Everyday Life During the Hot Season

In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is a chapter in the journal of my adventures there.

Holi

A few weeks ago it was Holi festival. That means that people smear colours upon each others faces while wishing everybody a happy Holi.

I was at first undecided whether to participate or not, and finally Aleika and I put on expendable clothes and went out. IUCAA was having its own little private Holi, which we joined happily.

When we arrived people had already invited each other to sit in the mud puddle created in the middle of the grass patch. The colours, made out of powdered dye (more or less permanent – I still have some reddish streaks in my hair) had already brightened up most faces and clothing. We felt very white when we arrived, but luckily it didn’t last long.

Although Holi can get rough – I’ve heard of gangs who go around in Delhi pulling people out of rickshaws – it is overall a friendly “colouring ceremony”. People will pat you on the head or rub your face and clothing with colored fingers – at the most encourage you a little to go and roll in the mud.

As I couldn’t let this happen to me without opposing a little resistance, somebody broke all the glass bangles I was wearing by grabbing my arm. No big deal: I didn’t get cut, nobody had his or her foot pierced by the bits and pieces of bangle swimming in the mud, and I was thinking of taking them off anyway – saved me the trouble.

Aleika made me notice as we were going there that during Holi, people who would never dream of touching you on other days (people do not touch in India) have full license to put their hands on you (though it stays very politically correct). I did observe however that the mud puddle seemed to be more popular with single young men than with married women. Maybe because of the “wet salwaar-kameez” scenes it creates?

Holi is also the day when consumption of marijuana is legal – but only as a component of bhang, the traditional drink for the day (mainly sweet milk and spices). As I was not exactly sure how I would react to it, I only drank half a glass – I had heard nasty tales of people feeling stoned for having drunk too much of it. It turned out that they had made it very weak this year – I didn’t notice any effect.

I spent a very long time under the shower after the festivities. The hardest thing to get rid of was the grass in my hair. I was a bit worried about keeping purple teeth: while I was having my face rinsed (I had got some colour in my eyes) somebody dumped a whole bucket of purple water on my head. My mouth was open so that I could breathe, so my teeth came out purple. Luckily, it was only temporary.

I really had great fun, feeling like a little kid playing in the mud.

Injured cat – about vets

Two days before Holi there was a knock at the door at 11.30 p.m. Even in India it is an unearthly hour to try to get into people’s houses.

It was one of the neighbours. Her cat Pingu had been attacked by a pack of feral dogs who had managed to get into our residential area through a hole in the fence.

Shinde told me later that Nisha had first witnessed the scene, but been unable to chase the dogs off until he arrived and stoned them. One dog had caught her back and two others were pulling on a hind leg each. I can easily imagine Shinde’s intervention saved her life.

Aleika went over to see her. Bruised and cut, but not dying.

the next morning we drove her to Aleika’s vet, who lives the other side of town.

There is a vet dispensary just behind IUCAA. Somak and Aleika had used their services at first. The vet would come at their home for vaccinations. The atmosphere was something like this: “Er… could you please lock up the dog? I’m scared of dogs! Oh… and hold the cat, or he will scratch me!”.

It turned out that he had done a degree in chickens at Cambridge. So when Somak and Aleika came back from their first trip to Calcutta with an adopted chicken (Aleika had rescued it at the station on the way there: it had escaped from a transport box filled with lots of its brothers), they wanted to know if it was male or female. The “vet” suggested that they wait a little to see if it started laying eggs.

I’ll just add that one of the cats in IUCAA died following bad neutering surgery, but I think that is enough to convince you that these people are totally hopeless, and that we prefer driving to the other end of town to find someone who loves animals and was doing heart bypass surgery on dogs before she left the States to come back to India.

Pingu did not seem to have any internal injury. The vet shaved most of the fur around the wounds (punctures), leaving her half-bald, so that she could see and disinfect them.

The main problem with Pingu after that was that she was lame (temporarily in any case) and thus unable to hunt, had four small kittens to feed, and was given a strictly veg diet by her owners. I guess she usually spends all her spare time hunting lizards and little rodents to supplement her diet.

After a few days she was getting really thin. Aleika and I gave her bits and pieces to eat every now and then (Aleika felt lots of sympathy for the lactating mother, being one herself). But we couldn’t really “adopt” her too much as she fights with Bagha.

IUCAA; April 6

Everyday life

After having had to put up my mosquito net at 4.30 a.m. a week or so back because I was being devoured by mosquitoes, I spent the last two nights fighting with mosquitoes that had managed to get into the net. The heat at night is so bad that I have started going to sleep with an “anti-blanket”, despite my cold. An “anti-blanket” is simply a damp bedsheet. It keeps you cool instead of warm. It is essential. As is the fan.

Akirno babbles all day long. I guess he will start saying real words any time now. He already has a couple of “words”, like “ba” for the cat (Bagha), “bauw” for the ball, and “kaow” for the crows (an almost perfect marathi word). He also repeats a sentence every now and again. Of course all the consonants are missing and you can’t recognize the words, but the melody is perfectly reproduced. And we caught him yesterday saying “aa ja” (come) and “bas” (enough).

Somak’s parents will be arriving to live with us in less than a week. Aleika is busy emptying the downstairs room and preparing their beds (second-hand furniture can need some working on it until it is usable). She is transferring her used furniture “workshop” to the upstairs balcony. A couple of morning doves have built a nest up there and laid eggs, so it is not certain how soon she will really be able to use the place.

Today is Thursday. That means it is the “power cut” day. Aleika explained to me that Maharashtra did not produce enough electricity for the whole state. It is therefore divided into regions which each have a different “power shortage” day. We lucky people don’t suffer much, as IUCAA has its own power generator which takes over when the government supply fails.

We also have water 24 hours a day. A few weeks back we nevertheless did have water shortage. That meant something like water from 6 a.m. to 10.30 a.m., 1 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. and 5.30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. – all the wrong hours. It lasted a few days, and we weren’t always sure whether the water would be there or not.

One morning Somak rang them up to know if he would have water before taking a late morning bath. By the time he was covered with soap, they had turned the water off. Suketu told us that the email announcing the cut came in 10 minutes before they actually did it. Serves Somak right for not taking his laptop under the shower…

IUCAA; Friday, April 7

Yesterday Aleika and I went grocery shopping at the nearby chowk wearing shorts. As I have already mentioned, the heat is starting to be unbearable, and inside the house (and IUCAA) we go around in shorts and T-shirt. I’m not sure I’ll go back out in shorts again.

This was the first time I was showing my legs to the outside world since my arrival. And I swear I saw some women giving me disapproving looks. Maybe I’m simply out of habit now – I felt rather ill-at-ease. I wonder how I’ll cope with returning to my Swiss clothing habits.

Akirno’s new craze these days is running laps around the settee in the living room. He just runs and runs and runs. He did the same thing around Suketu’s table this afternoon. And he simply loves being thrown up in the air.

Near culture clash

I put my finger on a near culture clash this morning. Suketu’s wife-to-be and a couple of her relatives have arrived a few days ago. We met them on the day of their arrival and told them they were welcome any time.

We didn’t realize that we were doing things “the Indian way” by just expecting them to turn up and ask for help if they needed it. But foreigners will not act on such a vague invitation.

When I arrived in India, one of the important factors in the culture shock I witnessed and one of the things that made my first weeks so painful is that I was expecting people to do a lot more for me, and help me a lot more without my asking. But that isn’t how it works here. People won’t usually come to you as easily as in the west to explicitly offer their help or invite you over when you haven’t asked them to.

We were almost wondering at the fact that we had not seen them in the last days when it dawned on me that they would not come over “uninvited”.

When talking to Suketu about this, he pointed out that in fact he was waiting for people to invite them over when in fact they had already done it. He was reacting in the “western” manner. Roles reversed!

Beggars

I would like to put together here a few things that I have learnt about beggars.

My first surprise was something my Hindi teacher in Delhi told me. It was about family gangs of beggars working at the traffic lights.

Say the minimum people give to a beggar is Rs. 1 (usually the smallest change you are likely to have). How much can they expect to earn in a day? The answer I received was Rs. 50 or 60.

Compare that to the Rs. 60 or 70 a rickshaw driver in Pune can expect to earn during the same time. And that rickshaw driver was saying that the amount was big compared to the Rs. 12 per day he could get with any other job he could find. Rs. 50 a day means Rs. 1500 a month. A young engineer coming out of school is considered lucky if he can get Rs. 2000. A university professor’s salary is usually around Rs. 9000.

A few months back we were having a conversation on the topic with Somak. He told me that there was actually a “begging business” which makes big profit.

The people who run the business usually recruit beggars such as children or crippled people. Those who can make people give money out of pity. It seems they are offered food and shelter, and often put on drugs – at least the children. Their begging money is collected and of course they do not get any of it. Young mothers carrying inert babies are usually “employees” too. It comes to no surprise that the babies are drugged.

Suketu, who was taking part in the conversation, told us he had also heard – but it was so awful that he could only hope it was untrue – that there were even cases where children or babies would be voluntarily maimed…

Any money given to these people does not help relieve misery. It simply encourages this filthy commerce.

IUCAA; Saturday, April 8

More everyday life

Suketu, Ayesha, his fiancee and her family left today for Hyderabad. I will be joining them in two days. As I drove them to the station, I queued half an hour to get my ticket. I have a first place on the waiting list – but no return ticket (my position on that waiting list would have been 28th…).

I had a Sanskrit lesson this morning. This evening, we went out with a colleague (and friend) of Somak’s to shop a little and eat at Rutugandh. Rutugandh is a place we go to rather regularly. They serve delicious Marwadi thalis. In other words, scrumptious and rather sweet pure veg food is piled up onto your plate until your stomach screams for mercy.

Akirno was really wound up this evening – he wouldn’t go to sleep, even though he was very tired. Plus, the CD player is skipping more and more. And as one of the main ways to get Akirno to sleep is to dance him to Hindi film songs, it meant that we had one weapon less to deal with the situation.

That was just another day in India…

IUCAA; April 9

The heat is really scorching. But it is going to get worse. I take five or six cold showers a day – and I haven’t used a towel for days. I guess that by the time I have to go back home, I’ll be glad to get out of this heat.

Trip to Hyderabad

Mumbai-Hyderabad Express; April 11

Yesterday morning and afternoon were devoted to cleaning the house (Somak’s parents are arriving tomorrow) and packing (I am presently on the train to Hyderabad for Suketu’s wedding).

As my ticket was wait-listed, I left for the station rather early, even though I highly suspected that there would be no problem. Being WL number 1, that meant that there were only 8 people holding RAC (reservation against cancellation) tickets between me and a berth for the night on the train.

And true enough, when I arrived one hour before dparture, my ticket was already confirmed. There was nothing else for me to do but take posession of my seat on the train – that is, when the train arrived.

There was a power cut somewhere near Lonavala (between Pune and Bombay) and the train came in station three hours late.

I finished my book (The Diary of A. Mole) and spent a rather cramped night. No miracle, I had been given a corridor berth – they are barely six feet long. I got bitten by what must have been the only mosquito in my AC carriage.

Not that being bitten is exceptional. I get bitten almost every day in IUCAA. As for malaria, if I had to catch it, I guess that would already be done by now (as far as Pune mosquitoes are concerned). Either there aren’t that many sick mosquitoes around, or I have somehow become completely immune…

The train arrived in Hyderabad five hours late. Luckily the wedding was taking place in the afternoon.

Hyderabad; April 14

I haven’t done much these lsat days – apart from getting irritated against rickshaw drivers. They are really terrible in this city. They have been trying to swindle me more in three days than all the rickshawallahs of Pune and Delhi together in near to 9 months.

The hotel I am staying in is comfortable, cheap and very near to Suketu’s sister’s home. I just sleep in the hotel and then spend the day at their house.

Suketu and Victoria got married by an Arya Samaj priest – an intimate Hindu wedding ceremony, not too different from the weddings I have witnessed up to now.

I was lucky to get a return ticket for Pune out of the ladies’ quota. I was afraid for a few minutes that I would have to fly home: I already know that the AC compartments for the 16th were full, but unfortunately it was not also the case for 15th and 17th. The waiting lists had about 60 people on them for AC 3-tier, and 30 for AC 2-tier. The clerk kindly did a little research and told me he could free a place for me on the ladies’ quota. I was so relieved! And once back at Suketu’s sister’s, I even found out that I would be travelling in the same coach as Victoria and him.

We went to see two Hindi movies. Dulhan Hum Le Jayenge seemed a feeble remake of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – they fall in love abroad, come home, parents lan to marry her off, but he finally manages to win the heart of the family after all had seemed lost, and marry her.

Ayesha wanted to see Kaho Na, Pyaar Hai. I had seen that movie in Bombay, but after seeing Dulhan Hum Le Jayenge I had started thinking it wasn’t too bad after all. Plus, I had heard that the hero of the film, Hrithik Roshan, had two right thumbs. As I hadn’t noticed anything the first time I saw the film, I was curious to see if it showed at all.

We arrived 20 minutes before the film was due to start, and it was already showing house full (it is the super-hit of the moment). We got our tickets on the black market (in the open in front of the cinema) for the double of the original price. By the time the movie was due to start, the hall was half empty and the to guys outside were ovbiously still selling “last places” to late arrivers.

The movie started fifteen minutes late.

Considering the number of tickets sold on the black market (I wouldn’t be surprised if they had sold out the whole balcony like that!) it was obviously another case of “official” black market.

From hearing the music of that movie over and over again during these last months I have come almost to like it. The story itself is surreal and the characters are rather shallow (the girl is really dumb), but there are some funny moments.

I definately enjoyed both of these movies much less than Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (with Shah Rukh Khan) which I had seen while Danielle was in India.

Hyderabad; April 15

Suketu and his brother-in-law have both been ill for a couple of days. That didn’t encourage anybody to go out on shopping or sight-seeing expeditions (if the heat wasn’t sufficient).

I’ve started reading Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel – stimulating reading – and I still haven’t seen much of Hyderabad.

My departure from India is getting closer and closer. I’m really looking forward to seeing my country and family again – even if I dread leaving India. It’s not like the homesickness I was feeling this winter, but I do miss Switzerland. And I wish I could take India back home with me.

For what I have seen, Hyderabad is a city of big roads, big buildings and shopping malls. Some streets could – almost – be European. I was told the famous “technology park” wasn’t worth visiting. You can’t enter, so all you do is go and see the building.

I slept an uninterrupted night. That was nice, after waking up every three hours because of the heat and noise of the airport the night before, and because of the mosquitoes the previous night. I killed about a dozen before going to bed – I hadn’t noticed the window was ajar.

IUCAA; April 20

There is nothing much to note about this journey to Hyderabad and the return home. Aleika was at the station to welcome us and put garlands of flowers around our newly weds’ necks.

Akirno had grown in a week and was obviously happy to see me. I was really pleased to be back home with my “family”.

I realized during this trip that I am sick of visiting places and travelling. In Switzerland, I’m a very sedentary person. And during this year in India, I just haven’t stopped running around (or so it seems to me) – even though there are so many places I would have wanted to see and that will have to wait for my next trip to this country (like Rajasthan, Amritsar, Kerala and the very south of India).

The temperature hit 40 C a week ago in Pune.

Animals

IUCAA; April 28

I’m tired of India and looking forward to going home. There is not enough time left for me here to make long-term projects, and I feel that my adventure here is nearing the end.

Here are some “animal bytes” the filled up the last week or so.

Pingu, the cat I was supposed to adopt, was taken almost secretly by its rightful owner to the veterinary dipensary behind IUCAA (yes, the awful place) to be neutered, when she had an appointment with the “good” vet only four days later. She blew up as if she was pregnant and her scar is still bulging out of her side. I was so mad, especially as at the time I still thought that she was going to be “my” cat.

It turned out this was another East-West misunderstanding. For me the matter was settled, but for the owner there was no problem in retracting her offer as she realised she was more attached to this cat than what she thought (though she is most probably not aware of this).

Luckily she seems to be doing better now, though Aleika and I still think she could benficiate from a check-up at the “good” vet’s.

Bagha got beaten up again (or got hurt through trying to beat up somebody else?) and came back home one morning looking like Elephant-man, one side of his face all puffed-up. As it hadn’t unswollen after a day or two we took him to the vet.

The “basket” we have for transporting cats is a rather small, broken, wicker vegetable basket, and Bagha is rather a big cat. After a couple of scratches on my neck and stomach deserved for trying to stuff him in it, we decided to try the “lap-cat” method. I sat in the back of the car with the panting cat, and Aleika drove.

By the time we were halfway through the return journey, he had settled down for a cat-nap under the front seat. Talk about a cool cat!

A couple or morning doves had built a nest and laid eggs on our balcony a few weeks back. The eggs had hatched and we caught some glimpses of an ugly baby or two.

One day however, Aleika started worrying because she hadn’t seen any of the parents for the last day. Hesitation. To interfere or not to interfere? We couldn’t be sure that the parents had really left.

Considering the fuss it is to raise a baby bird (Aleika has already done it) we watched for another day. The baby was moving and seemed quite big, so we concluded that the parents must be feeding it when we weren’t looking.

The next morning, the disaster struck. From her bed, Aleika saw two crows come and steal the babies from the nest. Two babies. She saw one of the crows drop something, but no baby was to be seen when she had rushed out of bed onto the balcony.

As Aleika was commenting about the distressed parent birds who seemed to be fluttering around the balcony the next day, I went to have a closer look – and saw a baby dove walking around on the balcony floor! It looked quite grown-up already, and was obviously the one that the second crow had dropped.

I watched it as it stood on the edge of the balcony, looking down. It obviously decided it wasn’t time to jump yet, and retreated to the inner side of the ledge. An hour or two later, it was gone – Aleika thinks the crows managed to get it after all. It was a nice little target sitting on that wall.

Vedic sacrifice in central Maharashtra

I am supposed to leave in three days for a remote and hot place called Gangakher (in central Maharashtra, near Parbhani) with my Sanskrit teacher. A whole day by train to get there, and the same to come back. There is a vedic sacrifice going on there (it started last May!) and he is going to attend a seminar.

He invited me to come with him, and of course I accepted. He also asked me to participate in the seminar – that is where it gets less fun. Fortunately, I can talk about the wedding project I am working on – but I’m really not excited about talking to a bunch of Sanskrit specialists (I’m a hopeless beginner) well-versed in vedic ritual.

From what I understood, there is a lot of “making it look good” in this seminar. He told me that it didn’t matter if what I said wasn’t good quality, but I had to say something. So that they can “officially” integrate the foreign visitor in the records? And I should take care to include references and citations to the original sanskrit texts, so that it looks serious (sic).

My teacher asked if I could do my presentation in Hindi. He obviously doesn’t realize I’m already doing it in English instead of French.

It seems that I will not encounter any problems with the people I will be talking to (I’ve the feeling at times that my role is just to give them a reason to feel flattered about my presence). Apart from the scholars (who will understand English), most of the people there won’t catch a single word of what I am saying. The other talks will all be in Hindi or in Sanskrit. The fact that lay people will not understand the Sanskrit either is not a problem: as it is a sacred language, simply listening to it will make them feel they are gaining something.

The problem is the standards that I set myself for any work I present. And I think that here I am setting them way too high, giving me a lot of extra worry and work. Luckily the work will not be lost, as I will have to hand in a paper on the topic when I get back to Switzerland.

Another point my Sanskrit teacher pointed out is that I should think about bringing something for the people organising the sacrifice (that’s almost word for word how he put it). Fifteen minutes of digging later I gathered that an appropriate contribution would be to give some money (he was giving Rs. 1000) to the person organising the ritual. How he was expecting me to come up with that idea, I do not know.

In Switzerland nobody would ever dream of spontaneously offering money in a similar situation (at least, that’s my opinion). If the organisers need outside money, there will be an entrance fee to take care of that. If you want to thank them, you bring some chocolates or a bottle of wine.

Here there is no entrance fee, but it is understood that visitors will “freely” contribute to the expenses of the operation. Often, more money is collected in this way than with an entrance fee – people are generous when they are not openely compelled to give (like me with the rickshaw drivers…).

Gangakhed; May 2

I spent a week in stress and procrastination (remember, I had to produce a participation for the sminar I was going to take part in). I finished writing it a few hours before the train left, and had to fight with the computer to get it printed. I swallowed my meal and packed my suitcase so fast I took way too many saris with me. And when I was finally ready, I still had to wait at least ten minutes for a rickshaw to turn up.

I arrived at the station just in time, but the train was late, so I had to wait – in company of the most insisting beggars I have met until now. I thought they would never go away.

The first-class journey to Kalyan (a place on the way to Bombay) went smoothly. Airplane-style seats and sufficient leg-space. Even though it was first class, there were some people with tickets who didn’t get a seat – which led us to mention once again how much demand surpasses offer in this country.

The berths in first class are in little separate compartments, there is more space than in the other classes but they are still as stark. I slept well but a little jumpily. My sanskrit teacher is the type of person who stands up at Vevey to get off the train at Lausanne, so he woke me up way too early – and I really could have used a bit more sleep.

Once in Parbhani (late of course, so we had missed our train and had four hours to wait) we had some breakfast, and finally decided to take a bus. It was really very hot and I was longing for a bath.

IUCAA; May 7

Unfortunately, we arrived at a moment of water shortage and were unable to bathe until late afternoon.

Accomodation was dormitory-type, and really nasty. Luckily there were two rooms, and I immediately declared one of them “ladies’ room”, which allowed me to close the door and protest at times when too many people were entering it. We had fans, but I had to wait until the second night to have a cooler (I spent the first night pouring water on my clothes to keep cool enough to sleep). The food was OK, but the sanitary facilities were very Indian. Shower and toilet separate, no running water in the cubicles (that meant you needed to go and fill up your bucket beforehand), and badly closing doors.

In addition to that, it was immediately obvious that I was the uttermost centre of attraction. People kept coming into my room to peer at me. People wanted to talk to me. People waited outside my room to interview me. Others wanted me to come and tell a class of Sanskrit students how important it was to learn Sanskrit (in Sanskrit of course).

What I hadn’t realized before coming was that the seminar would last three whole days. Three days of talking in Sanskrit and Hindi – I couldn’t understand a single word of what was going on, but had to attend, be there, show that the most honoured guest was there, and I couldn’t either start reading a book or sleeping. All I could do was sit on the floor and wait. I think I have never before experienced such boredom.

In India, there is a lot of “fuss” around such events as this seminar. The first morning we were all sat on a stage while different people discussed the importance of such a seminar. In public, of course. Each participant was introduced and presented with a garland of flowers. At one point I feared the whole seminar would take place on stage. Fortunately, it did not.

I reviewed my presentation with my Sanskrit teacher. I had to make quite a few modifications, mainly suppressing all the “apologetic” paragraphs in which I stated how little I knew and how incomplete my work was. It translated how uneasy I was about taking part in this seminar which included almost exclusively professors who babbled away in Sanskrit. To add to my uneasiness, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the subject of the seminar (vedic shrauta rituals), and was going to make a presentation on my current research which was far from complete – in English.

Of course my presence and participation was hyped, and everybody congratulated me on my most interesting talk. I really don’t know who was fooling who. In any case, I have once again had confirmation that I very much dislike being taken for what I am not (even if it is only on an “appearance” level). And I find that the respect and authority the foreigner enjoys just by being a foreigner is a very sad thing. I was expected to go and talk about the importance of Sanskrit to Sanskrit students who probably knew much more Sanskrit than me! And had I talked in English, they would have listened in admiration even though they didn’t understand a word! – I did not go. I do not believe in promoting this faith in foreigners.

The seminar reached its climax for me when on the second day, we were supposed to go off to a place about an hour and a half away so that they could tell some important people how important it was to maintain these vedic rituals. I tried to sneak out, but being the “main guest”, it was impossible.

The journey was hot and rather cramped. We stopped at a temple where most of the seminarists engaged in almost frantic recitations. It was quite impressive – but on the other hand gave me the impression that I was in company of some very devout theologians.

The terrace the conference took place in was surrounded with trees, so I tried to keep the mosquitoes out of my sari while they all talked away in Marathi and Hindi (too fast for me). We then had a meal.

I had been living on hot water for the last days. I could drink only mineral water over there, and since it was available only in the village, I bought a dozen bottles at a time. Don’t ask it there was a fridge or any way to keep them cool – there wasn’t.

The meal was accompanied by some very refreshing mango milk cream. I ate loads of it – it was my “cold water”.

At 3 a.m. I started being sick.

This was the worst sickness spell I have had in India. A combination of the nastiest I had experienced until then in terms of loose motions, vomiting, pain and fainting. After the first bout of sickness in the morning, I was feeling bad, but not awful, and just stayed in bed. In mid-afternoon came the worst, and after fainting with a thud on the way to the bathroom, I ended up sitting on a bucket in my room – a very humiliating situation, especially when the room next door is starting to fill itself with curious people.

After getting rid of most of the mango milk I felt much better, but I had been in such pain that my trip to the local hospital was already planned. They were very nice to me, did not try to stick any needles in my arm, but insisted on making me drink rehydration fluid. Indian rehydration fluid is one of most undrinkable things I have ever met. Sweet and salt at the same time – it does nothing to rehydrate me because I simply cannot swallow it.

Seeing my state, my Sanskrit teacher made arrangements to get back to Pune as soon as possible. We took a night bus, and luckily by the time we were in it I didn’t need permanent access to the bathroom. I slept surprisingly well (the seats are much more comfortable than first-class train!) and reached Pune yesterday morning, tired, dirty, weak and dehydrated. But alive and so glad to be home.

Gauri, Shinde’s dog, had her puppies this morning. Three little white ones and two little black ones. They have really ugly faces.

Preparing to leave

The last weeks have run by like goats on the street when the traffic arrives. I have a week left in this country, so much to do, so little time to realize what is going on.

I took about a week to recover from my illness last month. The illness proper was dealt with quite fast, but the main problem was that I had become weak and dehydrated. As indian rehydration solutions make me gag (even the “very tasty” pineapple-flavored one I was given in Gangakhed) it doesn’t speed up the process.

My room is strewn with things to pack and my head is trying to summarize my “Indian experience”, as I call it. In vain. I guess I will have to wait a little longer for that.

As days go by, I try to fix in my memory all these now obvious things that I will soon forget. Small, daily, insignificant events that would have seemed incredible nearly a year ago. Preoccupations that will seem a world away when I am back in Switzerland, like that rickshaw driver last night who was asking for extra money even though I had already given him more than what we had agreed – which was already more than what he was supposed to charge.

The monsoon seems to have started. We have been having intermittent rain these last weeks, but for the last couple of days we have been waking up to find our garden half flooded. All this rain brings me back to my arrival here and the terror that I felt. If you can choose, the monsoon is not the best period to meet India for the first time.

A few years ago – or was it weeks? – we went to Khandala for two days. Khandala is a small but popular hill-station not too far from Pune. The type of place which is portrayed “paradise for eloping couples” in Hindi movies. Once there, both Aleika and I found ourselves wondering why this place was so wonderful. It was pretty, but from there to turning it almost into a myth…

The hotel was over-expensive. We were (in fact, IUCAA was) paying AC room prices for rather plain non-AC rooms. The food was dreadful and the swimming-pool none too clean (the one in IUCAA was much better). We went swimming all the same, and some of the kids staying in the hotel actually brought chairs to the edge of the pool to watch us, while the parents stayed (a little more discreet… or embarassed) at their fifth-floor windows.

In Khandala, Akirno opened his first door. Now he runs like a little man, almost jumps, and is really on the verge of talking. He knows “de” (give), “ye ba” (for the cat and the ball), and babbles gleefully to himself while “reading”. He also participates in our conversations, especially when they are animated.

I think I have earned a degree in baby-care…

Bagha is coming with me to Switzerland. I need to have a travelling cage built for him, as the idea of carrying cats around as pets is not very common around here. Even this evening, as I was picking up the cat to bring him in for the night (lots of fights these days, and our domestic tiger tends to come back home with nasty infected puffed-up cheeks when he stays out), a girl in her early twenties asked me if I wasn’t afraid of cats. The cat is a frightening, unpredictable, fierce and malicious animal in the common imaginary. My sanskrit teacher told me some of the “nasty cat” stories that children grow up with.

I guess that a lot of what has to be written but cannot be written now because I have turned too “native” will come rushing out once I get home. I have just finished reading a book called Desert Places, by Robyn Davidson. This woman spent over a year in Rajasthan to try and travel with nomad camel-herders. Though her experience was with no doubt much more intense and extreme than mine, I can recognize myself at each page. Especially when I recall episodes like Gangakhed or Markal.

Asbestos roofs, lead and mercury paints, polluting vehicles and human waste within toe’s reach are part of everyday life here. Minor corruption (your speeding ticket is Rs. 100, but the cop will forget about it if you give him Rs. 50), closed shops that should be open, missing items that have been expected to come “tomorrow” for the last month, beggars who will almost climb into your rickshaw to get at you, but also smiles, generosity, and helpfulness that help you feel this sense of belonging that one needs to be “at home”… I will stop here – or I will become trivial, if it is not already the case.

Home is never exotic. And precautions like “never walk barefoot in India” are a mile away when you are strolling around your own garden.


Some random thoughts to keep us going, that I might expand later. More India stuff typed after my return to Switzerland. Read about my latest trip to India.

Antibiotics. Academics. Laziness. Exams as an end. Separation of research and education. Slums, human misery, little lives lived on the side of the road. People breaking stones under the scorching sun. Women carrying loads of rocks for the road works. Tar. Piles of rubbish. Ill-treated animals – humans as well, of course. What future? what hope? Corruption. Birth-control. Education. Drainage. Water. Anarchy. You have to see to understand – even to believe. Where can we see the ideal India of osho-ites?

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