Tag Archives: India

Sweet no matter how you spell it.

This week I traveled to the Washington D.C. area to visit Kate and her family, including little “Raj” whom I’ve mentioned before, now almost 17 months old. I had attended his birth in India, but now they are living here in Arlington, Virginia for a while.

So far I’ve just been hanging out — the Indian nanny Kareena is here, too, and my first day I walked with her and Raj many blocks to a park where the little guy could play on the swings and in the sand pit. It was a lovely outing; that day the wind was howling and seemed to blow off the heat and humidity quite a bit.

 

Today we needed to do a big shopping trip, including to the Indian market, Kareena’s first stocking-up since they arrived. That was so much fun. We all kept adding to the baskets over the course of a half-hour at least, spicy snacks and unusual vegetables, the favorite brand of masala chai tea, mango chutney, chapati flour and besan flour, which is chickpea flour, or gram flour.

When I was in India I wrote home about a confection that is made with chickpea flour, pronounced ladoo and spelled in English like that or in many other ways, as I’m discovering: laddoo, laddu, and even ladu, as I saw it today.

This word is also an Indian nickname for the first-born son especially, and sometimes more generally a term of endearment: “Sweet.” Kareena uses it for my grandson all day long.

When I was on my way home from India in February of 2018 my plane was delayed four hours before it even left Mumbai; at 3:00 a.m. I was wandering the airport shops looking for some comfort food that wasn’t entirely simple carbs, and I found a snack that had chickpea flour in the ingredients, and ghee. That sounded wholesome enough 🙂 and it was the most splendid treat. One version was on the shelf in the market today, and when we arrived home and were putting all our purchases away I saw that Kareena had bought a package.

About a year ago I spent quite a while researching recipes to make my own besan ladoo, and I have a few pounds of the flour in my fridge that I bought even earlier for some other recipe. None of these facts should cause anyone to hope that Indian sweets will ever come out of my kitchen. I can easily live without that kind of goodie.

But the curlyhead that we call Raj or Ladoo, he came to us already delicious and sweet, and I can’t get enough of him.

To the oar your strength bringing.

When I was in India I browsed through the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, because it would have been so natural and fitting to share from this favorite literary man of that nation. I did not find anything that resonated with me then, but just today I stumbled on this. I don’t know if the swelling waves are felt in the original; certainly the translator has done a good work in any case.

FROM JOY’S LOVELIEST OCEAN

From joy’s loveliest ocean
there’s a flood springing.
Embark all, and set to –
to the oar your strength bringing.
No matter its burden,
our boat sorrow-laden
(if death comes, so let it)
moves through the waves winging.
From joy’s loveliest ocean

there’s a flood springing.

Who cries from behind us
of doubt or of danger?
Who harps on their fear now,
where fear is no stranger?
What curse, or star’s showing
has frowned on our going?
Hoist a sail to the wind now
and we’ll move on singing.
From joy’s loveliest ocean
there’s a flood springing.

– Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941 – translated by Joe Winter

Good-bye Mumbai!

I’m getting ready to leave Mumbai – I might even be at the airport or on the plane home before I manage to publish this post. It seemed right that I make my last Indian post about this city which has been the source and location of nearly all of my experience of India.

Seven weeks is way too short a time to get to know any place beyond the level of slight acquaintance, but Mumbai must be one of the most challenging in this regard. If she were a human, I’d have to say that I caught a glimpse of her brilliant form once for about five seconds, during which moment I heard her singing a few words I couldn’t understand.

In physical size alone, Mumbai takes up most of Salsette Island, and you would have to drive in three hours of crazy traffic to get from the north end to the south. There is a whole national park within its boundaries. I spent 90% of my time in one neighborhood, in a city of 22 million people, twice the population of Belgium.

Mumbai is the financial and fashion capital of India, and the city where 7-10 people die every day in train related accidents. The most expensive house in the world is in Mumbai, and the most educated slum. A million people live in this slum, Dharavi, which dates from the 1840’s, and 80% of them are employed. They live in 84 settlements taking up less than a square mile, which makes the population density of Dharavi 20 times that of Mumbai as a whole. (Nearly half the population of the Mumbai lives in slums, if you count Dharavi as a slum, which according to some definitions it isn’t any longer.)

Dharavi recycles 80% of the plastic trash of Mumbai, and produces 3.5 tonnes (Tonnes are bigger than tons) of food every day. One of its many other businesses and “hutment industries” is the large pottery business at Kumbharwada:

I took a tour of Dharavi this week but didn’t take pictures, so that one above I found online. Our group walked around through the industrial and residential areas for two hours, which gave me exposure to thousands of visual images and other sensations to process, accompanied by the excellent narrative by our guide who was from the slum. I took notes on both; but I am a really slow writer, which is why here at the end of my India stay, when I’m counting down the hours, I don’t have time to convey my direct experience.

The subject and reality of Dharavi is huge and complex, and you can read much about it elsewhere if you are interested, and watch YouTube tours. It’s another one of the many Things Mumbai that I will leave here knowing just superficially, but it was a wonderful tour and did expand my understanding quite a bit.

Tiffin wallahs

The lunchbox delivery service by tiffin wallahs or dabbawalas originated in Mumbai. Maybe some of my readers have seen the movie “The Lunchbox” that tells a story centered around this local phenomenon. I saw this charming movie years ago but didn’t pay attention to its setting in Mumbai.

Tiffin wallahs have been providing their services in Bombay since 1890, and are known for their high degree of accuracy in delivering lunches from home or restaurant, and the boxes back to the source the same day. This blog does a good job of describing how it works and why it is such a regular part of so many Mumbaikars’ lives: Dabba Dabba Do! And from another article:

“Some 5,000 men dole out over 200,000 meals a day, picking up the tiffins in the morning from women, typically, who have packed steaming, spicy dishes into each compartment: a curry, vegetables, dal (lentils), and flatbread (with some variations).

“For many Mumbai residents, this is the only way to lunch — on a feast, made with the love of a mother or wife.

“‘It’s expensive to eat outside every day, besides it’s not healthy,’ said 36-year-old Naina Bhonsle in Mumbai’s Versova neighborhood. ‘I know what my husband likes eating, and so I prefer to send him a tiffin every day.’”

The boxes are transported and distributed by train and on bicycles; on my first day here Tom pointed out this bicycle belonging to a tiffin wallah and since then I’ve seen many of the wallahs, the typically semi-literate men who do the carrying, as they pedal around. It’s another case like Dhobi Ghat of a very organized low-tech, high efficiency system serving basic human needs, and that sort of thing makes me admire all the parties who keep the thing running.

“The Lunchbox” is not a film made according to the Bollywood formula in the style of “Lagaan,” which I mentioned before. But Bollywood style movies are worth mentioning here as a phenomenon because Mumbai is the center of Bollywood. In Reimagining India, Jerry Pinto wrote: “Bollywood is not just a film industry. It is all-pervasive: a home-grown, film-a-day dream machine that maintains a pleasant stranglehold on our imaginations. It determines — or at least shapes — how we see ourselves, how we think, how we talk, dream, speak, love, fight.”

In the same article he describes the Bollywood formula as requiring: “…a fight for the young men, a romantic story for the women, a devotional song for the elderly. Films made for the entire Hindi-speaking market would have to be patriarchal, right wing, jingoistic, and patronizing in their attitudes to anything non-Indian and nonmajoritarian.”

I didn’t know much about Bollywood until the last year or two. I saw a laughably sentimental Bollywood movie first, and then last month, “Lagaan,” a much more enjoyable example. The music of Bollywood films is often the kind that is happy and makes you want to dance, even if — or especially if? — it is separated from the dance routines of the movie. I am not much of a movie watcher in the first place, so I won’t be exploring the genre more, but as a cultural phenomenon, I wouldn’t want to miss it completely. And I have added Bollywood music to my iTunes playlist to listen to on road trips.

Art Deco City

I heard that Mumbai is “the most Art Deco city in the world after Miami,” and though I hadn’t given the style or history of Art Deco one concentrated thought ever before in my life, having Tom on my first day show me some design features in their neighborhood made me focus my eyes in a new way.

From what I have read, it seems that Art Deco and India were made for each other. The Indian Institute of Architects was founded in 1929, the middle class was growing in the 30’s, and many of the buildings in the city from this period featured Art Deco elements in their design. I’ve seen structures from this century include some retro aspects from the style that Mumbai now feels is part of its tradition and heritage.

There is a whole Wikipedia article on Art Deco in Mumbai, which helped me to grasp enough of the concepts to be able to occasionally recognize the Art Deco influence on our outings. If I were going to be here longer, I’d like to go on a tour given by this organization: Art Deco Mumbai . I’ve already seen quite a few examples that would be on the tour, mostly driving past too fast to get a good picture — and some in our neighborhood.

I always love to take pictures of buildings that catch my attention for some reason. Mumbai has been fun that way, because there is such a range of ages and styles — and colors. Sometimes it is just the names of apartment buildings that strike the American ear as funny. I didn’t take a picture of Flushel Apartments, but Tom joked about what was behind that name… Were they advertising that all the toilets worked, or that the walls were straight and plumb? Haha. It was right down the street from the Executive Enclave.

Mostly for my own convenience I am posting below some images of this city that I want to have in this handy Glad collection. Maybe you will like some of them, too!

During my last days here, the air cleared a lot, and I was quite pleased to see that one of my photos revealed blue skies with cottony white clouds!

Every walk through the neighborhood, I’m realizing, might be my last down this street or that…

And when I ate one of Kareena’s chapatis fresh from the griddle, it was the most special ever because it was likely the last one that fresh.

I could never take enough pictures of women in colorful clothes to satisfy me, or enough videos of Kareena cooking. I can’t buy all of the lovely dresses in the shops, or learn the names of every surprising Indian dessert. My time of glorious Too-Muchness has come to an end, and I’m going home to Great Lent, which is the perfect way to transition from the superabundance of everything here to… what?

Lent is a journey to Pascha. It’s not the kind of journey where you are bombarded from outside by exciting and even dangerous forces and sensations ranging from air travel to chapatis and people on the street, but a quiet path on which all the struggles come from trying to tune one’s own heart. Considering my starting point, it will surely take all of my effort to accomplish anything in only 40 days.

The hardest part of leaving is, of course, that Raj and his parents are staying here! It has been the sweetest day-after-day to live in the same house as Kate and Tom and their new baby, and to love and be loved in person on a daily basis. The comforting thing is, that except for not being in the same house, we will go on loving and being loved, and be together at the throne of God, as long as He gives us grace. I’m not saying any kind of final good-bye to them.

But I do have to say, “Good-bye, Mumbai!”

Cultural studies in a flurry.

I once read a definition of culture as “everything people make and do.” That’s the one I’m working from for this post, in which I want to briefly touch on many odds and ends that interest me about India, but which I don’t have time to research or think about extensively.

One writer said that India is so diverse in its history and culture that it is more like 60+ countries than it is a unified nation. I think that is one reason that I was really glad to have limits on my explorations. How can one person deal with that breadth of possibilities? I would rather have depth of knowledge about a few things, or lacking that, just more time being exposed to a type of food, or the sound of a neighborhood, or day after day chatting with a native.

It was a treat to be in India when Republic Day was being celebrated last month, and to watch the parade in Delhi on TV with Kate and Tom. The most colorful and impressive aspects of Indian culture and tradition were on display for the international guests sitting in the stands and anyone who tuned in.

I had never seen motorcycle stunt riders before, but they are a huge thing in the Indian Army, and we enjoyed their performance. Women teams performed as well that day, and since then I’ve read about how the Indians have set records for various motorcycle stunts like most men riding a motorcycle (58) and longest ride standing up, etc. On my first day in Mumbai, you may remember that the things that first caught my attention were the trees and the motorcycles. I haven’t stopped wondering.

On our road trip when I was riding in the back of the car and watching traffic behind me, I had the chance to do a lot of people-on-motorcycles-watching. One young family was riding down the freeway at 50 or 60 miles per hour and when I first saw them, the wife looked especially pretty in her colorful sari, because she was smiling so happily as she rode sidesaddle behind her husband. The whole family was obviously carefree and enjoying their ride, a five-year-old boy sitting in front of his smiling father. The father was wearing a helmet.

At least in some places in India, there are laws that say the driver of the motorcycle must wear a helmet. Kate knows this, because when they were in Goa they rented a bike and the rental company gave Tom a helmet because it was the law that he must wear one. Kate wanted a helmet as well, but the shop didn’t have enough for anyone but drivers.

Since I heard that story I’ve been noticing, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone other than a driver wearing a helmet, and often not the driver. Many women in traditional kurtas with scarves around their heads and sometimes faces will ride solo, and they don’t usually wear a helmet.

It seemed like dozens of marching bands streamed past in the Republic Day parade, and my favorite by far was this group from the Oxford Foundation School in Delhi, who changed my life in a minute, turning me into a woman who would do anything to get a pair of velvet Indian salwar pants in that exact shade of green!

Truly, if I were staying only a week longer, I might have bought a sari to wear to a wedding the family will attend. Indian weddings are huge and lavish affairs — one important expectation is that you invite everyone who is in your life in the remotest way. If you work for a large company, you invite everyone in the company, for example.

“We” received an expected invitation to Tom’s co-worker’s Hindu wedding, delivered to the door, a portfolio sort of presentation, accompanied by a shiny box holding a family-sized confection called a ladoo. We cut it into six wedges and finished it off for dessert that night, savoring its indescribable subtle flavors which we think included rose and fennel.

Since then we’ve shopped for the proper wedding attire for the whole family – you need one sort of outfit for the morning part of the event, and another for the evening.

Indian families normally don’t take their babies out until they are six months old, so we haven’t found formal wedding wear that Raj doesn’t swim in. He may have to go a little casual. Kate has a sari now, and another sort of Indian dress; she is very hopeful that they will get more wedding invitations during their stay here so she can make further use of these traditional and fancy outfits. Tom is making do without a pair of elf-like shoes that the sharpest dressers to wear to weddings.

The book Reimagining India that I’ve been browsing has a whole section devoted to Culture and Soft Power, in which various writers treat subjects like Bollywood, Indian food and restaurants, and the mindset of the privileged middle class. One of the writers was at the time of the book’s publication the reigning world chess champion, and he wrote an article on “Making Chess India’s Game.”

I don’t even play chess, but I liked his story, and found this paragraph helpful in my “studies”:

One of the things I bring to my play is my Indian identity — my ability to shrug off a loss as destiny and hope for a better tomorrow. I am often described as a “natural” or “intuitive” player. I agree there is something to that. I learned to play chess at high speed. At the Mikhail Tal Chess Club in Chennai, where I began playing chess, we used to play “blitz” — the shortest format of chess in which players use a timer and neither is allowed more than five minutes of total playing time. We embraced blitz to make playing fun; the club was crowded, and blitz was the best way to ensure that the maximum number of players got time on the board. The winner stayed and the loser had to go back in queue. It made the evening more exciting. We all loved it. I learned to play fast, without agonizing about strategy or overanalyzing individual moves. Maybe this is a form of Indian ingenuity: making the most of a situation in which there isn’t much structure.

~Viswanathan Anand 

It just now occurs to me that my India studies have been fast and intense in a similar way. Like the traffic flow on the city streets, it looks chaotic, but under the circumstances it’s the most efficient way to go. I can’t afford to stay here any longer — I would become hopelessly immersed in the Indian jumble, only coming up for air long enough to type a few feeble words on my laptop.

This is not my photo, but I did see many women carrying water in similar containers. People carry all kinds of bundles and baskets of things on their heads in India. Kate and I discussed the weight of water if the containers held three gallons each: two containers = 48 pounds. I hope they only hold two gallons, in which it would impress a mere 32 pounds on each head.

In India, I have seen men sleeping in public every time I go out, often in shops, and I imagine they are workers on break; everyone stays up late here, so they need a nap. But what do I know? Maybe they are drug dealers who work at night and sleep in their uncle’s shop in the day.

India is labor-rich. Kate and Tom explained to me that an economy is either rich in labor or in capital, and in India it is definitely labor. A rule of thumb is that if there is a job you expect one person to do in the U.S., four Indians will be doing it here, because they are available, and machines and technology are not as abundant so they are relatively expensive.

This can be a bit disconcerting when you shop, and two to four store staff hover about, not just waiting to help you but asking you to look at one thing after another you don’t want. In restaurants you have very attentive waiters, often standing a few feet away from your table watching to be sure they don’t miss a cue that you might need something. And just generally, people, people everywhere, walking and riding their motorbikes and carrying things.

Several months ago Kate had told me that many Indians have stopped using the all-purpose “Namaste” for every greeting, because a phrase like “Good morning,” for example, is more specific and useful, and they like it.

It also is essential for the latest fad that was pretty much started by Indians of my age group, a trend that caught the attention of Google and which you may have heard about because of that. As older people started getting hooked up to the Internet, they discovered the joys of wishing all their friends “Good morning!” about eight o’clock every day, by means of image-rich text messages. These texts were using up Indians’ digital storage three times faster than average and causing their smartphones to freeze up.

“Perhaps India’s most famous morning-message enthusiast is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He gets up at 5 a.m. to practice yoga and is known to fire off good-morning messages as the sun is rising. Last year, he admonished a group of lawmakers for not responding to his greetings.”

My son-in-law has been getting these kinds of texts from his Indian coworkers and has jumped on the bandwagon himself. I don’t have any Indian friends who might send me a cheery Good Morning message, but I figure some of you are still in the early part of the day as you read this, so I asked Tom to send an example in my direction. This way I can share a little upbeat and current Indian culture with you my readers and at the same time wish you my best. I hope that in the next several hours, morning or not, your life is rich but not chaotic. And if you ride a motorcycle, please wear a helmet!