Saturday, September 29, 2007

Pictures of Stuff

Here are some pictures I took today during a Tempest work session.

Because so many students needed roles, I split the role of Ariel up into a chorus of magical spirits. They're all wearing dhotis, and these lovely masks (shown here waiting for the paint to dry).

My Iraqi student has been working non-stop on his Thermacor creations. I had written earlier about how frustrated I was that it took him two hours to build one goblet; little did I know that he would work through the night and that I would come back the next morning to find the entire set done. He gets major, major props. (Yes, pun intended.)

This is the rock that the rest of us built. After it was finished, my Iraqi student said "um... may I make a better one?" I said "please, if you have time." He assured me he would make time. I've no doubt. ^__^

Friday, September 28, 2007

An Unexpected Pedicure

My blog's attracted some new readers as of late (yay! and welcome!), so you might not all remember this post, in which I painted my toenails with some nasty pink polish I bought at a kirana.

I've been reapplying said nail polish about once a week thereafter -- and dreaming about a proper pedicure.

Too expensive, I thought. Just keep enough paint slapped on those nails so they don't look gross, and you'll do fine.

Oh, I retaliated (to myself, of course), but you want your feet to look pretty for the opening of Tempest, especially since you'll be wearing that pretty pink sari...

So today curiosity got the best of me and I poked my head into Santoshi's Herbal Beauty Salon (Ladies Only), the on-campus beauty parlor. The place had always looked a little creepy because the owners had taken it upon themselves to paint all of the windows black, probably to prevent wandering male eyes. The result, of course, was that Santoshi's looked rather like the Herbal Beauty Salon of Evil. Which is why it took me seven weeks to walk inside.

Behind the black-painted windows was a colorful, vibrant room full of young women getting threaded, pop music on the stereo, and posters of film stars.

"Hello!" a cheerful woman called out to me. "What do you want?"

"Um..." I thought about how to phrase this. "Do you paint toenails?"

The woman turned to a student who was getting her hair cut and said something in Telugu, probably something along the lines of "What is this crazy American woman asking me to do?"

"I mean... a pedicure?"

The woman smiled and nodded. Evidently "pedicure" translated. Of course, obviously it would. The language of beauty is universal.

I had meant to say something along the lines of "Do you do pedicures, and how much does it cost, and can I come back in a few days?" but my cheerful host had already begun filling a small bowl with hot water. "Come!" she said. I came.

I've only had a pedicure once before, and it was a singularly delicious experience. Hot paraffin, fluffy towels, little rows of cotton between the toes, a massaging chair, etc. This pedicure was... well... it was effective, and efficient, and (as it turns out) ridiculously inexpensive, but much, much more painful. We're talking "scrubbing off the callouses at my heels with a piece of ridged metal" painful. And -- for whatever reason -- instead of clipping my toenails, the length was rubbed off with a nail file.

Still, one can't knock the results. Don't they look pretty?

(And yes, now you have proof. I have big feet and I cannot lie.)

More Praise For The Team

The goblets and dinner (my Iraqi student carved an entire chicken out of Thermacor!) are finished.

The magical, complicated staff (that I said would take too long to make) is half-done.

They've figured out that they'll have to do this on their own.

And I've been reminded, once again, that nothing really happens in the theatre until the last week.

My Students Surprise Me Again

I went into the rehearsal hall this morning to do some painting work, and to continue putting together these props. I assumed, based on prior experience, that my students would not take the initiative to work on these things outside of class and so... I would have to do them.

But I was surprised. Inside I found two of my students, busily working. They had beaten me to it. ^__^

Good. If even two of my students get it, then very good.

Quote Of The Day

After I had spent a rehearsal, alongside my students, painting and paper-mache-ing and building:

"Ma'am, yesterday you were helping us but not getting your face dirty, and we thought "she cannot know how hard we are working," and we became angry. Today you are helping us and we can see you are covered in paint and dirt, and now we know that you can work even harder than us, and so it makes us want to work more."

In Which We Switch to Product, And The Team Becomes Angry

We are at one week, today, until Tempest opens.

We've been working, during our rehearsal time, on building the set. I hate to use rehearsal time, but I learned "the hard way" that the students need constant supervision. That is, they will tell me that they will build something on their own, and then it won't happen, for whatever reason. (The students who took the responsibility of refusing the ladoos, for example, still haven't finished building the hut that they promised would be done five days ago.)

So I said "okay, we will spend one rehearsal all building this set together." And then it became two rehearsals.

And yesterday, for the first time perhaps, I switched completely to a product-based mode of directing, and my students didn't particularly like it.

For example: we need, in this play, four glasses and a plate with food. Easy enough to find. I probably could have gone to one of the mess halls and begged and borrowed them. However, my Iraqi student wanted to make them himself. He drew me pictures of these beautiful goblets, and told me he wanted to carve them for me out of Thermacor (read: Styrofoam). He said he would make sure they got done in time.

I told him he could do that, no problem. They were beautiful designs, after all, and I'm all about empowering my students to take charge of their own play.

Of course, they never got done. And here we were, yesterday, and my Iraqi student has commandeered four other students to help him carve things out of Thermacor, and I realize just how long it takes to carve something beautiful out of Thermacor. At the end of our session yesterday, we had two goblets done. They were really lovely to look at, but... it took two hours to make each of them.

In the meanwhile, I took charge and built Prospero's staff. (We had several students working on other projects, and I was also supervising them.) I found a long dowel and a battered mask, wrapped the mask around a lump of Thermacor, painted the entire thing blue, and glued it to the dowel. Took... fifteen minutes.

My students flipped out. "We were going to do that!" they said. They showed me, once again, the on-paper drawings of the staff they wanted. It looked really cool, but was full of carvings and feathers and complicated parts.

"How many hours will that take you to build?" I asked.

They thought.

"Include the time it takes you to find these materials," I said.

They thought again.

"Five hours," they told me.

"We don't have time to spend five hours on one prop," I explained. "Not anymore."

If I were to do this project again, I would have them start working on the set/props from the very beginning, because they clearly have creative ideas that they want to put into action. And, looking at the two goblets that they made yesterday, they also have some artistic skill. But, at this point, it's all about time, and allocating resources, and triage. In short, it's about product now. We either have props, or we don't. And it's my job to make them realize that.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Gamera! (aka "Pictures!")

After who knows how many tries, I have a working camera. It's been almost seven weeks, if you're counting.

The camera is still only "semi-working;" that is, I can still only get about five pictures off of it before the batteries die. This I found out when I was testing the camera, in my hostel room.

At any rate, please enjoy.

Here's me in my room, with my laundry.

I got a better blanket, finally. Shame I didn't have the camera when I had the one with the holes in it.

The view from my window.

If it's Thursday, must be brinjal curry. ^__^

More pictures to come soon. Right now am very busy working on Tempest.

Plastic, or... what metal is that again?

I have a question about tiffin-carriers.

Essentially, I want one. When I was at my home university (and temping at the office) and packing lunches to save $$$, I would have to take two generic Tupperware containers (one for the rice or bread, one for the curry or dal) in an old grocery sack.

So I want a tiffin-carrier, and since I never saw one in any of the desi groceries I frequented, I will be buying it here.

Here's the question. Plastic or metal?

Plastic has gotten a bum rap lately because of that whole BPA thing. Naturally, I don't want anything leeching into my food (never mind all the BPA that must have leeched in when I carried it in Tupperware).

But what's the metal they use for the metal ones? And does it carry the danger of leeching harmful chemicals too?

Also, which is easier to clean, etc?

Thanks. ^__^

If Mike Judge Were Desi...

BEAVIS: Yaar! Check it out! That guy was totally about to do it, but now he's on fire!

BUTTHEAD: Yeah. Bollywood rules.

BEAVIS: Heh-heh, Superman got totally fat, yaar. He's, like, so fat, that he should have an item number just for his fat.

BUTTHEAD: And, um, John Abraham should have one for his... um... wind tunnel. His hair's, like, always blowing or something.

BEAVIS: His hair blows. Get it? Blows!

BUTTHEAD: If that chick lost her memory, does that make her a virgin again? And does that mean she'd let me do her?

BEAVIS: I don't know, yaar. You'd have to fly to, like, Delhi or something.

BUTTHEAD: Heh. Heh. They said Salaam-e-Ishq.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Wendy-Housing Our Play

The monsoons haven't let up, this year. People in Hyderabad have told me that the monsoons have lasted two weeks now beyond their usual stopping point, and yes, we should blame global warming.

One direct consequence of these continual rains is that we won't be able to take Tempest outside. We had planned on it, and had reserved the space, but rehearsal after rehearsal got put back indoors because it just kept raining.

So last night my cast and I made a decision. Our play would be indoors only.

The question then became: where? There's no good theatre facility at the university. There's an auditorium which is primarily used for screening films, but it has no wings and no backstage space. There are a few lecture halls, but those aren't theatres (and again, no wings, no backstage).

My students assumed that we would use the auditorium, since it was the newest and therefore "best" building. I told them that we would be staging our play right where we were, in the rehearsal hall.

"But there's no stage!" they said.

I told them that we would create one.

Which is what we did today. We took pieces of bamboo and set them out on the floor in the shape of a rectangle. We took draperies and made a back curtain and wings. We found a pipe and hung some lights (they aren't even fresnels -- they're coffee-can lights). We went and gathered wood and rocks and arranged them on the stage to bring the natural world indoors.

I should add that as a director, I have always wanted to do this. A group forms a relationship with a particular space, and the play is birthed there. And then, inevitably, during the last week we have to tromp the play over to some shiny auditorium and place it in this foreign environment and so many connections are lost. Directors spend the majority of tech week saying "but it was working so well in the rehearsal hall!" and the actors have to essentially re-learn the play.

But today we built the set to complement the space and to enhance the story we had been telling in this very room for the past four weeks. Like Peter Pan, instead of moving Wendy, we built the house around her.

When it was finished, one of my students came to me. "I thought it wasn't going to work," she said, "but it looks like a real theatre in here now."

I agreed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Students Surprise Me

As I had hinted at earlier, I bought a box of sweets for my class.

Well, not for the whole class. For the group of students who showed up early on a Saturday morning to work on the set. They went out into the forest to chop down bamboo and everything. So I told the group that if they finished building a certain part of the set by Monday, I would give them ladoos.

On Monday they were almost done. They explained that they had worked through the evening on Saturday, and had set aside some time on Sunday to work, but had been recruited for another project in the department (the other faculty confirmed this). So I told them they could have the ladoos anyway.

And then they completely surprised me.

"Oh, no, ma'am. We can't take them."

"Why not?"

"You told us we had to finish building Prospero's hut. And the hut isn't finished."

They refused the ladoos completely. I was thoroughly impressed.

Golconda Fort Makes My Nerd Heart Happy

Of all the places I visited in Hyderabad this weekend, Golconda Fort was the favorite.

Don't get me wrong -- I loved the pearl markets and the shops outside Charminar, the musical clock at the Salar Jung Museum, the brilliantly lit spectacle of Lakshmi Bazaar at night, and the lassi stand where I tasted... oh, I won't bother, it' s indescribable. ^__^

But I think I loved Golconda Fort the best.

At Golconda Fort, I got to go exploring. Ignoring the advances of the men at the entrance calling out "Madam, guide?" I took off up the path myself. (In case you haven't been there, this is perfectly safe. The fort is completely walled, etc. The only danger might be tripping and falling down the 380 steps to the top.)

What I loved about the fort was its complexity. Paths branching and curving, maze-like, leading to lakes or gardens or ice-cream-wallahs; rooms opening into other rooms which opened into courtyards. From the outside, the fort looks imposing but monolithic; only when entering did I realize how vast and concentric it was.

There was no one path to the top. I had to make choices and evaluate possibilities. Each level contained innumerable nooks and crannies to peek into. Every time I turned a corner, I saw something unexpected.

And then, halfway up, I thought "this is like being inside a video game." Exploring, negotiating pathways, discovering secret rooms. All I needed was a sword and a fire-resistant amulet.

When I finally got to the summit, I looked down -- and realized that the fort layout was identical to the overworld map in The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past.

The fort is set up the same way. Buildings set within a sandy area in the southwest section, green meadows in the southeast section, the town proper at mid-level with the sultan's home directly above, watery areas in the northeast area, and rocks at top leading to a summit.

It made my nerd heart happy.

Editor's Note: Sorry the map is not in color. She tried to get a color one to load, but it was taking much much much too long, and she's got a class to prep for. Um... she means "a class for which to prep." Nerd, remember. ^__^

Monday, September 24, 2007

And What About The Audience?

I've been puzzling, still, over this idea of process v. product that I wrote about yesterday. (And for the people who read the comments to this post, yes, there are praises and rewards coming to my students. Ghee-dripping rewards.)

Sure, this is definitely a process-based performance. And life intervenes. Even today I was told that my rehearsal will probably start late due to another unexpected campus event.

But what about the audience? This performance is teaching my students a lot; specificity, control, technique (all at beginning levels, but still we're so much further along than we were on the first day). It's teaching me a lot; patience, improvisation, even how to use "being mean" to my advantage.

But when the audience comes in two weeks, will they enjoy the play?

Actually, they probably will. Like I mentioned earlier, it will be a cute show. Though it will be painted with very large brushstrokes (there's not a lot of subtlety or subtext in this show), they will be executed well.

But I'm still puzzling over whether there's a greater responsibility; this idea of "creating art" and all of that. This play will be far from "art," whatever that means. (And, actually, after seeing the Veiled Rebecca and the Indian miniatures in the Salar Jung Museum, I can say "that's what art is." Well, one type of art, anyway. Really I just wanted to name-drop the Salar Jung Museum.)

Does a play fail if it is not "art?" Using the miniatures and the sculpture referenced above as examples, one can say that "art" might only result from a mastery of a particular type of form. "Art," after all, describes an act; the "art" of painting, etc. Thus it implies the action involved in creation, and perhaps mastery of the art of painting leads to the "art" in a painting. And in my situation, on this campus, we're still learning the form. So we're not yet to "art" level.

But theatre always has to have that audience to watch it.

"Oh, they'll have a good time," I keep telling myself. And they will. It will be fun to watch this play.

But still... it is puzzling me.

Wearing the Sari

I have a problem with my pink sari. Actually, two problems. Length and width. ^__^

I know how to drape it; that is, I know the mechanics of draping it. Tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck all the way around, pleat, fold the pleats into the waistband, wrap the length around the body without tucking and throw the pallu over the shoulder. (If we’re doing it Gujarati-style, the pallu hangs in front.)

And when I drape my pretty pink sari, it looks like it should… from the front. I looked in the mirror and thought “wow, I did it!” Then I glanced behind me and noticed that the pallu was trailing onto the floor. That is to say, the length of the part “tossed over my shoulder” was longer than I was tall, and dragged behind me by nearly eighteen inches.

So I did it again. This time I tried to use up that length by making many more pleats. This was partially successful; but to really bring the pallu to where it should be (the decorative part begins at my shoulder, yes?) I would need to make enough pleats to cover several feet of fabric.

Which brings me, of course, to the second problem: that all the folded and tucked material is extremely bulky around my waist. To get it to the right height, I have to tuck a good deal of it into the ghagra, and it makes everything look all puffy. Which, combined with the lingering effects of “rice belly,” is not exactly attractive.

Perhaps I should wear the sari only in situations where I will be viewed exclusively from the front. From this view, I look like a glamorous Bollywood heroine. But from the side and the back, I look disastrous.

Or I could just learn how to wear it properly. ^__^

Editor’s Note: You’re probably wondering why there are no pictures. She made a veiled reference to an “important item” she bought a few days ago; it had to do with getting her camera fixed and in working condition. Unfortunately, the camera is still (like the lead character in a Karan Johar film) incomplete. Thus… no pictures, for now.

Pretty Pink Sari!

I now own my first sari. I bought it at Lakshmi Bazaar, in Koti. It’s a ridiculously cheap sari in synthetic chiffon, but I couldn’t see the value in paying a lot of money for something I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to wear.

So this one I’m treating kind of like a test. If I can keep it on, manage it gracefully, etc. in the privacy of my hostel room (and maybe on the visiting faculty verandah), then I’ll invest in something a little nicer. If not, it was Rs 200 including ghagra and choli, and every firengi who goes to India comes back with a sari, right?

It’s pink. I have five blue salwars, now, but one pink sari.

After all, I promised Vikram Seth that the first sari I bought in India would be pink.

Here’s the story: after I finished reading Suitable Boy I wrote Vikram Seth a fan letter. It’s the only fan letter I’ve ever written in my life. (I wrote Stephen Sondheim, once, but that was to ask for an internship. He sent a sweet personal note in return, declining.) I knew it was awfully silly to write a fan letter to an author who rarely interacted with his readers, and I didn’t expect a response, and I don’t even know if he ever got it (sent it via his publisher). But in it I wrote that… well, I’ll just reproduce it for you.

And so I wanted to write you, because one can’t write Mr. Pasternak or Ms. Austen or Mr. Shakespeare, even though sometimes we wish we could, and because I wanted to tell you that I am going to India for the first time this August, to study and direct a play in Hyderabad, and that my first sari, when I get one, will be a pink sari, as a subtle but definite expression of thanks. I’ve done things in honor of books I’ve loved before (I named my first cat Dinah) but I have never had the privilege of being able to tell the author.

Yeah, I know. (And it’s pink because Lata was always described wearing pink saris, except for the blue one she wore at the railway station, the blue one Meenakshi loaned her, and the one which Haresh could not tell was blue or green.)

And I wrote that letter a long time ago, but I still kept my promise. I always keep the promises I make to literary figures, even if they never knew I made them. ^__^

Watching People Eat

I’m not in the university guest house, at the moment. My room has been taken over by a gigantic physics convention. The person in charge of this convention wanted to rent more rooms than the university currently had available; and so the people furthest down the hierarchy were asked (no, told) to move out of the guest house for a week and make other arrangements.

So I’m in a backpackers’ hostel, in the city. And thrilled to be here. The university campus is peaceful and beautiful, but isolated. So I jumped at the chance to get away from the university… and, for that matter, away from the mess hall and its three rotating curries (bhindi, aloo and capsicum, and brinjal).

Anyway. I arrived at about 5:30 p.m. on the first sunny day in over a week. I put my things in the hotel room and took a moment to freshen up from the bus ride, and then flew down the stairs to start my evening’s adventure. Strangely, it looked as if the front desk clerk had “freshened up” as well. In the five minutes (okay, ten) it had taken me to re-braid my hair and reapply lipstick, he had combed his hair and put on a white embroidered cap. It almost looked as if he had put on a different shirt as well, but I couldn’t be sure.

I went out into a street that was on the cusp of twilight. The first thing I noticed was that nearly every man was wearing this same white cap (I know it's got a real name, but I can't find it on Google... I'll let one of you educate me ^__^). The second was that everyone – men, women, and children alike – were dressed in these gorgeous, sparkling things. The third, which I realized as I stepped into a group of people as they crossed a street and followed the group through to safety on the other side, was that everyone was congregating around a set of sweet-stalls set up at a prominent intersection.

Then I got it. It’s Ramadan, seconds from sundown, and they’re all about to break the fast.

There was such a sense of excitement in the air, which surprised me, because we are about two weeks into Ramadan already. Is there this excitement every evening? Of course, if I had spent the day fasting, I think I would be more than a little excited myself.

I didn’t watch to see the moment when the sun set. I wanted to, but it seemed like it would be prying into something very personal. It was enough to see the anticipation of these penultimate moments. So I turned and went onto a different road.

On this road, rows of electric lights drew me towards a giant Ganesha pandal (voted one of the top five pandals in the city, as the sign announced). This one had a dancing Ganesh instead of a seated one; his fingertip touched a fountain, and water poured over lotus flowers. This pandal also had a crowd of people and more coming from every direction.

They were doing puja and taking prasadam, only it seemed like the prasadam was an entire meal; rice, dal, and pooris. Plate after plate went out. I went closer, to see if money was exchanging hands, but whatever funds enabled this pandal to have a working lotus fountain (and be rated “top five in the city!”) were also enabling the pandal to feed this huge crowd for free.

Thus on one street, Muslims were breaking the fast; and around the corner, Hindus were taking prasadam. Everyone was eating. Everyone was happy. The sun set, and all around the city these glorious colorful lights came on. It was a perfect moment.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Process Vs. Product

In the past three days, my rehearsals have been usurped (or partially usurped) by three different events: student elections, then a group moving project (where my students were asked to spend the afternoon moving equipment from one building to another), and lastly the arrival of an international physics convention which has taken over the majority of the university classrooms.

Not to mention student absences of all kinds, some excused and others unexpected. Life intervenes often, whether in the form of illness, parental visit, Ganesha parade, or India v. Pakistan cricket match.

The advice I got was to just “let things happen.” Which I have no problem with doing. It’s very interesting to be in a place where the flow of life is allowed to freely interrupt the flow of “work.” Things are still getting done, but they’re getting done at their own pace.

Which brings me to this idea of two kinds of theatre: process-based and product-based. The former allows for events like this (for “life” to intervene), and the latter does not. The former judges the success of a performance by how much the actors learned. The latter judges success by how well a performance fits an artistic vision. The former is actor-centered, the latter is often director-centered. The former uses the language “your play,” and the latter is generally “the play” or occasionally "my play."

I have met directors who have followed both theories. (And directors who have followed different theories for different performances.) Working in a product-based theatre is very stressful, and although the results can be quite amazing, a quality “product” is in no way guaranteed. Working in a process-based theatre is a lot more fun, but since the emphasis is on the group experience rather than on the audience experience, the “product” is even less guaranteed.

I love teaching process-based theatre. But I always feel like I’m cheating a bit when I do it. At some point, if they are going to be professional, students have to learn to survive product-based theatre. Which means that if the parents show up or if they run a fever or even if there are dancers and drums outside, the rehearsal door must remain closed and the work must go on. We can’t go out and dance and then come back in and pick up where we left off.


Theatre, Education, and Age

I was watching my students the other day and was reminded, once again, of how much they resembled my high school drama class. (That would be the drama class I was in, when I was in high school. I haven’t taught a high school drama class, not yet.)

That is, they’re interested, even talented, but they lack control. They lack the self-control to pay attention during rehearsal, to use their time wisely instead of goofing around with their friends, to listen and follow directions. (I’m not sure they’re deliberately misbehaving; they just haven’t been trained yet. In that, I am partially to blame, because I haven’t successfully taught them how to focus. As I predicted, my “motivational speech” helped them pull together for about two days. Then I tried getting angry, but that didn’t work – and it made me feel like my high school drama teacher, shouting impotently and with no purpose. Idiot-sound-fury-signifying-nothing.)

They also lack the physical control necessary in a good actor. They don’t know how to use their bodies to express character, beyond a general “walk slower/speak louder” kind of thing. They don’t know how to manipulate posture or breath; the first time I did an exercise designed to show them how breath can be altered and controlled, they had great difficulty and a few tried to assure me that I was asking them to do something impossible.

All of this is fine, because all of this can be taught. Technical skills have to be learned.

But this takes time; years, in fact. And these students are not all young. Two-thirds of them have already earned a BS or a BA or a BSc in something or another, and (as I found out, with surprise) the majority of my class is older than I am.

So what to do? The answer, in my case, is simple: direct as well as I can, teach what I can, and let them have this experience of putting on a play.

But I can’t help feeling responsible, because I want my students to succeed. I want the play to succeed. And while the play will be reasonably successful in an entertaining and “cute” way, it won’t be professional, or even pre-professional. It’s student theatre. It’s what one would expect from a high school cast, not a group of MA freshers.

It makes me wonder, once again, just how disadvantaged people are who don’t start training (in whatever subject – theatre, music, computers, languages) very early. Bodies mature, synapses close, and attitudes form; and then beginning “at the beginning” becomes difficult. It is much easier to train an eight-year-old to perform a controlled physical action than it is to teach a twenty-seven-year-old. (I should know – I’ve taught both.)

And yet we’ve got this group of MA theatre students who want to be successful; and I don’t know how to solve this problem.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Let's Play "Name That Food!"

This was my breakfast this morning:

Palm-sized balls of what appeared to be deep-fried bread dough.

Also coconut chutney.

It was completely delish, but I don't know what it's called. And I'd rather reveal my ignorance to the internet than to the Indian mess hall cooks. ^__^

But... you know. Just in case I want to ask for it again.

The Name Of The Bakery Is....

Sri Venkat Reddy.

Across from the bus terminal in Koti.

Anyone else been there?

Thursday, September 20, 2007


When I was in the city, yesterday, buying my laddoos (and one other item of great importance, to be revealed later), I stumbled upon one of the legendary Indian McDonalds. "Stumbled upon," of course, is an overstatement, as it was pretty hard to miss; it had a 10' x 20' billboard inviting us to come inside and enjoy a "Happy Combo."

I went inside. It was lunchtime, after all, and I was curious.

The first thing I noticed was that the McDonalds was spotless. Gleaming, in fact. Rhythms from Om Shanti Om (which is being played everywhere, in the city) mixed with the noise from the televisions, all featuring Cartoon Network. Several of the tables were full, with kids in school uniforms and a few older people who might have been college students. Clearly this was a trendy place to be.

It was also expensive, by Indian standards. Considering that I could have gone next door and paid Rs 25 for a gigantic dosa, asking Rs 150 for a combo meal seemed to be pushing it. But I'm a "wealthy American," after all, so I made my way to the counter.

I was torn between testing a familiar sandwich and trying something new. In the end I picked new.

"I would like the aloo tikki combo, please."

The young woman behind the counter smiled. "Do you mean the Lakshmi combo?"

I glanced at the sign. There was no mention of Lakshmi anywhere. I spent enough time looking for the word that the young woman felt obliged to ask again.

"Lakshmi combo, madam?"

"Yes," I said, hoping that whatever Lakshmi meant, it would turn out to be vegetarian. ^__^

And then she asked me what kind of Coke I wanted. (In exactly those words.) This little American (Southern) regionalism seems to have slipped into India. It was a good thing I knew what it meant, because then I could ask "what kind of Cokes are there?" and hear "Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Fanta," etc.

The food was served to me at my seat, and it turned out to be aloo tikki burger after all. And despite the shining cleanliness and overall cheerful presentation of the McDonalds, the sandwich itself was just as flat and greasy as anything I could get stateside. (It wasn't like the time I ate at an Indian Pizza Hut, where the vegetables were fresh and everything was 200% better than its American counterpart.)

The fries, of course, were McDonalds' fries. Exactly the same.

So... now I can check "eating at an Indian McDonalds" off of my to-do list. It was fun, but definitely a one-time-only experience. ^__^

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Dozen Laddoos

I have been, for the past five days, in search of laddoos. Mostly because I saw this post on SepiaMutiny about how laddoos were associated with Ganesha Chaturthi, and thought "well, then I want a laddoo too!"

After all, I've never really had one. I had a sesame seed laddoo once (S. bought it for me at a desi grocery) but it was dry and seedy and not exactly the giant sugar-and-ghee filled mound of goodness that I've heard described.

So I went in search of a better laddoo. And I found, for some strange reason, that there weren't any on campus. None. Nowhere. Not even in front of Lord Ganesh himself (the prasadam was rice only ^__^).

The campus had two bakeries, but the closest thing I could find was a kind of "sand laddoo;" that is, something small and round and hard, gray-colored, tasting of sand, which was fished out of a plastic jar. When I bit into it the rest crumbled and fell through my fingers.

I knew that wasn't what the people on SepiaMutiny were raving about. They usually only rave about good things. ^__^

Thus I went into the city today in search of bakeries. I had to go to three before I finally found one that actually sold laddoos. (Impossible, yes?) But the one I found was a treasure trove. Plump, round, shining laddoos of all colors and consistencies.

I snagged a dozen (a baker's dozen, no less) and took them back to the guest house to share with the visiting faculty.

When I bit into my first "real" laddoo, my unadulterated, spontaneous response was "Oh, shit!" In that good way. ^__^ I passed the box, with its layers of tissue, to a friend, and his reaction was exactly the same as mine. Verbatim. These laddoos were possibly the best thing I've ever tasted, and certainly the best thing I've ever tasted in Hyderabad.

One of the visiting fac who knew the area finally asked to look at the box. When he saw the name of the baker (which I can't read, since it's in Telugu), he told me that I had purchased these laddoos from the most famous bakery in Hyderabad. Pure serendipity on my part. But well, well worth it.

Am very happy and satisfied. ^__^

Life Isn't Complete....

... until one has danced, in a raging monsoon, with thunder and fireworks crackling at the same time, in a parade leading a giant pink Ganesh to its pandal.

There was prasadam, of course, and -- for whatever reason -- red and pink and yellow powder. And I got covered in it. ^_^

Monday, September 17, 2007

This Wagon Fulla Pancakes Just Might Win the Champeenship After All

After my "motivational speech," in which I told my students full-out that "people will laugh at you," my students dramatically increased their focus. I guess shame is the great motivator. I know I could never get away with this same speech in a U.S. classroom, but here it worked.

We had an amazing rehearsal today. They're starting to get the idea of specificity in acting. They're starting to make their entrances like they have an intention. They're even allowing their characters to make discoveries onstage, instead of just plowing through the lines and ignoring all of the shifts.

Afterwards we spent forty minutes in a chat session where they asked me all kinds of questions like "I don't know how to do XYZ, how can I make it better?" Sweet music to my ears.

I'm guessing this will last for about two days, and then I will have to come up with a new speech or a new trick. But if the play is at least as focused as it was today, it won't be bad. And if we can continue working to make it better, it might even be good. ^__^

Editor's Note: Not sure what a "wagon fulla pancakes" is? Click here.

Coach Blue's Motivational Speech

If this were a Bollywood film, this speech would come right before the intermission. ^__^ I'll try to see how much of it I can remember verbatim.

"Team. Everyone be quiet and listen to me. Are we ready? Good.

From the time I called "places for Act One" to this moment, now, when we are finally in our places and silent and ready to begin, it has been ten minutes. Ten minutes. We do not have that time to waste.

We have sixteen rehearsals left. Sixteen rehearsals and then we perform. And do you know what will happen when we perform? People will laugh at you. People will laugh at this department. Already this department is getting the worst of everything, leaky roof, all of that. But maybe you students deserve it.

Do you know what they say about theatre people? That they are stupid. Do you want people to think that about you? Oh, these theatre people, they are so stupid. They don't know mathematics, they don't know engineering, they don't know science. All they know is this acting thing, and even that they do badly.

I will not make this a good play. All I do is say "move here, move there, speak louder." The rest has to come from you. It is not coming from you right now. You are not focusing on the hard work that needs to be done. You are not thinking about how to make yourself better.

We are going to begin our act run now. When you are not directly in a scene, I want you to sit and think about your performance and think about what you can do to make it better. And then when you come back onstage, I want you to do it."

Intermission. Y'all can go get your samosas now.

A Question About Midnight's Children

I’ve never read Rushdie before. But, now that he’s newly single, I thought I might start checking up on his works. You know, in case I ever run into him in a hotel elevator or something.

Anyway. I am seriously looking for an answer to this question. In the chapter “Under the Carpet,” when Mumtaz has pneumonia, why does Doctor Aziz give her a gynecological exam? The next step of the plot hinges on this exam, but it seems unnaturally placed into the narrative. Pneumonia usually only troubles the top half of the body, after all. And, since Rushdie is a good writer, it must mean that there’s something going on here that I don’t understand.

(I’m the sort of person who will go back and pick apart a book to put together its components. In Sacred Games, for example, I spent nearly half an hour trying to solve the gold bar problem. To wit: on page 50, Ganesh takes two gold bars out of his sack. On pages 59/60, he gives two gold bars to Paritosh Shah, but Badriya notices the third gold bar he has kept hidden. Where did this third bar come from? I finally found it on page 39: the bar he originally slipped into his pocket when he divided the gold with Mathu.)

So. Can anyone help me with this Midnight’s Children thing? Or do I just accept that the story is a story, and I should follow the events as Saleem tells them, without worrying too much about the details? ^__^

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Speed is... Relative

Me, talking to the actor playing Alonso: You need to make your entrance very quickly. You are looking for your son. You don’t know if he’s been killed in this tempest. You have to find him. So you are moving very quickly.

Alonso makes his entrance with a sort of rambly, leisurely pace. For the fifteenth time.

Then it occurs to me that his pace is right in line with the general speed of life in this part of India. Nobody runs. Nobody hurries. I have been teased, more than once, for my "American impatience."

And if this is this actor's version of "quickly," well... um... everyone likes a good long Shakespeare anyway. ^__^

A Perfect(ly Wet) Ganesh

Yesterday was the start of Ganesha Chaturthi. It poured rain all day, which put a damper on some of the planned university festivities. I’m sure in Hyderabad proper, there were thousands of people out on the streets with their plaster-of-paris Ganeshas, but on campus… well, it was a bunch of students, and it was really wet, so things got cancelled.

The “cultural program,” which took place indoors, still went off. I’m not sure exactly what this program had to do with Ganesha Chaturthi, but it was an opportunity for everyone to dress up in their prettiest saris and dhotis. (Note to the male students: Please find something better to wear with your dhoti than yesterday’s Diesel t-shirt. The t-shirt is wrinkled and it isn’t a real Diesel shirt anyway. You are not impressing anyone.)

It was also an opportunity for students to present “cultural songs and dances.” Which meant that they danced and lip-synched to Bollywood music.

There were a few folk songs sprinkled here and there, but for the most part it was this filmi business, and for the most part the performers were awful. Sloppy, unprepared, etc. The audience seemed not to care, and hooted and screamed after every act as if we had been watching the filmstars themselves.

The reason I’m mentioning this is because it has to do with the next little difficulty I’m encountering with my class: the necessity of polishing a performance. We’re beginning that second stage of rehearsal, where we take the initial blockings and line readings and begin to shape them and add detail and nuance. They’re very resistant to this process, and seem very satisfied with playing general, loosely-drawn characters… who don’t pick up their friggin' cues.

So when I saw this performance, I began to get a sense of what the expectations were on this campus, and why my students seem to think that this kind of work is “good enough.” Which it isn’t.

Training Squirrels, Part Three: The Alpha Squirrel Comes Around

On the plus side, despite any lingering health problems I’ve been making great headway with my class. The self-appointed “alpha squirrel,” the student who chose to step out of our group warm-up and has since spent his time sulking and refusing to participate, came around today.

I had been ignoring him completely, in part because I really didn’t know what to do with this kid, and in part because… um… that’s what SRK did. ^__^ He would sit and watch, and yesterday he came and said he couldn’t be at rehearsal for some reason, and I just said “fine, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

In addition to his role in the play, he’s also our lighting designer. (All of the students have design and technical roles as well as acting ones. We’re a small department.) We have design meetings at the start of class, every few days, and I had previously been on his case about starting some kind of light plot. (For the theatre techies who read this – are there any? – we’re running a two-scene preset and have forty-eight dimmers, twenty of which actually work. I haven’t yet seen any of the equipment, and these kids of course don’t know a liko from a parcan, but from their descriptions I’ve gathered that the available lights are nearly all fresnels. There’s a strobe light at our disposal, which seems to make its way into every show – because strobes are cool – but I’m going to put my foot down on this one. No gels, for whatever bizarre reason. I’m guessing no gobos or barn doors or anything like that.)

He kept telling me that he didn’t need to make a plot. So I asked him instead to start planning where the cords would go, and where the board op would sit, and how we were going to rig the light poles (we’re working outside, on a “stage” which is actually a cement platform, and so all of these details need to be worked out). Which, of course, he never did.

Until today. Today he came up to me, after a few days of sulking and being ignored, and showed me some drawings he had made of a possible light plot. They were pretty good, and I told him so. He smiled for the first time all week.

And after that, he was a part of the team.

I Can't Catch A Break In This Town

I’ve been in India for exactly one month. I’ve been ill, in some form or another, for just over a third of my time here.

I haven’t written about it much because I’m generally a plucky person – and, perhaps, because the state of my bowels is really my business alone.

But I was thinking, today, about how many days I’ve spent here “taking rest;” that is, getting up in the morning for internets and meetings, spending the afternoon in bed napping (or if that fails, reading), and then getting up again for my 4:30 p.m. class and rehearsal.

I had the typical “T.D.” for about a week, and then I had that damn fever for another week, and today the bowel problems started up again.

I truly can’t catch a break.

A note about the fever, though: everyone on campus has it. The Hyderabad Times even did a story about this minor epidemic; apparently it’s a viral strain that resolves itself in one of two ways: either fever and laryngitis, or fever and conjunctivitis. Half the people lose their voice and the other half sit and pick at their eyes. I am eternally grateful that I was in the former camp.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Training Squirrels, Part Two: When Did the Self-Esteem Movement Hit India?

Today I had another exercise, this time designed to root out unpreparedness. Many of my students were just floating along, showing up for class and saying their lines but not doing one bit of work on their part from one day to the next. This needed to stop.

A bit of background: yesterday, I explained to my class that an actor can always be working, even when he or she is not onstage, and gave them a list of things they could be working on (breath, resonance, movement score, memorization, etc.) when they weren’t in a scene. They all said “yes, ma’am,” and nodded, but spent most of their offstage time chatting (as I had expected).

So, at the end of class, I called my students together and asked each of them to show me what they had accomplished when I hadn’t been working with them. They looked at me and giggled.

“Um…” one began.

“I memorized my lines,” another said.

“Great!” I said. “Let’s hear them.”

He blushed. “Actually, ma’am, I did not.”

So today, after we spent another twenty minutes learning how to warm-up in synchrony, I wrote a short verse (in English) on the whiteboard. I gave a brief lecture on how specific physical and vocal actions can be used to add meaning to a text (whispering a particular word, for example). Then I asked them to prepare this text using three strong physical actions and three strong vocal actions. I told them we would be performing the text after five minutes.

As I had expected, four or five students got up and began working and the rest sat in the corner and chatted. I let five minutes pass. In fact, I let ten minutes pass, because the students who were working wanted the extra time. (The students who were chatting didn’t notice either way.)

Then I called them back together and said it was time for the performances.

A few of the prepared students went, and then I made a few unprepared students perform, and then I had the last of the prepared students go. Ideally, this would have shown the students clearly the difference between prepared and unprepared work. However, once the students realized what was happening they changed the game. They started applauding the unpreparedness and laughing at the preparedness.

So I said “Is there anyone else who would like to perform?”

An unprepared student stood up.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said. “I watched you, and I never saw you rehearse, so I won’t let you perform.”

He was almost shocked.

“Is there anyone else? Anyone who has rehearsed?”

There wasn’t.

Afterwards, one of the prepared students came and told me that I should have let everyone perform because not letting everyone perform made some students “feel bad.” I couldn’t believe it. I told him that if feeling bad made the class work harder next time, I didn’t mind. ^__^

But today, after the rehearsals were over and I asked my students to show me what they had accomplished while they weren’t in a scene, more than half of them had something worthwhile to show. The other half still spent their time chatting. This I will have to fix tomorrow.

(BTW -- the student from the other day is still refusing to participate. I'm ignoring him completely. He'll give up, or he won't, but I'm not going to enter into any dialogue about it. This is, after all, exactly what SRK did. ^__^)

Training Squirrels, or: Shahrukh Khan is the Answer to Everything

I was emailing with friends about my class, and one of them told me that I had to stop acting like a "director," all artistic with the black scarves and the woo-hah, and start acting like a coach.

"But that's sports," I whined. "Sports are... eew!"

However, my friend had a good point. Being all "artistic" wasn't working. So maybe I needed to change my perspective.

Fine, I thought. Let's see what happens if I try this Chak De! style.

I suddenly considered it a very good thing that I had recently written a post about sports movie clich├ęs. Because the first item on my list (let’s assume I didn’t have a fall from grace, and skip the exposition) was to break down individual barriers and attitudes and turn my unit into a team.

So I thought about past experiences I had in which I felt like I had been part of an acting team. And then I remembered a particularly sadistic trick used on the first day of class when I spent a summer training with Anne Bogart and SITI Company.

I told my students to stand in a circle. We had already learned a group warm-up, involving both yoga and calisthenics. I told the students that, without speaking to one another, they were to do the warm-up. Simultaneously. Every time they fell out of sync, they would have to begin again.

This is a very difficult exercise. The first part, for example, is very simple: raising the arms above the head. But when a group has to begin raising the arms at the same time, continue to raise them at the same rate, and reach a simultaneous stopping point, it becomes harder. Thus it took several tries before my students could accomplish even this first action.

The pushups begin early into the warm-up. The first time my students completed them and I told them they were not all moving up and down at the same speed (and they would have to begin again), they giggled a little. A few halfhearted attempts later, they realized I meant business. And then, just like I had hoped, they began to get into the game.

This lasted for about forty-five minutes, and they were becoming very good at listening and watching and working as a team. Until, unfortunately, one student (the self-appointed class spokesperson and “leader”), decided he would take control, and stepped out of the circle, as if to say “I’m done with this.” I ignored him, and the rest of the students continued working, but… clearly I will have to find some way to bring this particular individual in line. Which is exactly what SRK had to do. ^__^

Cleanliness Is Next To Awesomeness

Thanks for all of the suggestions re: my ant problem. I think my favorite one was the magical Laxman chalk with which I was to draw a circle around my bed. It seems like it ought to come with its own incantation. ^__^

(Daniel, I’ll have you know I found the anthill and poured soapy water into it, as suggested. And no, I’m not worried about hurting their precious exoskeletons.)

What actually happened today was this: I told some of the other visiting fac about my antventure, and they were astonished to find out that no one had been cleaning my room properly. There is supposed to be a woman sent to every room in the mornings to clean the floors and toilet. Mine was cleaned very well on the first day, and much less well every day thereafter, until it became cursory at best. In fact, on the day when I was lying in bed with fever, the woman came in and – instead of cleaning anything – just held out the little notebook in which I was to sign (to indicate the job had been done).

“But you haven’t cleaned anything,” I mumbled, trying to raise up from the pillow. “It’s still dirty.”

She made the “sorry, don’t understand English” grin and took off.

Anyway, one of the visiting faculty commandeered a team, and after much shouting and waving of arms, got my room completely cleaned. Scrubbed down, walls and everything. They changed the sheets, gave me towels and toilet paper (which had never been in the room before – I was doing it lota-style), and in general made the whole thing as sparkling-fresh as a cement room could be.

They did not replace the holey blanket, unfortunately, but I’ll take what I can get for now.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Ants Go Marching...

I think this story will be enough to put off anyone who is thinking about traveling to India. My apologies in advance to the Indian Tourism Board.

Imagine, for a moment, how much noise an ant makes when it is crawling across a surface.

Not much, eh?

Okay. Now imagine how many ants it would take to make an audible crawling sound.

Starting to get a mental picture?

Now imagine how many ants it would take to make a crawling sound loud enough to wake a sleeping human.

I woke up at about 4 a.m. last night to a funny scratching noise. As soon as I got my head together I realized it was coming from the metal "air conditioner" positioned above my bed. I knew, with a strange foreboding, that my air conditioner was full of insects. Hundreds and thousands of insects.

I thought for a moment. Leave it alone, or take action? After the "bug invades my jeans" episode, I went and purchased a variety of insect killers. I bug-bomb my room every evening (while I am away at dinner: see "Spider poison is people poison?"), air it out, then close all the windows for the night. But the air conditioning unit was clearly providing another method of access.

I thought, in my fuzzy 4-am sort of way, that both taking action and doing nothing would result in the same unwanted scenario. Better to face the scenario with weaponry.

So I grabbed my can of industrial-strength Indian Raid, stood out of the way as far as I could, and sprayed down the air conditioner.

Instantly thousands of ants began to pour out of the air conditioner; from the sides, around the cracks at the bottom, and through the vents. I sprayed and sprayed, watching as they began to slow down and die. My bedsheets began to fill with dead ants.

I went to open the window, to let out some of the toxic fumes. There I found something I hadn't prepared for. Hundreds of thousands of ants, having realized the danger of the air conditioning unit, were now seeping into the windowjamb. Opening the window would release them all.

But I had no choice; so the windows were forced open, the ants came pouring in, and I sprayed them down.

Then I went down to the veranda, in my pajamas, to clear my head.

When I came back, I cleaned up the corpses, but for some odd reason couldn't fall back to sleep. I wonder why. ^__^

BTW, the most disgusting part of the story came today, when I decided to turn the air conditioner on. It was hot, after all. I figured a few dead ants might get blown out, but then it would be over with. Little did I know that dead ants left overnight in an air conditioner apparently turn into black goo. How about I leave it at that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Difference Between Teaching and Directing

I've been told, during the course of my graduate-student career, that I am a good teacher; that I manage the classroom well, that I present materials with the intent of reaching a variety of learning styles, that I can lead and structure a class discussion, etc.

This may (I hope) be true. At any rate, I feel very comfortable in a classroom. I feel like I know what to do. It's almost like putting together a puzzle -- trying to find the right pieces that will connect the students with the material.

However, I've also been told that I am less good as a director; that is, I can't run a rehearsal hall quite as well as I run a classroom. We've spent a few advising sessions trying to figure out why, and trying to figure out what (in terms of behavior, presentation, techniques, etc.) I can change.

Teaching and directing, after all, are in some ways very similar. Both involve helping a group of people achieve a series of objectives. Both require one to present material in a number of different ways (if the student/actor isn't making the necessary progress, the teacher/director must work to adjust the method of instruction, etc.).

My work here is half teaching and half directing. I am teaching the students about Shakespeare and about acting techniques, and then directing a performance of Tempest.

Again, I feel much more comfortable (and capable) with the teaching half than with the directing half.

And yesterday I had an inspiration as to why. It came while I was watching one of the senior faculty in the department lecture our students on the importance of punctuality, respect, etc. (They've reached the point in the semester where they've started behaving like little squirrels; skipping class, ignoring assignments, etc.)

It occurred to me, while watching this, that the difference between teaching and directing is that a director must actively work to change an actor's behavior.

If a teacher has a lazy or unprepared or flaky student, she can do her best to connect with the student but in the end may just end up handing out a B or C grade. The onus of performance is on the student.

If a director has a lazy or unprepared or flaky actor, the director must change that actor's behavior or the director will have a bad play (or, at least, a weak character in a play). A play can't present itself in a "bell curve," with some A sections and some F sections and a bunch of B and C sections. The onus of performance is, entirely, on the director.

And changing people's behavior is something at which I am terrible. I don't need an adviser to tell me that.

So... I need to think about this one, and find some way to incorporate it into my rehearsal hall. Otherwise, I will spend the next week or so (until the students start to get nervous about the upcoming performance and begin to work harder) rehearsing with squirrels.


Other Things I Wish People Had Told Me Before I Left

People catch small fevers in India all the time, locals and firengis included.

Going to the student health center in the morning and getting checked over is a good idea.

Spending the rest of the day panicking, envisioning the opening scene in the 1987 Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of The Secret Garden (starring Derek Jacobi) is ineffectual.

Particularly when one wakes up the next morning feeling fine.

A Flyover Collapses

Two days ago I was in the eastern section of Hyderabad (Koti and Abids) wandering around and enjoying myself and getting groped on the bus ride home.

I left in the afternoon. About two hours later, a flyover (read: overpass) collapsed. 30 people are assumed dead and they're still searching for bodies.

This flyover was right in the heart of the city; directly outside Hyderabad Central, in fact. I had traveled underneath this flyover every time I had come into the city, including that morning on my way to Abids.

I had come back from the city early because a friend had invited me to a Tollywood movie. When I got back to campus, he told me that he had changed his mind and was too busy to go, and I told him off (a bit) for making this plan and dragging me back from the city for no reason when I had been enjoying myself and would have otherwise stayed through the evening.

The next day I told him that perhaps he had saved my life.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Getting Groped (or, How To Increase Site Traffic With Two Simple Words)

On the bus ride home from a bazaar in Abids, I felt an erect penis begin to nudge itself into the small of my back.

It was accompanied by a huge, sweaty belly.

I started to laugh. Aloud. I know I should have been offended, but the whole thing seemed so ludicrous. Here we were, packed like sardines into this stinking bus, everyone dripping with sweat, and this guy next to me decides he's going to get turned on, just because he's standing near a woman.

I stepped away from him (the two inches that I could) but he stepped forward, continuing to press into me.

So I reached behind me and swatted his belly.

He stepped back and disappeared into the crowd of passengers.

Again, I know I should be offended, but my only reaction is "glad to know I've still got it."

Now I Really Want A Book Deal

From the NY Times:

Katherine Russell Rich got a book deal for writing about her experiences learning Hindi. She also got a Modern Love column out of it; apparently, learning Hindi made her sexually aroused, so she made out with a fireman in an elevator in NYC. (No, seriously. That's the jist of the article. And then she slams us with 9/11 at the end of it.)

Come on, you guys. I've been writing "the book" about my Indian experience (offline, separate from the blog) since I arrived. All I need to know is how to hook up with a publisher. ^__^

The Money Paradox, Part Two: Books

In the “Indian Writers in English” class, the professor was asking the question “For whom do these writers write? Is it for an Indian audience, or a Western audience?”

He laid out some statistics on how many books by particular Indian authors had been purchased in India in the past few years. The numbers were pretty small. Only in the thousands.

“And if Indian readers aren’t reading these English books,” he proposed, “then why do Indian writers keep writing them?”

We’ll leave the second half of the question alone for the moment, because I want to focus on the first half; his conclusion that Indian readers aren’t reading English books.

When my students saw me carrying a recently-purchased book under my arm one afternoon, they were amazed. I’m the sort of person who, like Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, always has a book on me somewhere; but I’m starting to feel a little strange about it, because carrying a new book on this campus attracts attention, even if I’m just sitting and reading at the dhaba. No one has new books here. No one can afford them, and my students told me I was very “posh” for being able to carry one.

(Never mind explaining that, with paperbacks at around Rs 300, purchasing here is really the smarter idea, and that “in my own country” I would not be able to afford any of the books I’ve been carrying.)

Even the students in the “Indian Writers” class aren’t reading books by these writers. The books aren’t available. The English department has a small library, but it’s fairly limited and doesn’t have many authors more recent than Narayan. Our professor mentions Kiran Desai in every lecture, and Vikram Seth, but we’re not actually going to read Inheritance of Loss or Suitable Boy. The written word, in this class, is limited to the blurry photocopied page; an interview or an essay found somewhere online, and even that can only be photocopied once or twice and passed around the room during the lecture.

This reminds me so much of growing up in the backwoods of nowhere that my heart aches for it. I’m thinking of a young Blue, sitting at her parents’ Macintosh computer (pre-internet) looking at “the complete Time Magazine archives” on CD-ROM and memorizing details about play and film reviews, because the plays have long closed and the films aren’t available at the locally owned Video Castle, but she understands it’s important somehow to know about them.

These students are learning about literature in the same way; around the edges, with the assumption even at the outset that they’ll never read any of these books. Because – as it was for me – the books are both too expensive and too far away.

To quote Tom Stoppard: “How can you sleep for grief?”

The Money Paradox

The friends with whom I went to dinner (and the temple) last night are all visiting faculty of some nature, spending a semester or a year teaching at U-Hyd. I’ve heard them all comparing salaries (guess that’s not a taboo in India), and so have figured out about how much they take home each month... if I did the math correctly. ^__^

But the number is small enough that when they try to bargain auto drivers down, they are serious. A five-rupee difference “means something,” and not just the satisfaction of having bested the driver.

It also means that they think I am wealthy, or at least comparatively so. And, perhaps, I am.

But the irony (the “paradox” of the title) is that, of all of us, I am actually the least wealthy. They have saved assets and I have debits. I am, to wit, broke. This entire trip is being financed through a loan.*

I’ve explained to a few people about the typical American debtor lifestyle and they are astonished. Even I, if I truly think about it, am astonished, because mathematically it doesn’t add up. If one considers the national debt as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars of individual debt… exactly how is America getting by, anyway? And what exactly is it using to keep the economy going?

Because a lakh or so stored in a bank account isn’t much, but it’s something each of these visiting faculty have, and something very few Americans can claim.

* Editor’s Note: She hates the fact that she couldn’t set enough money aside to pay for this trip, particularly after working all summer. She would like to refer you to this recent NY Times article on the rise in “student fees.” Her tuition is paid by the university, but paying these fees eats up forty percent of her teaching stipend. Thus much of what she earned this summer went towards paying debts incurred during the school year, and working over winter break will begin to pay for this designated “internship semester” (in which she receives no teaching stipend or other income, but still must pay the same amount of fees), etc.


Last night I paid my first visit to a temple. We hadn’t planned on going, but a few of the other visitors at the guest house were eager for a trip off-campus, so we all piled into an auto and went to a (terrible) Punjabi restaurant in Gachi Bowli.

Afterwards one of them wanted paan, so we began to wander around in search of a paan-wallah; we were wandering, of course, because we would stop to ask every third person where the nearest paan shop was located, and every person, naturally, would give a different answer.

And so we stumbled upon a temple. Almost literally. It was off the road, and in a bit of a ravine, so we didn’t see the lights until we were almost stumbling down a hill. But by then we had half-stumbled-down anyway, so we decided to move in for a closer look.

I’ve never been close to a Hindu temple before, so I had no basis of comparison; but my companions quickly informed me that this was a “synthetic” temple; the materials were all man-made (i.e. cement) and molded and gilded to look more expensive. It was very new; in fact, there was a man still on the scaffolding, applying lacquer to a statue.

One of the men wanted to go inside, and invited me to follow. And so we removed our shoes and entered the synthetic temple.

There were rows of people listening to a pandit, and of course they all turned to stare when we came in. My friend began to make the circle, praying before each statue and touching it, and I followed behind watching respectfully. I didn’t exactly want to copy his motions, because I didn’t know what they meant, and so I simply watched him until he was finished.

By then the owner of the temple had found us. After a few moments of bragging about his masterwork – “I had the vision for this temple in a dream! The entire design!” – he called the pandit over to us and said that he should do a special mumble-mumble-something-something for me.

The pandit led us up right onto the altar next to a large statue, just my friend and me, and then the rows of people who had been sitting and listening got up and started ringing the two large bells in front of us. The pandit had put a small oil lamp on a plate and was making small circles in front of the statue, and then he held the plate out to us and my friend put a 20-rupee bill on it. (He later complained bitterly about this “bright idea” to have the special something-something, because it meant that he had to make a donation and the 20 bill was the smallest thing he had.) I added all of the change in my pocket.

In return we both got red marks pressed onto our foreheads. And then we got coconut water poured into our palms. And then we each received half of a coconut. And then we had smaller chunks of coconut put into the coconut half. And, to finalize the ritual, the pandit removed the bananas that had been sitting at the feet of this central statue and gave them to us.

We returned to the rest of our group laden with fruit, which we quickly dispersed to begging children.

Now that I have described my adventure, would someone please tell me what this special something-something was? I could have asked afterwards, but I always feel a little awkward saying something like “what was that all about, now?” particularly to someone like my friend who was taking it very seriously, despite his disappointment at having to make the donation. (I never even found out which deity the temple was honoring, because it seemed disrespectful to stop my friend and ask “who’s that on the altar?”)

Just curious to know what kind of blessings I received. ^__^

Friday, September 7, 2007

Blue Plans a Tour (and Seeks Help)

I've begun to realize that if I want to do any serious travel while in India, I will have to make it happen. I should have known this before, but I was a bit busy getting situated, starting my class, being ill, and... um... buying salwars. ^__^

At any rate. I'll have some time after the first week of October and am trying to figure out how to put together a workable itinerary.

I've been invited to spend some time in Bangalore, which I am very excited about. While there, I'll of course let you all know whether it looks anything like its cartoon version as depicted on The Simpsons. (Manish, take note!)

Besides that, well... followers of this blog should know that there is one place in particular I would like to visit: the set of Kaun Banega Crorepati, in Bombay. That is to say, if I am in the KBC audience I will have the opportunity to watch SRK perform live. ^__^ I'd rather see that than the Taj. But the people I've talked to here say that KBC isn't shooting anymore. (Did it run out of crores?)

On a more serious note (all fangirling aside) I would love to travel north a bit. Mostly because I like books, and so much of Indian literature seems to center around particular places. Delhi-Amritsar-Lahore, Calcutta, etc. So I want to see the places I've read about. After all, I absorbed most of what I know about Indian culture and history through various texts -- Climbing the Mango Trees, A Suitable Boy, etc.

Is this a feasible idea? Can it be done inexpensively? Can it be done safely? And where should I go?

Editor's Note: Before anyone drops a "but what about Kerala?" comment, the uni's arranging a mini-break for me. So I will also get to see God's Own Country, don't worry.