Monday, September 17, 2007


There is shade everywhere. One can walk under arcades or hundred-year old trees. There are real sidewalks! Dare I say it, it is a strolling city. In India!

Driving through Bombay towards the airport at midnight, I was sad to miss the Ganesh festival by one day. Already, the city was erupting in preparations for the drowning of their Ganesh effigies. Small local bands drummed merrily through the streets. Young teenage boys danced, jumping and spinning, while others walked awkwardly, laden with their chest-strapped, marching band drums. Every neighborhood and subset of neighborhoods, had their small processions, most lit up with yellow and red lights flashing left to right, blinking, or, occasionally, hanging in long electric garlands from rooftops.

My last memory of Bombay: On a loud and busy main street, an older man walked slowly with two small children, pulling a handcart like the ones used to sell fruit on street corners. The cart carried a small Ganesh statue, simple and stark.

This is what I missed the next day.

Photo credit: National Geographic

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Another strange job--Bombay

At Cafe Churchill, the young boy's job is to occupy a tight corner, right next to the door in this 10-table establishment, his head between the automatic coffee machine and the door's hinge.

The cashier--this restaurant has a dedicated cashier--sits at a rudimentary station with a computerized (more like an Atari console) till, though no metal drawer automatically shoots out upon "tender." No, he has an old wooden drawer, which suits him just fine, because he can open it whenever he likes, take out the thick stack of ten rupee notes and bang their edges into uniformity on his table's hidden, pull-out countertop extension. He puts the notes back in the drawer then pushes the drawer in. Then he pushes the extension shelf back into its slow.

Two seconds later, he pulls it back out. Rests his elbows on it. Looks at the little boy and beckons him. Send him on a task. I sit behind all this, amazed at the boy's tiny waist. Or maybe it's just the twice-wrapped around belt that gives this impression.

Power tripping in Bombay

Photo credit: Dey on Flickr
The ejectment of fruit sellers on the corner of Colaba Causeway and Mandlik Road, up the block from Leopold's Cafe. A crowd had gathered, watching two men hastily throwing fruit of all sizes from apples to watermelons into boxes under the eye and prodding barks of two men in beige uniforms. The uniforms stood next to a truck with a caged cargo area in back. The vendors scrambled to collect as much fruit as possible, the small ones tumbling and eluding their frantic hands. They wore an indecipherable expression: bravado (I'm going to pretend nobody is witnessing my humiliation) battled with a desire to search faces for sympathy, any sympathy (You, rival fruit vendor, you know my pain, don't you?).

But, who knows, maybe some of the neighboring street vendors looking on had denounced the scramblers, calling the police with one side of the mouth while smiling and joking with the other. The police tried to shoo away the onlookers and managed to break up the inner circle of the crowd. When I asked an older man what was happening, where they were taking them, he mumbled, "Municipality." Why? "No license." the U.S., that's just another way of saying "town" or "county." Here, I guess it's the city jail.

After they'd gotten in, people slowly drifted off to tell their buddies and neighbors what had happened. I  caught glances back to that corner, where one lucky man was spared the bumpy ride to clean up what remained (he'd been the one bossing a lackey around, desperately), and the glances were worried. It was so for a good two anxious blocks, the news traveling just quickly enough for me to step into those backward glances.

Yesterday, a jeep marked "Tourist Police" cleared a small family from the promenade near the Taj Mahal and Gateway to India. They hadn't been begging, just selling brightly-colored trinkets and enjoying the sunset on a blanket. The Tourist Police woman didn't even bother to get out of the car, but yelling and shooing out her open window, she still had them packing up in a hurry.

Last night, as I bought glucose biscuits from a corner street vendor, the wallah's hand suddenly moved from the biscuits to a pack of cigarettes. It landed then froze. Then a command from somewhere behind my head told him to move to the right, to the right, below, yes, until it landed on Marlboros. I turned around and saw an Indian in an SUV, pulled over slightly at the curb, leaning out the window like the Tourist Police woman had.

Prawns of the land

Yesterday's P.S. was a good note to self: this morning, I woke up to find the biggest cockroach I've ever seen, in the far corner of the room, on its back, its legs and antennae waving slowly, languorously, as though taking an upside down, leisurely swim--then frenzied, like many small schoolchildren waving, "Hello! hello!" at a passing tourist bus.

Its head would curl up from time to time, as if trying to do a sit-up. Which was what it was probably trying to do in fact. Its antennae were very long, and it reminded me of the tiger prawn I ate last night, half-heartedly, after having to ask the waiter to have them de-shelled. Moving my fork around the crooked little legs was too much, as was tearing the flesh from the shell while I stared at the beady dead eyes and the many antennae pointed accusingly at me.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Fancy restaurant

L'allumeuse: her only job in the restaurant is to walk around, lighting tiny votive candles, the size and appearance of Reese's mini peanut butter cups, and to replace them as they expire. Which is every 5 minutes on the tables, floating in small bowls of marigold blossoms.

Thing is that she lights them mid-step, in the space between tables, looking utterly absorbed.

P.S. I've decided that I can't eat things that repulse me when alive, e.g., prawns.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Yesterday, I spent the day with Gillian (from London) and Alif (from Hamburg), mostly in Jew Town, the historic neighborhood in Fort Cochin. (I didn't invent the name!) As we walked around an old church here, Alif pointed that it was September 11th. "I can't believe how quickly time has flown." We counted how many years had gone by so fast--6 years!--since the WTC attacks. Alif was in Germany at the time, and someone mistakenly told her that the attacks were taking place in London. Alif had never been to London or NY, so it was as plausible as anything else. She had some friends and cousins in London, and she watched with a fear and disbelief similar to Jenny's and my watching it at work on MSNBC, thinking of everyone we knew back home.

Funny how, as time elapses, the more emotional I become about 9/11. I choked up a little as I explained that it was the thought of everything that's happened since, and as a result, that renders that date so tragic and infuriating. The world seemed to contract in common empathy for New Yorkers, but then Afghanistan and Iraq happened...So frustrating that so much unity could have been so singlemindedly torn apart in a blind fit of "patriotic" idiocy by our government. It's so depressing.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Watching Kathakali

I went to watch a Kathakali dance performance tonight. Everyone had digital cameras out almost the entire time. If traditional film cameras interrupted the direct gaze and experience of something by placing a lens between the eye and the object, now digital cameras have made it so that you are no longer even looking at or experiencing something. So absorbed in tracking whether the screen shot looks good, tourists watched most of the stage performance on the tiny screens of their cameras. In other words, everyone had the immediate record, but their actual experience of it was indirect!

Which makes me think that immediacy is actually more indirect than delay! Immediacy is not a more trustworthy companion to experience than retrospective reflection, but is it even a more trustworthy companion to reality? And how far is the gap between reality and experience?

Interestingly, when people were truly absorbed, all cameras timed off, their neon-glowing bodies extinguished. No more malevolent fireflies with lead tied to their legs. Those moments were short-lived though. Boredom crept in, and cameras came out. No longer engrossed, one could again be separate from that object of (half) attention. Then, a moment's change: something stirred, perhaps the beat picked up, the singing became more urgent. An air of expectancy sent a frisson through the audience, and as if one, all pulled out and lit up their cameras. Something might happen again, at last! And no one wanted to miss it when it came.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Update on Big B

Movie posters show him looking angry, dirty and crud-stained. The title of the movie: Aag.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The 30-yr old virgin, tea country, Munnar, India

The hillsides are full of irregularly shaped, green-velvet cushions. The tea plantation shrubs are perfectly coiffed to the shape of the hills. The tea pickers live in a perpetual, unmoveable fog on the dark side of the mountain where the sun doesn't seem to penetrate for more than a few minutes.

The first young buds of the tea plants are not picked, but the second round are. Old leaves are worthless, so these stay on until they're pruned to make way for new buds. Tea pickers make 90 rupees a day, and the full-timers get a company cottage and use of the clinic and kindergarten. They wear the rubber thumbs we use in offices for auditing documents.

I took a long walk with Thomas, the manager of sorts here at the Olive Brook Hotel. We talked about the history of the tea plantations, Tata and Lipton, our families, university studies, Indian society and how social mores are changing. His favorite topic concerning the latter was sexual mores. At first, he was anthropological about it, economics student that he once was, then became more anecdotal. Or, to be more accurate, anecdotal about his lack of anecdotes. His frank fascination with the subject of "sexual relations," combined with a professed shyness, was pitiful, endearing, amusing and revolting, by turns. He had no problem sharing that he was a 30-year old virgin. Or to share lechy stories of Indian cougars in Goa whose husbands couldn't last more than the ten minutes. But then he described how he was too afraid even to kiss a girlfriend for fear of rejection, and how the occasional brush of her arm as they walked was "almost enough."

Later in the evening, he knocked on my door to tell me what time my tuk-tuk would come for me the next morning. Then he gave me a long soft look, towards the top of my head--I wondered what he was looking at--then he put an arm to my waist and moved in. I drew away before he was close enough to do anything and just said, "No, no, no," in a descending scale, as if he'd just offered me a fifth cup of tea. I moved to close the door (I'd already had my hand on the doorknob), and he moved back and said, "I am sorry" as he walked away.

There are beautiful silver oaks here with wispy long green and silver fingers for leaves. Also, Spathodia trees (also known as African tulip trees or Nandi flame trees) whose blossoms look like red teacups. They attract mosquitos, which get trapped in the sticky folds of the flower. And when it rains, the teacups fill with water, and mosquitos come and lay eggs inside them. The blossom dies 1-2 days later, wilts and dumps out all the eggs, killing them. Hooray!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Questions in Pondicherry

1. Were there always so many crows here?

2. Who in India does yoga? Is it a way of life for Indians or an esoteric practice that only Westerners have revived?

3. Who has joined and left Auroville?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Making Sense of Kodai

Kodaikanal, favored honeymoon destination for Indian newlyweds, felt like a sordid little podunk town from the first moments I was there. A beautiful mountain town shrouded in thick fog. I met Ambrose, the guide who took me to amazing waterfalls and valleys and a steep trek and told me stories. The town is an Indian Twin Peaks: mountainous, run-down, beautiful and sordid.

According to Ambrose, you can get anything in Kodai: drugs, liquor, women. Indeed, even when you're not looking. When I got back to the hostel, I met a gorgeous guy sitting on the terrace. Sid, an aspiring Indian actor. We chatted and smoked cigarettes while his American friend from Goa slept. She finally emerged an hour later, at 5pm. Karen, a twenty-year old burn-out, high and hardly able to string a sentence together. She was from California but living in Goa for the last year, and before that, Dubai, which was where she had met Sid. She was waiting for some shrooms. While we waited with her, Sid opened a bottle of whiskey, and she sucked on her joint.

Karen belonged in the bird hospital in Delhi's Old City. "Bird hospital" conjures up warm, nostalgic feelings, right? At least it did for me, at first. But when I got there, I found myself hurrying through the tight corridors between the patients' cages, barefoot (they make you remove your shoes) and recoiling at the squalor of so much uncleaned waste and so many broken, mangled wings with clear toothpick bones sticking out askew. Eventually I found a laugh where some birds were lucky and had tiny plaster casts, but in Kodai, I never did manage to find any levity around Karen.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Incognito in Pondicherry

It's strange to be somewhere where you can understand everything people around you are saying, but they don't know this. Here in Pondicherry, all the tourists around me are French. And they talk freely around me, unsuspecting that I lived in France for four years and speak French pretty fluently. If I had chosen not to move back to the States, then at the time of this writing, I would be in my seventh year as a resident of France. Yet to these tourists, I would still be first and foremost, upon appearances, a Japanese or other East Asian tourist. I wonder what an Asian-French person feels when travelling abroad when they run into white French people everywhere. Is there a secret signal to recognize one another despite appearances? How do I recognize fellow Asian-American tourists before I hear them speak?

I think I would recognize their clothes, or style of dress. Perhaps for the French, if I had a Quechua backpack! Or Decathlon something or other? The brands are the easy signs, but there must be deeper signs of recognition besides. What if I were mute? Aside from language and a common way of interacting with others that one might observe if the person were in a group, which I'm not, how can you identify the person's provenance, which is not necessarily their origin?

Saturday, September 01, 2007


People in Chennai drive very FAST, and all the tuk-tuks can do is squeeze their clown horns. The tuk-tuks here are low-tech, and the horns aren't built-in. They are lowest on the totem pole of buses, cars and scooters. The clown horns look like gigantic earwax drainers and make a cartoon squawk. Hardly intimidating, unless you're a toddler.

I stumbled into an amazing street festival, honoring a goddess for women.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Arrogance or humility?

Frustration here in India tips dangerously sometimes into rage, and it's not always obvious why. Today, I discovered that the fee to print out a single page at the hotel's "business centre" was 150 rupees (about $4). The fee--its amount or its existence--wasn't posted anywhere. There was absolutely no notice of what amounted to a hidden, ridiculous fee. But what triggered something akin to rage was the fact that when I complained, I was told, "Yes, that is unfortunate, but I can't do anything about that. That is the fee...," then asked a moment later, "Would you like to make any suggestions or recommendations? How can we improve our service?" Yes, here's a recommendation: put a sign up and refund me the ridiculous charge! "I'm sorry, that's not possible, but thank you for your suggestion. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

It would be one thing if there had been some kind of notice posted at the computer or door. I'd have had to suck it up. I definitely wouldn't have felt compelled to violently scribble across the proffered feedback form, or to speak to the head-wobbling but inert manager about the latest of many annoying hidden fees. But there had been no notice! As with so many things, it seems that, in India, there are a gazillion rules and no way of agreeing to abide by them in advance, or to consciously disobey them. How can a society function without the concept of notice?!

But maybe my anger wasn't really about notice.

If this were France or Russia, and the staff just shrugged scornfully and didn't care to hear why I was so pissed, I would be angry, but condescension wouldn't be part of the mix. Why? Because the arrogant nonchalance with which my complaint would be treated would smack of willfulness, not incompetence. Why is willfulness somehow less scornworthy than incompetence? Perhaps even while an arrogant refusal to help is a form of deliberate incompetence, there remains a fragment of a respectable trait: arrogance is the darkling cousin of confidence, which is something Americans admire and envy.

This hotel manager, however, was not arrogant. He never looked me in the eye with an attitude remotely conveying, "To hell with your complaint; pay up." His attitude conveyed something approaching grovelling, or an extreme dutifulness to customer service at the same time that his answers completely failed to fulfill that duty. It suggested, simulateneously, goodwill and stupidity--a combination of qualities that is hard to respect. But shouldn't a genuine desire to remedy or improve something be admired and appreciated, even before or without results or success?

Why is goodwill mixed with failure infuriating in a way that mere laziness or obstructiveness is not?

The only answer I can stomach is that I was seeing through a servile hypocrisy. That I didn't really believe the manager when he said, "We'd like to know what you think would improve our service." That I thought he was lying and using false humility to take the firm ground of victimhood from under my angry feet. After all, to continue to be angry with him would make me a mean, demanding Westerner, wouldn't it?

But the other, less comfortable answer is that I really was a mean, demanding Westerner.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Who *is* Big B?

Amitabh Bachchan. He is ubiquitous. His eyes aren't shifty, yet you can't tell exactly where he's looking (certainly not at the camera itself, even when addressing it). He didn't always have the white goatee, although now it may as well be his trademark. He looks like the fuzzy monkeys with long rubber-band-like tails that scamper across the road in the hills.

He blogs!

Thursday, August 16, 2007


I'm in Leh, the capital of the northern region of Ladakh. The area is mostly Tibetan Buddhist, and Tibetan refugees sell scarves and jewelry in the bazaar. It's strange to think of them as refugees: when I think of refugees, I think of people in squalid camps who are completely dependent on the largesse of the host country and ostracized from the host population, but here, Tibetans seem to be the majority in this area. And the biggest thing in town is the Dalai Lama, who has been giving talks for the last few days in a nearby campground. I can hear honking all around the neighboring fields. I think the entire town and region is driving over to see him. The guesthouse manager said the car would come at 6:30am for those who wanted to go, even though the speech would not begin until 8:30am --and just 7 km away.

Still, not everyone here is Buddhist. A little after 5am, a Moslem call to prayer sounded, long and incantatory. Perhaps a half hour later, it was the low drone of Buddhist horns. After that, the long high crows of roosters. Not unpleasant at all. The sun came out at a little before six, and the air smells smoky and sweet. It is so beautiful here, in the river oasis of this high desert: poplar trees stand with branches vertical, like people with arms at their sides. Barley fields have wide and variously-directed whorls. Cows wander down the narrow town lanes, moo-ing very loudly.

Which brings to mind the flight up here from Delhi, past the gigantic foothills of the Himalayas, moving higher to the actual mountain range. Large patches of snow cap the peaks of reddish-brown mountains and disappear down steep flanks cut jagged by the wind. In the morning light, the mountains resembled a skinny cow, its spotted hide stretched taut over its ribs.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Waking up in Delhi

7am: woke up earlier to the sound of birdsong out the window and chattering, bantering conversation from a room nearby after three hours of sleep on a hard Indian canopy bed, naked without its mosquito net dress. Half awake, I watched a soft silver beam of light move very slowly across a t-bar at the foot of the bed, illuminating the grain of the dark wood. I watched mosquitos testing the reach of the ceiling fan's wake. I couldn't see anything that I heard, and I couldn't hear what I could see.

I think that India will probably be like this hard bed, the kind of bed that points out all the misalignments in your body, all the crooked tilts of asymmetrical hips and shoulder blades.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Back from the Dead

Today I read a NYT article that discussed Obama's and Clinton's rhetoric on the war in Iraq. Apparently, the term "civil war" has finally reared its cowardly head, and the candidates are using it as code for "not our business." Hilary has gone so far as to imply that the current situation is all the Iraqis' fault, and that the U.S. is no longer responsible for cleaning up their mess.

Truly appalling. Even if the current situation is a manifestation of centuries-old "sectarian rife," the fact is that the U.S. invasion left Iraq without a real government to keep the animiosities in check. We created just the right amount of chaos to provide enabling cover and excuse for latent conflicts to reemerge with a vengeance. To say that the "civil war" is entirely of the Iraqis' making is truly rich.

I also find it interesting that Oback Barama is so adamant about removing U.S. troops from a civil war in Iraq. If it is always a foregone conclusion that the U.S. should never be embroiled in civil wars, i.e. domestic disputes, then I wonder what Barama would say about whether the U.S. should intervene in the genocide in Darfur, which is, in a way, a civil war on amphetamines.

My question is: why doesn't the U.S. simply admit that it was foolhardy in taking on sole responsibility for Iraq and appeal to the UN to help stabilize Iraq? It seems to me that complete withdrawal would be a serious disservice to Iraq, considering that we created the mess in the first place.

I'm off to read about the Ottoman Empire.