Wednesday, June 12, 2013

taking a break

Dear Everybody,

I made a new blog to document this year's travels. I will be living in India for a year plus to study Hindi and Tamil language. This change isn't because I've outgrown Terrible Modern, but becuase it feels good to have a clean start. The address is: Hope you keep reading!



Wednesday, September 12, 2012

teatime with zoë

It's sticky in New York.

Especially at 10:30 pm with a cup of chamomile tea in front of you on the fifth floor of a big building in the summer. I am "transitioning" back to life here (although that might be one of the inappropriate uses of quotation marks that Max Holden has been talking about so much lately), and it is a slow process. Things are good, friends are good, and I like all of my classes, but somehow it's strange to have everything seem the same after going to the other side of the world and living such a completely different life for a while.

The best part of recent existence is the class I'm taking with my advisor on Asian Humanities. We're reading about 15 different texts from the Middle East and South Asia. The first half of the semester we're focusing on the S.A. texts, and then the Middle East. These include: the Vedas, the Upanisads, the Quran, Kalidasa, Bhakti things, The Conference of the Birds, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, and plenty of other things I've never heard of. I am in the class with my good friends Sujata and David, which is part of why it's terrific. It is also so gloriously challenging -- it feels awful some days and some days it's refreshing. But it's the kind of difficulty that I actually want to face because I am so excited to learn all of the things we'll be discussing.

Okay, the actual best part of recent existence is traces of India in my surroundings. A girl with a bag with the Tamil alphabet on it (I wanted to ask if she was a Tamilist, but she might have thought I was crazy.) A dhaba on 103rd st and Columbus that I have yet to check out. Finding myself writing sentences for my Hindi homework like "Having become drunk, they fall down again and again" and "They begin to talk philosophically and Maadav wonders if God will actually give everything in the end. He realizes that one day, everyone will die."

Monday, September 3, 2012

and last

It's impossible to think of anything proper to say post-India, that sums up everything this experience means to me. I can only say that it taught me to face my fears, to kind of throw up my hands and trust that something, whether it be God or others or my own pure will, will guide me along my way. It taught me that life is kind of like taking a taxi to the Mumbai airport at 3 am, knowing that there will be people living in the construction around the airport, children playing by my gate, and, upon my arrival in Chennai, a rickshaw wallah who will make sure that I, bags and all, board a bus for Mahabalipuram. It taught me that for every negative experience, every disrespectful stranger or expression of greed, there will be many more experiences that reveal the most beautiful sides of humanity. It taught me that it's much easier in India, possibly the most chaotic country in the world, to believe in a kind of cosmic order. It taught me that I can make things happen for myself no matter what obstacles I come up against.

But somehow recognizing what I was taught does not equal being able to piece them together into some kind of cohesive lesson or experience. I am left without an answer to the question, "How was India?" I am left only with a desire to hear cawing of birds in trees and the screech of horns, to smell the mixture of frying food, incense, trash, petrol and urine of JNL Marg, saying "Namaste" to my neighbors across the street, and having rickshaw wallahs know me and recognize me as the white girl who speaks Hindi. I miss colors of marigolds and blue and red buses and "Ma" and "Ram" and "Allah" and "Our Lord Jesus Christ" spelled out in either English or Devanagari script across the front of vehicles. I miss shiny silver dishware and spices kept in silver tins, and poojas conducted three times a day in my living room. I miss how brightly colored far off buildings could well be temples. I miss how people don't act friendly unless they like you.

And writing this, I can't help but be disgusted with myself: one of countless foreigners/residents of other places who find something special in India. "Spiritual" is a word with a lot of disgusting connotations, but I feel compelled to use it. Because there was something there that made me feel connected to everything else. I feel very thankful that I had the opportunity to experience it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

why learning hindi is hard

It's not because Hindi is a Difficult Language in the same way that Chinese or Russian or Sanskrit are difficult languages. Hindi does not have particularly complex grammar, and its grammar is not particularly different from English (slightly more different than German is though.) Learning Hindi is hard because of the way that language works in Hindi, which is so drastically different from the way that I think about language in America or anything I have ever experienced before.

Sometimes I complain about the fact that people don't speak Hindi to me. Many of the people I meet do not, including middle-class joggers, train compartment companions, and hotel owners. If you learned Hindi as a child and went to an English medium school for your entire education, and then grew up and worked in a setting where you used English to communicate, your English might well be better than my Hindi will ever be. In a time when vast numbers of computer programming students from Rajasthan University work in Bangalore upon graduating, English is frequently the made mode of communication between people who live in the same country but whose first languages are not even remotely related to each other. Speaking in Hindi is time consuming not just because I might not understand, but also because Hindi is an extremely pronunciation-sensitive language, and what I'm saying might not even be decipherable. Also, if you have needed English in your work life forever, it is incredibly confusing that I am even trying to learn Hindi, as there appears to be no area whatsoever in which it would increase job prospects.

Language is fluid in India. There are not so much specifically designated zones where each individual language is spoken as a multi-layered blending of one language into another.

These are my thoughts for the moment. There will definitely be developments in my thinking about this as time goes on.

a wonderful saturday visit

On Saturday, I finally got to see some forts in the City of Forts. My entire class went on a trip to Amber (pronounced aa-mer) and two other forts in Jaipur called Nahargarh and Jaigarh. It was really a wonderful experience, something that I would have always intended to do on a spare free Sunday but maybe never actually gotten around to. The forts might have been less architecturally striking than Agra Fort and the Taj, but I appreciated the experience infinitely more. There were fewer tourists and it was kind of amazing to realize that all of this has been practically in our backyard all summer.

Goats by pretty Amber.

 At the second fort we visited, Mayrah with all her magical persuasive powers asked our teachers to let us escape and visit a tower at the very top. The views were absolutely spectacular, and it started to rain just as we reached the top. It was perfect.

Somewhere in the distance you can see where I live.

Friday, July 13, 2012

lonely planet is right again, and reflections from the farm

I write this while sitting in a tiny circular building absolutely lined with books for volunteers to borrow. It's Navdanya's library, and other than in the gazebo looking out at the rice fields and gorgeous green hills hidden by clouds, it's my favorite place to be on this farm. The building is made out of something like cob. It might be mud. The outside is brick-red. If Max were here, he would know exactly what this building was made out of, but alas, I will have to leave you with my speculations. On one wall, there is a poster published by the Tibetan Children's Village, which Max and I visited when we were in Dharamsala. It has pictures of about 20 different sorts of birds with their Tibetan, English, and Hindi names. I wish I could have one too! I've realized that birds feature in almost all of my posts on this blog. Even my Hindi name apparently relates to birds: my name is Juhi, which is the name of a flower that grows on a vine. Meenakshiji gave it to me; when I told her my (completely unpronouncable) English name, she said forcefully, "You are Juhi." According to a man who works here at Navdanya, juhi can also mean sparrow, but not in Hindi. It must be some Uttarachandish language, but I have yet to discover which one.

Today I needed a break from quiet and farm work, so I went to Rishikesh by myself. I had been speculating about which town to see -- Mussoorie, Haridvar, or Rishikesh -- but eventually decided on the latter. There was a note in the back of the Lonely Planet entry, just one sentence not elaborated on in the least: "Women walking alone may encounter problems." Each new state, each new location, presents a change in culture, and it's impossible to ever know what to expect.

My Rishikesh adventure started very smoothly. I easily got the bus from Navdanya to Dehra Dun (14 rupees instead of 350 for an auto) and from Dehra Dun to Rishikesh. The ride felt incredibly short, and took us through impossibly gorgeous hills and forests full of furry monkeys and signs warning drivers to watch for elephants. I easily got a seat and spoke lots of Hindi along the way. A kid in the bus asked me if I was from Navdanya, and when I said yes, he handed me a pen and asked if I could give it to Dr. Bhatt. He had borrowed it from him and forgotten to give it back. I don’t know when I will see Dr. Bhatt, and I am really sad that I won’t be able to return the pen that the kid had so carefully kept track of.

Once I got to the main square, I haggled my rickshaw price down to something even the elderly companions I met later deemed appropriate. I shared my auto with a man from Jaipur who spoke perfect English, told me I was just like his daughter, and gave me a glass bead with om written on it. The auto couldn't take me all the way to Lakshman Jhula, where I was planning to walk down to Swarg Ashram, so I got out of the vehicle feeling a little disoriented. I saw hoards of people walking in the same direction, so I eventually just followed them, but I wasn’t fully sure whether I was going the right way. Everyone was dressed in orange, many wearing T-shirts with gods and goddesses on them. Suddenly, an old man approached me and asked me where I was going. He was a retired professor from Delhi University and spoke perfect English. He seemed really surprised that I was going to Lakshman Jhula, as everyone else was on pilgrimage. Then he told me that Obama ruined the financial situation of the world. I walked with him and his wife for a little while, but eventually they needed to stop and rest and told me to go on ahead.

The path to the bridge led through a bit of a backpacker enclave. There was a Fabindia and a Coffee Day, but I only saw a couple of foreigners, and I was the only one on the path. Almost immediately after we entered this area, groups of the young orange-wearing guys began to talk to me. Often they would just stand next to me and talk rapidly in Hindi to me, possibly assuming I wouldn’t understand. It wasn’t anything really offensive, but when I refused to respond to their questions or refused to take a picture with them or refused to acknowledge their comments on my physical appearance, they would get angry and start yelling at me. Once, when a guy was furiously talking to me, his friend said, “She doesn’t understand.” I didn’t really because he was talking so fast, but I responded in Hindi, “I understand perfectly! I just don’t want to talk to you!” Then the guy asked me if I hated men, or Indians, or non-white people, and I attempted to escape. It was so strange to get this response from pilgrims carrying bottles of Ganges water. Strange men, you have no idea how you have affected my perception of your religion.

This bothered me a lot more than usual because I was walking on a path along the Ganges that was set down from the street, and I suddenly realized that I was the only visible woman in the vicinity. I suddenly got really uncomfortable and started walking faster. The path began to diverge from the river and lead farther and farther into the forest. It was totally unnecessary to be nervous, as I’m sure I was in no way unsafe, but since I didn’t know how long the path was or where it led to, I decided to turn around and go back the way I’d come. Ten or so minutes later, I ran into the old couple again. The man started scolding me for walking the wrong way along a sacred path. He told me they wouldn’t let me back on the bridge walking the wrong direction. I said I was really hungry. “But all kinds of food is available along here!” he said. I was tearing up a little, not because I’d been traumatized but just because I have been feeling so good at being in India recently, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to brush this off. Finally I told his wife, as he went ahead, that I didn’t want to walk there because men were bothering me. She repeated this to her husband, and he said, “Beti, this is not America! These are Asian boys! They are naughty boys. They will stare at you. It is an uncommon thing to see a white person. It’s just because you have white skin. Sometimes they stare at Indian women too. They will stare, but if you walk with us they will not do anything to your or shout at you.”

As soon as I started walking with them, things changed drastically. I was not bothered by anyone. We stopped frequently for resting, and they bought me idli, chai, and the amazing street-roasted corn that is cooked in a fire until it’s black and then rubbed with salt, lemon juice, and masala. At the end of the path, an hour or so later, I stopped to look at a shop window and lost them in the crowd. For some reason, things were much better after that. I was barely bothered by anyone, and I know longer noticed the stares.

I headed home after that. There wasn’t too much to do in Rishikesh. I was planning to do some exploring in Dehra Dun, but it was raining when I got out of the bus. I really felt like being back on the farm. The rickshaw I took had two men in it, and it seemed like one was teaching the other to drive. At first this creeped me out a little, but the one who was learning was nice and spoke very patient Hindi to me the entire time. He asked me if I was born in India, or if my parents were, the second time I’ve gotten that question in two days. When we got back to the farm, he couldn’t break my 500 rupee bill, so we wandered around from shop to shop looking for someone who could. Finally, a kid passing by gave me 100 to add to the 250 I had in change. I said, “Thank you, but I don’t know when I will be able to return it.” He said, “Anytime.” “But I’m leaving tomorrow.” “It’s no problem, I am doing some project here. Come anytime.” He left before I could even ask him his name. Sometimes people amaze me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

highlights of the last week

It's hard to know where to start, really.

The monsoon season has begun. Several times a day, the sky opens up and pours. The rain is so heavy that it turns the street into a sea. Yellow and black rickshaws attempt to force their way through the water, so deep that their wheels disappear and they look like strange, floating pieces of machinery. Getting a rickshaw in a sea is an experience. Yesterday I was trapped in a bus station with my friends Gita and Camille while it was raining. We'd given the ticket-man our money for tickets to Dehra Dun, but then the electricity went out, so we were trapped waiting for them to be printed. Once we finally emerged, we waded down into the sea of god-knows-what in the ditch along the side of the road to get a rickshaw that was pulling up. I couldn't stop taking photos on the way home.

With the monsoon come worse smells, countless mosquitoes, the waning of mango season, and terrible, heavy humidity that is nearly impossible to endure, unlike the more intense but drier heat that it has replaced. But there are also suddenly pleasantly cool mornings during which there is no need for a fan, and nice misty morning rain that I walked to school in today. Every type of weather, every season seems to have its own perks. With the midterm break, Mayrah has gone to Udaipur for three days. After that, she'll be in Delhi and Amritsar. Since she's left, I've spent a lot of time with my host sister, Bulbul, including drinking secret nimbu pani (limes are really expensive here, so we snuck into the kitchen at night) and listening to lots and lots of Bollywood songs. On Sunday, we're planning to go to the cinema together. I will remind you that Bulbul's name means nightingale -- basically, the most adorable thing in the world. I don't know the names of birds; they are all just chirdiyan ("birds"), but there are bulbule in one of the poems we learned in Dalpat's class, so I remembered the word. (Ham bulbule hain iski, yeh gulsitan hamara: We are its nightingales and it is our garden.) Isn't it weird how everything seems connected? Like the fact that my Hindi professor is Rajasthani and I actually saw him last Friday. I guess the Hindi-teaching world is small, but it's still kind of crazy.

Going back in time to Thursday: Thursday was the first rain. We could tell even at 7 in the evening that it was coming. I got into my rickshaw and one of the little girls who ride home with me from my singing class noted that the sky was yellow. "Barish aayegi," she said: Rain is coming. It didn't actually start raining until that night though, after we'd finished dinner and the sky was completely black. As soon as I heard the raindrops, I ran outside into the street and through my next-door neighbors' gate. Jackie, my friend and neighbor, was just as excited as I was. We were literally bouncing up and down and shouting, and her host family looked vaguely amused. We ran into the road, where the cluster of men who usually sit outside my house were sharing an umbrella and smoking a cigarette. Just then, my across-the-street neighbor threw open the gate to his house and ran into the street as well. It was quickly becoming a sea. Across-the-Street-Neighbor was even more excited about the rain than Jackie and I were. He was dancing wildly and suddenly attacked the cigarette-smoking men, pushing them into the gutter and getting them completely wet. Jackie and I both twirled in the street.

My neighbor is a very tiny man somewhere between the age of 20 and 35, but where he falls on that scale is impossible to tell. He has a large smile and is very friendly; we always wave to each other from across the street. I wish I could go up and talk to him; sometimes Indian cultural appropriateness is frustrating. I want to make friends, but I have to be excessively careful about how I portray myself. I don't want to be like a Western Woman, so instead of attempting a conversation with my neighbor, I stand shyly at my gate with my dupatta covering my head and hiding my face.

The next day, Dalpat came to AIIS and visited me. We had chai at a nearby restaurant and talked about, among other things, plans for Advanced Hindi class next year, how much we love Jack Hawley, and live music in Jaipur. It was fully enjoyable.

In half an hour, I am being picked up by the rickshaw wallah. He is the rickshaw wallah who I hired to drive me to and from my singing class everyday, and he is a thoroughly pleasant person. He speaks no English, and talking to him has really helped my Hindi. He doesn't even know the English numbers. He has the only Hindi phone I have ever seen. Once time the rickshaw slowed next to a little stall in Janata Colony, on the way to the school. Since he chews a lot of paan, I assumed he wanted to buy some. I was surprised when he was instead handed a piece of newspaper wrapped around marigold blossoms. He removed them from the paper and put them under the steering wheel of the ricksaw. Above the "wheel" (not really a wheel) are two or three murtis. He was getting flowers for his small altar. Sometimes he burns incense too. It is all these small things that make up the experience. A rickshaw-altar, the street outside the bus station as a sea. Across-the-street neighbors and conversations with my singing teacher.