What I’ll Miss About India (and What I Won’t)

Jodhpur Cityscape

This is my last post on Marwarology. I returned to the U.S. a couple days ago, so the blog doesn’t have much purpose any more. Over the next few weeks, I’ll convert it into a informative site about Jodhpur and its surroundings. All of the posts will remain online, in case anyone wants to look back at them. But after today, there won’t be any new ones.

It feels strange to be back in my home country. Although I’ve spent most of my life in the U.S., getting back to American life has required some adjustment, and it will require more over the next few weeks, for better or worse. There are some aspects of life in India that I’ll miss, and others that I won’t. To wrap things up, here are a few examples from both categories, in no particular order:

Things I Won’t Miss

  • Attracting constant stares from people on the street (children and adults alike)
  • People wanting to take photos with me like I’m some sort of freakish carnival attraction

Posing with Kids

  • The lack of Western manners (“please” and “thank you” are rarely used; lines frequently devolve into shapeless mobs; practices such as shoving, poking, spitting, littering, and public urination and defecation are conducted often and without shame)
  • Bargaining with rickshaw drivers
  • Rickshaw drivers in general
  • Overly persistent salespeople who descend on foreigners like vultures on a fresh carcass
  • Police officers, military officials, bureaucrats, and other snappy, unhelpful, and probably corrupt authority figures

DSC01222

DSCN0023

  • Sitting at the front of a bus (AKA “the death seat”, where it’s easy to see all of the oncoming traffic, obstacles, and other potential causes of a fatal crash)
  • Small, bumpy, and crowded roads
  • Horrendously bad attempts at “Western” food (white bread sandwiches slathered with glops of mayonnaise, Uncle Sam’s Pizza)

DSC01043

  • Hearing the same Bollywood songs over and over ad nauseum
  • Not being able to understand most conversations
  • Not being understood
  • The similarity of my name to the Hindi word for sister (Ben vs. behin)
  • The inability of many Hindi speakers to understand my name when I say it out loud, even though it’s just a single syllable (“Your name is Pen? Bell? Bed?”)
  • The fact that people rarely explain what’s going on (even if it affects me directly)
  • The difficulty of receiving clear responses to simple questions, especially when those responses might clarify what’s going on
  • The lack of clear, useful information when it is needed most
  • The abundance of unwarranted, unhelpful information when it is not at all needed
  • Information that is vague, misleading, or blatantly false
  • Unreliable tap water
  • Streets filled with garbage, excrement, and every other type of filth imaginable
  • The stench of burning trash
  • The prevalence of firmly entrenched, old-fashioned gender roles
  • Living in a country where women are often restricted from staying out late or working outside the home
  • Being asked when I intend to get married
  • Frequent and partially serious offers to arrange a marriage for me
  • The custom of arranged marriage and its widespread acceptance in society
  • Strictly hierarchical social structures
  • The caste system
  • Not being around for important events at home
  • The fact that a city of 1.25 million often feels like a small town

DSC02650

Things I Will Miss

  • Strangers who strike up friendly conversations on trains and in other public settings
  • Strangers who invite me into their homes for chai
  • Daily doses of chai (I think my record is six cups in a 24-hour span)
  • The food and other comforts at my guesthouse
  • Awesome street food (pani-puri, aloo tikka, kachoris, daal pakora, samosas)
  • The variety and quality of vegetarian dishes

DSCN0071

  • The assumption that a person’s food preferences are veg until proven non-veg, rather than all meat, all the time, as tends to be the default in the U.S.
  • The fact that local food is the norm, with vegetable markets located on practically every corner
  • The animals that roam the streets (the dogs, the goats, the monkeys, and even the occasionally terrifying cows)

537612_10151456531650415_846569497_n

P1120619_2

72755_10151456535780415_1249544768_n

28173_10151456556595415_2143224266_n

  • Being able to see Mehrangarh Fort from every rooftop in Jodhpur
  • The flat and easily accessible rooftops on top of every building
  • Exploring the streets of Jodhpur by foot or by cycle
  • Bringing lunch to work in a tiffin (a cylindrical steel lunchbox)
  • Getting a break from dysfunctional American politics
  • Brightly colored traditional clothing (such as saris, salwars, kurtas, and turbans)

DSC02770

DSCN9971

DSC02568

DSC02374

DSC00779

DSC02387_2

  • The little adventures that fill every day
  • Writing about those adventures on this blog

It’s been a good run, everyone. Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for my future projects. Although this blog is finished, I’ll absolutely find other opportunities for writing. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start another blog one of these days.

259865_10151456552325415_1503146182_n

Categories: Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Bovinophobia

Cows, Up Close and Personal

The streets of Jodhpur are like a something out of a nightmare. Vehicles rush frenetically in all directions, producing an unbearable din of horns and engines. They spew vile fumes of exhaust that mix with the dust to form an atmosphere so noxious many people travel with handkerchiefs over their mouths. No rules govern the chaos, only a mess of instincts and insights that somehow prevent people from colliding into each other at every intersection. Worst of all, horned beasts wander freely into the path of traffic, callously endangering all who encounter them, and these lethal menaces are not only accepted by the general population but also considered sacred by the predominant religion.

The ubiquity of cows in India and their consecrated status in Hinduism are well-known aspects of this country, but what you don’t realize until you spend every day dealing with cows is that they’re incontrovertibly terrifying. They may seem docile, with their big brown eyes and their wet, dog-like noses, but they’re not cute at all. They are large, powerful animals, equipped with multiple defenses that could easily slaughter a human being, and the day they decide to turn on us, we’re all done for.

They start out cute, but it doesn't last long.

They start out cute, but it doesn’t last long.

Just look at those horns and tell me cows aren't dangerous.

Just look at those horns, and tell me cows aren’t a threat.

I know these cows far too well. My office is located in a neighborhood of Jodhpur called Milk Man Colony, which until I arrived I thought was named as a quaint throwback to an era when people got their milk from dairies down the street, delivered in-person by real-live actual milkmen. I soon learned that in Jodhpur, that era is now. Where I live, the milkman arrives every evening around 7 PM. He pulls up on a motorcycle, honks the horn, and shouts “Doodh! Doodh!” (the Hindi word for milk). He keeps the milk is in large metal cans, one on either side of his motorcycle, and pours it directly into whatever container the household provides for him. I’m not sure where he gets the milk, but it could very well come from Milk Man Colony. There are definitely enough cows for it. Every morning, when I ride my bicycle to the office, I need to swerve around them as they lounge in the road, and I try my best to avoid their copious manure, which when it’s fresh jams unpleasantly between the grooves of my tires.

Throughout the day, I can hear the cows mooing as I sit at my computer. I’ve come to the conclusion that “moo” is a highly inaccurate word to describe the sound they make. In fact, it’s one of the grossest onomatopoeic failures of the English language. The sound is not a silly yawn, as “moo” seems to suggest, but rather a low, guttural groan, a somber warning summoned from the larynx of a creature that could clearly inflict some damage. I think “uuunnggh” would be more appropriate, with the extra letters always included. “The cow goes uuunnggh” might make for an unwieldy line in a children’s book, but it would teach kids a valuable lesson: don’t mess with cows.

Every time I pass a cow on the street, the same thought goes through my head—this animal could kill me if it wanted to. It could gore me with its sharp horns, it could crush me with its thick hooves, or it could just thrash me around for a while and see what happens. If I get by the creature unscathed, I consider myself lucky. Sure, I’ve heard that cows are generally not aggressive, but how can we really know what a creature like that is thinking or feeling? Maybe they’re highly aggressive, but they’ve learned how to mask their anger in order to co-exist with humans, kind of like the Hulk but maintaining their Hulk strength all the time. Cows are very muscular animals. That’s what keeps the steak and hamburger industries in business.

Behind that blank gaze, there might be a bitter, violent hatred of the human race.

Of course, there’s not much of a steak or hamburger industry in India. Due to the whole holiness thing, beef is both literally and figuratively off the table. As far as keeping cows in check, I’m not sure which strategy is better: Indian reverence or American hostility. In India, people treat cows with the utmost respect, giving them little reason to do any harm. In America, on the other hand, we relegate our cows to sparsely populated areas, confine them to factory farms, and kill them by the millions. On the down side, there’s not much respect involved, but on the up side, this system keeps them off the streets, where there’s no risk that they’ll hurt us. At least not while they’re alive. We still have to worry about growth hormones, heart disease, and superbugs, but that’s a low price to pay for security, isn’t it?

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Off the Top and Around the Ears

Kohinoor Gents Parlour

Before living to India, I would probably have avoided that faded green door, the one leading to a hole-in-the-wall establishment labeled “Gents Parlour,” but now I go regularly, making sure to carry some small bills.

Kohinoor Gents Parlour is where I get my hair cut in Jodhpur, and it may be one of the world’s cheapest barbershops. For a plain, no-frills haircut (the only kind I ever get), they charge just 30 rupees. At the current exchange rate, that’s about 55 American cents. You can barely buy a plastic comb for that price in the States. It’s a fraction of what I would give an American barber for the tip alone. Although the guys at my favorite barbershop in my hometown do a great job, they can’t compete on price. They charge $14 for a normal haircut, which seemed reasonable until I came to India. Now it seems exorbitant. For the prices to even out, I’d have to get at least two Indian haircuts per week, or one American haircut every four years. That would make a simple trim as infrequent an occurrence as voting for president.

Why is the Kohinoor Gents Parlour so cheap? I still haven’t completely figured it out. Ketaram, the senior barber, whom I assume is also the owner, clearly doesn’t make a lot of money. Even if he clips eight customers an hour, a very liberal estimate, he’ll only bring in $4.40. That’s a high salary by Indian standards (minimum wage for skilled labor in Rajasthan is $3.43 per day), but much of it will go back into the shop. With scissors, hair products, rent, and that heated shaving cream that only barbers seem to have, the costs add up.

This man will gladly cut your hair for just 30 rupees.

This man will gladly cut your hair for only 30 rupees. Getting him to smile for a photo is a different matter.

Of course, Ketaram can make due with fairly little income. Although not everything in India is as relatively inexpensive as a haircut, prices are pretty low. It’s easy to prepare a meal for an entire family for less than two dollars, and a three-bedroom apartment can cost less than $200 per month. But even with that in mind, a 55-cent haircut still seems ridiculous.

On Sunday, I got what was probably my last haircut at Kohinoor Gents Parlour. I’ll be leaving India exactly one month from today, so the next few weeks will involve plenty of other “lasts” as well. During these final days, I’ve resolved to appreciate the details of this city, the little things that I won’t be able to find anywhere else and that ultimately I’ll miss the most. That’s why I’m writing about my barbershop. Back in the States, as hair gradually elongates from my scalp and begins to droop over my eyes, I’ll pine for the days when I could get it trimmed for just 55 cents. And that green door will be a world away.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Shocks and Tremors

Boston cap and Jodhpur turban

The room vibrated with a force both subtle and profound. I first noticed the sensation coming from my chair and turned to see if someone was shaking it. Nobody was there. Then I saw that the desk was shuddering as well, and so was the picture of Gandhi hanging on the wall, and so was the wall itself. The ground was moving slightly but rapidly below the room, below the entire city of Jodhpur. An earthquake.

The quake’s epicenter was about one thousand miles away, near the Iran-Pakistan border, where it registered 7.8 on the Richter scale. In the surrounding villages, mud houses collapsed and crushed dozens of people, leaving over 30 dead and many more injured. It could have been much worse, as far as earthquakes go, but any large-scale of life and health is a tragedy and should not be dismissed through comparison. As the shock traveled further from its origins, it lost strength, and by the time it reached Jodhpur, it hardly constituted a minor disturbance. I felt only the dull remnants, the reverberations of a distant catastrophe.

Earlier that day, I had been reading of explosions in my hometown. Bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, injuring bystanders, and destroying brave legs that had just run nearly 26.2 miles. Right away, I called loved ones to make sure they were okay. The incident dominated my email inbox and Facebook feed, my primary connections to many people I cared about. I found myself glued to the news, ostensibly waiting for the latest developments but really seeking an answer to the unanswerable question of why. My thoughts were with the city where I grew up.

A few days later, as Boston locked itself down in search of a suspect, I discovered that a mouse had taken up residence in my suitcase, the same bag that had held all of my possessions when I made the journey to India over nine months earlier. I released the mouse into a field across the street, but she left behind three newborn babies, wriggling masses barely identifiable as rodents. I picked them up between my fingers and put them into a plastic container with some cookie crumbs and popcorn kernels. They had no hair, only translucent skin red from the warm blood underneath. I could see the beating of their hearts and the inflation of their lungs; I watched their tiny hands grasp for a mother who would never return. When I checked on them yesterday morning, their red color had drained to a pale white. I tossed the whole container into the trash.

Life is fragile and vulnerable, and it can end in an instant.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Festive Mess

Holi supplies

I was red, I was blue, I was purple, and then I was hot pink. It’s impossible to go through Holi and maintain a single color the whole day, especially not your natural skin tone. If someone had taken time-lapse footage of me, I would have looked like a malfunctioning chameleon, flashing all sorts of bright colors in a bizarre and alarming display. And across India, millions of other people underwent the same transformation.

Holi is one of the world’s most distinctive holidays, a festival of color that turns every face into a canvas for radiant dyes and powders. The main way to celebrate is to go around and spread color on friends, relatives, neighbors, and even complete strangers. Originally, the colors came from naturally occurring substances like mud, spices, or flowers, but now most of them are synthetic. I’ve heard that the chemicals used for the dyes can cause skin rashes and cause other unpleasant effects, but luckily I didn’t experience any lasting damage, other than a purple hue on my toenails that still hasn’t quite subsided.

Holi colors

The powder is yours.

DSC02378

We’re all just dyeing to celebrate Holi.

I’ve heard several stories about how the color-throwing got started. Most of them involve Krishna, one of Hinduism’s most popular gods. Known for his playful nature, Krishna was fond of games of pranks.  He used to enjoy flinging colors at his consort Radha, and she would toss them back at him. In honor of this lighthearted pastime, the tradition is repeated every spring on Holi.

The most religiously significant aspect of Holi is not actually the color but a large bonfire that occurs the night before the colorful festivities. It commemorates a much less cheerful story. In ancient times, the demon king Hiranyakashyap wanted his entire kingdom to worship him, but his son Prahlad became faithful to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu preserver of the universe (it may have been worthwhile going with Vishnu just for the sake of convenient pronunciation). To punish this insolence, the demon king ordered his sister Holika, who was immune to flame, to throw herself onto a blazing bonfire with Prahlad on her lap. She did, but to everyone’s surprise, the fire consumed her and left Prahlad unscathed. The yearly bonfire commemorates this triumph of faith and bears the name Holi in recognition of the immolated demoness (that’s about the only feminist conceit in this story, and it hardly makes up for the unsavory implications about the role of women in India).

Sticks laid out for a ritual bonfire on Holi.

Sticks positioned for a ritual bonfire on Holi

But it’s the color that gets worldwide attention, and for good reason. The festival is a brilliant and captivating sight. Holi is probably the only day of the year when it’s acceptable to turn a stranger purple. On the streets of Jodhpur, the scene was a hectic frenzy of airborne colors, rhythmic drums, and faces so altered that they seemed almost alien. It looked like an apocalypse orchestrated by the Blue Man Group.

Often the chaos gave way to eerie quiet, as draining dye formed muddy rainbows on the side of the road. During these lulls, roving bands of teenage boys swarmed passersby and covered them with color. The mobs could get a bit rough, especially with women, and it wouldn’t have been a good idea for a single female to travel alone. In general, most people knew better than to go out unprepared. Several of my friends refused to leave their homes at all.

The Pink Man Group

The Pink Man Group

Despite the occasional boundary crossing, Holi in India is a fantastic celebration. Many religions observe lively holidays at springtime, but in terms of sheer amusement and spectacle, Holi takes the cake. After the bonfire, it’s all about having fun, with no crucified saviors or enslaved peoples to drag down the buzz. And when else do you get to make a total mess of everyone you know?

Striking a pose while playing Holi

DSC02262

A typical Holi face

DSC02422

If school were held on Holi, this kid would be too cool for it.

DSC02394

All Holied up

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Case Closed

DSC02444

I’ve been working on a colorful post about Holi, but that will have to wait a few days. Something else has been on my mind recently, another unpleasant visit to what’s becoming my least favorite place in the universe—the Rajasthan High Court. On the bright side, the saga of my stolen camera might finally be over (if you missed the previous installments in this saga, see Requiem for a Camera and Scouring the Drains of India).

I absolutely did not want to go to the High Court. I expressed those sentiments in my last blog post on the subject, and then I expressed them again when a police officer arrived at my workplace a few days ago. However, the officer met with my supervisor and roped my organization into the whole mess. It was an unfair abuse of power, putting me in a very uncomfortable position. Closing the file became a professional matter, not just a personal one. I had no choice but to comply.

A couple colleagues went with me to the High Court, and we found the appropriate office. I was supposed to meet the magistrate, but the people inside didn’t look like they held much authority. After some interactions in Hindi, I was told to wait. I’m not exactly sure what happened next—it all went down while I was waiting outside—but about fifteen minutes later, I learned that an advocate was coming to argue my case. What case? I just wanted the police to end the investigation so that they would leave me the hell alone. Why did I need to hire a lawyer? It seemed like I was on trial, for nothing more than filing a police report.

I started shouting about corruption, and people stared at me. Well, I thought, let them stare. They should know that to an outsider, this whole system seems ridiculous.

When the advocate arrived, he claimed that I needed his help because I didn’t have enough experience at the High Court. He didn’t realize that I had experienced far more at that place than any rational human being should ever be made to endure. The advocate also claimed that he needed to confirm that I was the right Ben Soltoff, not an impostor. Had he looked at me? I was clearly the only Ben Soltoff who had ever dealt with a case at the Rajasthan High Court or who would ever deal with a case there in the entire course of human history.

Then the advocate produced a form in Hindi that presumably granted him power of attorney, and I wholeheartedly refused to sign. I didn’t understand what the form said, and even if I had understood, I probably wouldn’t have agreed with it. The advocate told me that I would need to come back another day for an English version.

Fat chance.

I wanted to resolve the issue as soon as possible, so I stormed back into the magistrate’s office. There was a man sitting there in a dark robe and fancy shirt. He looked like a magistrate. Striding confidently to his desk, I handed him the form that had been given to me by the police officer and demanded, “I want to setter this mattle right now!”

The magistrate ignored my unfortunate spoonerism and looked at the form. Then he pulled out a file that contained my original police report.

“Who was it that snatched your camera?” he asked.

If I had known the name of the kid who stole my camera, then maybe he would have been on trial instead of me. “I don’t know who it was. Just some little kid.”

The magistrate skimmed through my file. “Do you have any doubts?”

Oh, I had plenty of doubts. I doubted that the Rajasthan Police ever managed to successfully enforce the law. I doubted that the Rajasthan High Court played a productive role in society. I doubted that any Rajasthan bureaucrat was qualified for his or her job. And most of all, I doubted that it had been wise to trust the Rajasthan authorities in the first place. But I also doubted that I could say all that and still get out of there in a reasonable amount of time.

“No, your honor, no doubts.”

The magistrate took out a form saying that I gave permission for the police to close the case and that I would come back if they ever caught the perpetrators (which will never, ever happen). I signed the form, and the magistrate shut the file. Case closed.

I have no idea what the advocate would have done if I had hired him. My meeting with the magistrate lasted all of two minutes, requiring no legal expertise whatsoever. And no one ever questioned whether I was the real Ben Soltoff.

But beyond my own personal inconvenience and confusion, what bothered me about the incident was the inefficacy the justice system. In order to be sure that this was uniquely Indian problem, I emailed a family friend who happens to be a lawyer. Here’s his response:

There is no process here [in the U.S.] involved with closing a case like that. When someone files a police report, reporting a crime, an investigation will commence. Yes, some investigations are more involved than others. However, when they are done, if no charges are filed or no further investigation is going to happen, all they do is tell you. The complainant doesn’t have to do anything else. In fact, the complainant has no role in the process. Appearing in court for anything therefore makes no sense, since no court proceeding has begun and there is therefore nothing for a judge to rule upon. Technically, the complainant has no standing to appear in court for anything.

Must be unique to India, and wherever else the filing of a police report begins a “process”.

In India (or at least Rajasthan), anyone who files a police report becomes beholden to the police department. The burden lies with the victim, not with the law enforcement agency. When the crime is a stolen camera, this process constitutes a minor annoyance, but what about more severe crimes? Imagine if a rape victim had to go to the High Court in order to give permission for her rapist to walk free. It’s no surprise that the majority of rapes in India most likely go unreported. The inadequacies of the Indian police were a key issue during the Delhi rape protests this past winter. If nothing else, my troubles with the stolen camera have shown me just how right those protestors were. The Indian justice system is broken, and it greatly needs to change.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tourism and Transcendence at the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Let’s start with some trivia: where in the world is the Taj Mahal? Many people’s first instinct is to say India. That would have been my response about a year ago, and while technically correct, it’s not very precise. It’s like saying that the Eiffel Tower is located in Western Europe or that the Statue of Liberty is located east of the Mississippi River.

Surprisingly, for the home of India’s most famous monument, the capital of one of the largest empires in history, and a modern urban center with over one and a half million residents, the city of Agra isn’t particularly well known abroad. At least, I had never heard of it before coming to India. To be honest, beyond the things I just mentioned, there’s not a lot to hear about Agra. I only spent one day in the city while traveling with my family, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay much longer. An abundance of major tourist attractions and a lack of independent urban identity make for a highly undesirable mixture. The tourist economy overpowers all else.

The Taj Mahal, seen from afar

The Taj Mahal, seen from afar

As a result, Agra has by far the most aggressive and persistent salesmen that I have ever encountered in India. On the roads around the county’s most iconic sight, a foreigner can’t take three steps without being stalked by a rickshaw driver, shopkeeper, or hawker advocating relentlessly for whatever good or service he hopes to provide. While many of these men speak excellent English, they inevitably fail to understand the word “no.”

Take, for example, the interactions my brother and I had with bicycle rickshaw operators as we walked to the Taj Mahal from the ticket office, which was inconveniently located a kilometer from the monument’s main gate.

“Rickshaw, sir?”

“No, thank you.”

“Taj Mahal gate. Very long way.”

“It’s fine. We’ll walk.”

“It is very far. You will be tired.”

We had woken up before dawn in order to arrive for sunrise, so we clearly didn’t mind being tired. “We’ll be fine.”

“Only fifty rupees. Cheap price.”

“We’d rather walk. Please go away.”

“Twenty rupees.”

“No.”

“Look, already it is sunrise time.”

“We’re fine. We don’t want a rickshaw.”

“Sunrise time is very important. I am information.”

There are many nouns I would associate with the rickshaw horde, but information isn’t one of them. Most of the operators will say whatever it takes for you to give them money, and they’ll keep talking long after you’ve lost the will to listen. One guy followed us the whole way to the gate, wasting legwork he could have saved for more receptive passengers. Another guy only left us alone when I offered him my complimentary foot covers, still unused, as payment. Yes, it was rude, but I was fed up.  How else could I convince him that I had absolutely no interest in what he was selling?

DSC01752

The Taj Mahal looks almost pink at sunrise

Stasis proved deadly. When my family stopped to rest for a few minutes, the hawkers swarmed like vultures over a dying beast or like sharks around spilled blood. At the time, one of my family members came up with a different zoological analogy: “They’re like flies drawn to a fat turd.”

“Yes, that’s us,” I said. “Fresh and steaming.”

The worst of the harassment happens at Fatehpur Sikri, just outside of Agra, which was the short-lived capital of the Mughal Empire under Akbar. Now abandoned, it has become a hotspot for obnoxious sales tactics. At the parking lot, after I’d barely been in Fatehpur Sikri for two minutes, a man began to walk beside me. He tried to convince me to visit his shop “just to look,” because “looking is free, my friend.” I told him I wasn’t interested, but he kept it up. When I told him I was from the U.S., he began to praise President Obama, so in an attempt to take control of the conversation, I gave a thorough explanation of the Electoral College and its shortcomings as a democratic process. To the guy’s credit, he stuck it out through the whole lecture. Then he gave me his business card and asked when I would visit his shop. He eventually warned me to be careful of unwanted attention from the people near the monuments.

“Yes,” I told him, “It’s terrible when people follow you around and don’t leave you alone.”

He got the point and returned to his shop.

The Hall of Private Audience at Fatehpur Sikri

What the man hadn’t warned me was that the people near the monuments would be primarily children. Many offered their services as guides, including a few who looked no older than six. The children spoke excellent English and seemed very bright, too smart for their own good. They could have put their minds to use at school, but instead they were clamoring to give me a tour of a nearby mosque. It was heartbreaking. Saying no to a child is so much more difficult than saying no to a grown adult.

It’s a shame that these uncomfortable encounters often constitute the primary interactions between tourists and the people of India. What an odd filter through which to perceive a country. The men pushing miniature chess sets and marble elephants represent such a small subset of the Indian population, yet it’s possible to speak more to them than to anyone else. They seem almost a different species from my friends in Jodhpur. While there are plenty of cultural differences between Indians and Westerners, the differences between street vendors and the rest of India are far greater. In any culture, it’s a rare breed of person who can so readily dismiss rejection.

Somehow, though, the Taj Mahal manages to transcend the ugly mess that surrounds it. Domes and towers of white marble rise with impossible grace against a clear blue sky, intensely familiar yet still sublimely astounding. Photographs cannot capture the scale and splendor of the monument. It fully earns its status as one of the world’s most exquisite manmade structures and one of India’s most prized attractions.

The Arabic inscriptions get larger as they go up the arch, so form the bottom, they all look like they're the same size.

The Urdu inscriptions get larger as they go up the arch, so from the bottom, they all look like they’re the same size.

If only the Taj could stand on it own, away from the clutter and hassle of Agra. But of course, wherever it stands, it will draw tourists, and the tourists will draw people eager to take money from the tourists, and the whole jumble will form again. It’s inevitable. Transcendent beauty rarely escapes tourist attention, and every onlooker diminishes the charm, bringing an otherworldly place closer to the mundane concerns of worldly life. In the case of the Taj Mahal, there’s no getting around it. All you can do is admire what’s in front of you, along with hundreds of other tourists, and ignore the voice constantly asking if you’d like a ride in his bicycle rickshaw.

Soltoff family at India's most famous monument

The Soltoff family at India’s most famous monument

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Nine Forts in Nine Days

Mehrangarh

Most foreigners who visit Rajasthan don’t come on employment visas. They come as tourists, eager to see the state’s renowned forts and palaces. Because I’m one of the few foreigners actually working here, I don’t have much time for typical Rajasthan tour, which involves traveling from place to place and viewing monuments ad nauseum. Most of the trips that I’ve written about on this blog have been weekend excursions to a single city. However, all of that changed recently when my parents and brother came to visit. They were complete, 100-percent tourists, and for a couple weeks, I was a tourist with them. For me, “tourist” sometimes seems like a dirty word; it brings up images of clueless, camera-clad white people in culturally inappropriate clothing who wander around with no idea what’s going on. A tourist is the last thing I want to be. But sometimes I am one, and there’s no avoiding it without staying home.

The best way to describe what it’s like to go sightseeing in Rajasthan is to share one simple fact: during my family’s visit, we visited a fort every day for nine straight days. These nine forts represent a variety of different styles, displaying the rich and colorful history of Rajasthan. I should note that the first three are in Delhi and Agra, which aren’t part Rajasthan but are often included in the same itinerary.

Day One: Old Fort, Delhi

The main thing you need to know about Old Fort is right there in the name. It’s really old. According to rumors, there have been fortifications on the site for over 5000 years, and archaeological excavations have unearthed artifacts dating back to 1000 BCE.  Most of the fort’s current structures were built in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Humayun, and by Sher Khan, who defeated Humayun in 1540 and founded the short-lived Sur Dynasty. The fort is laid out in the typical Mughal style, with high, straight walls around smaller sandstone and marble buildings on a grassy lawn. The interior feels more like a park than a military installation, and it would make a nice picnic spot.

DSC01646

Qila-i-Kuna Mosque in Delhi’s Old Fort

Day Two: Red Fort, Delhi

Delhi does a good job of labeling its forts by their most prominent characteristics. A wall of red sandstone surrounds Red Fort, which is Old Delhi’s most distinguishing landmark. It was constructed in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who is best known for commissioning the Taj Mahal in honor of his late wife. The fort was the centerpiece of his new capital, an incarnation of Delhi that he humbly called Shahjahanbad. Red Fort is better preserved than Old Fort and generally better looking. Shah Jahan’s reign is often considered the pinnacle of Mughal architecture.  The fort has ornately carved marble buildings, and a four-sectioned symmetrical garden (known as a charbagh) with shade and fountains.

DSC01665

They call it Red Fort for a reason.

DSC01710

A pillar with colorful stones inlaid in marble

DSC01715

A symmetrical four-sectioned garden, known as a charbagh

Day Three: Agra Fort, Agra

Agra Fort is so similar to Red Fort that a taxi driver once tried to convince us it wasn’t worth seeing. It has the same sort of red sandstone wall around symmetrical marble and sandstone structures. However, Agra Fort has a distinct advantage—a stunning view of the Taj Mahal. Often this view distracts from the fort itself. Agra Fort existed throughout the Mughal era, but it was renovated by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century and then again by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. After Shah Jahan’s son imprisoned him in the fort, the former emperor was kept in a tower where he could spend every day gazing at the Taj Mahal, which was not only his most famous accomplishment but also the tomb of his beloved wife.

A view of the Taj Mahal from Red Fort

A view of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

DSC01777

A garden inside the fort walls

DSC01795

The Taj Mahal, as seen from Agra Fort

Day Four: Amer Fort, Jaipur

Amer Fort serves as an effective transition from Mughal to Rajput architecture. Of all of the Rajput rulers, those from what is now Jaipur shared the closest alliance with the Mughals, and that connection heavily influenced their style of building. Constructed in the 16th century by Maharaja Man Singh I, who was so close to Emperor Akbar that he commanded the Mughal Army, the fort has many Mughal features, such as large, open courtyards and pillared halls of private and public audience. Many tourists, especially foreigners, choose to ride elephants up the zigzagging path to the fort’s main entrance.

DSC00923

Amer Fort

DSC01840

Elephants wait at the bottom the hill.

DSC01825

A painted elephant takes tourists up the path to the fort.

DSC00961

Monkeys on top of Amer Fort

DSC00964

More monkeys

Day Five: Taragarh, Bundi

Bundi is one of India’s hidden gems, especially compared to the bustling Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. For most of the time my family and I spent at Taragarh, which sits on a hill above the city, we were the only people up there. The lack of tourist traffic correlates with a lack of upkeep, but the fort’s decaying nature adds to the excitement of exploring it. Troops of rhesus macaques wander through the overgrown, dilapidated buildings and drink from the mostly dried-up step wells. Because there are so few people, the monkeys aren’t very aggressive and don’t normally harass you for food, but just to be safe, a stand at the bottom of the hill provides sticks for fending them off. Unlike the other forts we visited, Taragarh has no informative placards, so I’m not sure when or why it was built. A visit to the fort is more of an adventure than an educational experience. And the view from the top is spectacular.

DSC01999

Abandoned buildings at Taragarh

DSC01965

A dried up step well

DSC01974

A monkey runs along the ramparts.

DSC01987

Looking wistful

DSC01991

Someone get this monkey some Prozac.

Day Six: Chittorgarh, Chittorgarh

Chittorgarh, the largest fort in India, occupies an entire plateau above a flat plain. It’s so large that it comprises its own city, and over 4,000 people live within the original walls. Built in the 7th century, it eventually became the capital of Mewar kingdom. The fort was taken three times in its history, and each time, the inhabitants carried out the gruesome Rajput tradition of jauhar, in which the men rode into battles that they had no hope of winning while the women and children burned themselves to death in order to avoid dishonor at the hands of the enemy. After the last defeat, brought on by the Mughal Emperor Akbar and Maharaja Man Singh I of Amer, Chittorgarh was abandoned, and the capital of the Mewar kingdom eventually shifted to Udaipur. Even though the fort is primarily known for defeat, its predominant landmark is called Vijay Stambha, the Tower of Victory. It’s an intricately carved column built by Maharana Kumbha of Mewar. Visitors can climb to the top for a scenic view of the city and the countryside below.

DSC02070

The Tower of Victory

DSC02082

Temples at Chittorgarh

Day Seven: Sajjangarh, Udaipur

Sajjangarh, also known as the monsoon palace, was the fortified mountain retreat of the rulers of Mewar, built by Maharana Sajjan Singh in the 19th century. Even though it wasn’t used explicitly for military purposes, its name has the suffix “garh,” so I’ll still count it as a fort. The structure is mostly empty these days, but it provides an excellent view of Udaipur’s lakes and mountains. It also gets points for serving as the lair of a Bond villain in the movie Octopussy.

DSCN0009_2

Sajjangarh

DSC02135

Monkeys near Sajjangarh, with a view over Lake Pichola

Day Eight: Kumbhalgarh, Rajsamand

The ancient Mewar kindgdom had a thing for hilltop forts with striking views. Built by Maharana Kumbha in the 15th century, Kumbhalgarh sits on a remote peak in the Aravali Range. Its 36-kilometer outer wall, which snakes over the nearby hills, is supposedly the world’s second largest fortification, after the Great Wall of China. The fort area contains hundreds of temples and a lot of rugged terrain for exploring.

DSC02167

Kumbhalgarh

Day Nine: Mehrangarh, Jodhpur

A trip to Rajasthan can easily lead to fort fatigue, but Mehrangarh is an instant cure. It towers over the blue houses of Jodhpur’s old city, emerging grandly and seamlessly from the earth below. Hands down, it’s the best fort I’ve seen in India, although living in Jodhpur might make me a bit biased. At least TIME Magazine agrees with me. They named it Asia’s Best Fortress in 2007. Within its imposing exterior, Mehrangarh contains well-preserved interior palaces with intricate stone latticework, and the fort museum is clear and organized, a rarity in India.  Built by Jodhpur’s namesake Rao Jodha in 1459 and improved by subsequent Maharajas, the stronghold has never been forcibly overcome.

Bringing my family there made for a suitable end to our trip. For the last several months, Mehrangarh has been a constant presence in my life. Every building in Jodhpur has an accessible rooftop, and every rooftop has a view of the fort. It forms a constant backdrop for my experiences, both my outings as a tourist and, more frequently, my daily pursuits as a working resident.

DSC02181

Mehrangarh

P1110445

Ful Mahal (Flower Palace)

P1110475

Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace)

DSC02185

Mehrangarh at sunset

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Scouring the Drains of India

Trash-filled pond

As several readers have pointed out, my blog posts over the past few weeks have portrayed India in a very negative light. They’ve emphasized the country’s least flattering aspects—misogyny, corruption, and bureaucratic nonsense. So I wanted to write this post on something upbeat, something that highlighted the best parts of the country, the stuff that makes it worthwhile living here. But then fate got in the way.

On a completely unspectacular weekday evening, I stepped out of my office and went to the spot where I had parked my bicycle. Indian bikes have a lock built directly over the back tire, with a little key that you need to insert and turn in order to unclamp the wheel. It’s a neat feature that makes it unnecessary to use a stronger lock in safe areas like a gated driveway or office. Or so I thought.  On this particular evening, my bike was gone. It had vanished without a trace. Most likely, someone came in through the office gate and pried open the lock, although it’s also possible that someone simply carried the bike away and broke the lock later. Either way, the bike was stolen, despite being in a gated yard on a quiet backstreet.

At first, I was astonished. Why would someone steal a well-worn bicycle from such an inconspicuous location? One of my co-workers thinks the culprit was someone in the neighborhood who saw a foreigner on the bike and assumed there must have been something special about it. Otherwise, I would travel by auto-rickshaw or private car, like most foreigners who visit the city. That would explain why, of the three bikes outside the office that day, only mine was taken. To be fair, the other bikes were tucked off to the side, so maybe it was just a random act of theft. But whatever the case, the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t like it.

I had no interest in dealing with the police, not after the never-ending saga of my stolen camera several months earlier, which brings me to the other unfortunate experience that dogged my plans to write a positive blog post.  Two days ago, I arrived at my desk to find a notice stamped by local police station. It was in Hindi, so I had one of my co-workers translate. He told me it was a summons from the Magistrate at the High Court related to the First Information Report I filed about my camera. What was this all about? Had the police actually found the thief? Were they pursuing justice in a timely and effective manner?

No, of course not. This is India. My co-worker explained that the police wanted to officially close the case, and in order for them to do so, I needed to be present at a hearing in front of the Magistrate.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” I said. The police from the station down the road wanted me to travel all the way across town so that they could officially give up. Couldn’t they just call me? Didn’t the Magistrate have better things to do? Why hold a trial for an unsolved crime?

The hearing is today, and I have absolutely no intention of going. I don’t mind that they want to close the file, but they can do it on their own time. I’m done with the police, and I’m done with the High Court.

So what’s the silver lining here? Based on some of the things I’ve written, it’s easy to conclude that India is a filthy, corrupt, crime-ridden country that’s unsafe and unfair for women and contains a brutally poor majority lagging ever further behind the wealthy minority. Is that really the case?

Yes, it is. India is all of those things. However, it’s also a lot more. It would be unreasonable to limit any account of India solely to the negative aspects. That’s what the American journalist Katherine Mayo did in her muckraking 1927 book Mother India, and her work was met with justified outrage. Gandhi likened Mayo to a drain inspector who waded exclusively through the country’s grimiest settings and then proclaimed, with knowingly limited perspective, “The drains are India.”

The drains exist, and they’re definitely revolting, but they’re not India. Like many countries, especially those with colonial pasts and burgeoning populations, India has severe and deep-seated flaws. Yet it also benefits from undeniable strengths, including millions of kind-hearted and hard-working people, a tradition of religious tolerance extending from the distant past to the present day, and a vibrant, alluring culture that draws people, like me, from all over the world.

Contrary to what some of my posts may suggest, I don’t bear any wide-ranging resentment towards this country, and I don’t aim to write a modern Mother India. While flaws are often the most engaging and entertaining topics to write about, I recognize that they don’t tell the whole story. The key is to strike a fair balance and between criticism, humor, and admiration, and that’s what I strive to do, although unfortunate and ridiculous circumstances tend to steal the focus. The antics of Indian authorities are too amusing to ignore.

Pigs at the pond

An unpleasant Indian scene.

Another view

That same scene, viewed from a different angle with a wider context.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Confessions of an Unintentional Terrorist

Air Force residential area

Last week, while enjoying a pleasant Sunday afternoon, I unknowingly threatened India’s military security and set off an international incident. As a result of this offense, I was detained and held against my will at an Indian Air Force base. How did this happen? Did I sell nuclear secrets to Pakistan? Did I orchestrate an attack on a major metropolitan area? Did I somehow exaggerate the turbulence in Kashmir? No, it was none of those things. My crime was a five-minute bike ride through what happened to be a restricted area.

It started with a simple trip to the bike shop. My tire had gone flat twice in two days, and I was wondering whether I needed to get it replaced. The man at the shop told me it was fine, so I decided to take a quick ride around the neighborhood and make the most of my mobility. It felt good just to be alive and outside in the Indian air. I passed boys playing cricket in sandy lots, stray dogs poking through garbage, and cows lazily settled in the middle of the road.

When I found myself on new terrain, I decided to explore a bit and take an alternate route home. I knew I was near Golf Course Ground, which isn’t a golf course so much as a somewhat clear stretch of desert where country club members supposedly play golf. I can’t imagine how they manage to finish a round. The entire thing is a sand trap.

Beyond the golf course, I took a right and passed through a gate labeled “Air Force.” Now might be a good time to mention some essential details in this story:

  1. Jodhpur has a neighborhood called Air Force Area that’s near the Air Force Base and entirely accessible to the public.
  2. Many neighborhoods in Jodhpur have large decorative gates that do not serve any security-related purpose.
  3. The area I was entering was not Air Force Area. It was the residential area of the Air Force Base. Apparently, there’s a huge difference.
  4. The gate I went through definitely served a security-related purpose (but didn’t do too great a job at it).

For a few minutes, I enjoyed a quiet bike ride through the area inside the gate, which looked more or less like the area outside the gate. It had schools, shops, and not a single person in uniform. Then I reached another gate, and this one was closed. A few men on motorcycles were waiting there, so I asked one of them when the gate would open. He seemed both surprised and amused to see me.

“Where have you come from?” he asked.

“I came from High Court Colony.”

“And before that? From which country have you come to India?”

“From America. USA.”

“So what are you doing in this area?”

“I’m riding my cycle.”

“And why have you ridden your cycle here?”

“Because it looked like a nice place.”

“A nice place… How did you get in?”

“Through the main gate back there.”

“Bloody gate…”

He was getting agitated, and I started to figure out that something was wrong, but I didn’t yet realize that I had become an international terrorist.

The man directed me to two armed guards, the first people in uniform I’d seen all day. I asked them how to get to MBM College, a nearby landmark. Instead of answering, they began to argue with each other in Hindi, angrily.

At that point, I decided to get out of there. I headed towards the gate, but the man on the motorcycle called me back.

“You have entered into a restricted area,” he said. “You should cooperate with us.”

“Sorry, I didn’t know it was restricted. Can I just leave?”

“No, it is best if you cooperate with us.”

I decided to cooperate. Not because of the man on the motorcycle but because of the guards, or more specifically, because of the rifles the guards carried on their shoulders. It’s never a good idea to disobey people who can shoot you and call it national defense.

The red box is the air force residential area, clearly a restricted zone, and the yellow circle is where I entered. According to Google Maps, it’s just a normal road.

I had no idea that the process of cooperation would last for the next three hours. The first step in cooperating involved leaving behind my bike and getting into a jeep with the guards. They took me back to the gate, where more guards came out. When these guards saw me, their eyes opened wide and their mouths hung slightly agape. An expression that in all cultures means “Damn, someone really messed up.”

After waiting there for a while, I was taken to another office to meet with the security officer. I didn’t go into the office, though. I had to sit outside under a tree, because they didn’t want me to see any top-secret military business.

The security officer was a small, thin-mustached man in a wide-brimmed baseball cap and a blue jumpsuit. He looked more like a high school gym teacher than a disciplined military leader. Before I could go, he told me, I would need to call one of my co-workers. So I did. I dialed the number, cheerfully greeted my co-worker, and then handed over the phone. It wasn’t until after the security officer hung up that he said my co-worker needed to come in person.

My ring of accomplices had grown. Now my co-workers were in on the act, potentially covering up my treachery and espionage. In order to accept my identity as a hapless bicyclist, the security officer needed face-to-face contact with my associates and official documentation. As I waited in the shade for my co-worker, various air force officials asked for my residential address, my work address, and my phone number. I must have been asked at least ten times. Eventually, I just pointed to the notepad where the previous official had written down the information.

When a car finally arrived, it was not the co-worker I had called but one of the founders of the organization. I was mortified. Obviously, word of my troubles had spread to multiple people at my office, and they had to decide who would come and retrieve me.  Now I know what it feels like to get bailed out of prison.

The security officer asked the founder to complete some paperwork. She had to write a report and show some documents verifying that GRAVIS was a real organization. Another officer wrote a statement in English for me to sign. I have no idea why I couldn’t have prepared my own statement in the hours I spent waiting. Eager to finally leave, I signed the statement without much complaint. I’ll admit that my supposed testimony wasn’t entirely true.

For instance, it said that I was “caught” by the guards. That’s definitely not the right word. It suggests that I was somehow trying to evade detection and that the guards were somehow competent. A better term would be “serendipitously encountered.”

The most irritating part of the statement was a single sentence: “I am not very much familiar with the ways of Jodhpur.” In fact, I have very good sense of direction and a decent knowledge of Jodhpur’s streets. When I checked my route on Google Maps several days later, I found that I had been going in exactly the right direction. I just didn’t know it was a restricted zone. A more accurate statement would be “I am not very much familiar with which ways of Jodhpur go through arbitrary and poorly guarded air force residential areas.”

Eventually, the security officer accepted that I was not actually a terrorist and allowed me to leave, warning me to be more careful. After graciously thanking the founder of my organization several times, I headed home.

As I rode my bike out of the air force compound, I felt it sink slightly beneath me. The back tire, my initial reason for setting out, had gone flat again. I only needed to cover a short distance, and I really wanted to get out of there, so I kept going. The ride was bumpy and slow, but I made it back. Deflated in air and in spirit, I was, nonetheless, a free man.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.