Friday, February 25, 2005

Beginnings and Endings in Mother India

Last night, the group of five volunteers that left from New York six months ago sat in an apartment five stories up in a neighborhood just outside of Bombay proper called Bandra. They sat on red bean bag chairs and uncomfortable wicker couches, eating take out Chinese food and Pizza Hut and listening to the clanging bells of a Hindu puja, a religious rite, that was proceeding to make a racket on the street below.

"What are your memories of the beginning of the trip? Before we left New York?" asked Zach.

Valerie replied first, her eyes looking up at the ceiling as she laughed in recollection. "The rain. I remember the rain. The day we left there was that ridiculous rain storm. I was so pissed you have no idea... I stood in ankle high water with my bags for two hours waiting for a cab. I was five hours late for orientation. I thought it was a bad sign, an ill omen for the beginning of our trip."

Rebecca shifted. Her body language said that she had something to say, but was finding the words. "I remember thinking, when the rains began to fall, that this is it. The journey begins here. How I deal with this is how I deal with my whole time while I'm away and with India in general. If I run, if I get discouraged, if I'm convinced that this will somehow prevent me from making the best of my time, that will carry over. I had to be positive."

Over the course of the evening, the five of us sat and reflected, slurping up black bean noodles and bok choy as we took stock. What do we remember about our homestays? What about when we first arrived at work? What were things that sustained and supported us while we were here? Have our priorities changed from before we left? What are we going to bring home with us?

We worked through these questions and others, rolling them around in our minds, bringing to the table our thoughts and fears, our recollections and gained perspectives. It was important for me to hear what other people were thinking and feeling as we approach the end of our time in Bombay. I know that all of this past week I've been walking around, thinking about all the things that I'm going to miss here, all the aspects of my experience that have brought me close to this city. I've reflected so much while I've been here, be it through writing or photography or just talking things over with the people around me, and that's really made my time here full and rich.

I've had an amazing time in Bombay, and I really value every opportunity that it's allowed me.
I'm moving on for now, leaving next week on a train that will bring me up to the Himalayas. I'm looking forward to the change of pace and scenery. Though I love Bombay, I'm glad to be going to a place where I can breath and hike and allow my mind to soak in my whole time here. I'll be travelling around India and Thailand for the next two months, and I'm excited for the last leg of my journey here in the East. So until I return, Salaam Bombay, Salaam.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Three Days of Building Bridges

Somehow, I find myself in the back of a large, open air truck with forty Indian school children. We're thrown into the air with every bump in the cracked, rural roads we're traveling on, and the experience is somewhat reminiscent of a hayride. Except that hayrides often have hay, usually don't last three hours, and rarely involve a hot South Asian sun beating down on you.

The group of ten year olds I'm with in the back of the truck are in so many ways alike. They're all from similar socio-economic backgrounds, all go to similar public schools, and all come from areas that have been affected by communal, or religious, violence.

It's their differences, though, that account for their presence here with me and the staff of the NGO I'm working with. I look around the back of the truck, watching the children, and distinctly see that there are two separate groups there. The Hindu children were talking and laughing with Hindu children, and the Muslim children were only talking to other Muslims.

The week or so beforehand I had really been anticipating the coming weekend when Salokha would have its first interfaith residential camp that brought together the two religious communities that they've been working with for over five years. I was curious though how I would be able to distinguish the two groups to really watch the dynamics between and amongst them. The answer should have been obvious to me from the start. When the children arrived it became clear; all the Muslim kids were wearing white skullcaps. And so throughout the weekend I was able, to some degree, to watch how much and what kind of interactions were occurring between the children.

The truck finally stops and we all get out, rattled from our long ride through the hills of Northern Maharashtra. Our venue for the weekend is the largest organic farm in the state, which surprises me as I didn't realize that were any organic farms in India. Our accommodations are a bare but pleasant farmhouse, and what it lacks in physical comfort it makes up for with its incredible atmosphere. It's one massive room, and there are no walls at all; the roof is held up by so many pillars along the side and scattered around the room. Breezes rush through the room and I see that I'm not the only one who's enjoying being away from Bombay's pollution and congestion. Kids are running around making mischief, playing cricket, and taking naps on cots. This type of place is in my opinion the best for bringing groups together. Everyone has to share space, eat, sleep and live together, whether they like it or not. Here, there's communication about who you are even when nothing is necessarily being said.

One of the main things that always shapes my experience when I go out to observe and participate in field work with my organization is language. Ironically, this time I'm not the only one for whom language is an issue; the whole group needs to accommodate to itself. The Hindu kids present attend Marathi-medium schools, Marathi being the local language of Maharashtra. The Muslim children attend Urdu-medium schools, Urdu being the language that Muslims primarily speak in South Asia. In a symbolic twist, it's decided by the staff that the language we will use for the weekend will be Hindi, a language that both groups know enough to converse in. Hindi has its roots in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu Vedas, but is also heavily influenced by Urdu and Farsi, languages that have long been associated with Islamic communities. The two groups, like the languages they use, are in many ways similar but also different in significant ways. And while we are quite lucky to be dealing with groups that know a common language, I hear small complaints and groans when the decision is made.

The weekend is peppered with a range of activities from educational sessions and group bonding exercises to skit practice and games. In sessions we talk about religious traditions and their similarities and differences, but focus heavily on the stereotypes associated with different communities. Aside from the intergroup aspect though, the weekend reminds me much of my own experiences in summer camp in the States. The kids sing songs and play group games and sports, are unruly and boisterous when they have free time, and even have a dance party one night. But instead of playing Simon Says they play Gandhi Says. Cricket replaces Baseball and Hindi pop tunes take the place of American camp classics. In the morning we have yoga, and five times a day the Muslim kids run off for Namaz, or prayers.

I watch those white skullcaps intensely as the weekend goes by, worried as they are the smaller group. Only twelve or thirteen of the forty-something kids with us are Muslim, but this is even an over-representation considering that on the national level they only make up about fifteen percent of the population. It becomes clear though that it's not simply a matter of numbers. The Muslim kids that are with us definitely have an insular feel to them, the whole group often bunching shyly together in pockets during any activity. The staff is working actively to involve them as much as they can, but is finding it difficult. Part of the issue is compounded by the practice of Namaz. It was an unforeseen issue on our part, but is having a large effect with the Islamic kids running off for prayers and being absent for a good number of activities. The issue brings up some touchy questions. How are group workers to integrate an already isolated group when they're not present for some activities? And how can this be done while still acknowledging and respecting the religious practices of the group?

The end of the weekend comes, and though these questions aren't fully answered, they also are not completely unanswered. I think what is clear is that these are still two different groups, and that integration and tolerance doesn't mean that both groups need to act in the same way, but simply in a way that has a sense of harmony and respect. The kids impressed all the staff members on the last night when mixed groups put on sketches dealing with the themes of inter-religious cooperation and brotherhood, which, while filled with the overacting that is the hallmark of Bollywood, were well rehearsed and delivered. And now, as the truck is thrown up with every bump, I watch as Hindu and Muslim kids exchange emails and telephone numbers. Others sit in groups, talking and laughing, and I see many more skullcaps interspersed than on the way here.

It can't be said that the weekend caused all of the tensions to dissolve between the two groups, but the wounds that these two communities have inflicted upon each other are deep here in Bombay. It will take a long time for them to heal, and for the hatred and enmity to die out. But I do think that is it a step in the right direction. The children were provided with an experience that can't be taught. They were exposed to each other and saw each other's humanity, and this is the first part of building bridges.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Rediscovering Bombay

It’s been over four months since I stepped off the plane at the international airport in Northern Bombay. Not all that much time from some perspectives, from others, a lifetime. It is long enough, for instance, to begin a new life, to have relationships to develop in unimagined ways and to learn volumes. Short enough, though, to go by in the blink of an eye. Only now, two thirds of the way through my time in this city, I’ve begun to realize the finitude of my stay here. I always knew that it wouldn’t last forever, just as in my mind I know that nothing in fact does. But knowing intellectually and knowing with your experience are two different things. Knowing in experience means that one is more likely to act upon that knowledge in a more active way. And so that’s what I have been attempting to do.

Taking a stronger eye to the things that at this point strike me as normal but that are, in fact, phenomenal, has been a big part of rediscovering Bombay. The shocking living conditions that I pass on the ride to work do not shock me any more. My tongue barely burns now when I taste the chilies that find their way into all the food here. At the end of the day as I kick off my sandals my eyebrows only raise if my feet are clean. At first I was amazed at everything, but after four months the excitement, allure and exotic nature of life here that so many who visit speak of hides itself from view. It’s amazing how normalcy creeps up and simply inserts itself into life, in most unassuming ways, though with a presence akin to an elephant in a room.

That’s not to say that I would like to revive the experience of stepping off the plane, or that I wished that I knew nothing of what I know now about what life is here. On the contrary, what I take out of my experience here only becomes greater as time goes on. At the same time though, the learning experience can stagnate or atrophy if I decide that things here are a certain fixed way, and if I base my actions in a set of behavioral patterns that can be limited.

And so I take this knowledge that I’ve recently acquired, the knowledge that I won’t be here for too much longer, and I go out. I find different ways to rediscover the city. I go out with my camera, seeing things through a glass lens that changes the observing process, and makes me encounter insular moments with renewed interest and curiosity. I explore different neighborhoods, wander through areas that have always been close but never been traveled. My Hindi, for a while, stayed at a fixed level, so in my last month I’m starting up private lessons with our yoga teacher. These actions, taken on their own, are good and positive, but I've been taking them as all being part of this spirit of rediscovery that I want to nurture.

Yesterday, as I waited for a friend of mine at the train station, a man came up to me. He was speaking in Hindi and speaking fast, but it was clear that he was asking me about the red string that I had tied around my wrist. During pujas, religious rites done my many Hindus honoring certain occasions, red strings are tied around the wrist to mark the occasion. The one I had was from Dusera, a festival that occurred just as I arrived, when the director of my NGO invited me to his house for the puja. I told the inquiring man where I had gotten it, and he shook his head as he indicated that it had faded from red to pink. He pulled out of his pocket a ball of red string and wrapped it around my wrist a couple of times. As he did this he recited a prayer in Sanskrit under his breath. He finished, took a small knife out of his pocket, and cut the old string from my wrist. I looked up at him, somewhat astonished, and before I could process how fast the exchange had occurred, he was gone. Though I’ve been here a long time, I’ve never been blessed by a stranger in a train station. Bombay has so much more to be discovered, and I’m learning that if I keep my eyes open I find new and vibrant red strings hanging from my wrist.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Midnight Stroll

Sitting at home last night, I decided to take a walk. Leave my book. Leave my apartment. Leave my flatmate. Not that I don't like these things. My book is interesting and well written. My apartment is one of the nicer ones I've had the opportunity to live in, and is, in a pinch, my current home. My flatmate is fun, thoughtful and frightfully easy to live with. I just wanted to go outside and get some night air.

The only thing phenomenal about it was that I don't often do this. I haven't really gone for a walk by myself, wandered aimlessly into nowhere, in a good while. I was simply at a point in my time here that a nice walk late at night was appropriate. And so I was excited for my walk.

I think that I decided before I even left that I wasn't going to wander aimlessly, that I knew exactly where I was going. And so I went where I knew I'd end up anyway, in the Bandstand, the boardwalk that overlooks the sea. I love the Bandstand, especially late at night. This is kind of funny, as I've only been there late at night two or three times. But I guess sometimes you can go to a place only once and know that you love it, just as I know that there is undoubtedly something special about the Bandstand at midnight.

A big part of what makes it special is that it's quiet. Granted, there are a number of places in Bombay that are quiet at midnight. But the Bandstand is quieter, and it's quiet in its own way. The breeze is just strong enough to make it cool, the waves are just loud enough for you to know that you're on the ocean even though it's dark, the air is fresh and it's quiet in a way that reminds me that while Bombay is wild and crazy and loud, its people still go home at night to their families, eat dinner, and go to sleep. It's an important quiet for me to hear.

As I walked down the boardwalk I saw one of the other things that I love about the area. All the couples. Couples walking, sitting, whispering sweet nothings, I imagine, into one another's ears. Almost all college students and most young adults here still live with their families until they are married, so until then they come to the Bandstand and places like it to be alone together. They walk, they sit, they whisper sweet nothings, I imagine, into one another's ears.

And so I walked and I had my walk. I thought about the idea of taking a walk alone at midnight on a boardwalk overlooking the sea, and wondered if I was supposed to be thinking about the future, or about life, or about how I ended up where I am today, and I decided that it wasn't really necessary, and that I probably spend too much of my time when I'm not on walks thinking about those things. Then I laughed, and walked, and felt the sensation of my sandals making contact with the slate boardwalk, and listened to the couples whispering sweet nothings, I imagined, into one another's ears.

I sat down when I found a suitable spot, and watched the ocean and listened to the waves and noticed that I had begun to think about the future, and about life and about how I ended up where I am today, and then I saw a shooting star.

And then I sat, happy, watching the ocean and listening to the waves and replaying the image of the shooting star in my mind. I sat for about fifteen minutes before I started to get up to walk home, and then I wondered if only sitting for fifteen minutes was long enough for a solitary walk near the ocean at midnight on a Friday night. I decided it didn't matter, listened to the couples whispering sweet nothings, I imagined, into one another's ears, and walked home.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Safe but saddened

My sister Lani and I were sitting in a seaside restaurant on the southwestern coast of India in a historic town called Fort Kochin. As I spread my soft boiled eggs over my toast and drank my chai, we looked over at the water.

"Hey, Rafi," she said. "The water's moving really quickly, isn't it?"

It was true, there was no doubt that the water was moving more quickly than usual, and seemed unusually high too. Our service at breakfast that Sunday morning was nonexistent as all of the waiters in the empty restaurant were looking at the water in a startled sort of way. There was nothing frightening happening. No waves, no flooding. Just the water, rushing by. It almost seemed like it was running from something, with large bunches of seaweed speeding on in its midst.

Later in the day, as we were touring around some of Kochin's quiet streets and historic sites, we were informed by the proprietor of the store we were in that there was an earthquake that morning in the Indian ocean. "But no problem!", he said. "Middle of ocean! No one hurt!", he added a smile.

We heard other local reports after that. The famous Chinese fishing nets of Kochin, which when raised hang a good five or six feet above the water, had small waves rushing over them. Boardwalks and docks got a needed washing. It all seemed so innocuous. It was easy to marvel at the crowds of locals gathered standing on the docks, watching the quick waters and the choppy waves.

It started to seem more serious when the harbor became filled with massive ships that were seeking shelter from the turbulent seas.

Later on that day we started to hear the numbers, a phenomenon that from that point on brought the whole situation out of a local lens and put it into terrifying international focus. 1,000 in India. 1,500 Sri Lanka. Etcetera. At first we were saddened at what we thought was a minor natural disaster, and part of me even just marveled at the idea of a tsunami. Any sense of wonder and awe that existed on that first day in Kochin has been quickly dissipated and replaced with horror.

At first I didn't see anything. It was just those numbers. The first night the total was at 3,000. Then 8,000. 13,000. 25. 55. At one hundred and twenty thousand yesterday I began to fail to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster, and my heart has been aching at the loss of these people that I've never met. I started to allow myself more exposure to the news, seeing the pictures and the destruction, hearing more numbers, constant numbers, watching computer simulations of the event that begin at the earthquake epicenter and show quarter inch curved lines move across hundreds and thousands of miles taking on different colors as they hit land.

I feel lucky that I and everyone I know here in India are safe and healthy, and that even though I was travelling much farther south than my usual routine in Bombay I found myself unharmed. I hope that this can be taken by everyone in the world as an opportunity to give help to a region that will be recovering from this for decades. If anyone reading this doesn't know how or where to give, my organization, American Jewish World Service, is providing relief and is accepting and funneling aid to where it's needed. I send my love to all my family and friends out there, and am wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Indian stomach sickness strikes again!

I wake with a start, my alarm bleating out its amelodic notes. I try to reach over and slam the snooze button, but I find myself in an awkward position. My head is on the pillow, but my body is parallel to the head of the bed. It's not the first time I've woken up in this same nonsensical pose. My wall of windows faces East so that the dawn sun scorches my feet. I've somehow taken to moving during my sleep to become an odd heap at the head of my bed. For some reason I refuse to close my curtains, there's something about waking up with the morning sun, scorched feet or not, that I find essential to my well-being here in Bombay.

My alarm eventually silences itself. I swing out of bed and into the shower. It's cold, of course, but I'm not going to argue with the lack of water heaters in this country. At least not until it starts showing any signs of cooling down, which hasn't happened yet. This is the warmest November of my life, consistently a sweltering ninety five degrees at peak sun.

After a quick shower and shave, it's time for my Muesli. Yes, my flatmate Zach and I are obsessed with this rolled oat cereal medley of Swiss origin, it seriously gets you through the day. Laugh all you want.

I finish my cereal, slurp my milk, and start to head out the door. A little bit of nausea creeps up on me, but I hardly take notice; funky stomachs are more than commonplace in India, and they have a tendency to strike in the morning and fizzle out as the day goes on.

I'm sitting on the bus on the way to the train station, still accompanied by my morning nausea. I rule out the possibility of pregnancy and try to think back to what I'd eaten the day before. I come up empty, but trying to figure out the roots of stomach aches in India is an effort in futility. In the end, you're still going to be ‘paining’, as the Indians say.

I hop off the bus, but feel my energy waning. I wade through the sea of people in front of the train station and take a look at the ticket line. It's snaking around the block with no end it sight, and I'm thankful for my monthly train pass. At two US dollars it might be the best deal in town.

By the time I make it to the platform my stomach has done eight somersaults, and I'm holding my sides. Bandra station has the advantage of having some trains originate on its tracks, and I'm thankful for a second time. Trying to find a seat on a Bombay train is yet another effort in futility; it's a luxury that one pretty much only gets on a fresh train. I step onto an empty car for the second leg of my commute downtown, grab a seat at a window, and close my eyes.

Over the course of my forty five minute ride I'm oblivious to everything around me. By the time the train pulls into my stop at Churchgate station I'm completely out of it, and an Indian man taps me to let me know it's the last stop.

I hobble off the train and begin my walk to work. It's close, leaving me thankful for the third time in one morning. On account of my stomach, I decide to forgo my usual morning coconut. It’s one of those daily routines that consistently makes me happy. People not only slow down but stop entirely to wait for the coconut walla to slice open the top of these large green fruits, their water dripping down the sides. They stand in front of the coconut stand drinking the sweet water till the shell is hollow. Something about the whole phenomenon warms my heart, and today I look back somewhat yearningly at the stand after I pass it and walk into the college where my NGO is housed.

I work my way up the stairs to the library where my organization has its sole computer. I sit down and attempt to continue some research I've been doing on NGO's working in the Jammu and Kashmir region, but I can't concentrate for the life of me. The Indian stomach sickness is famous for accompanying its aches with a serious dose of delirium, and it's hitting me hard. Head reeling and body aching, I decide that it would be a fine idea to find a quiet corner of the library and put my head down. I shut my eyes lose consciousness before I know it.

I'm awoken with a start again, and this time it's the librarian bleating instead of my alarm clock. I have a couple of moments where I don't know where I am or who's talking to me. I get the message quick though, I can't sleep in the library. I tell her that I'm sick, but I'm not getting any sympathy. Through my foggy consciousness I decide that it's time to go home.

My stomach isn't in the mood to cooperate though, and I soon find myself running to the bathroom to watch my muesli smack violently against the sides of an Asian toilet. Unfortunately, that's not the only thing it smacks against. The lack of standing water at the bottom of Asian toilets means that the splatter effect is high, and the bottom of my jeans become speckled fast. My patience for illness begins to wear thin, but I don't have enough energy to be bitter. I dump a couple of buckets of water to clean up the mess.

I let my coworkers know that I'm sick and head back to the train station, not looking forward to the ride home. Commuting here takes a good bit of energy when you're 100%, and when you're at fifty it's no fun. As I walk to the station I pass by the usual plethora of street stalls, hawkers and beggars, but today I’m in no mood. I usually try to respond to vendors with patience and panhandlers with compassion, and today look to my reserves but come up empty. It’s not a good feeling.

I board my train back to Bandra and through my delirium think of my bed. All I want right now is to be home. Maybe more specifically, I don’t want to be dealing with Bombay in all its glory.

My trip back home is relatively uneventful. I wade back though the crowd of people outside the station, and marvel at the line that’s still snaking its way around the block. It’s amazing that even in the early afternoon the density of people in this city barely changes.

I hail an auto rickshaw, the small vehicles resembling bumblebees with their black and yellow exteriors and buzzing engines that dominate the roads of North Bombay, and within a couple of minutes I’m home.

Zach barely has time to ask me why I’m home early before I pass out on my bed. I’m out for a long time, but not out cold. I wake up every couple of hours and, still in a haze, assess my symptoms. As night approaches my stomach ache and delirium wane only to be replaced by a fever and a splitting headache. I get out of bed for a bit, have some plain pasta, and head back to sleep once again.

I wake up in the morning and I’m amazed. No fever. No headache. No stomach ache and no delirium. It seems that Bombay hit me like a tornado, hard and fast but then gone before I knew it. I’m appreciative and happy as I head for the door and towards the bus.

India teaches me a lot, my lesson this week was to try not to take for granted my health and to realize how connected to my well being on the whole it really is.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Khandala Getaway...

So I return to Bombay right before the last weekend of Devali break, only to be yanked out of the city one last time by my fellow AJWS volunteers! This weekend, instead of opting to stick around in Bombay to watch (and hear) fireworks going off all night, the volunteers took the long weekend as an opportunity to escape from the crazy Bombay life to a peaceful hill station North of the city, a place known as Khandala.

We actually split our time between Khandala and its brother city, Lanavla. There isn't much in either of these places, and that was what was appealing about them. Aside from the fact that Lanavla is the country's fudge and chikki (a candy akin to peanut brittle) capitol, there was little to distract us from our intention of spending the weekend trekking up, down and around the hills and valleys that the area was filled with. (Some might be wondering at this point why I wasn't distracted by the fudge... Sadly, while India has many wonderful foods, their fudge isn't quite on par with Belgium, to say the least...)

We stayed at something that was akin to a YMCA, a place called St. Xavier's Villa. We were lucky to get a room anywhere, as the weekend of Devali is somewhat like Christmas in the states, everyone's getting out of the city and everything is booked solid. Luckily, our next door neighbor's daughter is the head cook at St. Xavier's Villa, so we were in luck.

Our time at the Villa was nice, though the place felt something like a religious sleepaway camp. I don't know whether it was the rustic scenery combined with the religious paraphinalia that adorned the rooms, or whether it was the seventy Indian teenagers attending a weeklong "Confirmation Camp" while we were there that gave it this distinct atmosphere. I feel like the latter might have completed the effect. After we finished breakfast in the morning, the unconfirmed souls went off to outdoor classrooms to learn about the virtues of a good Catholic. As we sat on our Veranda at night, we watched as the teens sat around a camp fire singing what sounded like a song that had the format of bingo, though they weren't chanting b-i-n-g-o, they were saying other letters. We listened closer. "B-i-b-l-e, b-i-b-l-e," they sang. "B-i-b-l-e," they paused. "And Jesus is our savior!!" They finished off strong. We couldn't contain ourselves, we were all in stitches. The combination of the altered lyrics and the incongruity of hearing it at a hill station in the middle of India was just too much not to be amused by.

During the day, we spent our time hiking around the surrounding rocky slopes and dipping valleys. All the pent up energy of city life came rushing out into our thighs and calves, and we all experienced the joys of movement that city life in India is almost guaranteed to deprive. Our perils came not in the form of open railway cars or reckless rickshaws, but as less technically advanced dangers; falling rocks, narrow goat paths, and seemingly insurpassable physical obstacles. The air was fresh, the water cold and nights quiet. It was agreed by all that this a great way to getaway, and that this is certainly something we'll make a priority to do again.

Check out the pictures from our time in Khandala!

Monday, November 01, 2004

Respite reflections

As the smell of burning cow dung that fuels so many of the fires of rural India enters my nostrils, I know that I've arrived in Bodh Gaya. A far cry from Bombay, it is a small town with three or four roads, scores of monks and pilgrims, handfuls of monasteries and a solitary tree under which one of the most historically relevant existential realizations occurred.

An organization-wide break lasting a couple of weeks in honor of the Hindu festival of Dewali, a holiday of lights, allows me the opportunity to visit the religious studies program I participated in last year in India's northeast state of Bihar. I spend my time here reflecting and gaining perspective on my experiences so far in Bombay, as well as on the history of this country.

The work I'm involved in here requires me to understand the nature of the inter-religious conflict that has plagued the region for so long. I read and research on the roots of strife, and work my way forward to see how it's manifesting in the present.

As I sit in the library of the Burmese monastery where not one year ago I was studying a religion that holds nonharming as one if its highest ideals, I read of a conflict fueled by religious tensions that resulted in an estimated one million deaths at a time that should have been a great joy; the independence of one nation and the birth of another.

I read about people who had been neighbors all their lives, coworkers that had been eating lunch together for decades, turn on each other in a frenzy of hate and violence for the sole reason that one was a Hindu, one a Muslim, one a Sikh. I read about the Mahatma, the great soul that kept the city of Calcutta, known then as the most violent city in Asia, from tearing itself apart during the days following partition, and feel inspired. I read on, though, about the religious fundamentalists that assassinated that kind old man who cared so much about the people of the South Asian subcontinent, regardless of their religious persuasion, and feel disheartened.

Siddhartha Gautama gained enlightenment under a tree that's only a long stone's throw from where I sit, and believed that it was possible to end the suffering that plagues humanity. As I read, contemplate and meditate, I experience a jumble of emotions, of hope and of despair, of great compassion and of deep sadness. I wonder what, if anything, I can do during my short time here in this country, and in this world, to contribute to that vision of liberated minds and peaceful hearts. I find that itis essential simply to remain hopeful, to believe that change for the better, though difficult, is possible. I can see that without some belief, or even faith, that there exists some essential goodness to human nature I will have a lot of difficulty doing this work.

Friday, October 22, 2004

What does Bombay say at night?

As I've mentioned before, I'm here in Bombay with four other volunteers from an organization called American Jewish World Service. As part of our program, we have the opportunity to do things as a group, something that can be a big advantage in a city like Bombay. Since we've arrived, we've all spoken with each other, both formally and informally, about how we're dealing with being in an environment that if not approached correctly could easily drive one crazy.

The other night, we gathered over an article about Bombay. The article was titled 'Maximum City', and was in fact an excerpt from a book of the same title. The excerpt was written by a native of Bombay who had travelled and lived around the world and had found himself somehow in Bombay. He wrote poetically about a city that at first glance would seem to lack any poetry within it. It was somewhat inspiring to see someone take solace in the very things that sometimes make Bombay difficult to deal with. The is a skill I have been working to hone, happily with some degree of success.

After we had discussed the article, Zach, who was facilitating the activity, asked us to take out a piece of paper. Our task was to listen, just listen, and try to hear what the city was saying to us. I thought that the results of this activity were quite nice, and most importantly, honest and heartfelt. When I asked a couple of people if they'd like to share their feelings about what Bombay says to them with the larger public, a couple of us agreed. Enjoy.

Yael wrote:

As I sit in my room that I have tried to make my sactuary, my safe haven, I cannot escape the calls from downstairs. All the horns, songs and chatter that linger below are the city's attempt to call me and lure me to take part in all that's being offered below. Bombay does not want me to ignore it and run to my security upstairs. Its loudness reminds me where I am and what this city has to offer. Perhaps it is a welcoming or an invitation to make me really feel where I am so I can one day believe that this city is mine also.

Zach wrote:

The horns, bells, slam, shout, cut, scrape, put put put beep horn... The city breathes and eats noise. Ever incessant into and on me. Shout, beep. It dares me to find its beauty and ignore its ugliness. It asks me why I'm here, why I care, why I don't.

Every once in a while it smiles in my ear, a child's cricket match. It tells me of irony and contrast, both of which I have to at least smile at.

A droning hum flows through the veins of the city. The street its cappilaries.

"Why do you wish to silence me?" It asks. "If that's the case, then you don't want me, any part of me. Embrace me. Open your eyes to my cries, shouts, horns, bells, crack of cricket bats, music and engines.

This is me. Take it or leave it."

I wrote what I heard the city telling me that night:

I'm here! Hello there! How are you? I don't really want to know, but maybe I do. If you have the time to talk to me face to face, to see me as I am not as how you might want me to be, think me to be, dream me to be, but see me as I am, I'll listen. I have 50 million ears, try one out, see what I say. I guarantee each time you ask the same question I'l have a different answer, but isn't that the fun of it?

I'm only congested if you are, there's all the space in the world here, if only you can allow yourself to find it. If you feel lost then simply try to find me, I'm everywhere, I'm everyone. Even you. Rejecting me you reject yourself, but if you want to be a part of me you don't even have to try. Just be yourself honestly and then you're me; Bombay.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The Indian Fear Factor

A man darts across a congested street, auto rickshaws and cyclists missing him only by inches. Any Jewish mother’s heart would jump.

A woman in a bright red sari takes a bite out of a samosa that’s been sitting out on a street vendor’s display in the hot sun for hours. Any health inspector would be appalled.

A train rushes by, a half a dozen Indians hanging out of every open car door, taking in the breeze. Part of me keeps waiting for someone to fall out, a misstep to take place, some kind of railroad tragedy to occur. There’s no doubt in my mind that it could easily happen.

I constantly notice these instances, these potential brushes with death and disaster, and I come to realize that I’m not noticing only an external phenomenon, but an internal one as well. On the external side, I’m seeing that India is a place that some might call ‘high risk.’ That many things here are without safeguards, more things could go wrong more easily than almost anywhere in the West.

The other side of what I’m noticing, though, is much more significant in my opinion. It’s much deeper. It’s fear. Fear of what might be, what’s possible, what could go wrong. And the more I watch, the more I realize that this fear might simply be my own and no one else’s. The man that darted across the street probably doesn’t think to himself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t cross this street right now, there are a lot of cars coming, I might get hurt.’ Forget about the fact that if everyone in this country did this no one would ever cross the street. What’s of greater importance in my mind is that in general Indians won’t think in this way but most Westerners will.

The manifestation of fear in a person’s mind is often heavily linked to the culture that they come from, and how this culture relates to things like perceived threats and dangers. There is no question the contemporary American culture is one that focuses heavily on these perceived threats, and many would say that it has just reason to do so. Many people, including some of the younger insightful members of my own family, have commented upon this fact when given some distance from it. It’s no news that politicians, big business and the media in the States all contribute to and exploit this anxiety society for their own gains, bringing those who believe in the red, white and blue to red, yellow and orange levels of fear. What’s news is that this isn’t the norm, even in places in the world where the simple living of one’s day to day life is a high risk venture.

I’m trying to wrap my head around this distinctive Indian psyche, which I see as one that we as Americans might learn and benefit from. To begin with, part of me needs to emulate it in one way or another or else I can’t cross the street in this city. On a higher level though, I believe that life simply cannot be lived in fear.

It is obvious that a major part of this difference in the Indian mentality and the Western mindset is due to the way the people of these respective cultures view their lives and relate to their worlds. In the West, and in America especially, people tend to hold the view that an individual is in control of his or her own life. If something goes wrong in one’s life, the habit is often to take personal responsibility for the situation. ‘What could I have done differently, where did I go wrong?’ are common phrases that are manifestations of this worldview. That people need to and more importantly can take personal responsibility for everything that happens in their lives is what the American dream is made of. Down in the dumps? Well, don’t just sit there on the corner, pull up your bootstraps and do something about it.

In terms of taking responsibility for possible threats, Western culture has reacted in a mind boggling way. Insurance policies for everything under the sun. Enormous amounts of focus on health and an almost obsessive compulsive relation to hygiene. Home security systems. The club. W’s duct tape. The list goes on and on. Don’t get me wrong, these are not bad things. Anyone who knows me well knows that I actually swear by duct tape, and when traveling view it as a necessary staple. The issue is not the duct tape but how one relates to the duct tape. In the West we build up all of these systems of preparation and safeguarding, and as a result believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we are indeed safe and need to continue to do more things to ensure that safety. We learned in a big way three years ago this is not in fact the case, that we are not as in control of our lives as it might seem.

The Indian mind, on the other hand, has been conditioned towards the opposite end of that spectrum. In general, as a result of the religious history of the country, people here tend to believe in fate. In the West the word fatalism has taken on negative connotations; one who is fatalistic does not live life but ‘succumbs’ to it. Here, the idea of fate has been deeply ingrained in the minds of the people through centuries of a hierarchical caste system which was supported by the notion that you not only got what you deserved, but that you can't change what you got, at least not in this life. And though the country is developing rapidly, and many Indians when questioned might say that they don't believe in reincarnation or even fate, habits and views of India’s previous life will remain for a long time, and the residual psyche of days of yore still remains.

Obviously Indians are not completely fatalistic, just as Westerners don’t entirely believe that they are in complete control of their lives. If this were the case, Indians would never get things done and Westerner’s would simply go insane. However, notions of fate do remain a vital part of the mindset here. And a certain degree of fatalism has its advantages, especially in such an overtly class divided society as India’s. I like to believe that Indians who have a consciousness of fate can cope better with the harsh realities of life here. Instead there being intense friction between the person trying to cross the street and the taxis and buses that won’t give an inch, one simply sees that the cars and buses are going to be there no matter what, and one must simply weave a way through them.

This outlook, obviously, doesn’t always manifest in such a positive way. While it has the advantages of lower levels of stress, anxiety and fear, it is also the cause of many of this country’s ailments. A fatalistic outlook taken to the extreme means that proper measures aren’t being put in place externally to deal with certain pressing needs of the country, such as more hygienic hospitals and food establishments. In the long run, it means that the country will have more trouble ‘developing.’ If a person really believes that their position in life and the world can’t change, it won’t, at least not as a result of anything they themselves do.

Being in the position that I am, coming from the West and living in the East, I like to think that I can see the advantages and disadvantages of the way that these two very different cultures live. As I see the developing microcosm of India that is Bombay, I see how certain Western tendencies seem to have infiltrated the environment and people here. The people that I met here that have the most success by Western standards also tend to be the ones with the most neuroses and insecurities. However, they’re also often the first ones to critique the country about where it needs improvement. As I speak to them, I worry. Does improving your external conditions here mean that your sanity is at stake? Or can there be an integration of the two views?

I believe that the West has much to offer India in terms of improving what we call ‘quality of life.’ And India has much to offer the West in terms of ‘quality of mind.’ And so, a middle way might be found.

For the Indian, a greater valuing of health and safety cannot be a bad thing. As a country, India has the potential for greatness; it has wonderful and intelligent people within it. But greater care must be taken in keeping people safe, providing effective healthcare, and keeping the environment clean. If people are able to do this and maintain their lack of anxiety and sound minds, India might one day be a country that the third world might look to as a model of not only economic development, but psychological development as well.

For the Western mind, there is a need for humility. While we know that we have degrees of control in our lives, we need to learn that we are by no means in complete control. Some might find this outlook terrifying, but if a closer look is taken we can realize that it is actually quite liberating. That we are not entirely responsible for each and every thing that happens to us means that we don’t have to shoulder a massive psychological burden. It also means that we don’t have to exist in fear. If I could import anything from India to America, it would the ability that people have here to both see and accept that life is full of danger and uncertainty, and the knowledge that to live in fear of these uncertainties only makes things worse.

If somehow effective cultural transmission might occur, great gains are almost certain to happen on both sides. As for me, I’m still trying to negotiate crossing the street without getting run over.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

An interesting twist...

A number of weeks ago I had the unique opportunity of rubbing shoulders with some of Bombay's top activists and intellectuals, though at the time I didn't know the interesting twist it would provide to my time here in the city of dreams.
It was at an event honoring Gandhi Jayanti, the yearly celebration of Gandhi's birthday. Our presence at the event was the result of the fact that we were and are representives of AJWS, and the organization has many contacts with individuals and groups doing activist work in the country. As such, it was something of a 'diplomatic' visit.

In any case, prior to the event, a ballet depicting various struggles in Gandhi's life, we were invited to a small buffet for 'VIPs'. (Being an ad hoc foreign rep of an organization has its perks...) At this small soire' I met a woman who is a professor of Islamic studies at a college not too far from my workplace. I mentioned to her that I was doing work on conflict resolution between Hindus and Muslims, and her ears perked up. I went on to tell her that part of that work involved doing research on Islam, and specifically, Islamic religious schools known as Madrassas. We almost had the idea at the same moment; she was interested in the work I was doing, I was interested in the work she was doing, so why not a meeting? Thrilled, she said, see you on Teusday.

We met the following week at St. Xavier's college, the college she teaches at, over chai. We chatted for a bit, sharing something of our respective backgrounds, when she jumped in.

"I have to admit, I have a bit of a modus operendi... I am interested in the work you're doing with Hindus and Muslims, but I'm more interested in work that might occur between Muslims and another religious group, work that I feel is a bit more pressing." I paused, somewhat perplexed. "You're a Jew raised in American orthodox family interested in learning about contemporary Islam. I am a professor of Islam deeply concerned not only about the fate of my people but how peace might be found in this world. We have something to offer each other, no?"

I was astounded. I had come for a little information, maybe the names of a couple of good books, maybe some contacts of people studying the Hindu/Muslim conflict. I found myself the representative of all the Jewish people in a dialogue I couldn't have dreamed of.

Each week, she suggested, we will meet for a couple of hours; I will share with her the nature of my tradition, and she will share with me the nature of hers.

I came to India in hopes of learning what it means to do work in the field of conflict resolution, and there's no doubt in my mind that this opportunity is a good step in mending a relationship that needs much healing. Am I nervous? Of course. How can I represent a whole religion fairly and with some degree of objectivity? What do I know? What can I offer? While I think that these fears need to be honored and taken into account, I won't let them prevent something of importance from happening, even if it means that I share only what I know I can give honestly: my viewpoint.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Lunch time

I'm sitting at the desk, typing. I look over at the pile of papers next to the laptop, and I type a bit more. The director asked me to have the report ready by Friday, and it being one of my first assignments, I'm working hard at it, wanting only perfection.

Ferozana looks over at me from her corner of the desk, seeing my tense shoulders and flying fingers.

"You work too hard. You've been staring at that silly box since you got in this morning."

'Morning' would be a slight exaggeration being that she's referring to eleven o'clock, but she's right in a way. My work habits here are somewhat culturally inappropriate. I'm not quite used to the amount of leisure here, or the amount of laughter.

"Go take a walk or something." she says. "Or better yet, stay where you are, it's lunchtime!"

The lunch culture here is another thing that I've yet to fully adapt to, though I know that I love it.

Ferozana, Asunta, Manoj, Virochen and I all clear away our work as Dr. Adsule, the director of project Salokha, begins to lay down newspaper over the desk, forming a makeshift tablecloth. The daily ritual has begun.

Almost simultaneously, everyone brings out their tiffins, small metal containers that would find their American equivelent in tupperwear. I again find myself being the odd man out. I haven't yet had the opportunity to begin cooking my own lunch, having only moved into my flat a couple of days ago. I start to make a move towards the door to run to the canteen.

"Where are you going?" Dr. Adsule asks.
"Just to the canteen, I'll have them bring some food up for me." I reply, attemping once again bring something to the table.
"No no no. There's plenty of food here for all, you sit."

Everyone else nods in concurrence. I accept defeat today, though I've managed on some of the days to get them to let me contribute to their managerie of small tins with a dosa or some veg noodles from the canteen. I really need to start cooking.

As that last thought drifts from my head, my attention turns to the sound of metal lids popping off their containers, revealing the contents within.

"What do you have today Manoj?" Asunta asks with a half-joking tone and a smile.
"What do I have everyday? Chapatti and ladyfingers. Chapatti and eggs. Chapatti and potatos. I think today though, something new!" He looks down as he opens his tiffin, and his excitement drops. "Chapatti and eggs, the usual." he says in a somewhat downtrodden manner.
"Raphael, have some dal and chapatti," Virochen says with a wave of his hand towards the food. I'm always somewhat sheepish, being the only one there who's not offering something to the table. I feel kind of guilty eating their food, but they would have it no other way. I even think that if they knew I felt guilty, they might be offended.
"Asunta, have some subzi," Dr. Adsule says encouragingly, and she reaches over and takes some of the vegetables with a piece of chapatti.

And so goes the amazing dance of the Indian office cuisine. Everyone offering everyone else lunch; a fully communal meal during which all food is pushed towards the center of the desk, a variety of dishes for all.

The office lunch phenomenon, I think, is truly a mark of any culture. Here, the individual is oriented around community and family, whereas in the West the individual tends to be oriented more around his or her own needs. I'm definitely finding this to be the most dominant cultural gap, one the I will have to get used to. To be honest, I can't wait to put my own tiffin in the middle of the desk.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Home sweet home

This weekend we moved into our new flat in Bandra, and it already feels like home.
We are in a quiet area called the bandstand, and I actually feel consistently relaxed walking around the streets in our neighborhood, something which can be a rarity in this country. Our flat is beautiful, and somewhat kitchy as well. It came fully furnished and it is clearly an apartment that belonged to a batchelor for many years. Throughout the apartment there are various nick nacks that a woman simply would not have tolerated. The feeling is completed by the decor: 1974 all the way. Browns, reds, oranges and yellows adorn the bathroom tiles and the living room upholstery. Each room has a balcony, very small though, just big enough to open the doors and step out onto, but essential for amazing crossventilation to deal with the Bombay heat. We're settling in and enjoying ourselves, feeling that in a certain sense part two of our Bombay experience has just begun.

Below are some pictures that I took at the most recent festival, Ganpati, honoring the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh. If you like these, you can check out others that I've taken since I got here at the Pbase site that I've just set up.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Good Morning Mr. Taylor

"Yes yes! Please come!"
The words ring out with a thick Indian accent, as I catch, out of the corner of my eye, the figure bustling about the one room apartment. I'm bent over, still half asleep, struggling to remove my sandals before I enter the room.

"Chapatti? You want chapatti?" the over-excited voice rings out again.

At this point I've managed to make my way inside, and take a chair next to Zach. We exchange knowing smiles, happily but wearily accepting our breakfast fate.

"Toast! Have toast!" booms Mr. Taylor, smiling from ear to ear as he sets down a small metal plate piled high with whitebread toast, easily half a loaf.

Mr. Taylor must be in his late fifties, but moves like a twenty two year old office intern who's had too many cups of coffee.

"Eggs yes? Double-fry? Double-fry?"

"Yes, double-fry please, Mr. Taylor." we both say, and I recall the first day we had eggs and I had foolishly asked for single-fry, receiving two eggs that had nice crisp undersides with copious amounts of uncooked whites on top.

Mr. Taylor frenetically moves about the kitchen area, not in fact doing anything, simply hovering about his wife as she prepares the eggs. Mrs. Taylor is his opposite: quiet, calm and somewhat stoic in her manner. I sometimes think that I catch her rolling her eyes at her husband's antics, though I'm not quite sure.

"Yes yes! Have more toast! Apply the butter! Apply the butter!"
Zach and I smile at each other again, 'apply the butter' has become our signature phrase of reference when telling others about our breakfast host, or when simply joking amongst ourselves.

"Here! Yes! More chappati!" he leans, kippah almost falling off of his head, to place the pancake-shaped Indian bread on our plates.

We sigh again, lacking the energy to fend off the onslaught of food. For the first couple of weeks we tried to convey to Mr. Taylor, both verbally and non-verbally, that each of us simply can't eat five chappatis, eight slices of toast, two eggs, two cups of chai and two bananas each morning. We discovered that the best strategy is to leave things on the plate when we can't eat any more, and upon third and forth servings make the universal 'too full' motion, simultaneously leaning back and rubbing our stomachs.

Zach is convinced that Mr. Taylor is just a very well intentioned obessive compulsive Indian. Couple this with a Jewish background and you've got a killer combination. While we've been enjoying our time in the homestay, Zach and I both acknowledge how difficult it can be to deal with our overzealous host each morning. This weekend we move into our own flat in a suburb of Bombay called Bandra, and each morning when we have eggs and toast, we will apply the butter, keeping Mr. Taylor in mind.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Working like a steer. (Or maybe not.)

I began working at my partner NGO this past week, and it is immediately apparent that working in India is not separate from living in India; things move at a different (often seemingly slower) pace, interacting and communicating with people takes somewhat large amounts of effort and patience, and even when you don't have a specific task, it's tiring.
I guess I might first clarify what it is that I'm doing here. I have been partnered with a non-governmental organization called Saloka, meaning amity in Hindi. The project's main goal is to promote communal harmony in Bombay through conflict resolution and peace education. I am set to take on a number of tasks while I'm here, but as of right now, I am simply reading materials on the history of the Hindu/Muslim conflict here in India, as well as reading evaluations and annual reports from my NGO to increase organizational knowledge and really wrap my head around what exactly it means to do conflict resolution work.
This is stimulating, but not quite as stimulating as going into the field today and observing a school visit conducted by the organization. I went with a number of people from Saloka to a secular Muslim girls school, where the main language spoken was Urdu, but the sessions were conducted in Hindi. As such, a lot of my energy was spent trying to understand the basic idea of what was happening in the sessions conceptually, aside from simply observing the way the group dynamic existed during the sessions. While I felt that my time was fruitful one way or another, (at the very least to increase my language skill) I'm excited to be doing English medium school visits in the next couple of weeks.
The definite high point of the day though was after a session ended, one class sang the Indian national anthem. After they were finished, a couple of the girls start whispering and looking at me. At this point I was used to getting this kind of reaction, as being a white male in a Muslim girls school is like wearing a flourescent green velvet tuxedo at a bar mitzvah. They continued to chat though, and then started to say something to the people from the organization. Apparently, they wanted to hear my own national anthem. I was shocked, embarrassed, and even somewhat honored all in the same moment. I hadn't sang the national anthem in probably over a decade, but somehow managed to come up with a reasonably listenable rendition of the star spangled banner for a group of 30 ten year old Muslim girls, after which they laughed and clapped emphatically. I blushed as they continued to laugh, and was told after that they loved it. One of the people from Saloka said that even though I was just observing from the sidelines all day, my presence there was important, if only for the students to see and relate to a foreigner. A famous physicist once said that you can't observe a situation without changing it, and I'm finding that in India I will have to find a way to observe with positive effects, even if it means more national anthems.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Not quite a New York commute...

So everything goes well here in Bombay. The five of us here seem to be settling in, or at least as much as you can settle into India. While I've mentioned to others that my experience here has been distinct in that it hasn't been nearly as harsh as my previous experiences with Indian cities in terms of noise, pollution, and most notably visible poverty, the truth of the matter is that even these seemingly lower levels don't neccesarily make the experience easier.

Living in a city in the West can wear a person down, I feel, and living in a city in the developing world, as opposed to passing through, is just plain hard, there's no two ways about it. The key, I've found, is to focus on the positive interactions that one has with the culture, and to laugh when you can. Attitude is everything, and a positive one goes a long way here. And so goes the story of my commute.

Commuting in Bombay is always an adventure. Whether it be the seemingly crazy taxi drivers that always somehow get you there without a scratch (though sometimes without your lunch as well) or the overcrowded trains with people hanging out the sides, getting anywhere here requires patience and little bit of city instinct that New York prepared me for well. My choice mode of transport here is the bus. I don't why, but I somehow find it charming.

Today, as I caught the bus going uptown on my way home, it starts to pull away (as Bombay buses are wont to do) as I grabbed the side handle, my body still fully in the street. I had been waiting pretty long for the bus though, and was not going to be defeated. I grabbed, I ran, and I leapt onto the number six bus as it yanked my flying body fully into the turmoil of a Bombay commute.

Mission accomplished, the hard part is over, right? Not quite. A half hour passes, and as my stop nears, I start to slink my way between people towards the front of the bus. Alas, I had not started early enough, and as the bus stopped I was still trying to politely say excuse me in Hindi to the woman blocking my way. My stop long gone, I wrangled myself right to the front door, trying to figure out what to do. The next stop wasn't for a really good while, and I was determined, like a real commuter, to avoid the pricey cabs at all costs.

'What would an Indian do?,' I thought to myself. As the bus approached a pool of traffic and began to decline in speed, I took what looked like my only chance at the slowest point, and jumped off the bus, hitting the ground running as did. I wasn't running fast enough though, as my momentum half a second later hurled me into a tumble in the middle of the street. So I did what any good commuter making the ultimate commuting faux paus would do, I made a quick recovery with minimal damage (just my scuffed jeans) and minimal embarrasment (just a couple of Indians laughing at the goofy Westerner), and determined to keep my attitude positive, smiled and walked on home. Lesson learned: just because an Indian can commute hardcore style in Bombay doesn't mean that I can. Till my next adventure, peace and love to all.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Arrival in the City of Dreams

Hello to all and welcome!
Allow me to introduce myself and my situation. My name is Rafi Santo and I am keeping this blog to document my time living here in India, in the City of Dreams, Bombay. I was sent here through a great organization called American Jewish World Service. (Great because it's providing me with the rewarding oppotunity of being here, greater because it helps out nonprofits throughout the developing world to create sustainable change.) While I'm here I will be living in and involved with the unique community of Indian Jews that exists here, and I will be working with a project called Salokha (meaning friendship in Hindi) that does conflict resolution and communal harmony work to counteract animosity that exists in this city and country between Hindus and Muslims.
This blog exists to allow anyone interested to have a window into what it might be like to live, work, and travel in India. Aside from this, it exists for me to express (and sometimes vent) my own experiences in this crazy city. In a pinch, it will also let those who care about me on the other side of the ocean know that I'm still alive and kickin' in a country where that's the only way to live. So until my next post, be well and be happy.

Monday, September 13, 2004

From the Land of Rickshaws and Rain (Vol. 2)

Below is a letter a wrote home on my third night in Bombay. Enjoy.

Dearest family, friends, teachers, and miscellaneous loved ones,
Greetings from Bombay! I only arrived here about two nights ago and already so much has happened, so much has been seen and such connections have been made. It's somewhat hard deciding where to start, but I guess I'll begin by saying that I have arrived safe and sound, my flight was long and arduous but fine, and I'm thrilled to be back in India. The same goes for the rest of the folks in my program, though some have already been confronted with, and thankfully overcome, their first dose of the culture shock that this country so generously doles out.

I must say though, as I compare my reentry to this country through the port of Bombay to my initial experiences last year in New Delhi, I feel that India has in fact been somewhat stingy in providing us with its aformentioned copious and intense amounts of culture shock. Where are the constant blaring horns and streets fully lined with garbage? What about the overcrowded sidewalks rife with claustraphobia? Where is the entirely unbreathable air? Where are the lepers, beggers, and otherwise handicapped individuals following us for blocks on end asking for change? And what about the streets merchants that so love to harrass Westerners to the point that we'll buy their low quality goods simply to get them to leave us alone? Not here, at least not to the extent that I experienced them in my previous travels to so many other cities in India. It almost seems as if Bombay is a country a ll its own, or at the very least a diet version of the India of yesteryear. Even as I try to tell my fellow travelors what a comparatively pleasant experience they're having , I realize that one cannot know this difference easily through stories and language; only the medium of experience can truly tell the tale.

Not that I'm complaining per se, but I had prepared myself for Bombay as I remembered the rest of India. I hadn't imagined an Indianized version of New York, which is very much what it feels like. Cosmopolitan is the word of choice, and I really believe that the two cities have much in common. One can walk down the street with a great deal of anonymity, even as a Westerner, as people here are so busy that they don't have the time to harrass you. There is a great deal of culture, from the center of the Indian film world, Bollywood, to large cinemas playing Western movies. There are nightclubs and bars, restaurants offering an extensive array of cuisines(except, unfortunately, Japanese), and art galleries galore. (I've even been to one already!) Shumona, our organization's in-country representative, said that she would introduce me to the apparantly thri ving Bombay Photographic Society, a community that she has interacted with in the past. All of these things excite me, as I fully intend on exploring all of these subcultures during my time here.

Somehow I doubt, though, that any of these will be as inviting as the one subculture our group has been invited into already, that being the unique Jewish community of Bombay. While we have been here for less than three days, the group already feels like we have a deep connection to this small but devoted group of people. Our organization had originally planned to arrange homestays in Jewish families, and had hoped a possible connection could be forged between the American Jewish community and the indiginous Jews of Bombay. It seems that their hope has already been and will likely continue to be fulfilled.

On our first day in the city we were invited to Friday night dinner in the home of one of most respected men in the community, and he extended to us a permanent invitation to his home on Shabbat and all holidays. Originally from Baghdad, this man has lived in Bombay for over seventy years in the same home. When he invited us back to his home it was no 'come back any time,' but a deep and serious look into each of our eyes that told us just how sincere his generosity is. It is this kind of sincerity, generosity, and devotion to community that seem characterize much of this small group. These people clearly have much pride in their heritage as Jewish people, and I feel that India, a country that is almost inherently religious and communal, is one of the only places in the world that can foster this kind of strength in community.

In any case, our being welcomed into this community just barely after we stepped off the plane has indeed been a boon for our adjustment to the city. For though this experience has been a bit easier for us than some other possible encounters we could have had, even a 'low carb' India is still India nonetheless, and India is never without a good bit of difficult learning about the harsh realities of the world. I imagine that Bombay certainly has plenty of these realities that we have yet to experience, and I am glad that our feet are firmly planted in a solid community so that when the monsoon winds do in fact blow hard, we won't be blown away with them.

may you all be well and happy,