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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bright Lights, Pink City (Part III)

Earlier this year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn't occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction.

(Continued from Part II)

Date: July 4, 2004
Subject: "Everything you never wanted to know about India"

Hello again all, and happy 4th...

Just got back from a few days in Bombay, and will send some more info on that trip in the next update (FYI, one of the hotels was having some sort of expat Independence Day shindig featuring burgers and hot dogs, banana splits, and "a chilled can of Budwesier" -- presumably specially imported for this occasion. Alas, I missed it...) In the meantime, I figured I would answer some of the questions my cousin Jonathan (age: uh, 12?) sent re: my last post, on the theory that some of you might have been also wondering about these topics...

  • Did the movie have subtitles? What happened in it?
Nope, no subtitles, which means that I only understand about a tenth of the dialogue, but Hindi films aren't exactly "My Dinner With Andre" so I generally know what's going on. There's also a fair amount of English sprinkled in which helps. The film I mentioned in the last post, "Hum Tum," ("Me and You") was a pretty typical romantic comedy about NRIs (non-resident Indians) set in New York, Amsterdam, Paris... but since then I saw one called "Main Hoon Na" (basically, "I'm Here" which I am now recommending as the ultimate Bollywood film. It's got everything a Bollywood blockbuster needs: a plot that combines the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana with the theme of current Indo-Pakistani relations, a policeman who has to go under cover by going back to college (which sets up -- what else? -- a Prom Night scene), terrorist attacks, two love stories, the reuniting of a long-separated family, and self-conscious allusions to more movies than I could possibly list (from "Sholay" to "The Matrix" to "Raising Arizona." If you can find it in the states, go. It is absolutely hysterical.


  • Is Anju a slave? Isn't that illegal? Or just in the US?
No, Anju is not a slave... she is paid for her work (though I can't imagine that her wages are worth the hours she puts in -- she's awake before me and after I go to bed) and if she's unsatisfied with her situation she can take her labor elsewhere without much trouble. Capitalism at it's purest, really... and while I am kind of getting used to being waited on hand and foot, it's still a shock to see the little things they ask her to do -- turn up the television when she's in the middle of cooking dinner, etc.

  • Are you going to be talking completely in Hindi when you get home???

I wish. I'll probably still be saying the two phrases that I say the most here, which are "Tik hai" (OK) and "Accha" (good). These are very useful phrases because with them and a well placed head-bobble I can pretend that I understand what the hell is going on.
  • CUCUMBERS AND KETCHUP??????? eek.
Agreed.

  • Is the milk pasturized?
Nope, which means that it has to be boiled in tea (which we drink constantly), so it leaves this weird skin on the top of your cup. Kinda gross actually.

  • Are lesbians common there or just crappy english speakers?
I suspect that the women who yelled "Hello Sexy" at my friend were just imitating something they had seen either in a movie or saw some men do. There's actually a fair amount of controversy and protests right now over a Hindi film called "Girlfriends" which features a lesbian romance and which by all accounts is a terrible movie -- it's probably the only thing that American LGTB advocacy groups, Hindi film critics, and the fascist Shiv Sena party all agree on. (There was a similar fuss over Deepa Mehta's [much better] film "Fire" a few years back, aslo headed by the Shiv Sena). At any rate, homosexuality, at least as we know it in the states, seems to be relatively rare here...but the borders  of gender are drawn somewhat differently. For instance, it's not at all unusual for men who are good friends to walk down the street holding hands. Then of course there are the hijras, a word usually translated as "eunuch" (though there is some debate over whether they need be actually castrated, and some contestation between groups of hijras that are or are not, ahem, intact. Each city has its own community of hijras, who dress like traditional Indian women in sarees, and show up at all major functions (a birth, a wedding, etc.) to sing and dance and demand money/food/drink in order to give their blessings; and most everyone plays along. A couple of days before I left for Bombay, some hijras had come to the house next door for a birth, and I recorded some of their songs... we also got accosted by some while in a rickshaw in Bombay, and after praising the whiteness of my skin, one of them tried to tickle me. They are an interesting lot, to say the least...

  • Have you milked a cow? Does the family own a cow?
Nope and nope. Nobody really owns cows in Jaipur, they just wander around and eat garbage on the street.

And finally, to answer the question of my cousin Ed (age 32):

No, I have not seen any Indian porn. As far as I know it is still technically illegal here, though you can buy tons of old Playboys in the book stalls in Bombay -- along with more copies of "Mein Kampf" than you could toss in a bonfire (I think the Shiv Sena have something to do with that). I also had a guy on the street in Bombay offer me "sex movies," but I'm afraid I declined, Ed -- sorry.

Well, I hope you all enjoy the festivities and your "chilled can of Budwesier" today. Be well, and keep in touch...

(to be continued...)