Wow... wow. In a few hours, I'll be on a plane bound for Dubai, and then on a plane bound for Seattle! The past ten days have been packed with so much, I don't know how to express it all. So I won't, but I'll give you the highlights.
Our last day meeting new people as part of the program was a session on the dalit movement. Dalits, sometimes called untouchables, are the bottom rung of the caste system, considered so unclean that they are not allowed to drink from the same water sources as higher castes. We met with Dr. Lakshmi Pathi, a sociology professor at Bangalore University, to learn about the dalit struggle for equality and dignity. Dr. Lakshmi Pathi explained that caste is a sort of unwritten constitution for India; although the country's written constitution outlaws discrimination because of caste, members of lower castes still have a hard time renting and buying homes, finding decent work, and sometimes even being safe from physical violence. Beginning in the 1970s, a movement inspired by Gandhi and Ambedkar, but also Marx and Mao, started in the dalit community. Dalits are proud of their identity, and rather than erasing the caste system, the goal of the movement is to promote equality between castes. We read dalit poetry and listened to four dalit students at Bangalore University perform songs they sing in local villages to catalyze dalits in those communities to take part in the movement. At UW, I work as a research assistant for the Mass Movements Database Project, which aims to compile a complete database of political movements in each country in the last 200 years. I've created outlines of movements everywhere from Armenia to Nigeria, but as I learned about the dalit movement, I realized that I want to learn more about the philosophy behind movements. Marxist groups show up all over the world, but in dramatically different forms - why? How do one person's ideas catalyze such diverse groups?
That afternoon, Ruby, Meili, Trent and I went to Indiranagar to meet with our travel agent and confirm the details of our trip to Delhi and to show a few friends the shops in Ruby's and my neighborhood. As we walked to the travel agent's office, we stumbled upon something I hadn't witnessed in Indiranagar or anywhere else during my time in Bangalore: a middle-aged man, clearly drunk, beating a woman who looked like she must be his wife on the street corner where they and their children were squatting. As he yelled and hit her with a stick, other pedestrians walked quickly by. No autorickshaws or motorcycles stopped. The group clustered fifty yards away, horrified and unsure of what to do. An older man across the street was filming the drunk man on his cell phone. When we asked him why nobody was doing anything, he sighed, "He might stop beating her now, but he'd make up for it later when nobody's watching. He'll get meaner if you give him an audience - the best thing you can do is walk away." When we asked why he was filming the violence, he shrugged helplessly, with no explanation. Nobody wanted the beating to continue, but everyone knew that intervening would only make things worse for the woman.
I lived in this neighborhood, got off of countless rickshaws at this street corner, and I had never seen anything like this shameless brutality before. I felt like I'd seen a mask ripped off the ugly side of the city - Bangalore is growing at breakneck speed, more and more women have good jobs and independence, but a man can still beat his wife in the street and there are no mechanisms in place to protect her. All month, I had the privilege to meet the city's best and brightest, and it felt necessary, if horrible, to catch a glimpse of what they're up against.
The next morning, Anu met with each of us individually to ask us what we were proud of from our month together. She asked me how I'm feeling about the blankness I talked with her about in our first one-on-one, the awareness that as I'm taking in so much information, my mind feels empty. I realized that my slow processing time isn't always a weakness - the day before, when my classmates and I saw what we did, I was able to keep a level head and support my friends. An hour later, I was shaking with horror as I thought about what happened, but in the moment my numbness enabled me to do what I needed to do. Intellectually, too, taking a long time to process the ideas I take in gives me space to consider their complexities. When I've written about my experiences on this blog, I've begun to slowly untangle the twists and turns of what I've witnessed. But that's not the end of the process - this fall, I hope I'll be able to draw even more understanding from this past month.
In class that afternoon, Anu wanted us to understand two things. The first thing is that our program was built entirely on the strength of relationships Anu has with our teachers and that they have with each other. Few of the people we met were paid much for spending time with us; they simply wanted to share their knowledge. The second thing is that the bathrooms we encountered during the month were consistently spectacular, and we should never forget it. So don't expect any horror stories about squat potties from me - anyone who goes to Bangalore and complains about the restrooms needs to calm way down.
In the evening, we piled into a bus and headed to our end-of-the-program party. Indhu and Usha were there, along with several host families and Ben, who attended our TO workshop. We munched on gobi manchurian and danced to Bollywood music, and when it was all over Miranda, Nur, and Stefanie caught a taxi to the airport - our month together was really at an end.
Friday brought more goodbyes as Chloe, Liv, Zena and Maya headed off their separate ways. We did some last minute shopping, wandered around the hostel, and tried to ignore how empty the place felt without everyone hanging out.
The next day, after one last run through Bangalore, Meili, Ruby, Trent and I boarded the train to Delhi. Once we were settled safely in our seats, giddy with excitement about our adventure and relief that we'd made it this far, Ruby yelled, "We're going to Hogwarts!" and we had an impromptu dance party - it's a good thing we had a private compartment.
The forty-hour journey passed surprisingly quickly, mostly with reading. I finished City of Djinns by William Dalrymple, a travel memoir/history book about Delhi, and Bangalore Calling by Brinda S. Narayan, a collection of short stories about Bangalore's call centers. City of Djinns got me excited to explore an ancient city, and Bangalore Calling made me nostalgic for the city I was leaving - I recognized neighborhoods and landmarks in the book, and I realized it feels a little like home.
We arrived in Delhi on Monday morning and stepped off the air-conditioned train into 90-degree heat, 90% humidity, and a crush of people, many of whom were staring at us. After trekking from one side of the station to the other and back in an attempt to find our driver, we finally connected with Mr. Dogra, who would be our sole provider of transportation for the week. Catching sight of the sign he held - "Miss Ruby and friends" - was quite a relief amid the confusion of the station. We all shook hands and piled into the van. Mr. Dogra, who we learned has a twenty-year-old son and a twelve-year-old daughter, launched into dad mode, warning us not to talk to strangers and to avoid street food. As we drove through the city, he pointed out landmarks I recognized from City of Djinns - India Gate and Connaught Place existed in 3D!
Before even settling in to our accomodations, we stopped at Humayan's Tomb, a sixteenth-century complex in the middle of New Delhi. After the blocks of sleek glass buildings in Bangalore, it was surprising to glimpse Mughal arches peeking out from behind modern structures as we approached. As we wandered around the gardens from tomb to tomb, I felt a hundred miles away from the city. I read that Islamic architecture follows strict rules of symmetry and precision, and the crisp lines of the pointed archways against the soft backdrop of trees and grass created an incredibly peaceful effect. Tall stone walls blocked out noise from the street. After our long journey, it felt wonderful to be outside and exploring.
After dropping off Trent and Ruby at their hotel, Meili and I headed to our lodging, a house in the South Delhi neighborhood Defence Colony. Through a great stroke of luck, we stayed here for free - Meili's professor's wife's mother owns the house, and the family graciously hosted us for the week. We were greeted by Rekha, the housekeeper, who immediately prepared us tea, omelettes, toast, cheese, and fruit, all the while apologizing for her limited English and chatting up a storm. Rekha is approximately 4'10", makes delicious masala chai, and laughed after every conversation she had with us - we're still trying to figure out why, but she and her laugh were delightful. A few hours later, after another spread featuring palak paneer, fresh roti, and a bowl of mango for dessert, Meili and I packed our overnight bags for our trip to Agra the next day and headed to bed.
The next morning, Mr. Dogra picked us up at 6:45 to beat the traffic out of the city. Even on the expressway, our group managed to stand out - busloads of Indian tourists eyed us curiously as they passed, especially Trent with his red beard! Besides being home to the Taj Mahal, Agra also has a population of about 2 million people, many of whom we glimpsed as we drove through the outskirts of the city. On a street that seemed to specialize in tire shops, I wondered: what is it like to work at a tire shop a mile from the Taj Mahal? Have the men who work in those tire shops ever been there? Do they take their families on weekends? What is it like watching busloads of foreigners rush in and out of your home as you go about your workday?
As one of those foreigners, I'll probably never know. We were whisked to our hotel, to an air-conditioned restaurant for lunch (creatively named the Taj Mahal), and then to the gates of the Taj itself, where a guide led us past the crowds of men urging us to climb onto their camel carts or into their cyclerickshaws. But when we walked through the gate and stood in front of the famous mausoleum, I understood why the tourist hordes flock here - photos of the Taj Mahal just can't do it justice. After the obligatory picture in my Grand Cinema T-shirt (photo wall, here I come!), we braved the blistering heat for two hours to wander the Taj and the surrounding gardens. The Taj was built over a period of more than ten years by skilled craftsmen using the best marble in the world - translucent and non-porous, it glows in the moonlight and hundreds of years of weather and walking have polished it to a beautiful shine. The Mughal ruler Shah Jahan constructed the mausoleum in memorial of his beloved wife, Mumtaz. As we walked around the enormous building, I couldn't get over the immense power this single man must have held in order to put so many craftsmen to work that he had to build them their own mosque next to the work site.
Once the day had cooled off a bit and we'd been shuffled in and out of several souvenir shops packed with overly familiar salesmen - an Agra tourist necessity, it seems - we drove down the river to Agra's Red Fort. Shah Jahan was imprisoned here by his son for the last years of his life, but from his rooms he could look out over the water to Mumtaz's tomb - such epic intrigue and romance. As the setting sun glowed on the white marble, the fort was the perfect setting for such a story.
On our way back to Delhi the next day, we stopped in Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, the Hindu god of creation. After a few days of exploring Islamic Mughal sites, the temples of Mathura were riotously Hindu - the arches were strung with garlands of flowers, and the spare and simple decorations at Humayan's Tomb and the Taj were replaced with deities clad in tinsel and bathed in butter and turmeric. Mathura is decidedly not on the itinerary of most foreign tourists, and our guide's English was limited to only a few phrases. He led us with quick strides through a temple commemorating the place where Krishna was born, insisting that we clap and bow at significant deities despite our total ignorance of what they represented. Next, we went to another temple devoted to Krishna surrounded by a garden filled with monkeys whom I witnessed stealing sunglasses from unsuspecting devotees ("Nasty monkeys," the guide remarked). Once we emerged from the temple an hour later, our foreheads were smudged with a rainbow of colored powder and holy water, we had been made to run in seven circles around a deity chanting all the while, and we'd surrendered a hundred rupees to a priest who insisted that getting our names inscribed on tiles to be displayed in the temple would cost 11,000 and was very insulted that we weren't interested in forking over the cash. Our guide deposited us back in the van with Mr. Dogra and we rode back to Delhi in stunned silence.
In all of my time in India, I had never felt so uncomfortably out of place. Last quarter, Anu encouraged us to think about the distinctions between tourists, those who simply see new things, and travelers, who are changed by what they see. I realized that to shopkeepers and tourguides, I look like a tourist, and I'll be treated like one unless I take the responsibility to act like a traveler. I read up on Mathura, trying to remember the real devotees who had come. They danced in the temples, happy to give lavish offerings in hopes that their prayers would be answered, taking home jars of prasad to share with their loved ones, just as devotees have done in these temples for centuries. I can't have a do-over of that confusing day, but I've tried to focus on the memory of the women who invited us to dance with them as we stood awkwardly in the corner and to learn more about why they danced.
Back in Delhi the next morning, we said goodbye to Trent, who boarded a plane back to Bangalore. I whipped out my Lonely Planet guide and laid out an itinerary for the day, determined that we would not be herded into any tchotchke shops or led about by a guide who didn't care who we were or what we learned. After our whirlwind two days outside the city, I stuck to museums - in the morning, the National Museum of India, and in the afternoon, Gandhi Smriti, a memorial that marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. The National Museum was three floors of artifacts from Indian history, some up to 5,000 years old. We examined tools from the Harappan civilization, the first urban society in India, gazed at intricately painted medieval miniatures, and climbed to the third floor to see a complete suit of armor for an elephant. While the displays were interesting, I felt a new appreciation for how Indhu and Usha made the history they taught us come alive by bringing in performers of traditional arts. The artifacts at the National Museum provided a backdrop for these performances, showing where they fit in to a much bigger scene of Indian culture.
After a lunch of phad thai and tofu manchurian, we drove to Gandhi Smriti. I knew that Gandhi was an important figure in Indian history and politics, but he's more than that - almost like the Founding Fathers and Betsy Ross and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one person. The interpretive center upstairs in the house where he spent his last days reminded me of our program; each exhibit was a multimedia composition that combined three-dimensional art with sound and video, exploring unique ways of communicating Gandhi's message. At the book shop, I bought a brick of a book entitled India After Gandhi. I'm excited to get a little more background into his ideas and impacts.
Friday was an action-packed day! We started bright and early in Old Delhi by visiting the Jama Masjid, a historic mosque. Old Delhi reminded me a bit of Bangalore, but ten times more so - produce vendors' wares spilled into the streets, wires dangled haphazardly from buildings and trees, and the road was a narrow, twisting path. The Jama Masjid is a functioning mosque, and Meili, Ruby and I felt a little odd wandering around in the robes we were asked to wear and snapping pictures. After a few minutes, we returned to the entrance, where Mr. Dogra had lined up a cyclerickshaw ride through the neighborhood for us. The three of us piled into the rickshaw, Ruby and me in front and Meili facing backward behind us, and set off at a snail's pace down the street. I was struck by the dearth of women in the street, and riding in the rickshaw felt a little bit like being part of a single-float parade that the vendors and their customers watched with idle curiosity. We passed a McDonald's entombed in tangled wires and vines, elegant stationery shops, and barbers with impossibly small shops crammed with styling tools and customers. This is the Indian city I'd imagined when I booked my flight to Bangalore - layers of history and humanity piled on top of each other. But no less Indian are Bangalore's car-jammed streets or New Delhi's broad, tree-lined avenues.
Next, we headed to South Delhi to see the Lotus Temple, a Ba'hai place of worship. After the madness of our previous temple experiences, I was a little apprehensive about this site. However, the Lotus Temple was entirely its own kind of place, from the graceful white marble petals stretching to the sky outside to the peaceful silence of the crowds within. People of all faiths are invited to pray or meditate in the temple, and I saw Hindus and Sikhs there in large numbers.
Afterwards, we finally persuaded Mr. Dogra to join us for lunch. Over rice and paneer, we asked him about his life as a driver. In addition to his wife and two children, he has a large extended family who rely on his earnings as their sole source of income, and the pressure to provide is difficult. His family lives in Punjab while he rents a flat in Delhi with a couple of other drivers, and he only sees them every few months. Usually, Mr. Dogra chauffers Indians, and his English is fairly limited, but he had us in stitches with his impression of the two talking parrots his wife keeps in their home. He talked wistfully about getting a government job that would offer more reliable hours and better pay, lamenting that an uneducated person in the private sector cannot hope to do much better than he has managed. But he also seems to truly enjoy his job, pulling over often to shake hands with other drivers he knows and waxing poetic about the beauty of the Indian Himalaya, where he sometimes drives when business in Delhi is slow. Mr. Dogra's gentleness, affability, and protectiveness reminded me of Mr. Mallesh, the farmer who now lives in Bangalore and who spent a lot of time with us during the program, and I feel so lucky that of all the drivers in Delhi, we were lucky enough to get him.
To wrap up the day, we drove further south to the majestic ruins of the Qutab Minar Complex. The complex houses a 73-meter-high stone tower, a number of tombs, and beautiful gardens. As we wandered around, it began to rain - gently at first, but then the kind of immediately drenching downpour that I've only seen in India, never in Seattle. Ruby, Meili and I huddled in the shelter of an archway with a soggy family of Indian tourists and waited out the shower. The rain made the ruins look even more imposing and grand. Delhi is a city of surprises - you might round the corner of a parklike street to enter an alleyway only rickshaws and handcarts can navigate, or catch a glimpse of an ancient ruin behind a government high-rise.
On Saturday, Meili and I woke up and packed our bags in preparation for the long trip back to Seattle. For our final day of sightseeing, we visited a Sikh temple with Mr. Dogra, a practicing Sikh. Once again, we appeared to be the only foreigners on the temple campus, but the devotees were friendly and curious - while I was waiting for Meili and Ruby outside the bathroom, a mother and daughter came up to me and, after the daughter egged the mother on in Punjabi, the elder woman smiled at me and gave me a huge hug. Then the two smiled broadly at me and went on their way, leaving me bemused but oddly touched. Unlike the temples at Mathura, visiting the Sikh temple felt properly respectful. Rather than participating in the prayers or bathing in the pond of holy water outside the temple, we simply observed. Afterwards, Mr. Dogra offered us each a piece of prasad, which worshippers take home to share among family and good friends.
Our last sightseeing stop was Lodhi Garden, yet another lovely complex of flowering plants, trees, and ruins. In Indian culture, public displays of affection between young couples are taboo, but walking along the garden paths was a bit like an Easter egg hunt - pairs were snuggled up beneath trees, in the deepest recesses of crumbling sixteenth-century tombs, and even behind the park's pumphouse. Others were more brazen, lying side by side in the grass and walking hand in hand. When we returned to the van, Mr. Dogra wryly inquired about the other visitors in the park - he clearly knows what goes on there.
And now, I've procrastinated on this ridiculously lengthy post for so long that I'm just an hour out from Seattle as I type this - if you've read this far, thanks for hanging in there! This trip has been so many things, and I'm excited to return home and think more about what I've seen, heard, and done - and to hug my mom :)
Hello readers, apologies for the late post - it's been a hectic few days of traveling. In the past week, I've studied poetry, singing, and Kathak dance, walked barefoot through ancient temples, and spun around to the beat of goatskin drums played by Karnataka folk performers.
Last week began with a poetry workshop taught by two members of the (Great) Indian Poetry Collective (greatindianpoetrycollective.wordpress.com). The GPIC aims to promote Indian poetry in India and abroad by publishing poets' work and teaching student groups. Using poems written by Indian poets as examples, the instructors led us through writing three poems in an afternoon. They encouraged us to use poetry to exoticize the familiar and question why things are the way they are. We examined the differences between news briefs and poems about the same story, and concluded that poetry can capture meaning in an event that other forms of writing can't - a poem doesn't just state the facts of a situation; it can also express irony and emotions surrounding it. As such, our teachers explained, poetry is a powerful tool for social justice. They encouraged us to use poetry as a gateway to other types of writing; for example, maybe I'll write a few poems about the reception of Latino immigrants in rural Iowan communities before I begin writing my research paper next month to help me keep the meaning of my work in perspective. I love the idea of this seamlessness between artistic expression and academic or professional work.
On Tuesday, the group met with Mr. Malesh, our farmer friend, and a friend of his who drives an autorickshaw. Mr. Malesh explained a little more about what we saw at Krishnarajendra Market last week. He told us that the flowers we saw never go to waste; many families and temples receive a daily delivery of flowers the same way that my family gets a newspaper on the front porch. He also spoke about the difficulties facing farmers who bring their crops to the market, from the rising costs associated with bioengineered seeds to deforestation resulting from the rise of the tobacco industry and the associated need for clear land. His rickshaw wallah friend, whose name I sadly forgot to write down, talked about his own transition from farmer to factory worker to auto driver after his farm was overtaken by Bangalore's urban sprawl. After three weeks of seeing only the back of countless auto drivers' heads and wondering what their lives are like, it was fascinating to hear about his day-to-day routine. He works ten hour days and brings home around 350 rupees in the evening, about US$5.50. But on the strength of this income, he has been able to take out and pay off loans to send his three daughters to English-medium schools, and one is in her second year at an engineering college. His hard work is vaulting his children into a totally different life. Even though he could only speak to us through Anu's translation, his sweetness and the pride he takes in his work and family were clear. The longer I'm here, the more I'm learning about the lives of the people I meet.
Wednesday and Thursday were full of music. First, we enjoyed a Tumri performance, a classical form of singing. As a singer myself, I was thrilled to talk technique with an Indian vocalist. She explained that manipulating timbre, or the quality of one's voice, is really a western concept - Indian classical music should be sung in a voice as close to one's speaking voice as possible. Classical music also has no concept of harmony; a drone may provide support for the singer, but the two key elements of a song are raga, or melody, and taal, rhythm. Rather than our twelve-note scale, the classical Indian scale consists of as many microtones as the singer can hear, hence the sliding sound present in a lot of Indian music.
We also participated in a Kathak dance workshop with a dancer who spent eight years living in Seattle, dancing with a company on Capitol Hill! She gave us a good workout as well as an education in Kathak dance. It is an intensely rhythmic form; dancers wear bells around their ankles - the more accomplished the dancer, the more bells - and their footwork must align perfectly with the music. She studies classical Indian music as well as dance, so she also tried to teach us a song to sing (which we, with our western ears, failed at pretty hilariously). After she sang it for us beautifully, I asked how she produced the piercing, floating quality of her voice, explaining that I'm also a singer. She turned the question back at me, asking about the differences between vocal production in western classical singing and Indian singing. From the corner of the room, Anu called out, "Show us!" The entire group, Indhu and Usha, and our dancing/singing instructor all looked at me expectantly. So, feeling awkward, I sang through the chorus of the song she had taught us with the best University Chorale voice I could muster. Then, I tried to imitate a more Indian sound. Our singer looked delighted and told me that she'd never really thought about vocal production. Then, she wanted to know how high I could sing, so I sang a few high notes. Then, she wanted to know how vibrato worked, so I sang a few straight tones and a few with vibrato. From the corner again, Anu commanded, "Sing us a song!" So that's how, in a classroom in Bangalore, I sang the first page of Faure's Pie Jesu in front of a Kathak dancer, two women's rights activists, and eleven classmates - life is weird.
On Thursday morning, I sat down for a one-on-one with Anu. I've felt really anxious about doing this trip "right," learning concepts that I can "use" and articulating them so that others can understand. I see and hear so much every day, but when I lie in bed at night, my mind is blank - I'm so overwhelmed by just witnessing Bangalore that I feel like I can't even begin to think about what it means that I'm here or what I'm learning from this experience. Anu assured me that this is by design. She explained it like this: If we have a tree of all the things we've learned, some experiences show up as leaves or branches. You might be able to point to a particular branch and say, "That's Political Science 200" or a particular leaf that's a concert you went to. But the experience traveling to the opposite side of the world and thinking about foundational issues like poverty, race, and gender in a completely new context creates changes in the roots of the tree. These changes aren't visible right away, and when they do alter the way the tree grows, it might not be clear that the tree looks different because of one moment or event. But nevertheless, the change is present and profound, and digging at the roots only slows the processing of what I'm taking in right now. This blog is pretty much a list of things I've done, because I'm still working on thing's I've learned. If you ask me "How was India? What did you learn" when I get back, I might just wave my hands a little bit and give a stupid answer like, "It was great! I learned about Indian art and stuff!" But check back - maybe after a month or a year, I'll be able to say more.
On Friday, we left our homestays early in the morning to board a bus for Shravanabelagoda, a 1000-year-old Jain holy site. After several jolting, jarring hours aboard a bus driven by a man who didn't believe in potholes or speedbumps, we checked our shoes at the bottom of a hill and walked barefoot up massive stone steps warmed by the sun to the temple above. Inside the temple is the tallest monolithic carving in the world, a statue of Gommateshvara Bahubali, the founder of Jainism. The statue is 58 feet tall and breathtakingly carved, polished smooth by centuries of rain and wind. The Gommateshvara also enjoys a breathtaking view - the hill sits on a flat plain green with miles of coconut palms in neat rows.
On the way to Hassan, the town where we spent the night, we stopped at a small-town market. Anu had a great time translating the locals' quips as our very foreign-looking group walked through. One old man yelled to his friends, "Anybody need a bride? They'll take you back to New Zealand with them!" When a vendor selling brooms tried to sell his wares to us, a marketgoer chastised him, "You dummy! They're here to see the market, not sweep the market!" Another man tapped Trent on the shoulder and snapped a selfie with him - his big red beard and pale skin make him an object of interest wherever we go, especially in the countryside where fewer foreigners pass through.
Our last stop of the day was the Hemavathi dam outside Hassan. Mr. Malesh convinced the guard to let us climb the stairs to peer over to the reservoir on the other side, so as dusk fell we ascended more than a hundred feet to stand on the wall of the dam. The reservoir, with its gently lapping water and softly curving coastline, reminded me of Puget Sound. But submerged under the reservoir are 46 villages, representing thousands of people displaced when the dam was built. The dam provides energy to Hassan and the towns surrounding it, supporting their economic prosperity, but at a terrible cost for the farming families forced out of their homes. Looking out over the water, everyone was quiet, wondering: how does a society grow well? How can it balance these costs?
Saturday took us to Belur, another ancient temple outside Hassan. Belur is a living Hindu temple, and we arrived at the perfect time: on Saturday mornings, the priests perform a ritual bathing of the Vishnu statue inside, washing it with coconut water, curds, honey, ghee, and turmeric. Exuberant music and drums drew us into the temple and we watched at the back of a silent crowd as the priests handed up offerings to a man on a high platform next to the statue and he splashed them over Vishnu's head. At the end of this ceremony, called the abisheka, faithful families take home jars of the runoff to eat, similar to Christian communion. The temple itself was incredible - the walls are covered with small stone carvings, and no two figures are alike. For a thousand years, generations of visitors to the temple have examined the minute differences between each elephant parading around its base and tasted the sweet, pungent mixture of offerings to Vishnu collected at the deity's feet. The Liberty Bell's got nothing on India's historical sites.
On Sunday, Ruby and I said a fond farewell to our host family and headed back to the hostel. Our two weeks with the Gopakumars flew by! From showing us the best ice cream shop in Indiranagar to helping us made sense of Indian politics to insisting we take just one more helping of dhal, the family made us feel so at home. Hopefully they'll be visiting Seattle soon!
On Monday, the group piled back into the bus and headed to Janapada Loka (www.jaanapadaloka.org), a folk art museum outside the city. We were greeted by a parade of dancers/drummers/acrobats who led us to an outdoor amphitheatre and performed for us. Their energy was incredible - for an hour, they danced, played, and formed human pyramids by standing on each other's drums. They even invited us up to dance with them - or in my case, to flail awkwardly while they danced. The museum is serving its purpose as a means of preserving tribal art forms; performances like this have become a source of income for the performers and encourage local young people to learn traditional forms.
Today, Tuesday, Meili, Ruby and I visited a travel agent to get help planning our trip to Delhi after the program ends. The train tickets are booked, Meili and I are staying in an apartment in a nice part of the city, and we have a driver for the entire week - many people have cautioned us against using taxis or autorickshaws in the north, so we're playing it safe. A week from now, I'll be 24 hours into a 40 hour train ride across India... surreal. Even though I'm officially finished with my study abroad program this Thursday (whaaaaat?), I'll be posting updates here until I return to Seattle in two weeks
Week Three of my stay in Bangalore took me and my motley band of traveling classmates outside the city for a three-day Theatre of the Oppressed workshop. Theatre of the Oppressed, or TO, stems from the philosophy of Paolo Freire, who created empowering pedagogical methods of teaching to oppressed communities. TO continues Freire's teaching philosophy with the idea that abstract thought is only one way to process knowledge and that equally useful learning can come through physical movement and theatrical performance.
The TO form we worked with most is called forum theatre. In forum theatre, the audience members have the chance to become active participants in the struggle playing out before them by taking the place of the oppressed or conflicted character in the scene. In our workshop, we began the exercise with the audience seated in a circle around two actors - Ben, the oppressed, and me, the oppressor. In the scene, I could generate force radiating out of the palm of my hand, and my job was to push Ben to the floor with that force. At first, he turned away from me and covered his eyes, but eventually I was able to get in his face and overpower him. Next, our classmates took turns standing in Ben's place, each trying a different strategy to stop me. Amy smiled and refused to move, Ruby pulled my hands away from her face to try to get me to see her, and Nur ignored me and walked around the room outside of the circle, just trying to get on with what she was doing in spite of me. It was exhausting - each time, I had to insistently shove my palm at my classmate's face, sometimes running around the room to keep up with them. It was also really emotionally draining to be the symbol of coercion to a group of people I respect so highly and care about so much. Finally, Steph got up from the circle, headed straight for me, flung her arms around me and held me tightly, repeating "stop, just stop." She had pinned my arms to my sides, so I couldn't physically overpower her as I had before, but she also completely changed the dynamic of the play - from adversaries trying to overpower each other, she transformed the two characters into beings that could coexist in mutual respect. I started the workshop skeptical of TO's potential to create knowledge, but the feeling of security that came over me as Steph hugged me after more than an hour of fighting others showed me the power of TO on a visceral level.
Forum theatre combined the ideas of all my classmates to solve the broad problem of oppression. In addition to encouraging creativity and collaboration, this form is also emphatically inclusive. To participate in the place of the oppressed, a spectator doesn't have to have a solution in mind or even have experienced oppression before; rather, he or she just needs to understand the problem of oppression. This understanding may come from personal experience, or it may come from the difference between one's personal experience and the situation at hand. No one is expected to solve the problem, but everyone is invited to empathize and engage. Paolo Freire said that solidarity means running the same risks - willingingly placing yourself in the midst of the struggle, not swooping down from on high to save the "victims" of the oppressor.
Two more energy-packed days later, we headed back into the city. Mr. Malesh, a long-time collaborator with ESG and a farmer who migrated to Bangalore more than twenty years ago, took the group on a walking tour of City Railway Station and KR Market, one of the most frenetic scenes in the city. City Railway Station is one of the major transportation hubs in Bangalore. In addition to trains, you can catch buses, taxis, rickshaws, and soon, the city metro. But the station is not simply a point of entry and exit; many people also live and work here. We passed street people sleeping on railway platforms, vendors selling everything from handmade drums to phone batteries, and even a man who was selling tattoos from a blanket on the sidewalk - we stopped and watch him work ink into the arm of a stoic customer, oblivious to the hubbub around him. There's no One Bus Away in India, and navigating public transportation requires much more time and energy than in the US as well as an understanding of the unique neighborhoods that have sprung up around stations like the City Railway Station.
Next, we walked a couple of kilometers to KR Market, an entirely different neighborhood but no less chaotic. Walking through the market was like being in a drunken Pike Place: it seemed like there was one person per square foot, all the vendors cry out advertising their wares, and produce and flower sellers arrange their goods in beautiful patterns just because they are beautiful. After an hour of taking in the sights, sounds, and smells, we drank coconut water with our eyes glazed over and headed home for the night.
The next day, we met back up with Indhu and Usha of HHS for a day of unpacking our experiences so far. My poor roommate, Ruby, got sick (all our tummies are feeling a little strange lately), so I caught a rickshaw to HHS's offices myself. I was a little nervous to go on my own, but I found a rickshaw right away and the driver got me there early. I bought a tiny cup of coffee from a cart and stood on the sidewalk, sipping it and feeling like a local. I'm still exhausted at the end of every day and I don't know if my digestion will ever figure out how to work properly here, but little moments like this tell me that I'm slowly getting better and better at functioning in this new place.
Once the rest of the group arrived, we chatted with Anu and Amy for a few hours about our first two and a half weeks. Many people expressed a question that's been nagging me: am I really learning anything? I've felt a lot, seen a lot, and listened a lot, but when people asked me what I learned on my trip to India, I don't know what I'm going to say. Anu set us at ease, explaining that this question is exactly why we will have a class in the fall - to be around people who understand exactly what this month is like and to learn how to communicate it to others. For now, she said, my job is to be a sponge, just absorbing all the craziness and confusion and not trying to make sense of it just yet. I was reminded of something a friend who has lived in India told me when I called him last week, completely overwhelmed: sometimes the easiest thing to do here is just to embrace the crazy. So, that's what I'm doing - letting my hair dry in the wind from rickshaws, crossing my fingers every time I buy chai on the street, and absorbing everything I possibly can for the final two weeks of this program.
Our conversation with Indhu and Usha that afternoon was a great extension of this discussion. From talking about a biography of a nineteenth-century female performing artist, we digressed to asking a barrage of questions about the caste system to analyzing the role of regional migration in Bangalore's economy to dancing to Bollywood music videos, all in an unrelenting search for context for what we're seeing in the city each day.
On Saturday, the group performed the forum plays we created in our TO workshop at a theatre festival. The audience was great - everyone wanted to participate, and their ideas were always creative and sometimes hilarious. After learning the theory behind TO, it was exciting to take it outside the bubble of our group and use it to have conversations with people across cultures.
Since Saturday morning, I've been taking the weekend to relax and recharge, drinking tea, visiting the National Gallery of Modern Art, and getting an ayurvedic massage this evening. The fast-paced days are flying by - the program is more than halfway through! In the next week, I'll attend a poetry workshop, a concert with traditional tumri singing, and a traditional dance class. I'll also be traveling five hours outside of Bangalore to visit the Belur and Halabid temples, which I'm really excited about. Until next week!
Week 2 in Bangalore has been filled with incredible people, new places, and all the carbs in the world - a standard meal might include two kinds of rice, potatoes, and bread. I love this place... Seriously, though, I've met people this week who are doing jaw-dropping work that is all the more amazing to me since I'm still just trying to figure out how to get around and feed myself here. So, expect this post to be a whole lot of fangirling, and please do check out the links to the organizations I've learned about this week - they're well worth the time.
On Monday, the group had a check-in with Anu and Amy. A couple of things came up in our discussion that I want to touch on here. The first is that this program is emphatically NOT a service trip - we are here to learn from people who know way more about Bangalore and its issues than we ever will, not to suggest solutions for them. The more time I spend here, the more I disagree with the voluntourism model. Unless you're a doctor or an engineer with hard skills that another place desperately needs, it's almost certain that someone in that place can do and is doing the service you want to perform, and they're probably doing it better than you could. Which leads me to the second thing we talked about: a better model for social change is to pursue local solutions to local problems. The NGOs I've learned about so far are effective precisely because their employees live in the areas they serve, eliminating much of the cost of travel and the barrier of cultural difference. Maybe it's ironic, but my time abroad has reinforced my goal of focusing on U.S. policy in my studies and career - I want to be part of a local solution.
After a day of reflection and wandering the city, on Tuesday the group met a feminist organization called Hengasara Hakkina Sangha, which, translated out of Kannada, means Women's Rights Organization. HHS is essentially two women, Indhu and Usha, who have worked tirelessly for more than a decade to empower rural women by educating them about their legal rights. This dynamic duo led us on a walking tour of the neighborhood near their office, including a visit to a five hundred-year-old Hindu temple and a walk through a park where fruit bats hung from the trees. This city is so green, even compared to Seattle, and I said a silent "thank you" to ESG.
Wednesday was our second day with HHS. Indhu and Usha first introduced us to Prathibha Nandakumar, a Kannada poet and translator. Prathibha ma'am is one of the only female Indian poets writing about women's bodies and desires in a way that has historically been reserved for men and also one of the only poets to write about the struggles of dalit women. In her talk, she discussed the process of translation from Kannada into English and from her own identity as an upper-class, upper-caste woman to the voice of a poor, dalit woman. In both cases, Prathibha ma'am stressed that although details may be lost in translation, the core identity of the work or the woman must come through. She also spoke about the competing identities within her - she is a woman, a poet, and a journalist, and sometimes the cultural expectations placed on women make it difficult for her to write poetry or prose effectively or she must decide whether to write about something in poetry or prose. The idea of choosing identities seems obvious, but I loved the way she put it - no matter what aspect of her comes into play in a given situation, she is no less herself, and while some identities are static - her gender, her class, her educated status - she has chosen to be a poet and a journalist.
Our next speaker also had a lot to say about identity. Akkai Padmashali, a trans activist, told us her story of growing up in a patriarchal society and her journey transitioning to identifying openly as female. Although hijras, MTF transgender folks, have long held a respected place in Indian society, Akkai spoke about the patriarchy within the hijra community and her decision to break with its traditions and expectations. As she told us about her time as a sex worker, conflicts with hijra leaders, and the struggle to gain legal recognition as a woman, she never stopped smiling. Akkai gave us really difficult material to process, but she did so with a generosity of spirit that kept us energized and open. Her teaching is an art in itself.
On Thursday, Usha and Indhu had lined up two more people to speak with us. First, we checked in with them about everything we'd talked about so far. Each of us listed three things we'd been thinking about during our time with HHS. Here are mine:
1. There are some identities that I am born with and others that I can choose.
2. It is impossible to theorize the balances between relationality and individuality and between universality and distinctness.
3. Taking these two truths into consideration, it follows that I must constantly negotiate tension between my identities, being conscious of how each comes into play in a given situation and of how they change over time.
Indhu and Usha spoke to this too. Usha talked about taking the train back from rural Karnataka, where she was teaching women who lived in extreme poverty, to her comfortable home in Bangalore. Her discomfort with her own privilege hit home for me, and the fact that she and Indhu struggle with feelings of guilt and inadequacy and yet do such incredible work inspires me to keep engaging with my own identities as a white, American, educated person and to use them to do good things rather than to feel bad about them - this is an ongoing and difficult practice, but Usha's words gave me a lot of encouragement.
Next, we listened to Deepu, a filmmaker for an independent documentary studio called Pedestrian Pictures, speak about the power of film to increase public awareness of social issues. He showed us a documentary his friend had made about Bangalore garment workers' attempts to unionize. Having studied American labor law last quarter, I was struck the similarities between the poor conditions Indian workers deal with and those in the U.S. a hundred years ago. Abhorrent labor practices are a part of the birth pangs of development, it seems, but local union organizers are able to use the same tactics that American unions pioneered to hopefully protect workers sooner. However, it's not quite that simple - today, trade is global, so unionized workers risk driving international corporations to countries with more vulnerable labor forces and losing their jobs altogether. As Deepu pointed out, it's difficult to determine what a fair wage is in this context - enough to live on might be more than corporations are willing to pay when cheaper labor exists elsewhere. He urged us to speak out at home to promote international solidarity among workers, which he sees as the only way to prevent this destructive outsourcing. Rather than boycotting companies that rely on Indian workers, which would decrease demand and put those workers out of a job, it is better to publicly shame those corporations until they ensure better conditions. This is a much trickier job than simply not shopping at, say, H&M, but as Deepu told us, "walking creates a path where there was none."
Our last speaker was Nisha, the founder of a fantastic feminist news outlet called The Lady's Finger. A mainstream media reporter, Nisha saw that the only women covered in the news were CEOs and rape victims - the most successful, powerful people and those whose humanity was overshadowed by sensationalism. With a few friends, she decided to start a website devoted to news about individuals and issues that would provide a better representation of women in India. It's a small group and they rarely break news, but they provide in-depth reporting on stories that they feel aren't getting the coverage they deserve. Some of their most well-known work was reporting on the dearth of women participating in conference panels on everything from politics to tech. The mainstream media picked up the story, and a once-invisible problem is now at the forefront of social discourse here. Nisha used a lovely metaphor to describe her work: it's not ballet, she said of her reporting and activism, it's dancing in the road. It doesn't really matter if you mess up and it's not going to be perfect anyway, so just have fun and give it your all, and whoever's watching will probably enjoy it.
On Friday, I moved out of the hostel to my homestay. Aruna, Gopa, Madhu, and Vishnu welcomed my fabulous roommate Ruby and me into their beautiful home in Indiranagar, a neighborhood on the east side of the city. Madhu is the same age as my sisters, and we've become fast friends - the weekend has been a whirl of Bollywood movies, dressing up in sarees, and souvenir shopping. I can't believe we're leaving after just two nights with our host family - this evening, the group will reconvene at a retreat center outside the city for a three-day workshop with Theatre of the Oppressed, after which we'll move back to Indiranagar for ten more days. Stay tuned for stories about my awkward acting skills next week ;)
Prathibha Nandakumar: www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poet/item/2734/27/Prathibha-Nandakumar
Akkai Padmashali: http://www.thebetterindia.com/21961/how-jagadeesh-became-akkai-padmashali-and-a-transgender-activist-was-born/
Pedestrian Pictures: pedestrianpictures.wordpress.com
The Lady's Finger: www.theladiesfinger.com
Know them. Love them.
It's a lazy Sunday afternoon at the hostel, and my classmates and I are settling in to life in Bangalore. In less than a week, I've gone from a considerate Seattle pedestrian to a fearless jaywalker. I've learned to haggle with rickshaw drivers in a jumble of Kannada, English, and gestures. I've eaten a lot of delicious food, met a Karnatakan TV celebrity, and begun to learn about the history of the city and the problems its citizens face today - and it's not even seven days in!
After two hours of sleep once we arrived at the hostel at 5:30 on Wednesday morning, I went out to explore the neighborhood surrounding it. The sidewalks, where they exist, are a patchwork of stone slabs, brick, and tile, with holes and uneven edges everywhere. Telephone lines are affixed to trees instead of poles and often droop down so pedestrians have to navigate a tangle of wires on the ground and overhead. But the definition of "sidewalk" is flexible - cars, rickshaws, scooters, and motorbikes don't seem to have any notion of lane discipline, and pedestrians often join the mix on the side of the road. Unlike in the U.S., pedestrians emphatically do NOT have right of way here. Crossing the street requires an eye for gaps in the traffic and can take several stops and starts in the middle of the road to let rickshaws and motorbikes pass.
It seems that everyone notices our multi-colored group of foreigners. As we walked through the city with Anu leading us, I noticed outright stares from passing vehicles and pedestrians alike. While we clearly aren't Indian, our mixed ethnicities make it difficult for people to place us, and we're quite the object of interest. Trent, with his bright red hair and beard, even noticed people taking furtive photographs of him! After more than two hours of walking, we headed back to the hostel and had a sleepy dinner and early bedtime.
Thursday was our first day of program activities, and we started bright and early. At eight we had a breakfast of dosa and chai and at eight fifteen we boarded a bus to visit our first community partner, Environment Support Group. ESG provides legal and organizing services to communities under threat from development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused his poverty alleviation efforts on encouraging foreign industries to expand into India, but the costs of this new business are inordinately borne by the poor. Farmers's common lands are being taken over for research and development, fishermen are seeing lakes privatized and converted into water parks, and entire villages have become the dumping grounds for Bangalore's garbage and hazardous waste as the city grows out of control. ESG helps these communities get their voices heard over the more powerful influence of the rich, who stand to benefit directly from development by translating legal documents into Kannada, helping community leaders organize demonstrations, and litigating if necessary - they currently have a case pending in the Supreme Court of India. Rather than taking over the struggles groups face, ESG focuses on informing them of their rights and helping them to mobilize those rights if they want to.
Everyone at ESG was kind and gentle with us, but their work is clearly fueled out of a passionate sense of injustice. To welcome us, the staff had created a rangoli out of stone powder, turmeric, and crushed plants and lit a lamp fueled with a ground nut oil that's healthy to breathe. We each lit a candle and introduced ourselves to everyone. The candles represented the destruction of our individual egoes to help us be a better part of a community. The ceremony took a long time - I found myself getting impatient to start our "real work" - but when it was my turn to stand at the front of the room and introduce myself, the broad smiles of the ESG staff directed right at me made me feel invited into their organization with an intensity I hadn't anticipated.
From this gentle welcome, we transitioned to challenging subject material. Bhargavi, a long-time organizer at ESG, gave us a brief history of Bangalore and an overview of the issues ESG works on. She explained the government's lack of response to poverty with a Kannada expression: "Even if we don't have food in our stomach, we have flowers in our hair." The Indian government negotiates with many competing interests - its international image as an aspiring world power, foreign industry, domestic investors, the growing Indian middle class, and finally, the urban poor and rural populations. The former groups are in a position to offer much greater incentives to politicians, and the everyday Indian citizen gets lost in the shuffle as the government scrambles to develop shiny, beautiful cities to attract foreign investment. Half of Bangalore doesn't have running water, but the city just built a multi-billion-rupee metro system and is repaving sidewalks in affluent areas. Even more disturbingly, the city is projected to run out of ground water by 2023, and while the entire city center is served by two water pipelines from the nearest source 100 kilometers away, the tech companies outside the city have many, many more.
Bhargavi was explicit that her goal was to disturb and discomfit us, albeit with breaks for sweet, creamy coffee and a delicious homemade lunch. She criticized those who live what she called a "featherbed" life focused on comfort and convenience and challenged us to consistently question the status quo. At the same time, though, she and the rest of the staff at ESG chatted with us with kindness and humor and encouraged us to see the value in taking the time to light candles and enjoy a meal together. Fierce and difficult work requires equal attention to care and support.
Instead of busing to ESG for our second day, the group split up into threes and took autorickshaws. Anu taught us how to give instructions to the driver - first the neighborhood, then a landmark - and to insist on paying by the meter rather than letting the driver choose a fare. While five hundred rupees to get across town is just eight dollars to us, it's much more for the locals than the usual two hundred and fifty or so. Part of being a conscientious traveler, she explained, is understanding and preserving the local economy. So, I refuse a driver who won't go by the meter, but for those who agree to take me for the standard rate, I tip well. Riding in a rickshaw is so much fun! Major roads in Bangalore are less like I-5 and more like Mario Kart - horns beeping, vehicles swerving, and the occasional cow. Women in saris whiz by on scooters and men driving carts pulled by tiny horses stare at us.
At ESG, we spent the morning learning about the various projects its staff members have taken on. They are fighting the privatization of public land, the pollution of lakes, grasslands destruction, irresponsible bioengineering, trash dumping in villages outside Bangalore, and road widening that displaces poor households and cuts down trees. ESG's philosophy is that development must be sustainable, requiring a much slower, bottom-up approach to growth that is based in Indian traditions rather than the city's current headlong rush to westernize.
After another wonderful homemade lunch, we were treated to an Indian folk and theatre music performance. Rohini, a singer and actress famous in the Kannada-speaking parts of India, demonstrated several traditional forms accompanied by an incredible percussionist. After the concert, they invited us to experiment with the instruments, and finally we all played together with drums and shakers. I asked Rohini about her vocal technique, and she explained that when she sings traditional music, she sings full force the entire time, which requires a ton of support from her diaphragm. When I sing, my volume comes from the space I create in my mouth and throat, but Rohini's is all from the strength of her breath - I think she might have superhuman singing powers.
After our second session at ESG, we were free for the weekend. I've visited three markets, gotten lost on a rickshaw once (and was able to give the driver directions), eaten an impossible number of masala dosas, and almost started to feel like I know what I'm doing here. The upcoming week is a busy one - I'll be working with people from The Better India, Red Hibiscus, and prominent local writers in both English and Kannada. I'm so excited to keep exploring the city and grappling with hard questions, and I'll be sure to post about it here.
I'm one hour in to the fourteen hour flight to Dubai, followed by a four hour flight to Bangalore, and I still keep having to tell myself that when I finally step out of an airport, it will be two days later and I'll finally, finally be in India! It's been a week of frantic packing, long goodbye hugs, nerves, and excitement, but my head is still having a hard time wrapping itself around the idea that Bangalore is a real place, and that I'm really going.
For the next month, I'll be studying with eleven other UW students in the CHID and Honors program "Social Justice and Artistic Expression." We'll be doing a theatre workshop, working with media outlets that are documenting social issues in the city, going to concerts, living with host families in Bangalore, and witnessing what justice and art mean to people in this city halfway around the world.
Although we've been working towards this trip together for a quarter now, as some of my classmates and I waited for our flight to board at SeaTac, we all expressed the same sentiment: we really have no idea what we're getting into. I have the name and address of the hostel I'm headed to, a good idea of what not to eat if I want to stay healthy, and kurta and salwar kameez in my suitcase, but the fact remains that I had to get a passport specifically for this trip - I've never been this far from home before and the agenda for our program remains a mystery to my classmates and me.
So, am I ready to go? I guess that depends on how you define ready. I'm not fluent in Kannada or Hindi. I don't know my way around the city. But I'm ready to be challenged and to try things I've never done before. I'm ready to see and listen and think a LOT. Check back on this blog now and then and I'll try to post updates when I can. Here goes...