Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Toilet Museum Is A Piece Of... Oh, Never Mind.

A commenter on an earlier post suggested that I look up IndiaMike for tips and help.

I'm fairly familiar with IndiaMike, and have, in the past, scavenged their website for those very things.

I don't want to be mean about it, so I won't. But I think IndiaMike and I have different tastes.

IndiaMike said Sleeper II was the best way to travel, so I booked Sleeper II...
IndiaMike said the Star Palace hotel was a great deal, so I booked Star Palace...
And IndiaMike highly recommended the International Toilet Museum, so I went.

DON'T GO. If you're in Delhi, just don't go. DON'T EVER GO!!!!!!!!

For starters, it's in Dworka Sector. I don't know what that means, exactly, but it sounds like something from Star Wars and takes about an hour to get to by metro.

Once I arrived, I found another cycle rickshaw who said he knew how to get to the Toilet Museum. (BTW -- if you want to make Indian guys blush, go up to them and ask them how to get to the Toilet Museum.)

45 minutes later it became clear that he... did not.

I won't go into the details of the rest, because the clock is ticking and this internet ain't free. When I finally reached the museum, I found that it was closed for the week because they were hosting International Toilet Conference 2007.

I briefly considered trying to crash ITC 2007 (can you imagine what the seminars would be like?), but was more distracted by the sudden discovery that my camera was missing.

This was very distressing. I had the camera in its little velvet pouch, which (not fitting into my purse) had been wrapped around my wrist by the strap, multiple times.

I don't remember ever taking it out of the pouch, or off of my wrist. And I thought wrapping the straps around my wrist was a fool-proof defense, figuring it couldn't be pulled off at one go.

But there were those two people in the metro who had asked me directions to somewhere or another, which I thought was very odd, since why were they asking the white person???? They had pressed into my space, too. Which I had also thought was odd, since the metro was pretty empty.

Still, if they had, say, cut the straps, wouldn't I have felt it?

Where the hell did my camera go???????

And as I stood in front of the International Toilet Museum looking very depressed, one of the janitorial staff offered to take me on a quick tour.

It's... well, a few toilets and a lot of toilet-related humor. And although I would be the first to admit that I like toilet-related humor, don't bother.

And hang on to your cameras!

Visiting the Gurdwara

In Chandni Chowk, there's a prominent gurdwara: the Gurdwara Sis Ganj. It honors the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur, and was built on the location of his beheading. I had gone into the Sikh History Museum next to the gurdwara, and now stood in front of the building itself, wondering if I could go inside.

Theoretically gurdwaras are open to everyone, but I'm always a little nervous about crashing other peoples' services. However, this gurdwara had a large door labeled "Information for Visitors."

So that's where I went. Actually, I didn't quite go inside. I stuck my head through the door, in case this was one of the places where I was supposed to cover my head and remove my shoes, and tried to see what was going on.

In less than two seconds a cheerful, welcoming man had tied a saffron kerchief around my head.

"We cover our heads to show we are brave," he told me, smiling. Then he showed me where to put my shoes.

Once inside, I was introduced to another man who would turn out to be my tour guide. He took me into the main hall, which I expected, and we sat for a moment listening to the reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, but then he tapped me on the knee and I stood up and we were off on a whirlwind of exploration, into a network of hallways and rooms, kitchens and dormitories and balconies, and he was explaining to me exactly how the gurdwara worked.

On the way I was introduced to twenty-five-odd people; every time we passed someone my guide stopped and greeted them and introduced them to me, and there was smiling and hand-shaking all around.

The most interesting thing about the tour was that it was entirely in Hindi. My guide and I understood pretty quickly that neither of us spoke the other's language, and after a nod of apology to each other we decided that we would have to make do. I was able to understand the meaning of what he was telling me, if not the actual words. It was actually very fun to stand in front of a portrait or a giant chapati-making machine and talk back and forth with this man and then both start grinning as we realized we knew what the other was trying to say.

When the tour was over, I was returned to the visitors' room and given some pamphlets to take back with me. An English-speaking woman was found, who went over some of the details I didn't catch on my tour. She asked me if I had seen the Nishan Sahib. I said that I had.

"It's our symbol," she told me, "so that everyone who looks in this direction will know that there is a gurdwara here. It's like your cross in America. You put a cross in front of your churches, yes?"

"Yes," I said.

"And we put the Nishan Sahib at our gurdwaras. It's like the cross, but ours is much larger."

Wow. I thought. Did Christianity just get served?

All I Need to Know About Delhi I Learned from DesiPundit

I had a better day in Delhi yesterday. Found the Red Fort, and observed once again that, like Golconda Fort, wandering around made me feel like I was in a Legend of Zelda game. Guess the designers really, really loved India or something. I mean, with the "rupees" nod and all. ^__^

And I re-wandered Chandni Chowk, armed with one crucial piece of directional orientation: the "food tour" of Old Delhi, written by Rahul and linked to on DesiPundit (which was where I found it). I'm not sure if I found all the places Rahul writes about (in fact, I'm pretty sure I didn't), but I found Parantha Galli and had a sugar parantha (which was okay; the banana in syrup which accompanied it was much more interesting), and I had a very interesting chaat experience with a man who was selling what looked like croissants on ice.

"What are those?" I asked.

He said something which sounded like "dilli vada," though I'm not sure that's even a food.

"May I have one?"

He took one off of the ice and put it on a leaf plate. Then he went to each of his little pots and asked me if I wanted any of the following: chili, ginger, chutney, masala, etc. Of course I said "yes" to everything, because I thought they were all part of this particular chaat experience. However, when I finally tasted it, the explosion of contradicting flavors indicated that I probably shouldn't have asked that it be sprinkled with quite everything the chaat-wallah had on his cart.

Ah, well. Oh, and I'm off ladoos and onto jalebis. Actually, before that, I was off ladoos and onto gulab jamuns, but I had a hot hot hot jalebi fresh from the cooking vat last night and my entire being is consumed with the idea of how I can get another one. ^__^

Monday, October 29, 2007

Delhi 6, Blue 0. Maybe 1.

Besides finding a better hotel room, I haven't had much luck yet in Delhi. In fact, I've had anti-luck.

This morning (after the bugs, and the weevils in the cornflakes, and moving to a new hotel room) I set off on the metro for the Red Fort area. My Delhi guidebook says that Red Fort and Jama Masjid are within 2 km of one another, with Chandni Chowk in the middle.

The metro deposits me at Chandni Chowk quite efficiently, and I step out to discover that... well... it doesn't look anything like the Chandni Chowk depicted in Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham. I mean, there's no dancing or anything. Also it's about seventeen times as dirty. I wander around, getting completely lost, until I decide it's time to move on.

There's not an auto in sight, the streets being too crowded, so I flag down a cycle rickshaw. I ask him to take me to Red Fort and expect to hear some outrageous sum, which is what I usually get when I ask to go to a tourist place. Surprisingly he only asks for 50 rupees. I agree, considering we're pretty deep into Chandni Chowk by now, and getting out will be difficult.

Anyway. Long story short, he takes me out and onto the Delhi "highway." On a cycle rickshaw, with no shade, crammed inbetween cars and buses and trucks. We travel for a while. A long while. It's noon. I start to feel a bit unwell.

Then we pass a building. Gandhi National Museum. Holy f*ck. I whip out my tourist map, which I had spent the previous evening memorizing. He's taken me south when he should have gone north, and we're now nearly ten kilometers away from the fort.

I check my watch. I've been on the back of this cycle rickshaw for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, my driver has noticed that I've got my map out and has become upset. He flags down a passing motorcyclist to ask him to ask me what's going on. In the next few minutes it becomes clear that we are very far south of where we should be, and that this cyclist had no idea how to get to Red Fort at all.

I get off. I'm in the middle of Delhi and I don't know where I am (except that I'm standing in front of the Guru Nanak Auto Parts Store) but my sole thought is that I cannot be out in this sun anymore. My face feels swollen. I am about three seconds from bursting into tears.

The cycle rickshaw guy, to his credit, offers me a free trip to anywhere I'd like to go, but I'm not about to get on the back of his ride again. I flag down an auto and pay an exorbitant fee to go back to my hotel and slump into the backseat and wait.

After the hotel, and a cool shower, and an ice cream, and a nap, I'm ready to tackle Delhi again. Back to the metro and this time to Karol Bagh, which was recommended to me as an interesting place for shopping.

But the Karol Bagh stop empties me onto a deserted street; while I was on the metro the sun managed to set and so here I am, in near-darkness, with very few people around. I walk two blocks towards lights but they don't turn out to be anything like shopping; this place isn't a good place to be at all, so I flag down an auto and tell him to take me to a place on my map where I know there will be shopping: the State Emporiums.

But when we get there, the Emporiums are closed.

Anyway. You get the idea.

Now I've got to go find some decent dinner. I've had trouble finding a mid-range restaurant; the Connaught Place eateries are far too expensive, but the local dhabas and cafes are... well, the weevils. For lunch I tried a place that advertised "Famous Hot Hot Baujis," but the baujis were neither hot (temperature-wise) nor hot (spicy). I was so hungry this afternoon that I ordered a packet of McDonalds fries just because I knew they would taste good (and be weevil-free).

We'll see what tomorrow brings. Who knows?

New. Hotel room. Now.

So I was all ready to endure my disgusting-filthy hotel room. I was ready to suck it up and behave like the poor tourist I am.

No bedding? Well, that's one of the 101 uses for a dupatta.

Floor is dirty and insecty? Okay, then when I go down through plank and cobra I won't let my body touch the floor (which is actually a better workout, as I discovered).

Went to ask the manager if the room could be sprayed for bugs only to hear "we sprayed this morning, madam; it should be clean?" Fine. I'll go to the kirana and buy some spray and do it myself.

And thus I tucked myself into bed, hoping for a decent night's sleep. Unfortunately, the other backpackers seemed to be the partying kind, and sleep was difficult. (Note to backpackers: that "Hare Ram" song from Bhool Bhulayiaa is not that friggin cool. Do not put it on perpetual repeat.)

At 6 a.m., the backpackers woke up; and, it seems, all started screaming at one another. Go back to bed! I thought. Don't you know nothing in India opens before 9 a.m.???

Still, I was up, and thus crept into my tiny bathroom to use the toilet.

To understand what happened next, consider this: the door to the bathroom was warped and stuck in a perpetual "open" position. Before I had gone to bed, I had pulled it closed so I wouldn't be kept up by the five dripping faucets (hot and cold bucket, hot and cold sink, toilet). It closed very unwillingly, but I forced it into position.

So. 6 a.m. and I'm in the bathroom. The door, previously stuck in "open," now wants to remain permanently in "closed." No matter. I wriggle inside and the door falls shut.

Then I see it. I hadn't seen it before, because the open door had been hiding it from view. Against the back wall of this miniscule bathroom is a pile of dirt. Piles of dirt, in fact, the entire length of the wall. Crawling in and out of the dirt are thousands of white bugs, about the size of grains of rice.

Oh. My god.

I finish using the toilet and tiptoe back to bed. I can handle bugs. I've handled this many ants before. But I've never seen bugs like this. I wonder what they are?

Oh-my-god-they're-LICE-aren't they.


If I get lice, I'll have to shave my head.

Check the clock. 6:30 a.m. In ten minutes I am dressed and out the door. No shower, no teeth-brushing, I don't care. I flag down a cycle rickshaw and tell him to take me to a particular hotel that I saw the other evening while wandering. That hotel has no vacancies, but no matter; now I'm in the right neighborhood, and it's a matter of going from door to door (literally) until I find exactly what I'm looking for.

A lovely room, a sparkling clean bathroom, and all for just Rs 100 more than that Star Palace dump. Instead of being filled by young party animals, this hotel seems primarily occupied by (white) people in their 50s. People who will raise a fuss if they see bugs, and go to bed at a decent hour. ^__^

I go back to the Star Palace to collect my things. On the way I realize I'm starving, so I duck into the cafe next door. It's packed with people, so I figure it's okay.

I order cornflakes with a banana (how exotic!). When it comes, I'm about five huge bites into it when I notice something. A legged something. And then there are two of them.

"Don't order the cornflakes," I say to the young couple squeezed into the table with me.

The young woman examines my bowl. "Oh, they're just weevils," she says. "Nothing wrong with eating weevils."

Yeah; leaving this rathole was the right choice.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Laaga Chunnari Mein Daag -- Everybody Gets Exploited!

So I saw Laaga Chunari Mein Daag this afternoon, since I was too tired from my train adventure to do much else.

We all know that it's the film where Rani Mukherjee becomes a prostitute.

(Mild spoiler alert.)

But what pissed me off was the way they handled the parallel character, Rani's sister "Chutki," played by Konkona Sen Sharma.

Chutki is "the smart sibling." While Rani's character bumbles around Bombay trying to get a job with no applicable skills (thus making prostitution her inevitable conclusion), we see Chutki slaving away at her books and eventually getting a scholarship to a Bombay MBA program.

Suddenly she's working for an advertisement company, and we see her given the assignment to create an ad proposal for Lux soap.

Montage of Chutki working night and day. On the morning of her scheduled presentation, she's slumped in front of her computer. Enter hottie colleague. He asks what's wrong, and she says that it's almost time for the presentation and she's got nothing to show that's any good. Hottie says "go freshen up, I'll take care of it."

When Chutki arrives at the presentation (which Hottie delivers instead of her) she finds out that Hottie has been secretly taking pictures of her for the past week or so and is using them to propose to the agency that she, Chutki, become the new face of Lux soap.

And thus Chutki becomes a fashion model. Well, technically a soap advertisement model, but we can tell that her career is just beginning.

And, of course, she marries Hottie.

Now -- forgive me for being irrational -- but isn't Chutki selling her body as much as her older sister is? Sure, she's not selling sex literally, but she's selling her sexual power.

What this movie said to me was "Look. The only currency women have are their bodies. Even if you get a MBA and a good job, you're still at the mercy of men who want to exploit your body for money."

Oh, Yash Raj. You deserve your collaboration with Disney.

A 24-Hour Train, and a Surprising Arrival

Greetings from Delhi!

I boarded the AP Express at 6 a.m., in the palatial luxury of an AC 2-tier compartment. The majority of my carriage -- in fact, the majority of the train -- was filled by an extended family of Hyderabadis traveling to Agra to see the Taj. They all had an orange handkerchief pinned to their sleeve so that they could recognize each other, and the entire train was filled with chat and rice and dal and chapatis and lots of shuffling around and greeting one another.

The unexpected bonus of traveling AC-2 is that it has attached electrical ports for laptops. Thus my compartment became the hot favorite as I plugged in and kept the crowd entertained with Bollywood films I had stored on my computer. (Yes, I know. I'm ready for someone to tell me that the worst thing I can do on a train is advertise that I have a laptop. The reason I did it was because everyone else on the train already knew each other, and they all already trusted each other, so I thought I would trust them by association. And no one stole my laptop. ^__^)

My train was scheduled to arrive in Delhi at 9 a.m. Perfect, I thought. I'll get plenty of sleep in my comfortable bunk and arrive refreshed and ready.

Except that everyone else on the train was getting off at Agra.

And they all woke up at 4 a.m.

The worst was hearing the chubby bespectacled kid in the bunk below me grumble at his father "But it's four in the morning! The train doesn't get to Agra until SIX!"

So for two hours, until the train hit Agra... oh, I'll spare you.

I arrived in Delhi still exhausted and wanting a nice hot bath. But when I reached my hotel, it was clear that "nice" was not going to be the case. The Hotel Star Palace is tucked into Main Bazaar along with about twenty-five other hotels of similar nature. It's... oh, I'll borrow from the Brits and use "grotty." Probably worse than that. The bathroom is tiny and insect-ridden (I bought spray and hosed it down), the bedroom is equally tiny and has no bedding (luckily I had packed blanket, etc. for the train).

When I saw it, my first thought was New. Hotel room. Now. But then I noticed the other guests in the corridor and in the reception area lounge. All young European backpackers. And I thought "okay, I am not going to be the spoiled American over this. If all these twenty-something European kids can handle it, then so can I."

(I had been meaning to write a post on the subject of "endurance," in which I explained how I felt guilty about upgrading from Sleeper II -- which smelled like a toilet -- to AC 2-tier, because it meant that I was another one of these American children of privilege who didn't want to endure anything that wasn't perfectly comfortable. Now... well, I think that enduring this hotel will assuage my conscience, and I'm not going to worry a bit more about the trains.)

The surprise that I refer to in the post title is how... um... white this section of Delhi is. The bazaar outside the hotel caters entirely to the young, poor tourist, and all of the stalls are full of cheap Indian exotica (look! elephants and that aum thingy!"). Right now I am in an internet cafe surrounded by white people, and I ate both lunch and dinner in cheap restaurants surrounded by white people. It's a cheap, young, tourist rathole. (It will be interesting to see if Red Fort and the other tourist hotspots feel the same way.)

Anyway. I'll post more when I have more news to tell. Say a "don't let the bedbugs bite" for me, 'kay?

Roadside Romeo: You Saw It Here First!

So remember a few months ago, when I blogged about Mouseraj?

(Mouseraj is my cute nickname for the recent collaboration between Yash Raj and Disney. I'm hoping it catches on.)

I saw a preview today for Roadside Romeo and boy, did I call it.

Dogs dancing Bollywood-style on their hind legs.

Humanthromorphized dogs in hats... but no pants. Mouseraj has conveniently left the genitalia out, which looks kind of odd, considering the dogs are fairly realistically rendered otherwise.

Poor Saif. He'll have to live this one down for years to come.

Friday, October 26, 2007

One More Adventure

I'm off to Delhi tomorrow. Then from Delhi to Amritsar, and from Amritsar on a 36-hour haul back to Hyderabad (thank goodness I upgraded the trains, right?), and then a few days of rest and I fly home.

My US suitcase is all packed and stowed away. All I'm carrying with me now is a small bag with a few blue salwars and a half-finished copy of Midnight's Children.

And, of course, my tiffin carrier, which is bursting with fruit and nuts to eat on the train.

The hotel in which I'm staying in Delhi purports a computer lab, so I will post when I can. I've heard there's a "History of the Toilet" museum in Delhi which must be explored and blogged about. ^__^

And one more request for help from all of you, Dear Readers: where can I go to find a cheap, safe hotel in Amritsar? I've made a booking already at a hotel that's Rs 1500/night because I couldn't find anything cheaper online... but wouldn't mind downgrading the hotel, particularly because I upgraded the trains. (In Hyderabad and Mysore and Delhi I've had great success in the Rs 500 range.)

Anyway. Next time I catch you, I'll be in the "untamed north." ^__^

See you soon!

Another Cross-Cultural Similarity: Students Like Free Food

Gulzar (yes, that Gulzar) visited our campus this week. It was the university’s Founders’ Day celebration, and so Gulzar was there to give a lecture on “Language and the Evolution of Indian Cinema.”

The auditorium was packed. We waited with bated breath through three introductions (the introduction of the person who would give the introduction of the person who would introduce Gulzar, etc.) and a forty-five minute PowerPoint presentation on the fiscal achievements of the university, including its recent upgrade from a “National University With Potential For Excellence” to a “National University of Excellence.”

And then, at last, Gulzar spoke.

In Hindi.

There were a few murmurs of consternation in the largely Telugu- and English-speaking audience. And then we settled back and started practicing the art of listening attentively, and laughing/clapping along with the ten percent of the audience who understood what he was saying.

(Actually, truth be told, even I was able to get the gist of the lecture, thanks to a few key words like “Independence” and “Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit,” etc. He was telling the story of how language developed post-Independence, and how Hindi began to dominate over Urdu, and how the popularity of Hindi-language films helped to speed this process. The lecture ended, of course, with a nod to the film industry’s role in popularizing Hinglish.)

About halfway through the lecture, there was a power outage. The lights popped back on a moment later to reveal the aisles packed with students trying to leave the auditorium. However, the majority of us stuck it out to the end, including a lengthy Q&A and the presentation of the thank-you certificate and the introduction of the person chosen to escort Gulzar off of the stage.

And then it was announced that high tea would be served in the garden.

We went to the garden and began to form a queue. I was actually close to the front because I had been sitting in the back row of the auditorium and was right next to the door. They had piles of sweets and snacks; samosas, gulab jamuns, cake, biscuits, etc.

But before I could make it to the sweets table, the rest of the 500+ crowd descended. Ignoring queues, students pressed themselves towards the table like ants swarming jelly. Meanwhile, the people who had been queued began to push back. University par Excellence, indeed. It was clear, both by the way I was being shoved around and by the handfuls of sweets being grabbed by those closest to the table that – well, first of all that there might be nothing left in a few moments, and second that I was in serious danger of being crushed in the stampede.

I’d had plenty of lovely sweets in Bangalore, and so I didn’t need to risk my neck for any of these. I ducked underneath the swinging arms and escaped the melee.

I think we made Gulzar proud, don’t you?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Pictures of Mysore!

I'm not a synesthe, but I do attach colors to things. Hyderabad is kind of a dull orange, Bangalore is green.

When I rode the auto from the train station into Mysore, it felt pink, like Paris. But it soon became clear that Mysore is a very lovely yellow.

I don't have a lot of pictures of Mysore because every time I entered a place that looked like it wanted to be photographed, my camera was confiscated. So... no pictures of any palaces or anything interesting like that.

But I do have two pictures I took on Chamundi Hill. The first is of Chamundi Temple from a distance, before I had to put away my camera. Note the rows of stalls outside.

The second is the view of Mysore from the top of Chamundi Hill. When the auto driver noticed that I was trying to take a picture while he was driving, he kindly stopped the auto and let me get a better shot.

Then, however, my auto driver asked if I wanted to take a short trip to see "one more temple." He promised it would be short, and worth my while. It turned out to be a half-hour excursion which added Rs 100 to the meter and led to a tiny, nondescript temple in the middle of nowhere.

"Really, it's important!" he said, seeing my irritated face. "Inside is a very important god!"

, I thought. The God of Raising Auto Drivers' Meters.

Oh, well.

Apparating Out Of The Closet

We interrupt our regularly scheduled travel blogging to bring you a bit of Harry Potter commentary.

Unless you've been living underneath a rock, you've probably heard about JKR's recent pronouncement that Albus Dumbledore is gay.

Woo-hoo! you might think. One step forward for kid-lit inclusiveness!

But look at how she handled it.

At the now infamous Carnegie Hall conference, JKR was asked if Dumbledore had ever loved anyone.

Her response?

"Dumbledore is gay, actually."

See, that's the problem. The correct answer is "Yes. Grindelwald."

Making it a "actually, he's gay" means that even JKR, despite her attempt at inclusiveness or diversity or whatever, views being gay as unnatural or deviant or "not normal."

What kind of answer is "actually, he's gay?" The conditional "actually" plays as a negative; it denies the love she's trying to promote.

"Has Dumbledore ever loved anyone?"

"Actually, he's gay, so he can only have that gay kind of love."

Not to mention that sitting on this and then revealing it seems to me a bit chickensh***ed on her part. Sure, the lit theorists are saying. The clues are there in her description of Dumbledore and Grindelwald's chummy adolescent relationship! I don't buy it. Maan and Firoz are a pair of discreetly-written lovers; Albus and Gellert are not.

Legions of fans were begging for a GLBTQ character (just like other fans were begging for a non-Christian character), arguing that in a school that large, non-inclusion would be a deliberate omission. So JKR gives us Dumbledore, after the fact. Not actually in the seventh book, when it really would have been a step forward for literary inclusiveness.

(And what did she have to lose, anyway? Everyone would have found out after they bought Book Seven; neither she nor her publisher would have lost revenue if people were upset with her choice.)

Anyway. On a more positive note, someone stands to make a lot of money off of a lavender "Dumbledore's Army" t-shirt. If I knew how to produce and sell them, it would be me.

Mysore Shopping Walkthrough

Mysore is home to a number of lovely products which you might want to take back with you as gifts for family and friends. In terms of shopping, it outdoes Hyderabad by far.

Many of these products (I'm trying to be really vague here, so no one knows what is ending up in their Christmas stocking) are sold in stalls outside of Mysore Palace.

Don't buy them there.

Instead, go to Jaganmohan Palace, which functions as an art gallery. Pay the Rs 15 to tour the galleries (yes, even firengis pay only Rs 15!). You'll end up in a row of shops, each taking up one room in the palace.

You're welcome to browse every room. There are about seven of them. They all sell relatively the same things, but the prices decrease the further down the hallway you go.

So when you see that special something you really like in the first shop, don't buy it there. Go to the end of the hallway and buy it in the last room for half the price.

Then exit the palace. To the right, there is an outdoor market, similar to the one outside the Mysore Palace. Fixed prices. They're exactly the same things the Mysore Palace touts had been hawking for seven- and eight hundred rupees, now being sold for Rs 50 and Rs 100.

Jaganmohan Palace is the one place where I wish I had done more shopping. ^__^

Mysore Palace From the Inside

The day after I saw the Mysore Palace lighting ceremony, I queued and paid up to go inside the palace and take the tour.

The palace was completed in 1912, the same year Titanic sailed, and the architecture and design are strikingly similar. Everything is gilded pink, gilded blue, gilded sea-green. There are lots of columns, and curving staircases, and rooms with ceilings painted with stars and cherubs.

Despite what some of my friends considered the "tackiness" of this decor, it was evident that a lot of care had gone into its creation. The best materials were used. Nothing had been done halfway; nothing was just "painted on." The Mysore Palace was a clear example of the best work that money and influence could buy.

And it made me wonder: what must it be like to live in such a place? To be surrounded by the finest materials, arranged in perfect balance? It made me think again of the difference between visiting my parents' home and returning to my graduate student apartment. The former, built in 1908, is solid wood, sturdy, its foundation sunk into the ground. It's a home that survived tornadoes. When I am there, I feel calm and protected.

My graduate student apartment, on the other hand, is made of... well, plaster and drywall, and something is always falling apart, and the stairway is warped and crooked. When I am there, even though I like the place (reasonably enough), I always feel a little off-balance. The building is transient, because nothing is built to last, and I am transient within it.

So I looked up at the ceilings of the Mysore Palace and thought "what must it have been like to live surrounded by this?"

Editor's Note: She knows that the Mysore Palace, and perhaps even her parents' Victorian, was built "upon the backs of..." That's another issue entirely, and one that should be taken into account -- but the question she is asking has less to do with the socioeconomic complications of the creation of a luxurious building but simply "what would it feel like to wake up in it?" Adding the social concerns, unfortunately, makes the answer only "guilty." Which is why she left them out of the original query, which has more to do with the idea of balance and solidity.

Elephants and Palaces!

When the other visiting fac at the guest house asked me about my trip to Mysore, they of course asked if I had been to the Mysore Palace. Which, of course, I had. It's kind of like asking someone who's gone to Agra if they stopped by the Taj.

My hotel in Mysore was right across from the palace, in fact; which isn't saying much, because I believe all of the hotels in Mysore are directly opposite the palace, and to tell the truth my hotel was pretty dismal. (And my room faced the back alley, sad to say.)

The other visiting fac asked me, then, if I thought the palace was tacky or overdone. Apparently it's the "in" thing to deride this particular piece of architecture, perhaps because of its history (and gigantic British influence). I said that no, I didn't. I thought the palace was fantastic.

If you haven't been there during Dussera, imagine this:

At about six p.m. crowds begin to gather outside of the palace gates. There are of course masses of touts, jugglers, chai-wallahs, etc. pressing around the edges of the crowd. One man selling wooden flutes tries to capture my attention by playing directly into my ear; another, in thirty seconds, lowers the price of a gourd drum from Rs 250 to Rs 10. By six-thirty the palace guards have arrived, and have opened the gate just enough for one person to enter at a time; the crowd outside now forms a unified shoving mass and we are squeezed through and plopped onto the other side one by one.

The reason, of course, for this "single-file" entry is so that we can be searched; cameras and mobiles are not allowed on the palace grounds. Once inside, the amount of space is enormous and immense; the palace itself stretches the length of two city blocks, but there are also two temples and a courtyard. Set in the center of this courtyard is a small stage; there is a tabla player and a vocalist and the music is amplified at speakers set around the gate and walls.

The crowd mostly watches, marvels, gets darshan at the temples, until there is a horn call and all heads turn towards the rear palace gates. Through the courtyard, down a walk more than a kilometer long, come the elephants. There are three of them, tusks removed, dressed in red and gold tassels. They're led by men in Maharaja-style turbans and kurtas, and, oddly enough, blue jeans. One of the elephants leaves some elephant dung behind and a rush of people line up to put their bare feet into it.

When the elephants reach the palace, there is some kind of ceremony; the words, which I don't understand, are amplified over the speakers and it seems as if the elephants are being blessed, although I can't see very well because of the crowd (and because I hadn't yet gotten my new glasses).

Then, without warning, there is an instant of darkness.

And then the palace appears again, outlined and amplified in shimmering light.

I couldn't take a picture, of course, because my camera was sitting in a cubby, waiting for me to pay Rs 5 to get it back. However, if you want to see what I saw, click here. ^__^

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mysore Posts Soon!

I promise I'll put up my pictures of Mysore... soon.

I was hoping I would today, but... well, today I spent seven hours at a railway station, mostly in queues.

But I got my tickets upgraded and will be traveling north in high style.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Pretty New Glasses!

If you happen to be in Mysore looking for a good glasses shop, I thoroughly and completely recommend Ismail Opticals.

Not only did they give me 24-hour turnaround (when I explained that I was only staying in Mysore for two days and couldn't take a week to get the glasses back), but they hand-delivered them to my hotel (at 10 p.m.), and fitted them for me outside of the reception desk.

At no extra charge.

I am loving these glasses. Not only because they are oh-so-cute, but also because my world has suddenly popped into high-def. The ophthalmologist who wrote my prescription said that it was only a small change from my old pair, but... it is a very big improvement to me. Not having to squint at things is huge.

Here's the picture!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bhool Bhulaiyaa: See It For The Ending. Maybe For The Samosas, If Your Theater Makes Good Samosas.

I saw Bhool Bhulaiyaa at a tiny single-screen theater in Mysore.

I'm not sure I would recommend this film to anyone. I would, definitely, recommend sneaking in to the last thirty-odd minutes of the film. But as to the first two hours...

Let's put it this way. Bhool Bhulaiyaa is lovely to look at (delightful to know). It's set in a mansion populated nearly entirely by women with flowing saris and cascading hair, and the three men (the hot guy, the nerdy guy, and Akshay Kumar) who love them. Throw in a few uncles and aunties for comic relief, plus a poltergeist, for... well, because there are so few Bollywood movies about poltergeists, and we should have a winning combination, right?

Except that the film doesn't make a lick of sense. There are too many heroines, too many heros, no character development, and a "surprise" ending that (unlike the ending of Loins of Punjab) has no grounding in the previous two hours of the film and is thus less of a "twist" and more of a "ha! bet you didn't guess that was coming, because we totally didn't prepare you for it in any way!"

But that ending. Worth the price of admission. Make sure to see it in a theater with exceptionally good surround sound. Don't wait to steal it from the internet and watch it on your laptop.

And do stay for the credits, which feature a music video with the words "Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Hare Krishna, Hare Ram" to the tune of "There's a place in France/Where the naked ladies dance."

Just... spend the first two hours of the film doing something else, 'kay?

She's Your Shatabdi

Here's the deal. I was going to take an overnight train from Bangalore to Mysore. Never mind that it shouldn't take the entire night to get from B'lore to Mysore; the price was right and I thought I could endure the seventeen-plus stops along the way.

Then my hosts suggested I take the Shatabdi instead. An air-conditioned chair car that left Bangalore at 11:00 and hit Mysore by 12:30.

Oh, and there's a free lunch.

So I bagged the sleeper car and the all-night trip and took the Shatabdi. It was everything an air-conditioned chair car could be. It was traveling first-class, and being waited on, and not having to hear the endless parade of chai-wallahs screaming, and not having to deal with glinty-eyed young men asking obnoxious questions.

It was the perfect way to get to Mysore.

The problem is that now I want to upgrade all of my train tickets. Now that I know... um... what I'm missing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Things I Wish The U.S. Would Steal From India

-- Controlled flush systems. That is, with Indian toilets (and with Indian "western" toilets) you get to choose how long the toilet flush takes. Push the handle down to start the flush, lift the handle to stop the flush. Not only do you get to ensure that everything that needs to disappear disappears, I would assume that (when one considers all of the smaller flushes) this system also saves water. At least, it seems as if it ought to.

-- Electrical outlets that can be turned on and off. In India, each outlet has a corresponding switch. When there's no cord plugged into an outlet, the switch is turned off and the outlet is completely disabled. Again, this seems environmentally sound, although I really have no idea how much electricity is saved.

And one thing I wish India would steal from the U.S.????

Doors that can be locked from both sides. With the bolt-and-padlock system, locking the door means either the people on the inside are locked out or the people on the outside are locked in.

It also means that if there's no padlock on the door, it's obvious to everyone that you're home. (This was rather disadvantageous when I was staying in the university guest house.)

But While We're On The Subject of The Simpsons...

It's pretty obvious that someone on the Times of India staff just ran SRK and his family through that Simpsons Character Generator. Matt Groening did not draw these, even though the article implies that he did.

What's interesting is that the Times went with the "white" character color. Yes, we know SRK wants to be fair and lovely, but in Simpsons-land yellow = Caucasian.

Meh. Looks like no one does their research, on either side. Apu speaks with an American interpretation of a Brit's faux-desi accent, and the Times peeps assume that everyone on the Simpsons is yellow. ^__^ (Which they sort of are, if one considers that Apu speaks with an American interpretation of a... oh, let's not make a recursive causality loop, my brain will get too muddled.)

Kiss Kiss Beat-Me-To-It!

I promised a post comparing the "real" Bangalore to the one depicted on The Simpsons episode "Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore."

However, Bangalore Monkey (whom, I hope, is wearing clothing) has already beaten me to it.

Click here for B-Monkey's pics and analysis. ^__^

(My analysis? Groening and his staff didn't draw half enough trees. The dominant color in Bangalore is green, as opposed to Hyderabad, which is... dust color.)

Fun With Auto Drivers!

In Bangalore I have finally met the "please let me take you to this emporium" auto drivers.

They tell me that they will get books for their children, shirts for their backs, cans of petrol for their autos, if I will only take the time to stop into one or two stores.

They're quite persuasive. But it's like being asked to give up a seat on an airplane... that is, if you wait long enough, they start offering stuff.

Like free rides.

So I, ever the rupee-counter, have been having some fun with these auto drivers. Once we get the money thing settled up, I'll happily go into whatever emporium they suggest. They even tell me what to say at the counter ("just got off the airplane, isn't India wonderful?" etc.), and I dutifully agree.

And then I traipse into these posh little stores and get waited on hand-and-foot. Oh, yes, I've just arrived in India. Yes, from the U.S. Texas, in fact. Or Kansas. Oh, these silk scarves are beautiful! Yes, I'd love to try that on! Of course, chai would be lovely.

And then, after the necessary five minutes, I turn around and hurry out. Urgent phone call. Or maybe I forgot I had a cinema to get to. At one, I just tossed my hair and said "bye, boys!"

The only catch is that the things in these shops are really nice. Much nicer than the stuff they sell on the street. I saw a set of ivory elephants that practically made me drool, and I had to remind myself that ivory is un-environmental and cruel to animals.

And those boys do know how to pick a scarf to match my eyes.

Hmmm. I wonder how many cans of petrol the driver would get if I actually bought something?


Sorry... it's just what I think of whenever I see those awful, awful abs.

Images from Lal Bagh

Nothing's cuter than a monkey wearing clothing. Especially one who tells me where to put my trash and helps me find drinking water. There were also "trash-can statues" of rabbits and frogs and rams throughout the park, but only the monkey statue got to wear clothing. Why?

Corporate sponsorship is never far away. Also -- is that dwarf in the back picking his nose?

I just liked the combination of colors on this one. Plus the horizontal line of the walkway cutting through the verticals of the trees.

This is the "money shot;" the picture of the Glass House. When I got up close, I found it was the extremely dirty Glass House. A bit of water and some Windex would have made it much more impressive.

More fun with angles and lines. I liked the curvy branches of the... um... "curvy branch tree."

This is for the people who laugh when I tell them India reminds me of California. ^__^

Monday, October 15, 2007

ISKCON: Welcome to Krishnaland!

So. ISKCON. I'm going to stay out of the politics and describe only the temple itself.

What struck me about the ISKCON structure, in both its appearance and its operation, was how much it resembled a theme-park ride. It wasn't the kind of place one went to for a quiet devotion or puja. It was, in every aspect, intended to be an experience.

After all, where else would one find a sign proclaiming that ISKCON followers were "saintly people" next to a sign warning "beware of pickpocketers?"

As I progressed through the experience, I noticed that it felt vaguely familiar. All too soon, I placed it. Disneyland.

Here's why:

1. The accordion queue. I know there's a real name for this, but someone nerdier than I will have to provide it. But you know what I'm talking about -- the deal where you walk through the front gate and into the hutch and then you see that the line is about ten times longer than you thought it would be because the queue is folded back and forth.

Luckily, when we went, there were very few people there. Unluckily, it meant we still had to walk through all of the queue turns.

2. The first pre-show, and then the second pre-show. Like Disney, ISKCON has plenty of entertainment to keep you occupied while you're queuing. First, you get Krishna's life story, on placards, spread over the twists and turns "Burma Shave"-style. As the queue gets closer to the main temple, it passes by three mini-temples (all with their own donation boxes, of course). All, of course, intended to keep you entertained and psych you up for the Main Event.

3. The ever-repeating soundtrack. Loudspeakers along the route piped us full of "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare," etc. It's a small world after all. Remember, we're not even inside the temple yet.

4. Gilt-edged murals in every corner. Okay, now we're inside the temple. And like, say, the Haunted Mansion (yes, I know, I just compared a temple to Disney's Haunted Mansion -- to be fair, Disney also uses this portrait scheme on its carousel and in Cinderella's Palace), there are gilt-edged paintings shoved into every available wall space. The portraits are even in the same style; contemporary romantic/pastoral arrangements of iconic scenes and characters.

5. An immediate exit into a shopping arena. Like Disney, you exit the event and find yourself immediately in a store which sells smaller versions of the event. In ISKCON's case, there were several floors of shopping available, all which we had to pass through before we got back to the parking lot. As well as an "all-prasadam" food court.

Did I enjoy the ISKCON experience? Absolutely. But the sense of building anticipation + brief, exciting encounter + instant urge to memorialize the experience felt a little too... manipulative (not to mention canned, or -- as one of my friends described an earlier temple -- "synthetic"). Krishna, after all, is not Mickey Mouse; and visiting a temple should not be like riding on Splash Mountain.

But, then again, I am the outsider, putting my own value judgments on things I know I don't really understand. So... well, these are my thoughts only.

What are yours?

Visiting Kolu

When I was young, I always wanted to celebrate the holidays I read about in books. (Okay, I always wanted to do anything I read about in a book -- and still do.)

After I read All-Of-A-Kind Family, for example, I told my mother that we were going to celebrate Purim, and -- with all the costume and ceremony I could derive from the book's chapter on the subject -- we did.

There weren't many books about South Asian children in our local library, unfortunately; the closest I got to India was through Burnett and Kipling. So I had no chance to read about Navarati or the Kolu celebration.

Which is too bad, because if I had, I most assuredly would have spent one afternoon building nine steps out of cardboard and chairs and arranging my stuffed animals and Barbie dolls into my own interpretation of a Kolu display.

I probably would not have been able to keep them there for nine days, however; wouldn't have been able to handle the delayed gratification. But arranging them, and then standing in front of them and singing.... oh, I would have been all over that.

I've been taken to see several Kolu displays in neighboring flats, and all of them have been very charming and thoroughly impressive. After I admired the sand painting of Saraswati that I saw in one home, I was given a small pot of sand and invited to try and make my own design in front of the kolu. Suffice to say I failed disastrously. I managed to make a pile of sand, and then when I tried to spread it around with my finger into a kind of arrangement, I ended up with a messy pile of sand. ^__^

They did, however, also invite me to stand in front of the kolu display and sing; and at that I was much more successful. It was probably the only time, ever, in history, in which Charles Kingsford has been performed in front of a Kolu; I can only hope that Saraswati approved.

Medical Tourism!

The last time I had an eye exam was summer 2001, right before my sophomore year in undergrad. That'd be six years ago, for those of you keeping track.

I exchanged the nerdy glasses I wore throughout high school (think very large and very pink) for the chic, stylish pair you see in all of the photos, and when I arrived back on campus, the change was duly noted.

As one young man told me: "You look like a librarian I'd like to f*ck!"

(If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that...)

I scratched the right lens badly about a year ago. Maybe a year-and-a-half, by now. It was also about that time when I noticed things were starting to get a little blurry at distances.

But in the good ol' US of A, those without vision insurance (that'd be a little more than the half of all working Americans who don't have health insurance) have to pony up about $500 for the examination and lenses. And -- though I thought about it, and tried, off and on, to save -- I could never get $500 in the same place at once.

Instead, I started favoring my left eye, and squinting at road signs.

I had planned to ask my parents for new glasses for Christmas; but first I thought I would ask my friends in Bangalore how much it would cost to get my eyes examined in India.

"Two hundred rupees," was the answer.

Two hundred divided by forty-two is... holy crap.

And so I became a medical tourist.

The examination was extremely thorough, almost more so than in the U.S. I got a very careful going-over, and will be returning tomorrow for a follow-up to ensure that my eyes are behaving the same way. In other words, they double-check before writing the prescription. Which is awesome.

Soon to come, then, will be a picture in shiny new glasses!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Never Wear A Chiffon Sari Garba-Dancing. Seriously.

Now that we're into Navarati/Dussera, people are starting to organize garba and dandiya parties. I had been hoping to attend one, and had carefully packed the dandiya sticks I bought at last year's Navarati (hosted by my university's Indian Students' Association) and carried them to India with me in my suitcase.

So I was very excited to be invited to a garba/dandiya party in Bangalore.

Being the prepared type that I am, I had also packed a delicate jute silk salwar (ten points if you can guess the color) which I had planned to wear while dancing. However, on the morning of the party we learned that women who wore saris (Gujarati-style, of course) would get into the event for free.

And so I wore my pink synthetic-chiffon sari (with its horribly "frumpy" blouse, as some of you have noted) to the dancing arena.

When I wore the sari to the opening night of Tempest, I had such a good time and wore it so easily that I thought I might begin to invest in a small collection.

After last night, I am thinking that one pink sari is probably one sari enough.

When we arrived at the arena, we were told that no footwear could be worn inside the dancing tent. Off came my strappy heeled sandals, and I was left kicking at the pleats of a sari that was now about two inches too long.

As we began the dancing, I found myself struggling to keep both my sari and my hair from falling down. (Since I stopped using hairspray, my hair has become much happier but has also taken on a life of its own. It cannot be contained, and comes loose from every braid or bun into which it is tied. And how a twenty-inch strand of hair can work its way out of a French braid is beyond me.)

Undoing my hair was easy (and Rohit likes it better that way anyway), but I couldn't very well undo my sari. My host, realizing the problem, pinned the front pallu to my blouse in a few strategic locations, but I still had to be very careful where I stepped (particularly when dancing backwards) and occasionally resorted to hiking the thing up in one hand.

The arena itself was crowded. It was like dancing on a bus. When we formed the circles for dandiya, we were pressed so tightly together that most of us were dandiya-ing with only one stick, since there was only room to extend one arm. ^__^ Also, no one seemed to agree on the pattern of tapping and turning, so (although the music was clearly in five) I would turn to meet partners who would be working in patterns of six or eight. So it was not a very synchronized dandiya, but it was great fun.

Next year, though -- salwar all the way. ^__^

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Year-Late Book Review

Yeah, I know. I promised that my next post would be on ISKCON. Call it Murphy's Law of Blogging: whatever post one promises to write will be the one that takes the longest to actually appear. ^__^

You see, I was walking yesterday down M. G. Road in Bangalore. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, just exploring. I started at one end, and five sari emporiums and a hundred and seventy specialty shops later, I was sick of hearing young men call out "Madam, what you want?" and worn out from resisting the people shoving chess sets, trick snakes, and junk jewelry into my face. I am still, mercifully, junk-jewelry-free.

Then I saw the man with the books. His stand smelled sweet and woodsy and spicy, and I was afraid he was going to try to sell me on one of those sandalwood keychains they foist on tourists in India. But instead he tossed his too-long, shaggy brown hair out of his eyes, and smiled a half-smile, like he knew some big joke that was about to be played on me.

If you haven't yet figured out what book I found at the book stand, well...

The joke, of course, is that it's terrible. Leaving the plagiarism issue aside, it's still an awful book. (Sorry, Niranjana. I know you liked it.) And before one accuses me of not caring for or "understanding" teen chick-lit, I should warn you that I own all four copies of the Traveling Pants books. In hardcover. Purchased on the day of release.

What bothered me about this book was its absolute predictability. (Spoilers may follow, but since there's nothing to spoil about this book -- its plot is pretty much obvious after the first chapter -- I'm sure no one will mind.) Opal will lose interest in the hot alpha male in favor of the "differently cute" nice guy? Who just happens to be a closet genius? She'll quickly rise to popularity and then become publicly humiliated by her new friends -- and then learn who her "true friends" are? Due to her new attempts at popularity, she'll come dangerously close to losing her long-achieved academic standing... and then redeem herself at the last possible moment?

Forget Sloppy Firsts. I've just described the plot of Mean Girls. As well as half-a-dozen adventures of the Babysitters' Club. Viswanathan's novel reads exactly like Opal's attempt at popularity: the frantic watching of every teen movie "from back when Molly Ringwald was cute," and then the attempt to mush everything together, spitting out band and designer references and hitting every trope in the genre. Imagine Alloy Entertainment as the Mehta parents, micromanaging Viswanathan's every move to make sure it adheres to their well-constructed research on what would make a book popular. ^__^

Ironic that the internet is the tool used to bring both Opal and Kaavya down.

The most irritating part of the book, for me, was its ending. The ending was the one place where Viswanathan strayed from her tropes. Opal, when she gets her Harvard letter (and btw don't tell me she "doesn't know" what's inside; any high school student knows the difference between a thick and a thin admissions letter) is supposed to do one of two things. She should either:

A. Choose not to open it, deciding instead to embark upon a wonderful new life that she has discovered for herself.


B. Open it, realize she has been admitted, and then personally visit Dean Anderson to tell him that she is refusing admission so that she may embark upon this wonderful new life that she has discovered for herself.

She's not supposed to go. That's the way these stories end. That's supposed to be the lesson; that when you become your own person (after trying to be someone else) you learn what is truly important to you and you forge your own path.

But she went. Oh, and she also solved this scientific theorem that no one's been able to solve for 150 years because no one ever thought that it could be a single integral. BARF.

ISKCON post coming soon!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Home-Cooked Food Makes Me Smile

For those following my travelogue, I'm now in Bangalore visiting friends. And staying in their lovely flat. Which means... home-cooked food.

To understand the immensity of such a jump (that is, from university mess food to... um... real food), I will remind you of what I've been eating for the past two months.

Mmmm.... brinjal goo....

Anyway. And in addition to all of this home-cookery goodness, I had my first taste of masala puri (and sev puri!) last night. With fresh coriander and fresh tomatoes. (Like Ashima, you'll see me in a few months trying to replicate this taste with Rice Krispies and barbeque sauce.)

The food -- all of it -- makes me smile. Am terribly happy.

Next on the docket: the post on ISKCON.

Sleeper II

I love trains. Don't know why. They make sense to me in a way that airplanes don't. (Please don't come back to me with sixteen comments about lift and about how the plane isn't likely to drop out of the sky like a stone -- I know the mechanics of how a plane works. I've just never liked them very much.)

Maybe I like trains because I can hang my head out of the window and watch the country go by. Or maybe because, at heart, I am a bit of a romantic and trains (even still!) have that bit of romance to them.

At any rate, when I was buying a packet of idlis to take with me, the man in the queue next to me turned and asked "Why do you look so happy today?"

"I'm going on a trip!" I told him.

My compartment was ladies' only, plus two children, who spent the first hour of the trip playing a game they made up titled "what's in your tiffin-carrier?"

"Is it chocolates?"


"Is it ice cream?"

"No, sillies, it would melt!"

Etc. It's a good thing I like talking to children almost as much as I like trains. ^__^

Considering I am, in general, a poor sleeper (particularly in new environs), I managed to get much more sleep than I thought I would. The lulling movement was very soporific, and the entire train had its lights off by about 9:30 p.m.

Probably because they knew the lights would come on again at about 5:30 a.m.

From my upper berth (and my compartment's direct connection to the lavatories) I had the privilege of watching nearly our entire car wake up and complete their morning ablutions. Smelling this, of course, was much less of a privilege. Interestingly, most of the male passengers took turns queuing up to brush their teeth... and only one of the women. Is toothbrushing something women are "not supposed" to do in public? Or is it that our breath just always smells like flowers? ^__^

Will write more about Bangalore soon; now, it's naptime.

Monday, October 8, 2007

More Fabulous Deals!

Here are the other two things I purchased today (well, the two I can show you... mumble mumble Christmas mumble).

This lovely bottle of "exotic" attar, at Rs 30 (down from 70). Having two old perfume salesmen argue over which attar suited me best was great fun. I just googled "Rajnigandha" to find out what it meant, and turned up "night fragrance." Was hoping it would be more specific, as the internets have yet to add a "smell" application and so I can't share this attar with you. Which is too bad, because it smells enchanting.

And this charming "night suit" (asking for pajamas, of course, meant that they showed me pants). I haven't had a new pair of pajamas since my undergrad roommate (who's also done a research project in India, coincidentally enough) gave me some as a present. Normally I wouldn't care, but if I'm going to be traveling and visiting people I thought it might suit to have something that isn't threadbare. Went to six different shops and finally found one that would sell them to me for Rs 135 (the going rate was Rs 250). And they're adorable.

That's all for now. I was at Charminar most of the day today but didn't take any pictures (although I had my camera) because... well, because it felt strange to be taking pictures of all of these people who were out doing their daily shopping. I really wanted to take a picture of the Hyderabadi biryani I had for lunch, but no one else was pulling their camera out in the middle of the restaurant, so... you'll just have to imagine it with me.

I Love You, Tiffin-Carrier

I am so in love with my tiffin-carrier.

It has its own metal plate, for eating on. How cute is that?

And yes, I went to five different metal shops looking for the best deal (they were right next to each other, after all), and got this one at last for Rs 95, when the initial prices quoted were all around Rs 200. Sweet.

A Question About Indian Economics (or, OMGWTF SHOES!!!)

I've found, while wandering through Hyderabad, that the streets seem to be set up according to product. That is, on one street a person will find nothing but sari shops; on the next street nothing but household goods; on the third street, sixteen kiranas.

Turning every corner, it becomes OMGWTF SHOES! OMGWTF PERFUMES! OMGWTF BANGLES!

This puzzles me, economically. How can so many people sell the same thing, side-by-side? Sure, it's very useful for me as a consumer because then I can go from stall to stall comparing prices and quality (which seems to really irritate all of the salesmen -- they chase after me calling out "Madam, what is wrong?"), but wouldn't it soon become obvious to everyone on the street which shop was offering the best deals? And then wouldn't everyone try to undercut, purchase better merchandise, whatever?

If there were only one shoe store on the block, everyone would have to get their shoes there. But if it's OMGWTF SHOES!!!, doesn't each individual store lose money and opportunity?

Or is there something else involved?

A Tempest of Pictures

The chorus of Ariels sink a ship. Totally did not steal this idea from Peter Brook. Not one iota.

Miranda and Ferdinand make censor-safe love (no kissing!) while Prospero and an Ariel watch.

Trinculo and Caliban. I love this shot.

The magical banquet, and moveable feast.

Group photo. Obviously. ^__^

A Gallery, and a Gallery of Sweets

After I met my friend, we went to an art gallery to see a new showing by one of his friends, Poosapati Parameshwar Raju.

Since they were trying to save electricity, the gallery itself was completely dark when we went inside. Then the artist-friend turned on the lights. I gasped aloud. We were surrounded by larger-than-life calligraphic drawings, each one arresting in its sense of balance and grace, evoking Ganesh or Hanuman or Surya in simple, nearly-abstract strokes.

Raju drew a series of 250 aums, each one varying the lettering slightly so it became like that game of telephone, where the characters took on new meanings as they metamorphosed. One aum became a praying figure. One became a dancer. One became a diya.

Afterwards, my friend told me that it was his birthday today. I told him that I would have to buy him some sweets. Mostly, of course, I wanted an excuse to eat sweets. He took me to a sweetshop, and when I made some joke about not yet being able to name everything that was behind the counter, he started at one end and pointed at each row of sweets in turn and bought one of everything that I could not identify properly. Including this thing that looked like a jalebi but was actually... something else, like a super jalebi, and when I bit into it I started laughing aloud because eating it was just so fantastic. (Yes, I still don't remember its name. Which means I'll probably have to eat another one.)

And yes, despite it being his birthday, he ended up buying all of the sweets and refused to let me pay. On the other hand, he's currently playing a hero in a Telugu serial and is making more money daily than I did while I was temping. So I don't feel too bad, except that it was his birthday. ^__^

Pictures of Hyderabad

I spent all of yesterday in the city, and took my camera with the full intention of taking lots of pictures.

But I was having so much fun that I forgot, and only took two. They were all taken while I was waiting to meet a friend, and suddenly remembered that I had a camera.

The first picture is simply the view from where I was standing. We're very near where the Panjagutta flyover collapsed.

The second is me, with my sunburned nose. I've been wearing sunscreen, but it needs some more SPF or something. It was one of those cloudy-day sunburns that comes as a surprise and hurts extra hard. Oh, well.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Loins of Awesomeness

I saw Loins of Punjab Presents last night. I wasn't expecting to find it in Hyderabad, but there it was. Late show only; they had to reserve the afternoon slots for things like Happy Days and Dhol and the (sixth?) straight week of Chak De.

The movie was awesome. Absolutely hilarious. I would recommend to anyone.

My favorite part? There's a moment, near the end of the film, when you realize exactly how the story has to play out. You realize that there is only one inevitable solution, and that the writers have been setting up for it since the very first moments of the film. And it's brilliant. I love it when stories are plotted that closely. It makes my nerd heart happy.

It's an odd film to watch as a white woman wearing a blue salwar, because so much of the story deals with the idea of "performing Indian-ness" and who has the right to perform. It's a question that is given some exploration but is never solved to anyone's satisfaction (neither the on-screen characters nor my off-screen self), Mr. Bokade's summary aside. Without spoiling the ending for anyone, if you've seen the film, what did you think? (Manish?)

The other part that made my nerd heart happy? Vikram's first date. I would have been all over that, had I been there. But then the film would have turned out differently, and not so carefully plotted. ^__^

The part that made my nerd heart sad? None of the singers ever told the band in which key to play their songs. Perhaps the band is known for its perfect and relative pitch. Who knows? ^__^

Friday, October 5, 2007

Yay! Show!

Well, we had us a show.

The house was packed. People were sitting in the aisles. My students were energetic, and (thank goodness) focused. They held for laughs. They didn't forget any props. They told their story neatly and succinctly -- and with a bit of flair, too!

Afterwards, there were two kilos of ladoos waiting for them. (That comes out to two per student, but it sounds better by weight.)

I want to post pictures. I desperately want to post some pictures. But I know I should ask their permission first, and I don't know how to mention "I want to put your faces on the internets" without mentioning where, and... so... yeah.

In the meanwhile, you may have my picture. In the sari, of course. The face is my "you have a show to prepare for, why are you taking this time to take my picture!" face. ^__^

Oh, and to the right you can see Prospero's winged staff. The one the students built, after all. Doesn't it look great?

Opening Night

Well, we're getting our little show off of the ground today.

The team has done so much in this past week, and they've finally pushed the show towards something that is, if not "artistic," then at least capable and entertaining and -- most importantly -- well polished.

(Though I haven't been able to completely stop the squirrely-ness; one of our actors last night did not have his costume -- at our final dress rehearsal -- because he had worn it home from rehearsal yesterday without thinking about it and then left it wadded in a ball on his hostel room floor. Um... *facepalm*)

I'm actually very proud of this show. I think prouder of it than any show I've directed. Certainly I've had to work harder, and improvise more.

And these students have come so far. You wouldn't believe it unless you had been through the process, but they've made so much improvement.

They'll have a good show tonight. They deserve it.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Director's Notes for Tempest

One day to go.

Here's what I wrote for the program:

The Tempest in India.

No. Better still. The Tempest in Telugu in India.

No. Better yet. The Tempest, in Telugu, with an international cast and an American director, created improvisatorially, adapted into the vernacular, costumed in the hodge-podge of our contemporary world, built on a very small budget, staged here, at [mumble mumble mumble] in Hyderabad, here in India.

Everything you see tonight has been created by the students you see performing. They have not only been working as actors, but also as set designers, light board operators, props builders, scene painters, etc. We have worked very hard to bring our talents and influences – culled from America, Iran, Iraq, Andhra, and India across the country – into a cohesive whole. We have spent many hours (over a month of hours) studying and preparing Shakespeare’s complicated text for you, our audience. It has been very hard work, but a labor of love, as they say.

We hope you enjoy our Tempest. Thank you for joining us tonight, at this play.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Come See The Show!

The Tempest will be performed this Friday, Oct. 5, at 6:30 p.m.

If you are in the greater Hyderabad area and would like to come, please email me at prettybluesalwar AT hotmail DOT com and I will give you details on location, etc.

Rock on.

Trains! Trains! Trains!

Not "I can has," kitty, but I HAS train tickets.


Monday, October 1, 2007

"You will be the twelfth in a long line of governesses, the last of which stayed only [checks paper] two hours."

Transcript of a conversation between myself and my departmental advisor (“A”):

A: What time should I stop in to watch you rehearse tomorrow?

Me: Well, we start rehearsal at 9 a.m., which means the students will start showing up by 10, so… any time after that.

A: You are lucky that for you they are only late by one hour. It means they like you.

Me: Really? But I asked the other faculty, and the students are never late to their classes.

A: Those are classes. Yours is a performance workshop, and you are only visiting the university. But you are doing very well. You see, we’ve been trying to have guest directors for a while now, but they have always had problems. The last one who came could not even stage his play, because the students decided to stop coming to his rehearsals. So… do not worry about this one hour lateness. In a few days we will have a play. That is what is important.

Thanking My Students, Part Two

Now that I have "singled out" a few students who have worked exceptionally hard, I want to also note that the entire class has, just in these past few days, improved considerably. I think it has something to do with the old cliche that nothing ever happens in the theatre until the week before production. (Makes me wonder why we have all those other weeks of rehearsal, especially at such miserable -- or nonexistant -- pay.)

I've tried to analyze it and I think the moment when I grabbed some paint and slapped together a staff for Prospero (because it needed to be done, and my students weren't doing it) was actually a turning point. They immediately swarmed around me to protest that they were going to do that, and I told them that they hadn't done it yet, and it needed to be done now.

It felt afterwards, and still feels, like my worst moment as a teacher. I wasn't thinking like a teacher, and I wasn't even thinking like a director (there's a very specific hierarchy in the theatre about who does what, and one of the rules is that the director does no actual build work). I wasn't thinking about how my actions would impact my students, or whether I would teach them anything. I was just "these fucking props aren't getting made" and so I went to make them.

And after that the students started showing up outside of class, working late, etc. They were led by a few individuals, some of whom I mentioned in the last post. On the first day, as I noted, there were two students; on the second day there were six; and when I came in this morning they were all there, all working.

So... why did the one thing I did that seemed anti-educational (and, in fact, asshole-worthy) turn out to have the biggest effect?

And, to my entire class: thank you.

Thanking My Students

I only learned, when I got to India, that saying “thank you” was an American thing. I say “thank you” automatically, to waiters and store clerks and everyone – and, of course, to my students, who like to tease me about saying it. Every time I say “thank you” in the rehearsal hall I hear my students parrot it back, imitating my accent and giggling.

But I have a few special thanks for a handful of students who have really worked hard; above and beyond, as they say. Without them, there would be no show whatsoever.

To Student #1: You have risen to leadership without trying, simply because you saw that the work needed to be done and you took the initiative to do it. Now the entire group looks to you. You took charge and built the majority of the set, and delegated what you could not build yourself. At the beginning of the workshop I gave you a very small part in the show because you seemed shy and hesitant to take risks and make big acting choices. Now you are no longer shy, and your talents are very clear. I would like to ship you to the National School of Drama in Delhi and have them train you to become a first-class technical director.

To Student #2: You grab my attention every time you step onstage. Your commitment to your work shows both in your focus to your part and in the millions of questions you ask me after every rehearsal, many of which reveal parts of the play I hadn’t thought about before. You’re the kind of actor who forces me to work harder. Keep at it.

To Student #3: If I had to do it over again, I would cast you differently. Maybe. The trouble is that you’re one of those “triple threat” types – in addition to being a strong actor you’re also an extremely strong dancer and musician. So of course, looking at the needs of the group, I chose to make you the leader of our chorus of magical spirits, because it was a role that demanded rhythm and movement. I know that disappointed you. You would have been good in many of the principal character roles as well. Thanks for choosing to work hard with the part you were given.

To Student #4: You showed up two weeks after the start of class and wanted to be a part of the show. So I made you “assistant stage manager,” a role which is pretty much a title that allows you to watch the rehearsals. Then, when my assigned stage manager took on a different project and stopped coming to rehearsals, you stepped up. You’ve been an invaluable help since.

To Student #5: I know you stayed up until midnight for three days straight translating the script for us. Thank you.

To Student #6: Your Thermacor sculptures are lovely. I’m sorry I thought you were working too slow and tried to take your props away from you. I didn’t know then that you would decide to put so much extra time into what you were making. The finished product is absolutely worth it.