16 January 2009

Language, Logic and Lassi

“So, take lots of care in the heat, ok, and drink a lot of lassi and buttermilk.” This was the advice of Kushwant Karen, our sheepishly wealthy Brahmin tour guide. He caught me giving him an incredulous eye. “Yah, its like, good for cooling the body.” The other Indians around made clucking noises of agreement. Kush was pretty used to me disagreeing with these sweeping statements of Indian common sense – after he told me “if you put some Ganges water in a bottle, and you leave it for 100 years even, even then it will not have fungus and still be safe to drink” I said “Kush, I thought you were an atheist?” He regarded me earnestly as we floated past a huge dead cow, and minutes later a human corpse. “ Yah, but this is still true! It amazes scientists even.”

India is an amazing place to listen to the English language. A strange version of our mother tongue is used here – a flowery and oddly exuberant take on the on the language forced on Indians by the British. Its as if they were thinking “Yah, we'll use these terrible words, but oh just wait to see what we will be doing to them, you sisterfuckers!” Words here exist that do not exist in any other English speaking country. I noticed this immediately upon landing at Indiri Gandhi International airport in Delhi. A large sign posted above the baggage claim let us know that the airport was undergoing an “upgradation.” Which sounds normal at first, until you pause for a second and think about it.....
Strolling the streets of Varanasi you can be fitted for “Suitings and Shirtings.”
Indians will inform you to stay away from shopping in “touristic” places, and eye you with suspicion when you reply with “ohhh, the touristy places?”
I am constantly asked for my “good name” - as in “what is your good name Madam?” I am still caught off guard by that one, especially when it is asked by a cycle rickshaw driver without shoes on.

A few weeks after arriving, I booked Sean a ticket on SpiceJet, a budget airline, from Delhi to Mumbai. The day before his flight, he recieved a text message. “Dear Sir, we regret to inform you that your flight has been pre-poned by ten minutes.” Sean and I exchanged looks. “Pre-poned? Does....does it mean what we think it does? Is this like upgradation?” The realization sunk in of how brilliant the word actually is..
“Well, Sean. This is a first for you. You're getting pre-poned for your first time. How do you feel?”
He thought for a moment. “Irritated and dirty?”
“Thats just India, Sean. Thats just India.”

Its slightly embarrassing to speak English to many Indians. Not at all because you can't understand them. Rather, its because they cannot, for the love of god, understand you. At all. In fairness, pretty much everyone in the tourist industry speaks English, all educated people are fluent, and even street urchins who look like they just stepped off of the screen of “The Dark Crystal” can occasionally carry on a passable conversation. But the minute I get into an autorickshaw I have to start dramatically rolling my R's and ridding every word of its vowel sound, sprinkling in every word of Hindi I know (my vocab is getting quite impressive!) Its true. Hindi sounds a lot more like “Ticka Ticka Ticka” than is politically correct to admit. When I drawl out my vowels like a typical West Coast ex-stoner, they have clue what I am saying. I could be speaking fucking Finnish. Hence the necessity of the embarrassing pseudo Hindi accent and phrases such as “Cheli Chelo” (Let's Go.)

Even when I do this, it is not always apparent if the driver, shopkeeper, hotel staffmember etc. have accepted my offer or want to help me. That is because of the Head Waggle - the best friend or bane of every foreigner in India. Indians of all ages, castes, education, culture, religion, and gender (and there are 3 in India.... the hijras are self imposed Eunuchs who make a living by threatening to sing in warbling off key – people pay them not to) wobble their heads from side to side to signify yes. And they wobble to say no. But mostly to say maybe. Sean and I have started using it, and man, as if life weren't complicated enough in India without a third head motion, here comes some extra vagueness. But it is fun to use. Try it. You can use it no matter what you're saying or doing, like an extra little head dance.

Sean's theory is that nothing ever gets done in India unless is it a task that can be completed by throwing a lot of unskilled people at it. No problem solving must be necessary – just a lot of labour – like 1.1 billion people's worth of labour. So things that at home take seconds, here take 20 minutes. If you order a coffee at one of the pseudo Western joints (Cafe Coffee Day is everywhere, and that name doesn't even make sense – again with the Indianisms) do not stand there at the counter and wait for it like you would at S'bucks – the staff will look at you like you are nuts. The 7 or 8 staff members. Go sit down. Even if not one other customer is in the joint, you will hear them start to make your coffee a full 15 minutes later. Start to make your coffee. One person will hold the cup, one will grind the beans, one will take your money and one will stand and stare at you. (An entire essay could be written on the staring. It is not rude here – they also stare at eachother. That is my mantra to keep me from going insane. Especially in the North – where men will actually jockey in around you for a better slack-jawed look. Challenging them and saying “WHAT!?” elicits a head wobble and further staring.) This whole system will break down if a staff member's mobile rings. I have never seen an Indian let their phone ring without answering it. No matter how inopportune the timing is, they answer. Even if you are seconds away from finally gripping your coffee - too bad. Its on hold until that conversation is over.

That is not to say that India is not ingenius when dealing with small problems. Makeshift solutions, small businesses, really small businesses and making do are all a part of living here. Let's face it – 60% of Mumbai's 18 million people (and thats a conservative estimate on both parts) live in slums with no running water and electricity – and yet they make it work. Men live in tents on the sides of freeways they are constructing. Auto rickshaw drivers sleep in their wee open vehicles. And sidewalk dwelling women still wrap themselves in saris and perform puja (prayer). Small blankets are set up everywhere, selling vegetables, trinkets and anything else you can think of. People shine shoes, make paan, sell eggs, make sweets – all off the grid. Driving around in a car or rickshaw you will be accosted at every stop with “Madam, flowers? Madam, book? Madam, tomatoes? Madam, whatever-I-am-selling?” You can do almost all of your shopping without setting foot on the pavement. But big projects languish. People live in unfinished concrete highrise skeletons. Completion dates get pushed back, and then pushed back again. Sean and I play “Spot the rubble pile.” Even in the airport – rubble. (He and I have both kicked rubble accidentally at different times – me almost breaking my toe and taking half of my toenail off.)

But despite the strangeness of the English, the staring and the spitting and illogicalities galore, India works, and my favourite surprises come when my Western “superior” ideas are proven wrong. When people drink the Ganges water and do not get sick. When I discover a term like “pre-pone.” When having 8 people on shift at a tiny store comes in handy. And when, on a really hot day, I ordered a lassi and discovered that though it defies common sense, it really cooled me down. Thanks Kush.

06 January 2009

Instant Karma

The Ganges in Varanasi is a fetid sewer that sits at the bottom of the ghats like a lazy bloated cow, filled with shit and cud (a decidely gross word) and stinking up the planet. That said, I still wanted to see it - and it was a sufficient experience- as crazy, gross and kind of awe inspiring as the guidebooks told me it would be. And so I moved on - headed to the Himalayas and then to Bombay - not expecting to see the mighty Ganga again - at least not on this trip. But when my mum guiltily confessed that she wanted to do the typical tourist thing and see the Taj Mahal and the Ganges - I was forced into heading back to the North of India. Not that that is much of a chore, but I hate to backtrack. And so began the giant task of planning an itinerary that included Agra and Delhi, was interesting for my Mum and gave her an authentic slice o'India, and was also not visiting any more cities that I had already been to- especially not polluted, moist Varanasi. Thus - Rishikesh.

Yes, the fabled city nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, made famous by the Beatles, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation. More douchebags even than Dharamsala. The yoga capital of the world. Fruitshakes and granola and pasta everywhere (for the weak stomachs - if not weak minds - of the hippies.) Yet somehow I really like it here... and am even staying at an Ashram and doing yoga twice a day, a mix of Indian and Tibetan styles that involves acting like a dragon, sinus cleansing and lots of "Aummmmmm Shanti Shanti Shanti Aummmmmmm."

While the Ganges in Varanasi is a stinking mess, here it is a crisp green ribbon snaking through the mountain valleys - almost translucent and much more clean than most anything in India. Ashrams and temples are everywhere, along with sadhus (painted, dreadlocked Hindu holy men dressed in orange robes and who have abandoned their families and possessions) who are either genuine and spiritual and begging; or whacked out on ganja and begging; or pretending to be sadhus so you trust them - and begging. Some - the smiley round ones who say "Namaste Madam!" with giggly voices - I like, and I say "Namaste Baba!" back to them. Others just make me think "jesus christ, go back to your family you filthy deviant deadbeat."

Rishikesh is different in a few other ways - even the cows are different than any I have seen, most of them are short and strangely stumpy. Their bodies are the same as regular cows - but their legs seem cut off at the knees - like a Welsh corgy. (My mum and I call them "uncows.") Until yesterday, I had taken to patting (more thumping) the cows on their heads, like the Hindus do for good luck (but because I like to pet anything that will let me.) Yesterday while walking through a square, after I lightly tapped one on his big handsome head, he gored my mum. He swayed his head at me, and as I shreiked and ran to hide behind a car he laid eyes on my mother, decided "close enough" and gave her a wack. His horns just grazed her, but now she is too scared to go to close to them. Which is difficult, because this is India - so you're always at least a little bit close to cow.
Or a monkey.
There are 2 kinds of monkey in Rishikesh: small tan ones with red bums and tiny babies that look like human babies who have that weird midget aging disease, and huge grey ones with black faces that stand to my waist and remind me of a crouching creepy man - those ones really freaked me out. Until today, when a three legged monkey of the first category carrying a wee baby on its back leapt up at me and slashed open the plastic bag of leftover channa masala I had been planning to feed to the dogs, escaping with the spoils to the top of the bridge. As pungent splotches of chickpea curry rained down on me, all of the Indians around shrugged their shoulders indifferently. They know better than to swing around bags of hot food. Now I am indifferent to the man monkeys, and slightly unnerved by the smaller guys with the progeria faces. And by unnerved I mean I avoid making eye contact and give them a wide berth as if they are a frenemy I've just run into at the bar.

I must admit, here it is a bit easy to get pulled into the spirituality of it all. The nightly "Ganga Aarti" - the evening veneration of the Ganges River with chanting, fire and drums; the constant echo of prayer bells ringing through the valley; the proliferation of yoga, meditation and books on knowing god. But its kind of a diet spirituality - at least for the Westerners here. Enlightenment lite. An easy answer and a quick fix - we come here to use India's ancient traditions for our immediate benefit while we listen to Bob Marley and drape ourselves in gauze. We come not with malice, but with a certain amount of panicked greed and naivete, like we are so overwhelmed with the beauty and magic of hinduism/jainism/buddhism that we have to cram it all inside us to take it home.

Today my Mum and I took a 30 minute walk to another part of Rishikesh, and along the way we stopped to look at what we thought were used dye-print blocks - a popular souvenir cuz they look nice on a shelf at home. As we peered down with interest at the wooden stamps laid on a blanket on the ground, the woman beckoned for my hand. I thought she was going to the block in my hand, but instead she quickly dabbed it into an inky sponge and placed a henna'd print on my hand. Next came narrower stamps - one for each of my fingers. Before I knew it, she had mehndi-ed my hands and I owed her 50 rupees. "Well," I said to my Mum "I think I just bought a henna-ing." Andit looks good - the stamps left a very intricate henna design on my hands - almost like the real thing, which takes hours and hours to do with a delicate quill, and then at least 4 more hours while you sit immobile while the henna dries. This took a total of 3 minutes start to finish.

And I suppose that that is as good a metaphor for Rishikesh as any. Attaining enlightenment takes time, yet the business here relies on a carnival of tourists to come and stay for a week - feel like they've found god, and leave. A pair of fucking mirrored ali baba pants isn't going speed it up, but it might help you believe that you're having an authentic experience with your chosen guru. It is possible here to feel like you are doing something important and healthy in a small amount of time, which is something in and of itself, I guess.

And I still like it here. I just wish that so many creepy European hippies didn't. And that the monkeys would leave me alone.

And we all shine on.....