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 :)