In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is a chapter in the journal of my adventures there.
House-sitting in IUCAA
Aleika left for England at the beginning of December (she was going to stay there one month with her husband Somak before they both came home).
I tried to shift back into my flat again. With no more success than the last time. I spent one night there, froze because I had no blanket, was woken up by the factory siren nearby, gathered a few possessions and went back to IUCAA, the dog and the cat.
At first I read, chatted on the Internet, watched TV quite a lot, and did a few medical trips that had started to become necessary. About ten days after Aleika’s departure, Shinde left for an eight-day retreat at Markal, a little village near Alandi, where his Guru lives.
There was an important celebration for the birthday of the god Datta. I thus had an official excuse to stay at Aleika’s (not that I really needed one). As Nisha would be doing the trip to Markal each day, I would feed Cali (Aleika’s dog) and keep her company a little. During that week I ate a couple of times with Nisha and got to know her a bit better.
Yesterday I was introduced to a woman who is inviting me to her daughter’s wedding. She also told me there was a wedding in Bombay that I might go to. As I mentioned that I also looked forward to weddings as excuses to wear my saris, she suggested that I change mine at various occasions during the wedding. (That would mean using about six saris in two days!)
Going over there on the bus, I realized how much I liked Indian public transport. It has something thrilling that you do not find in rickshaw-riding. I decided it was definitely time for me to find out which busses I could use for my regular trips. Needless to mention that in Pune there are no real timetables or “bus maps”. You just have to know when your bus comes.
Religious festivity in a village: Markal
Today I went to Markal with Nisha – draped in a sari again. We took various six-seater rickshaws (the same vehicle as the Rishikesh “Vikram”) and a jeep to get to our destination. I kept thinking I should do this more. Going out of town by cramped means of transport is really great!
We finally arrived on the place of the gathering. At first I felt very ill-at-ease and self-conscious – sticking out as usual, all the more as they were obviously not used to the presence of sari-clad foreigners carrying big cameras and speaking an approximate Hindi.
I was introduced to Shinde’s guru, and after a while of walking around barefooted on sharp stones, taking photographs and trying to communicate, I started feeling less out of place. I went for a stroll in the village, and befriended two girls there who were eager to practice their English. I must say I was also eager to practice my Hindi, which had been rotting away during the last months.
One of the girls would be getting married in a bit less than two weeks, and I was promptly invited. We had a nice talk – as usual, I tried to explain a couple of things about my country (like the fact that we don’t have servants, that life is expensive, and that people don’t necessarily get married). I postponed an invitation to go to see their fields and the farming – but I’ll definitely go!
Pune; December 26
As I mentioned, I attracted a considerable amount of attention in the village. I was told they hadn’t seen a foreigner around in years – though it might be a bit of an exaggeration.
I don’t particularly like having people staring at me, especially when I am just “standing there”, or worse, trying to eat. They actually came over with the video camera at that moment. Maybe people are curious to see how white-skinned people cope with hot Indian food and eating with their fingers…? and of course, I always perform very badly when under surveillance.
I mind attention much less when I am talking to somebody and a group slowly gathers round. I enjoy talking, and I also appreciate the chance to speak Hindi. Probably this difference of attitude on my part has something to do with the difference between attracting attention because of what I look like, and attracting attention because of what I am saying… ; )
After a few hours in Markal my feet started aching like hell. All I could do was hobble around, wincing every now and then when a badly-placed stone dug into my foot.
It was in that state that I took part in the procession to the god’s temple. I spent the duration of the procession running (literally – a little adrenalin does wonders to ease the pain!) back and forth to get some photographs. It was night, and I depended on the big projector used for the video camera – but I didn’t want to miss out anything.
There was a troop of dancers and drummers, and – I just couldn’t believe my eyes (and my luck) – the “dancers” were actually fighters. Here I was, unexpectedly facing one of the subjects that interest me the most: the meeting of religion and fighting tradition.
Shinde’s guru (at that moment, living God, so I wasn’t allowed to take any photographs of her) was transported triumphantly into the temple. There was again some fighting before leaving the temple – and as I had already noticed at several occasions, people are very tolerant when I want to take photographs. Place was made for me so I could have a good view of what was happening.
On arrival back to the village, dancing and rejoicing again. I was invited to do phugadi by one of the women. Phugadi consists of holding hands facing one another (left holding left, right holding right), putting your feet close together, leaning out and turning around the centre faster and faster. It is quite impressive to see your partner’s face in front of you and the rest of the world spinning around like mad in the background.
If there was any chance of the village people ever forgetting about me, I think it was lost at that very moment. I spun from phugadi to phugadi, feeling my hands grabbed round after round by different people.
After an Arti, a meal (I can’t say I ate much of it, my tolerance to weird and hot Indian food being very low at that moment) and a very short nap in Shinde’s rickshaw, we headed home. Needless to say that the next day, I could hardly walk!
Christmas just wasn’t Christmas. No snow, no mad shopping – and simply, nobody I knew was celebrating! I didn’t have the feeling I was missing out much – it was maybe more of a relief to have a year off of Christmas shopping.
Lots of plans suddenly loomed up for the beginning of the New Year. A wedding in Alandi, two in Pune, one in Bombay, and a trip to Chennai with Shinde. The fun was just starting.
Alandi; January 1
In a few days I had suddenly got the feeling my life was accelerating. During the last weeks I had actually started fearing that I wasn’t going to “make the most” of my Indian experience. And now it seemed at last as if the “real stuff” was finally going to happen.
As it turned out, I was going to spend about three days rushing from one wedding to another, just before leaving for Chennai (Madras). So I spent the last days of the “millennium” doing some frantic shopping (compensating for the Christmas shopping I had been exempted of?), all the more as I had accepted an invitation to a New Year’s party and had nothing to wear.
I had quite a few second thoughts about going to this party. I just vaguely knew the friend who was inviting me, and I was told there would be three to four thousand people there, and lots of alcohol. To top it all, I would be wearing a velvet “party dress” that was quite short and tight-fitting, even by European standards.
The last straw was when I went to the university main gate to meet the rest of the party. If I had needed it, I had confirmation that I wouldn’t go unnoticed. Luckily Shinde came and waited with me.
In fact I had a very nice time. I quickly got acquainted with some friendly people (including the couple who’s wedding I would be attending). We waited (!) a lot and finally got “in” (in fact the dance floor was outside – a nice idea considering how stuffy discos can be). The music was a little boring but it didn’t prevent us from having fun.
Two very different weddings
I got home from the millennium party quite late and didn’t wake up the next morning for the wedding in Alandi. I arrived after the preliminary ceremonies, but in time for the wedding itself. Just an example of how private life (necessary for one’s mental health) gets in the way of research.
During the pause between the smearing of the bride and groom with turmeric and the wedding proper, I went to a nearby temple with my (new) friend Usha and some of her own friends. I really don’t like waiting in front of temples. It’s most unpleasant: beggars, starers, and “can-you-take-my-photograph”ers.
At the wedding hall I had lots of intrigued people prod at my camera, but even more (surprise) at the book I was taking notes in… Of course, everybody wanted his or her picture taken – and at one point I had to stop accepting (I would have finished all my rolls of film).
That “incident” made me notice again how ambiguous the foreigner’s place is. One moment you are in the centre of the show, but as soon as you seem to want to cool down the game your popularity comes crashing down. In a matter of minutes, I found myself nearly totally ignored.
Around mid-afternoon Usha, the girl who had invited me to the wedding in first place, told me quite abruptly she was leaving. I enquired about her offer to show me the fields her family owned, and she uneasily retracted it. I didn’t insist. It wasn’t very clear whether she had understood or not that I wasn’t expecting to see the fields that very day.
She told me to come to the fair on the 8th, and I answered that I would be in Chennai – on that, she said “Bye, nice meeting you” and left. I guess I still have “disappointments” of this type waiting for me – even though I know that lots of invitations are not to be taken too literally.
Chennai; January 8
I left quite hurriedly at the end of the wedding. For one thing it was getting late and I was tired, and for the other, the bride in tears was starting to upset me too.
I know brides are supposed to cry at weddings. This girl was eighteen years old, and was being married to an older man that she had obviously not chosen, who had led her round the fire holding barely two of her fingers (instead of the whole hand).
I am not saying she was doomed to an unhappy marriage, but there was enough for her to be a little distressed. I’m not blaming the groom either, he was probably as uncomfortable as she was.
I think that in the long run, there is not so much difference in making an “arranged” marriage of a “love” marriage work. But a “love” marriage definitely makes things easier at the start.
After having waited at least half an hour for the jeep from Alandi to be full enough to set off (that means, packed with at least 13 passengers – number to be compared to the eight that could sit in it comfortably), and having learnt that it is much more efficient to express your dissatisfaction in your own language (English), even if it is not well understood, rather than in a foreign tongue (Hindi) which is understood but with which you are unable to convey much meaning, and after having walked half an hour because no rickshaw would take me on the last part of my journey home without charging me at least double price (how stupidly stubborn I can be!), I finally arrived near the university grounds, only to feel suddenly very faint – a kind of faintness I was starting to know too well: the one that announces that you might be sick any moment.
I clenched my teeth, put in the second gear, and moved on, having terrible thoughts about some local water I had drunk at the wedding. I had used a purifying tablet, of course, but I know those magic pills do not necessarily deal with all types of water “bugs”. And that water had tasted *really* nasty.
I made it home and finally wasn’t even really ill. But the thought of possibly fainting and being sick like I had been on the way back from Calcutta, alone on the road at ten o’clock at night (even if the road is familiar), was a bit spooky. I wouldn’t say it is these parts of my “Indian experience” that I prefer, even if they might make good tales to tell my grandchildren, if I ever have any…
I got a bit of rest the day after, before going to my next wedding in the evening. I have mentioned already that one of the characteristic features of India is contrast. Well here it was again.
After the simple arranged village wedding of the day before, here was the rich love-marriage of a couple who would be settling down shortly in the USA.
A few people I had met on the 31st were at this wedding, so I wasn’t totally lost (even though most of the people I knew were part of the family and as such, quite busy during the whole wedding).
My “working conditions” (for taking pictures and getting to see what was going on) were also very different from what I had experienced the day before.
In Alandi, I was a VIP – status which comes with a whole lot of disagreements, and the embarrassment of unwanted attention, but which does allow you an “automatic” best place for photos and viewing the ceremony.
So during this wedding, if I was freed from the hassle of being an attraction, and for once treated as a “normal” person, I did at times have a harder time getting to see the ceremonies. Not that the people around were unhelpful – more because I am still shy about asking people in front of me to move so that I can see (a thing Indians seem to do all the time without any trouble). I found it quite funny that each time I had managed to find a good viewpoint, the official cameramen (one with a video) would come and stand precisely in front of where I was.
The next day, the ceremonies were due to start at 7:30 a.m. (the auspicious wedding time had been fixed at 9:52 a.m.). I overslept and missed the beginning. Heard that before?
Of course I was a little disappointed (I’m waiting for a wedding with an afternoon auspicious time!), but that was largely made up for by the chance I had to see the entrance of the bride in the bridegroom’s house, as well as the Laxmi Puja that followed.
During the day and a half that this wedding lasted, I think I ate the best food I had ever eaten in India. It reminded me (in nicer) of Indian food I had eaten in San Francisco or in some places in Switzerland. I have found nice places to eat at in Pune, of course, but in most restaurants the dishes seem to have been prepared with the same set of spices. Nothing of this sort at the wedding – each delicacy had a very distinctive taste.
- One Chay And Two Cancellations [en] (2004)
- Arrival [en] (2001)
- I'm Home [en] (2011)
- My iBook is Back! [en] (2005)
- Back to Bombay and Surrendering a Flat in India [en] (2000)
- Aventures in India — Scribbled Travel Notes [en] (2000)
- Journey Home [en] (2001)
- What Made Bagha Such a Special Cat For Me [en] (2011)
- India, Women, Men [en] (2013)
- Great Indian Food in Leeds [en] (2006)