December 7, 2012

Looking at Each Other

My first few days in Jaipur were filled with what I called "neocolonialist guilt." At my guesthouse I was waited on by at least three servants at dinnertime, who would all gather around and stare silently at me as I ate alone at the table. Every night I would try my best to make conversation, but my limited Hindi prevented much more beyond "Oh, potatoes. Very good. Yes, very good," which is not captivating table talk. Sitting there by myself, getting my water refilled after every sip, I felt like I was resurrecting the British Raj singlehandedly, and I kept expecting a fourth servant to show up behind me wafting a punkah to keep me cool.

Gradually, the white expat anxiety gave way to plain irritation as I got smothered by the same excessive attention out and about. Stepping into a department store for a pair of paints, five sales clerks instantly enveloped me and followed my every move, so that the moment I touched a piece of clothing they would pick up five completely dissimilar items to present to me. "If you like those shorts, sir, why don’t you also consider this winter jacket?" Meanwhile, I’ve been trying desperately to form personal relationships with the owner and front desk manager of my guesthouse, checking in every day to say hello, but no matter what I say the response is invariably: "Any problems with your room? What more do you need?" And then of course, there’s the constant staring on the street, the staring at work, and the sense that I stand out like a sore thumb. The attention and the impenetrable formality have put a sort of cage over me, and I'm feeling boxed in.

Only recently have I realized that this "caged animal on display" analysis is awfully self-centered. To assume that everyone I meets alters their behavior around me or feels compelled to lavish me with attention because of my blond hair is a pretty internalized interpretation, and that sort of assumption is as much a stale remnant of colonialism as anything else. So what if it's something I've been missing about Indian culture in general all this time?

New Yorkers commonly cite their proximity to eight million other people as an excuse for what outsiders would term rudeness. "I walk by dozens of people on the sidewalk every day," they argue. "We're packed into subways like sardines. You expect me to stop and shake hands with everyone who comes my way?" Curtness is a practical survival strategy. India suffers a similar overcrowding problem--on the scale of, say, 1.2 billion people. But methinks they've opted for an altogether different tack than ignoring one another; instead, I think they've made a determined commitment to actually acknowledge each other. If putting up with millions of other people in your life is an unavoidable reality, Indians have chosen to excel at it. I compare it to infamous Indian traffic chaos: sure, jampacked streets full of motorcycles, rickshaws, and cows will inevitably create a few crashes, but they'll create infinitely more oustanding drivers.

So what does excelling at living alongside each other look like? For starters, staring can be forgiven. People are interesting, so why not look at who's in front of you instead of spending your life staring down at the pavement? But more importantly, hospitality is sacred. We're all guests at one time or another, and in India one is nearly always sharing a roof with other people, so we ought to take it as a serious duty when it's our turn to play host. As for weddings, well, drawing up a finite guest list and leaving someone out of the celebration is tantamount to social heresy, so better to open the dancefloor up to the masses. If we have no control over who we're surrounded by, why not embrace inclusion? New Yorkers have tackled overcrowding by treating others with respect as a mandate; Indians have taken a more affirming approach and have adopted "the more the merrier" as a mantra.

I think that's something I can adjust to. I'm willing to trade in some personal space in exchange for the fruits of human connection. Take the gym I've started attending, for instance. My first week I thought I could slip in, spend some quality time with a treadmill and my headphones, and slip out again. Oh, no no. Here at least five trainers prowl the floors, and upon arrival every day I'm seized, presented with a daily list of exercises, and required to complete them--and get my completion card signed off--before getting permission to leave. And let me tell you, getting caught skipping warm-up stretches is bad news. Naturally, it was a bit infurating my first few days not to step onto a cycle without getting my posture corrected. But then it hit me -- why be annoyed by free personal trainers who will actually make sure I do what I'm supposed to? I can get used to extra attention.

That being said, India has also come up with a grimmer solution to the challenge of living side by side that is, if anything, the opposite of inclusiveness. Its intricately stratified class and caste system, rooted in centuries of tradition and institutionalized by the categorically-minded British, influences every human interaction. Between every two people there is an encoded status of superior and inferior, master and servant. For those with higher status, the world is conveniently compressed, as the servant class can be more or less invisible to them. The servants, on the other hand, are obliged to constantly acknowledge their superiors. In this eternal pecking order, it's easy to imagine the roles of guest and host taking on the dynamic of master and servant.

The challenge for me, then, in forgiving the excesses of Indian hospitality, is to not let anyone become invisible. If everyone in India is going to stare at me, I'm determined to look right back at all of them. The employee who cleans my room every day and summons me to dinner--whom the guesthouse management call "the boy"--is a deaf man who I'm told applied for years to desk jobs but was denied them because there were no allowances for his condition. He must have finally gotten fed up with me over-excitedly waving and smiling at him every time we ran into each other, and this morning he gifted me with an Indian Sign Language alphabet sheet. I can't wait to finally have dinnertime conversation. 

November 21, 2012


So I've survived my first Diwali. It was touch-and-go throughout, but I dodged just enough cultural faux-pas and falling firecrackers to make it out and report. That's not to say I escaped entirely unscathed.

On the morning of the main day of Diwali, Hinduism's biggest festival, celebrants bless their workspace and pray for prosperity for the coming year. They do the same at their homes with family in the evening. I was invited to participate in my office's puja, which began at 9am. When I arrived, all my coworkers were already stuffed into my boss's office together, sitting cross-legged on the floor in brightly colored, brand-new kurtas before a shrine of marigolds, bananas, coconuts, palm fronds, and incense. I removed my shoes and squeezed in between the wall and the door. The manager of the office and his wife sat before the colorful spread and were led through a 45-minute ritual of prayers by two priests who patiently cued them like officiants at a wedding.

Halfway through the ceremony, the priests lit a small fire in a pot on the floor (the fire alarms had been carefully disabled beforehand). My coworkers began to pass around small bowls of rice, and soon I was presented with one too. The whole ceremony seemed to grind to a halt, and all eyes turned to me expectantly. My uncertainty must have been sending out a distress signal. 

"Toss the rice in the fire," my boss calmly explained. 

"Toss the rice in the fire?" I confirmed.

"Yes. In the fire." 

Dutifully, I took aim, fired, and was very pleased with myself when my kernel landed in the flames.

The room collectively gasped with horror. The horror gave way to shocked giggles as my coworkers turned to each other in embarrassment and my boss and his wife looked apologetically at the visiting priests. What my boss hadn't told me was not to throw the rice in the fire yet. The head priest cocked one eyebrow with irritation and then seemed to decide I hadn't ruined the entire ceremony with my ignorance. Sighing, he continued on. 

Hinduism is indeed a faith of forgiveness, as afterward I was still permitted to receive a red tilak between my eyebrows and a handful of sweets as a sort of ceremony completion certificate. Afterward, we had a brief reception with coffee, dumplings and cakes before everyone retired to spend the day with family. 

Fortunately several friends of an Oxford chum happened to be backpacking through Jaipur that day, so I didn't have to spend it alone. As evening set in, the four of us positioned ourselves on the rooftop of their hotel to observe the night's festivities from a safe vantage point. To an American, Diwali at nighttime might best be described as a grand union of Christmas and the Fourth of July. Every building blankets itself in lights, something I found mildly disorienting without any snow or freezing temperatures. And as twilight sets in and families finish up their Diwali prayers for the home, the firecrackers begin. 

Ostensibly, the loud booms and bright flashes are meant to drive off evil spirits, which is the general notion of the holiday. But let's be honest--every country just loves a good excuse for fireworks.  Some countries manage to scrape up better rationale for them than others. In the US, they're meant to evoke the cannon fire that secured America's freedom. Makes sense. For the UK's Guy Fawkes Day, they supposedly commemorate thwarting a terrorist who did not blow up Parliament. That's a bit more of a stretch. But of any holiday Diwali, billed as the Festival of Light, may make the strongest case.

An unexpected perk of living in a country with a dearth of government oversight means basically no regulations on firework sales, adding an element of danger to your holiday. As we watched from our perch, gigantic, terrifying booms and blasts began springing up all around us at random. As the night went on, things began to feel less like a holiday and more like a BBC war zone briefing. Somehow that only made us grow restless, and soon we decided we should probably throw ourselves into the melee and see what happened. 

Right outside the hotel, the street was strewn with celebrants lighting short fuses in the middle of the road and then running for their lives. Whenever a passing car failed to see a lit fuse, the entire street held its breath and hoped the blast didn't take its engines out. Wending our way through the mayhem felt more or less like traversing a minefield. Time and again, our first warning sign would be someone standing several feet away from us nervously plugging their ears; then we would look down at our feet, see a scrap of paper quietly sparking, and dash to the curb before it exploded into the air in a burst of green and gold. 

One of my friends got infected by the urge to blow things up and purchased some dubious but satisfyingly gigantic rocket-shaped fireworks from a sidewalk vendor. After he carefully placed the first rocket skyward in a jar and lit the fuse, the rocket shot out, took an immediate left turn, and charted a horizontal course straight into the hotel wall. Frankly I'm astonished there aren't more Diwali fatalities every year. As for me, I got singed only twice: first by an overexcited sparkler, and second by some rooftop miscreants using us for target practice. 

India, without fail, is a country of extremes, and the serene puja in the morning and the citywide pandemonium in the evening barely seemed like the same world, much less the same holiday. For me, the common link was a heightened sense of community. Squeezing in with my coworkers on my boss's floor evoked the same sort of intimacy that I shared with strangers at night as we dodged blasts or cheered together for the greatest fireballs. I found just as much to cherish in quiet meditation shared between coworkers as I did in the collective glee in the streets.