Monthly Archives: October 2012

Not Quite a Slice of Home

One of the things I miss most in India is sarcasm, or more specifically, the chance to hate on something just for the fun of it. As a foreigner, I constantly feel the need to keep an open mind towards new and different ways of life.  Sure, it’s respectful and allows for better cross-cultural understanding, but sometimes it can be a drag.

That’s why, on a recent Sunday afternoon, I was maliciously delighted to have lunch at Uncle Sam’s Pizza. Because the restaurant was named for the human embodiment of my native land, and because it was decorated with my country’s colors and symbols, I felt fully entitled to criticize without restraint.

I’d biked past U.S. Pizza dozens of times. It was directly along my route to Jodhpur’s old city. But until that afternoon, I’d never stooped low enough to try it.

Although the storefront displayed more red, white, and blue than a Fourth of July picnic, the interior was painted a putrid shade of orange, and a nauseating tilted mural of the Statue of Liberty loomed over the cash register. The place was cleaner than the average Jodhpur restaurant, but that was about all it had going for it.

I sat myself down at a table and flipped through a menu. It made for fascinating reading material. Here are some highlights:

No one in America has had a “funky party” since the 70s. And I highly doubt that Disney licensed a small Indian fast food chain to use its trademarked characters.

Many Indian menus butcher the English language with grammar and spelling errors, but this abuse is more deliberate, and thereby more egregious. It’s just so trite and pointless, with one painfully bad joke after another. I considered calling it “cheesy” but couldn’t handle any more pizza-related humor.

The pizza choices are legitimately interesting. They put an Indian spin on an American version of an Italian specialty (and the first option adds Spanish to the mix as well). Proof that the world’s cultures are now more interconnected than ever.

I can’t figure out exactly what this is supposed to mean, but it seems horribly inappropriate for a family restaurant.

I was willing to write off the menu and the décor as odd, endearing quirks until I tried the pizza itself. While the cheese was tolerable, the sauce was basically a thin layer of ketchup, and the crust tasted like a damp sponge. It reminded me of a low-end microwave pizza in the States. I can accept that India doesn’t have great American food—the Indian food more than compensates—but a place that sells almost exclusively pizza should have a decent signature product, especially if they’re going to slap my country’s image on it.

I left the restaurant with an unsettled stomach and a sense of patriotic outrage. How dare they insult the U.S. with such a substandard product? Had anyone in charge of that place eaten real pizza before? Did the patrons know what they were missing? It felt good to complain again, like a true American.

I want you…to have terrifying nightmares about my toothless, pizza-pushing grin.

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The Jews of Mumbai

Around 175 BCE, supposedly, a ship sank just south of what is now Mumbai. It bore a small group of Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution from the Greeks. The survivors settled in local villages, and their descendants have remained in the area for over two thousand years, still practicing Judaism.

No one knows for sure if this account is true, but it’s a popular origin story for the Bene Israel, a small yet proud Jewish community that has been thriving in India for centuries. Last month, I joined members of this community for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I visited their homes and synagogues and got the chance to see a unique side of Judaism, entirely different from the one I’d grown up with.

Until recently, I didn’t know that Indian Jews existed. I vaguely remembered hearing about them in Hebrew School, but back then I didn’t believe it. How could there be Jews in India? Jews had light skin, big noses, and long, curly beards. Indians had dark skin and dots on their foreheads. I couldn’t reconcile the two images.

Then, years later, I came to India, and Rosh Hashana rolled around. I wanted to celebrate the holiday with other Jews, so I did some research. When Google turned up a number of synagogues in and around Mumbai, I figured they would be full of expatriates. Even after I read further and saw photos of the Indian Jews, I didn’t accept that they were really Indian. My old doubts persisted.

A few weeks later, I boarded a train for the 18-hour journey to Mumbai. I hadn’t done much prior planning and wasn’t sure what to expect. I relied on a few tenuous connections. My supervisor at work had put me in touch with his friend who worked for the American Jewish World Service in Mumbai, and this friend had directed me to Mumbai’s only Jewish guesthouse, located next to Magen David Synagogue. He told me to attend services at the synagogue and ask for guy named Sharon.

On Saturday morning, I entered the synagogue to find a group of about fifteen men in tallit and kippot reciting Hebrew prayers. If I had seen them on the street in secular attire, I wouldn’t have realized they were Jewish. They looked completely Indian.

The interior of Magen David Synagogue

I didn’t need to ask for Sharon because he noticed me right away. As a confused American, I clearly stuck out. He came over and shook my hand.

“Shabbat shalom,” he said.

“Shabbat shalom,” I replied.

Sharon had a thick beard that looked most definitely Jewish, contrasting with his Indian complexion. He seemed to be in his early 30s, making him one of the youngest people at the synagogue that day. After the service, he invited me to his house for Kiddush. It was only a few blocks away. As we walked there, he told me the history of the Bene Israel.

Although no one’s sure exactly when or how they got to India, they arrived at least 1500 years ago and subsequently lost all contact with the rest of the Jewish world. But they upheld basic Jewish traditions, becoming known as the Saturday Oil-Pressers due to their observance of Shabbat as a day of rest. Centuries later, they were rediscovered.  Another group of Jews, the Cochin Jews, had long been settled in Kerala to the south, possibly since before the arrival of the Bene Israel, and they had maintained communication with European Jews. The Bene Israel began sending their sons to study with the Cochin Jews so that they could learn Jewish customs forgotten over centuries of isolation.

In the 17th century, another group of Jews began to arrive in Mumbai, immigrating from Iraq and other Arab countries. They became known as the Baghdadi Jews. One of India’s most famous Jewish residents, the 19th century businessman David Sassoon, came from this group, and several locations around Mumbai still bear his family’s name.

Kenneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, built by the Sassoon family.

By the mid-20th century, Indian Jews numbered in the tens of thousands, but most of them have since moved to Israel.  Currently, there are only a few thousand Jews left in India, most of them Bene Israel.  A few communities emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, claiming to be descended from the lost tribes, but most of them have moved to Israel as well.

In Mumbai, the remaining Jews are a mix of Bene Israel and Baghdadi, plus a few expatriates.  I spent Rosh Hashana drifting between different congregations, attending a Reform service at a community center as well as Orthodox services at two synagogues built by the Sassoon family. I had several meals with Sharon and his family, who were generous enough to take me in. His wife Sharona had a firm yet caring demeanor that struck me as quintessentially Jewish, and they had three adorable young daughters, Tiferet, Tehilla, and Emunah—probably the only Indians I’ll ever meet with those names. Celebrating a Jewish holiday in India was full of unique cultural crossovers. For instance, it was the only time I’ve ever eaten curry following apples and honey.

Sharon, with his parents and two of his daughters.

For tashlich, the symbolic casting of sins into a body of water, I joined a group of Orthodox Jews at one of Mumbai’s most famous landmarks, the Gateway of India, which is a stone arch at the waterfront that’s always packed with tourists taking corny photos. It was built to welcome British forces into the country but actually ushered them out—the last British troops departed from there in 1948. Holding the ceremony at the Gateway was basically a publicity stunt, saying to the world, “Hey, look! There are Jews in India, as you can tell from their presence at this distinctive landmark.” And it worked. A photographer showed up from Daily News & Analysis, a third-rate paper found on most Mumbai newsstands. She took a few photos of the people in front, but she must have decided they didn’t look Jewish enough. So she gestured to an American onlooker who was trying his best to seem inconspicuous. He refused, but the rest of the crowd parted, leaving him no choice but to come forward.

And that’s how, the following day, I found a large color photograph of myself on Page 7.

Two thousand years of history have produced a unique and vibrant Jewish community in Mumbai, but when the local paper wants to represent the city’s Jews, it seeks out the nearest white guy with a big nose and a beard. Old stereotypes die hard.

Journalism at its finest

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Sacred Neighbors

In mid-September, I had the opportunity to explore Mumbai, one of the world’s largest cities. Its sheer size was overwhelming. I’ve been to major U.S. cities like New York and Chicago, but Mumbai seemed different. Maybe it was the sprawling nature of its neighborhoods, maybe it was the never-ending stretch of skyscrapers, or maybe it was the fact that I’d spent the previous two months in relatively small urban areas of Rajasthan. Whatever the reason, Mumbai felt enormous.

I did a lot of sightseeing during my trip, but for now, I’ll focus on one particular area. Along the Western shore of the city, overlooking the Indian Ocean, two religious monuments sit side by side. One is the Haji Ali Dargah, a tomb and mosque built to honor a 15th-century Muslim merchant, and the other is the Mahalaxmi Temple, a shrine dedicated to the Hindu goddess of wealth. Each structure is unique in architecture and atmosphere, reflecting India’s religious and cultural diversity.

I visited the temple first.  The narrow walkway to its entrance was lined with vendors selling flowers, sweets, and other offerings for the goddess. Groups of women passed by wearing brightly dyed saris. The colors, sounds, and smells blended into a single sensory experience. Fabric and incense, bells and petals, voices and statues. I climbed a set of stairs to the temple itself, where each worshipper walked in a circle around the main shrine, stopping in front of an image of the goddess to receive a tika (forehead mark) and a small handful of sweets. I looked around and admired the building. An array of fuchsia pillars supported the roof, which rose up to a white and orange tower with spires of pink and gold.

In contrast to the explosion of color at the temple, the dominant feature of the mosque was stark white marble. An imposing white gate opened into a courtyard with a tall white minaret, and a domed white building held the tomb itself.  As the story goes, Haji Ali was a wealthy merchant who gave up his riches and made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But he died before reaching the holy city, and his coffin was cast into the Arabian Sea. Some time later, it washed up on the rocky shores of his home in Mumbai, and the tomb was constructed in his memory. The entire complex is located on an island, and the causeway connecting it to the mainland is just as striking as the monument itself. When I was there, it was packed with throngs of Muslims progressing toward the holy site. Some wore veils and robes, but others wore jeans and T-shirts. I’ll admit that I was somewhat apprehensive as an American in a Muslim gathering place. This was in the midst of last month’s YouTube riots, when anti-American sentiments were running high across the Muslim world. Just a few days earlier, Ambassador Stevens had been killed in Libya, and I had heard of protests in other parts of Mumbai. But I didn’t encounter any animosity at the Haji Ali Dargah, not even a dirty look.

It’s easy to underestimate the significance India’s Muslim population, especially as a foreigner. Hinduism has been the majority religion in India for thousands of years, and even the name “India” derives from the Old Persian word for Hindu. However, the Muslim minority has played a substantial role for centuries. Muslims ruled the country during the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughal Empire, and India is currently home the world’s third largest Muslim population, about 177 million people, just behind Pakistan’s 178 million. Relations between Hinduism and Islam in India have not always been cordial. Mumbai in particular endured its share of tension, most notably during the Bombay Riots of December 1992 and January 1993, when 900 people were killed. But at the Haji Ali Dargah and the Mahalaxmi Temple, the two religions coexist as neighbors, with little apparent conflict. Their proximity is a symbol of peace, embodying the promise of a single, unified India.

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The New Marwar Lifestyle

The Ansal Royal Plaza sticks out from the rest of Jodhpur in almost every way imaginable. It’s several stories higher than the surrounding structures. Its architecture eschews old-fashioned, functional right angles in favor of aesthetic modern slants. A web-like array of turquoise glass sprawls over two of the outer faces. And a large sign near the entryway brandishes the infamous golden arches of the world’s most ubiquitous fast food chain.

This building is home to Jodhpur’s one and only Western-style shopping mall. Several months ago, when I wandered into its air-conditioned central atrium during my early explorations of the city, I was astonished to see brand name clothing, escalators, and crowds of smiling youth engaged in conspicuous consumption.

At the mall’s two-story McDonald’s, which is constantly packed, members of Jodhpur’s expanding middle class enjoy McVeggies, McAloo Tikkis, and if they’re really hungry, Chicken Maharaja-Macs. The menu lacks red meat due to the Hindu prohibition of beef and the Muslim prohibition of pork but instead offers these chicken and vegetarian alternatives (I should note that I haven’t actually seen the menu—I’ve stayed out of the restaurant to avoid looking like an American stereotype—but I found it all online). Despite the local touches, Jodhpur’s McDonald’s is basically the same as any other McDonald’s, a reminder that globalization and the industrialized food system are inescapable.

A few weeks ago, India took another step towards global consumerism by opening its doors to foreign big-box retailers like Walmart. This decision, along with increases in the price of fuel, sparked outrage from the main opposition party, which called for a nationwide strike in response. Other parties echoed the call, and businesses shut down across the country. In Mumbai, where I was at the time, the most popular opposition party didn’t support the strike and businesses ran as usual, but Jodhpur, I heard, was practically a ghost town. While the strike demonstrated widespread popular discontent, it wasn’t enough to change the reforms. Walmart plans to open its first Indian stores within the next two years.

India already has a few retail chains of its own. In Jodhpur, I occasionally shop at a department store called Big Bazaar, which sells clothes, groceries, and housewares. I discovered it several weeks after my trip to the Ansal Royal Plaza, and it had been a long time since I’d seen a Western-style shopping center. As an environmentalist, I felt repulsed at the unstoppable spread of consumerism, but as a shopper, I felt relieved to see neatly arranged merchandise with well-marked prices. The Big Bazaar had none of the exasperating chaos and haggling of the real bazaar downtown.

Back at the Ansal Royal Plaza, a shop called Marwar Lifestyle best symbolizes India’s shift towards consumer culture. It sells high-end clothes, jewelry, and other accessories, and its window displays a shelf of ornamental porcelain figures. All of them are white, and their formal clothes are distinctively Western. These figures do not resemble the Marwar lifestyle I’ve observed outside air-conditioned shopping malls. They represent an entirely new lifestyle, influenced by the West, developing in the Marwar region and the whole of India, a lifestyle of mass purchasing and mass production, a lifestyle of Big Bazaars replacing big bazaars, a lifestyle of Maharaja-Macs.

The new Marwar lifestyle brings convenience and a higher quality of life, but it takes a toll in the form of energy and natural resources. This toll is frightening prospect. While Western nations still bear a great deal of responsibility, and while it’s hard to place too much blame on individuals, sooner or later, we’ll all have to deal the environmental consequences of more than a billion Indians slouching towards a Western way of life.

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Impressions of Rural Rajasthan

When I first saw the Thar Desert, it struck me as remarkably green. A few sand dunes popped up here and there, but they were often covered in shrubs and scraggly trees. Most of the landscape consisted of neatly tilled farmland and grassy expanses known as dhanis, with huts and homesteads scattered throughout.

Where were the vast dune seas and the long camel trains trekking under a blazing sun? I had expected Lawrence of Arabia, not How Green Was My Valley.

I should have known better. The Thar Desert is the most densely populated desert ecosystem in the world, home to over 23 million people. It’s harsh and unforgiving but hardly a desert wilderness. The human communities of the Thar are what brought me to Rajasthan in the first place. Even though I work mostly in an office in the city, my ultimate aim is to better the lives of the rural poor.

Children in a barren section of the Thar

GRAVIS, the organization I work for, is a Rajasthani NGO that takes an integrated, participatory approach to rural development. Its full name, Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti, is Hindi for “The People’s Center for the Science of Rural Development.”

At the organization’s core are two principles originally developed by Mohandas Gandhi, India’s most renowned thinker and social activist. The first is Sarvodaya, or “all rising, but the last person first.” GRAVIS focuses its efforts on those who need them most, regardless of gender, age, religion, or caste, and it emphasizes cooperation in a highly divided society. The second core principle is Gram Swaraj, or “village self-rule.” Rather than simply distributing aid, GRAVIS strives to empower rural communities, giving them the tools to build independence.

The people of the Thar face numerous, interrelated challenges, so GRAVIS’ initiatives must be similarly diverse. The organization works on projects relating to water security, agriculture, health, education, mineworker’s rights, and more.

Women draw water from a naadi (village pond) renovated by GRAVIS

A taanka (underground water storage tank) collects rainwater from the surrounding area and holds it for future use

Fetching water

Since my initial surprise at the prevalence of life in the Thar, I’ve learned a lot about the desert and its inhabitants. On my most recent field visit, I tagged along with one of the GRAVIS’ founders and most respected leaders, a woman named Shashi Tyagi. Reverently referred to as Shashi ji, she started the organization in 1983 with her late husband L.C. Tyagi. She continues to maintain an active role, serving as Secretary of the Board and involving herself in many different projects. Her son, Dr. Prakash Tyagi, is the current director of GRAVIS and also my supervisor and occasional physician.  He was the one who suggested I should join for the field visit.

Shashi ji was headed to Jaisalmer, a city in the heart of the Thar Desert, to conduct a workshop on health. On the way, we stopped at a small village health clinic that had gone days without electricity or running water. The nurse who ran the clinic was supposed to be supplying pre-natal care, vaccinations, and tuberculosis treatment, but the lack of basic utilities made her job almost impossible. Shashi ji encouraged the village health committee to appeal to local officials, who have a responsibility to provide the missing services, but who knows if or when they’ll fulfill that obligation.

This clinic was unable to provide many treatments due to lack of electricity and running water

From the health clinic, we continued toward Jaisalmer. The journey took almost five hours in total, but it passed quickly. Long desert drives are one of my favorite parts of visiting the field.

Despite pervasive poverty, the Thar conveys a unique and mystical beauty. Peacocks perch on fence posts, dangling their impossibly long tail feathers toward the ground; illuminated in the sunlight, their necks project an iridescent shade of indigo, and the fragile crests on their heads form shimmering crowns. Stalwart cows graze between khejri trees and wander casually onto the highway, where they lie down to rest. In the village of Khichan, and only in the village of Khichan, flocks of migratory cranes gather in fields flooded from the recent rain. Their elegant black bodies stand out starkly against the still water. As evening draws near, the sun glows a perfect red circle before disappearing beyond distant hills. Trees and rocks turn to shadows against the dusk, and from the encroaching darkness, camels materialize in oncoming headlights. From behind, their tall, thin figures resemble lanky villagers, but soon the jutted humps and curved necks are unmistakable. More camels, cows, and cars briefly appear and vanish, until finally, long after nightfall, the lights of Jaisalmer glisten on the horizon.

A herd of camels crosses the road

The GRAVIS workshop, held in Hindi, was mostly unintelligible to me, but I understood that it was about challenges in the medical treatment of mothers, infants, and people with tuberculosis. The same sort of challenges I had seen at the village health clinic.

From the roof of the workshop venue, I could see Jaisalmer Fort, its sweeping sandstone curves overlooking an expanse of desert. Unlike other forts in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer Fort contains its own miniature city, with shops, restaurants, and hotels lining a compact maze of streets.

Jaisalmer Fort

I got a chance to visit the fort after the workshop, along with another of Jaisalmer’s most famous attractions, the Sam Sand Dunes. Of all the places I’ve seen in the Thar, the Sam Dunes most closely fit the desert stereotype I’d imagined—bare mounds of sand traversed by riders on camelback. But instead a sprawling ocean of sandy waste, the Sam Dunes barely constituted a puddle. From any point, I could see the full extent of their area, and walking the perimeter would have taken less than an hour. As the boy trying to sell me a camel ride kept saying, a quick camel could make the “big round” in twenty minutes flat.

However, anyone traveling by camelback wasn’t doing it for reasons of efficiency. All the camel riders were either tourists or people clamoring to sell camel rides to tourists. The white-robed nomads trekking under a blazing sun were nowhere to be found, and in their absence, camel safaris seemed nothing more than glorified pony rides. I’ll still go on one at some point, but my romantic vision of the desert has been forever shattered.

While the Thar lacks conventional desert scenery, it offers other, more subtle charms. Rather than a movie set, it’s a real place with real people facing real problems. Over the coming months, I’ll continue to unravel its alluring complexity, and that’s far more exciting than a glorified pony ride around a puddle of dunes.

This image presents a radically misleading impression of the Thar Desert.

Lizard footprints

Lizard

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