and pollution I have found a piece of what I consider authentic Indian tranquility.

Militant expansion in rural India

The ticking time bomb seems to get heavier by the minute while I fearfully await its imminent explosion. Heavy footsteps come closer and closer. I start to sweat profusely, hoping that they will pass, somehow ignoring my presence. Then they tower over me with their smiling faces and their enormous steaming bowls of rice: “more madam? Yes?”. I splutter out my excuses in severely broken Tamil…”I am full, really.  Yes the food is delicious. Yes if I eat more I sincerely believe I will burst and really I don’t want to stain your beautiful white walls with my innards”… however they look at me with sympathy while ladling spoon after spoon of rice onto my plate. I imagine that they probably believe me to be somewhat simple or at the least a bit slow, most likely they attribute it to the lack of rice I consume…

Here I must pause to explain. I am sure anybody that has traveled to an Asian country has experienced this problem. Food is almost militantly forced upon your plate until you finally are quick enough to shield your plate with your entire body to stop the never ending flow. Now I don’t want to sound ungracious here as I love the food and the generosity with which it is served. More than anything though I always find the serving of food, especially in the countryside and on Pongal ( the biggest holiday here), rather amusing as it always seems to turn into some sort of a game. Food is served sitting on the ground in a row and is eaten with your hands on banana leaves which you fold over when you are done. It is also served by the women (who eat separately afterwards) who walk around with the bowls of the 200 different things they are serving constantly refilling that dish once you have about half finished it (generally 2-3 handfuls).

It is a sin to leave more than a mouthful of food. I have to my benefit the fact that I eat slower than all the Indians. They have to their advantage the fact that I speak no Tamil, am a foreigner and am a Canadian. See, Canadians are exceptionally polite in all matters. I mean, really polite as in apologizing when someone bumps into you and all that. So for me to say “No! I don’t want any more food!” is almost impossible. Instead it comes out like “umm..no thanks. I really don’t want to hurt your feelings by declining because the food is excellent and you are being so nice. I would just rather not eat any more because it makes me feel a bit, y’know, physically uncomfortable, eh?”.  However that is translated somehow as “yes! Give me more!”. I really don’t know how that happens but for my own health I have to figure it out otherwise at this rate I will roll back to Canada in April.

However I have devised a bit of a plan. See, they generally refill on the basis of what your favorite is. So it is possible to reject a refill once or maybe twice but by the third time they assume they have what you want and you are not asked. Rice refills can only legitimately be declined after you have eaten about half you body weight in rice. I figure that if I equally eat very slowly a little bit of everything they can’t refill until the piles get lower than normal.  When they finally realize that I am getting low on everything they go to get more. Here I start stuff everything really fast in my mouth, decline the first refill and by the time they come with the second option I am calmly sitting back, my banana leaf neatly folded over with rice kernels falling out of the sides of my mouth, grinning very contently.

Absurd receptions and Camus

I went to an Indian Wedding reception yesterday. I had totally forgotten that we were supposed to be going and so I of course had failed to bring an extra outfit with me. Indians are very particular in that point. For every occasion they wear a fresh, clean outfit. Every morning on my way to work I see the men in their freshly starched dhotis, a stark contrast to the dirty streets and houses. Or peering inside of peoples humble homes on the side of the road (something I am sure I probably should not be doing) I see woman emerge from what seems at times to be nothing more than an assemblage of tin and bricks, yet she is immaculately clean and well dressed, every fold of her sari where it should be, her hair in a perfect plait….

So I had to wear my day-old salwar kameez, which was fine because being a 5 foot 11 white giant in India seems to distract from the cleanliness of my clothes. We lumbered onto the bus heading south, finally arriving at what seems like a hall covered in Christmas lights. We were greeted by a very cute welcoming committee of chilren dressed in their finest who sprinkled us with rose water and handed us what seems to be hardened sugar. We are stylishly early (In India you can never be stylishly late, you are then just on time), the reception was meant to begin at 6.00 and it is only 6.15 which we have anywhere between 45 minutes to 1.5 hours to wait. Listening to the band warm up, scratching absent-mindedly my mosquito bites and drinking fresh grape juice I am lulled into a stupor, feeling oddly content and doing..well..nothing.

I notice that reception has finally begun because the cameraman and the photographer suddenly run to the back of the hall and start filming and clicking like mad. The couple, of course, look amazing if a bit less enthusiastic then I expected. Finally seated on two thrones in centre stage the presenter man (I couldn’t figure out if he was a parish priest, father or some kind of respected elder) begins with a long draw out speech and more songs in Tamil. It is a curious thing, the mix between Tamil and English that is so prevalent here. People will often be speaking Tamil and then say a complete sentence just in English. Often I am coming to realize, English is used to emphasize a point or if the speaker wishes to convey a technical formality. In this case I am wrenched from my dreamlike-state by the familiar use of English, just barely identifiable through the thick Tamilian accent.

“John” -his breath crackles over the microphone as he makes a dramatic pause- “is a God-fearing man”. To emphasize his point he turns and gestures towards the groom. However John,the God-fearing man is busy writing a text message on his phone and is quite oblivious, it seems, to the dramatic tension in the air.

Unperturbed by all this the man continues listing John’s qualities. I am distracted by the scores of children running afoot, onto the stage, in front of the stage, behind my chair… The presenter is periodically interrupted by  people coming on stage to tell him something, occasionally using the microphone themselves to address the crowd. After a few prayers and songs (the couple is Christian) they finally have the cake cutting ceremony. A 3 tiered wedding cake with white and pink frosting and even the plastic groom and bride figurine on top is set on the stage. The cake, with much ardor and amidst a burst of confetti and that white foam-paper like stuff you get in spraying cans, is cut. Slightly awkwardly the groom and bride feed each other a bite. It is such a weird custom that I can’t help chuckling to myself.I wonder why, of all things, this tradition was adopted? Goes to show how globalized we have become without knowing it. Wedding cakes, so the story goes, date back to the Roman Empire where the man would break a loaf of barley bread over the head of his new bride to endow her with fertility, show his dominance over her and as a sign of her impeding loss of virginity.

The first part ends with all the guests filing onto the stage to give wedding presents to the couple and take pictures with them. As we stand around the couple, the glare of the camera blinding me, the absurdity of the situation I am in hits me. I think of my readings of Albert Camus “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful”. I find myself grinning at the camera only to remember in the last second as I glance at my colleagues that Indians don’t smile in pictures. That is one shot I will have to get a hold of: 20 or so beautifully dressed Indians, staring unsmiling at the camera with me in the back, a foot taller than most of them, my hair disheveled and my salwar kameez wrinkled, grinning like an idiot.

Back to Camus- I pondered about why I found this situation particularly absurd where really, it was in many ways less absurd than a wedding reception would be in Canada or Germany. It is not absurd but realistic that children, being children, will run around the place and get in the way. The fact that no one makes an issue of someone else coming onstage and speaking, either to the crowd or the presenter is truthful.Perhaps the only thing that was really comical was the groom using his cellphone–however the issue of technology and its status in India deserves its own blog post.In reality, receptions in the West are more of a play than an accurate show of reality. In fact on further thought the amount of acting we do is what is really absurd,not to mention our various traditions and costumes. The focus of the wedding should be the real and truthful union of two people. What does that say about our culture that the first common experience of husband and wife is in an atmosphere of forced superficial and material perfection?

However as my father might say, this is nothing but Anthropology 101. What we are used to comprises our own reality, everything outside that is perceived to be dangerous,weird or absurd. Anyway, enough of my tangents for now. Stay tuned for more!

India

India is first and foremost the land of smells.  Entering the airport or most large buildings there is the unmistakeable smell of stale sweat and spices masked only by the copious amount of bleach used for cleaning in any Indian facility. It’s a comforting smell, as are the smells coming from the kitchen where I sit and ponder this. Cumin seeds crackling in ghee, fresh green chillies burning my nostrils and the smell of the cold steel thalis. Outside the streets are less appealing but nevertheless they have a real small. The smell of dirt,dung, exhaust fumes, aluminium,fresh flowers and sizzling street food trigger memories in my brain and livens me up.

I have been to India before. In a weird way, India feels like home for me. My father, falling in love with India when he was 21, has instilled this love in myself and my sister permanently, even going so far as to name us Leela and Lakshmi. I spent part of my childhood growing up in the lush foothills of the Himalayas, I spent christmas breaks traveling around Rajasthan with my family visiting family friends, eating Nutella smeared on Chapattis, searching for the best Dosas in Delhi. I love India, which is why I have decided to come back.  From the minute I step off the plane, from my first taste of chai from a street vendor, the first rickshaw driver that tries to rip me off, the first conversation with head wobbles; from when I change into my Salwar Kamis in the Dubai airport, braiding my hair into a plait, applying a bindi – I feel home, enveloped by India’s crushing,warm and all-consuming hug.

And so it is now. I sit cross-legged on the cold marble floor, the daughter of the cook curiously contemplating the giant white woman in front of her. A cup of warm sweet milk steams in front of me, a TV in the background blares popular Kollywood songs. My eyes are drooping and tired from a long day and night of travel. My head feels heavy, my mind clouded but I feel good, my heart is happy. How could it be otherwise? I am in India. I am home.

 

A Brief Introduction

I have always wanted a reason to write a blog, I find the idea of synthesizing information in a tangible and creative way good from the get-go and a blog is oddly refreshing way to do it in my view.

So here is my second attempt at a blog. It is in part a requirement for a directed studies, in part a way for me to keep in touch with family and friends and in part a way for me to go through the motions of adaptive learning: not what I learn but why and how I learn what I learn.

I mean in the end, that is a lot of what blogging is about. Having read through a number of blogs to find inspiration it is obvious that this is the universal pattern,especially for personal blogs.

There is always an introduction to the setting, a description of the actions performed and a conclusion of what has been learned, felt, or realized in ones self. Kinda like a university essay. Actually, exactly like one. So there is an inherent logic to writing this way. Perhaps in the end this blog will turn out that way. Consider this the introduction to the introduction.

For all those who have stumbled unknowingly upon this blog or have failed to understand what it is I am doing, here is a summary.

For the final credits of my Bachelors I have decided to take the advice of my wonderful advisor and go abroad. Although technically my area of interest is Latin America I have found my way to India to the Center for Indian Knowledge systems in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Here I will be interning , living in a women’s hostel in a shared room that serves 3 basic meals a day with a 9.30pm curfew. I will be working partially in Chennai and partially in the field sites around Tamil Nadu, looking at rain fed agriculture, the different nutritional and therapeutic values of rice varieties, the validity of traditional agricultural knowledge in farming and much more to do with similar themes.

However, this blog will not be focused on those. Instead, this blog will focus on more personal themes: the cultural experience of living in India, farming and agriculture in Tamil Nadu, the paradox of sustainability in India and reflections in general on…well…everything really.

Stay tuned for more to come.