Bright Lights, Pink City (Part II)

Recently, 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 I)

Date: June 24, 2004
Subject: “Update from the subcontinent: sights, tastes, and… uh.. smells”

It’s been a bit over a week since I last wrote, and I’m starting to settle into my routine here: classes from 9 until early afternoon, then do some exploring or shopping or web-surfing or all of the above until I head home for dinner and homework at about 8:30. Every Saturday we have a field trip (either locally to a market or temple or something, or once we wil go to Agra [home of the Taj Mahal] overnight) and Tuesdays we watch a Hindi film at school.

The other day I went to my first film in the theater (for those of you who don’t know, the Hindi film industry is one of the largest in the world — Indians’ obsession with movies puts Americans’ to shame — and is one of the focuses of my studies), and I have to say, it was kind of disappointing. Indian movie theaters are generally (according to my friends who have been to them before) really rowdy places where the riff-raff in the low-class seats (in India, even the theaters have castes) sing along to the songs, yell dialogue at the top of their lungs, and illustrate things on the screen to each other with laser pointers. This theater (Entertainment Paradise) was basically a suburban theater, without even a balcony (the more expensive seats are slightly raised at the back of the theater) and nothing but well-behaved middle-class families. I’ll have to try my luck at the Raj Mandir, the huge 1920’s Art Deco cinema here that is famous throughout India…

As predicted, I am pretty much sick of Indian food by now. Anju (my host-family’s servant) is a very good cook, but I can only eat daal so many days in a row, and in such quantities, no less. Before I got here, I figured I would probably lose weight while I’m here, but I neglected to take into account the Indian penchant for shoving food down the throats of guests, and being offended if you turn it down. The Institute gives prospective host families a crib sheet on how Americans are different than Indians, which includes the statement that “no means no” when it comes to wanting food, but this doesn’t seem to have stuck (other highlights include: “sometimes americans enjoy being by themselves – if they go into their room and close the door, you shouldn’t be ofended, they are just ‘being alone'”). So, for example, the other day for breakfast, I ate an omelette, 2 parathas (round fried bread about the size of a dinner plate, usually stuffed with potato, a cucumber sandwich (on white bread with mayo, dipped in “sauce” [aka ketchup] — testimony to the horrors ofcolonialism), a sweet lassi, and tea with milk and sugar. And they tried to get me to eat another sandwich and another paratha, but I got out of it. Then I walked to my friends’ house around the corner, so we could head to school together, and their family insisted I have an idli (south indian bread-like substance) with daal and a banana shake. And my host-mother is still worried that I’m “not eating enough” and keeps making sure I’m taking vitamins. Baap-re-baap!

Anyway, I know I must be sick of Indian food because I was really happy to go to Pizza Hut the other night. Now, I used to work at Pizza Hut, and I know what their kitchens are like in the US, let alone in India… but I didn’t care, it was just great to have cheese that was not paneer, with no lentils in sight. Also, I got to watch my host-brother put ketchup on his pizza.

The Hindi learning is coming along slowly, though there is no shortage of teachers. People here are usually happy to talk to us on the street and are often amazed when a ghora-ghora speaks even a word of Hindi. The other day on the way to the old city I got into a discussion with a young chai-walla who wanted to practice his English. A big crowd (20 people or so) gathered around to watch the white guy speak mangled Hindi and the Indian guy speak much better English. When we started talking about American foreign and immigration policy, I got a little nervous about being surrounded by a crowd people of unknown political affiliation, but koi bat nahin tha (it was no problem)… Everyone is generally friendly, calling out “hello” as soon as they see us; though it is hard for my female friends to separate the friendly hellos from that of the “Eve-teasers” (Jaipur has a big problem with sexual harassment, and foreigners are particularly susceptible as they are percieved as a) unprotected by the local community and b) oversexed & slutty; one of my friends has even had “hello, sexy” yelled at her by women passing on a scooter!).

I’m finally getting a sense of the city, having spent a fair amount of time ghumte-ghumte (just wandering around). The rains haven’t come quite yet, and the air quality is horrible: after walking I feel like I have a scum of filth coating my throat. I think if I don’t want to lose 10 years off my life, I should start breathing only through my nose. Of course, if I do that, I might not want to live very long. Before I get too used to it to notice, here is an inventory of what Jaipur smells like, in no particular order:

  • exhaust, auto
  • feces – bovine, human, porcine, canine, etc.
  • urine, both well-aged and fresh
  • water, stagnant
  • dust, desert
  • fruit, ripe, on the carts of street vendors
  • garbage, burning
  • desperation, smoldering
  • late capitalism, raging
  • colonialism, corpse of, rotting

Let me know if you want me to bring back a bottle of air for you…

(to be continued…)

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