Danielle Visiting Me in India [en]

Pune; March 23

First days with Danielle

Danielle was quickly adopted by the whole family, including the dog and – especially – the baby. He had an immediate crush on her.

We spent the end of the first week shopping around a bit (if she wanted to buy a sari and have some clothes tailored, we had to get moving).

One day we walked to the nearby chowk with Aleika and Akirno to look at some upholstery (Aleika had bought a naked sofa set some time back). As we were sipping a cold drink before going back, we heard an explosion coming from the shop fridge, just as Akirno had run behind it.

I had never seen Aleika move so fast. In a fraction of a second, she had caught an astonished and Pepsi-covered baby.

He hadn’t done anything; in fact, the shopkeepers had stacked some big plastic Pepsi bottles on the top of the fridge, which was also occupied by a generator or a transformer of some sort. One of the bottles was touching it and had exploded under the heat, covering Akirno in Pepsi from head to toe. It was quite funny once we were certain that no harm had come to him.

A few minutes later a second bottle exploded, and we decided it would be wise to retreat and take the Pepsi-baby back home. He was very sticky and sweet.


On Saturday we left for Alibag, a seaside resort just west of Pune. Danielle wanted to see the Ocean. We hired the same jeep – a last minute decision, we made our minds up the day before. As “our” driver was in Delhi to meet his possible fiancée, the jeep arrived with his younger brother (slightly less ill-at-ease, as he was in college and probably had many occasions to interact with the opposite sex).

We went past some beautiful green places – a nice contrast with Pune which is now yellow and dried up. We also ate some non-veg raisins (understand: inhabited).

We found a reasonable hotel which served very nasty food.

A trip at the beach convinced us that we would not try and bathe there. The water was fine, the sand was fine, but the only people in the water seemed to be packs of young males – lots of them.

Forget about swim-suits and lying half-naked on the beach; they were bathing in their clothes. Aleika had told me one day that women usually go swimming in their salwaar kameez, and that the IUCAA swimming-pool had had to ban them for hygiene reasons. People here don’t like showing their body to strangers too much.

The next day we walked over to a fort lying a couple of hundred metres out at sea. When the tide is down you can walk there (almost) dry-footed.

I was wearing a sari and didn’t bother to hold it up very high (you are not supposed to pull a sari up). The sand was very soggy, but we weren’t exactly walking in water.

After a couple of minutes I understood that I had made a terrible mistake. The wet sari and petticoat were catching on my legs, and the sand was burning me at each step. Indian women know what they are doing when they haul their sari up to their knees. Unfortunately it was too late for me.

We walked around the fort. It was a fun expedition, even though there was not much to see there.

On the way back we did a little detour to reach the water. As we were getting there, two guys stopped and asked if we could take a picture of them together (with their camera, for a change – that was nice). As we accepted they promptly added that one of us should come on the picture with them, as a souvenir. Souvenir of what, may I ask? Of having us take a picture of them? Or maybe to show their friends who they had met during their week-end… we refused, and they didn’t insist, which was nice.

I don’t really mind people “stealing” my picture, as long as I do not notice. It isn’t very comfortable to have strangers (especially young males going around in packs) shoot picture upon picture of you.

Pune; March 27

Half of the following day was devoted to lazing around, and the other half brought us back to Pune.

Osho ashram and AIDS tests

We spent about a week running around in town. Danielle bought a couple of saris and salwaar kameez suits, so there was some stitching to do. She stayed mouth-open before the price that silver jewellery was sold for.

By that time I was nearing a state of complete exhaustion. I hadn’t realized how much my life rhythm had slowed down, adapting to my new environment. And Danielle had arrived fresh from Europe, with a European speed of life, and limited time in India.

We went to visit the Osho ashram one day. I found it quite scary. Their “spirituality” seemed more like some cheap “psychotherapy gone wild” trip to me. what our guide told us during the half hour that our visit lasted could be summarized as follows (Danielle will testify).

  • No guide needed, no constraints. One does not need a spiritual master, and one is free to attend the meditation sessions or not.
  • The modern man has become too complex to reach liberation through meditating in a sitting position. He needs the Osho formula to get there.
  • Even if lots of people come to the Commune to flirt with the opposite sex, meditation wins in the end (even though you do not have to attend the meditation classes, remember?).
  • You can’t go in the bookstore now, but will be free to do so as soon as you have signed in. They recommend a minimum of three days to get a “feel” of the place. Signing in implies getting an AIDS test done.

There we are. Danielle and I had a hard time staying serious during the presentation – not that I don’t respect other people’s beliefs. I am not criticizing Osho’s teachings – as a matter of fact, I haven’t studied them, so I have nothing to say (and I have no negative predisposition towards the man). But the speech we were served as an invitation to enter the Osho Commune leaves me with some doubts about the “spiritual quality” of what goes on there.

The AIDS test you have to take to sign up with the Commune reminded me of the one I had to take upon registration with Pune authorities. Everybody knows that the source of India’s AIDS problem is students coming over from abroad for a year. Not prostitution in Bombay.

Danielle was wondering how this place for spiritual development reacted to people who are HIV positive.

As far as the test I took with the local authorities was concerned, it was quite clear (though not officially mentioned) that I would have been politely returned to my country had the test yielded an undesirable result. Lonely Planet told me it was illegal (international conventions), but at that time I didn’t have the energy and resources to fight more that what I did: request that the doctor use my sterile needle (imported from Switzerland) and demand that I be informed of the result of the test (“Not possible, Madam. You are sent to have this test by the police, so I must send the result to them. I am not allowed to tell you what the result is.” I was so mad… and so grateful about Swiss laws and the Swiss health system).

To get back to the Osho test, Somak told me later that HIV positive people were allowed to enter the Commune. Their “Osho identity card” simply indicates their positive status.

We all thought it was rather revolting. I wonder if they ask women who are not using a contraceptive to indicate it on their identity card too.

As the Commune seems to advocate complete freedom in its walls (dress code apart), Suketu and I were thinking of going there to take advantage of the swimming pool, park. sauna and massage facilities. The only two obstacles being the AIDS test (neither of us were feeling over-enthusiastic about taking it – matter of principle) and the maroon robe one has to wear inside the Commune.

After the visit itself Danielle and I sat down in the German Bakery. The place serves you very nice fruit juices (I love their lemon-mint iced tea) and is populated mainly by hippy-dippy oshoeites.

I find myself staring at foreigners there with as much impolite interest as the Indians who sometimes stare at me.

We tend to think of this place as the “zoo” (a bit nastily, I admit). You see girls in petticoats and spaghetti tops. Petticoats are underwear in India – barely fit for wandering about inside the house. Indian women run and hide if they are seen by a stranger in that wear, and Indian men can spend time peeking at windows to try and get a glimpse of the neighbour in her petticoat. I won’t comment on spaghetti tops. They were almost indecent a few years back in Europe.

You see people wearing “suits” made out of old saris (they sell the saris in a stall on the other side of the road – expressly for cutting up). You see men (and women) wearing long kurtas slit up the sides without the pyjama or salwaar made to go underneath (gracefully reveals often hairy legs).

You have a chance to witness the most incredible displays of affection between human beings: people running into each other’s arms or even smooching in public – never to be seen in India. The only scene I witnessed that matches this in terms on cultural un-awareness could be the young foreign couple demonstrably kissing on the Ram Jhula (Rishikesh) for a photograph.

I’ll stop being mean with these poor foreigners here. They probably would think just as much of me. But it does kill me to be associated to them when I walk around in Pune. Just a few days back, Aleika was mistaken for an oshoeite by the shopkeeper as she was buying tools like clamps and planes – even though she had talked about her baby, her different furniture projects, her house…

Ellora caves

Danielle and I made a last trip to Ellora to see the famous caves. We were driven there by driver number one, which we dragged around with us to see the caves.

On the way there we stopped at an important roadside temple. Our driver bought a garland of flowers which he placed before the hood of the car.

We didn’t manage to convince him to sleep in a hotel room (not ours, of course), so he slept in he car (that is what drivers usually do).

We had a disastrous evening meal (this is the last time I follow Lonely Planet’s recommendations for eating!), and a room in the renovated MTDC (Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation) hotel.

The caves were nice, though one does get tired of seeing Buddha after Buddha facing the rising sun.

Pune; Monday, April 3

Inquiring about our driver’s visit to Delhi, it turned out that he had met the girl’s parents and family, seen her, but talked only to her father and brother. Now the two fathers would be meeting to decide whether the marriage should take place or not.

Asked what he thought about it, our driver expressed that yes, he would like to marry that girl.

Danielle was speechless. I was a little less surprised, as my current research project on weddings led me to understand a little better how this institution functions in India.

As we were visiting the caves, two middle-aged men had a short talk with our driver. He seemed amused, so we asked him what it was about (it seemed to be about us).

The man was complaining that he had brought his sons all the way here to see the caves, and they had declared that they were too tired and had stayed to sleep in the car while he did the visit. He was saying: “And look, these two old ladies – where have they come from? – they came all the way from Switzerland to see these caves! And my sons won’t even bother!” We just couldn’t stop laughing. I think the old man needed glasses. My hair is blond. Not white.

Bombay International Airport; February 3, near midnight

Danielle’s departure

I have just come to accompany Danielle to the airport for her homebound flight, and I am wondering what it will be like when in less than four months from now, I will have to leave this country that I have learnt to appreciate. And more difficult, leave the people I have got to know here.

As Danielle and I left the house Akirno started crying after her. As I already said, he had from the start been very fond of Danielle.

I must say that I was not expecting him to “understand” the situation so well. He does understand lots of what we say now, but I guess that most of all he sensed that something was happening. It wasn’t one of the usual “bye bye”.

I’m finding it harder and harder to think of my departure. And as it approaches, I find myself thinking of it more and more often. Time has gone by so fast. It is going to be painful to say goodbye to the friends I have made in Pune, and especially to Aleika, Somak and Akirno – my family here. And Cali. And Bagha.

IUCAA; April 7

Driving in Pune

Shortly after Danielle’s departure I started driving Aleika’s car. Akirno was making it increasingly difficult for her to drive (screeching and crying and trying to climb onto his driving mother’s lap).

I first did only short trips (inside the university campus) and gradually went out more, until a week or so back when I drove all the way to MG Road (20 minutes or Rs. 35 by rickshaw). I felt as stressed and concentrated as when I was first learning to drive.

Aleika’s car has loose, wobbly steering and the gear-stick is attached to the steering wheel. And – of course – in India, we drive on the left side of the road.