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.



  • 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…)

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…)

Bright Lights, Pink City (Part I)

Earlier this month, 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.

Date: June 15, 2004
Subject: “of rickshaws, camels, and iced mochas”

It has been almost a week now since I arrived in India, and it has been interesting to say the least. I and another student were met at the airport by someone from the institute where I’ll be studying this summer, and taken to a guest house in Gurgaon, which is a booming suburb of Delhi… it’s the epitome of the India Shining that brought down the BJP government in the latest elections: huge futuristic glass corporate buildings (Citibank, etc) with shantytowns huddled in their shadows. The trip to the guest house was my first taste of the Indian national pastime, namely, attempting to seriously injure people with motor vehicles. I had heard plenty of stories about how crazy the roads in India are, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality. Think New York’s congestion with Boston’s speed and disregard for human life, then throw a few cows into the middle of the street for fun. All of the trucks have beautiful paintings in on the back adorning the words “Blow Horn” (apparently the rearview mirror has yet to catch on here, so at least you are looking at something nice when you drive into it at forty miles an hour). They should make a video game out of this — “Delhi Death Rally,” maybe. It occurred to me that this must be why people find India to be such a spiritual place — when you are in a rickshaw driven by a fifteen year-old, there is little else you can do besides pray.

Anyway, we had an orientation for a day in Gurgaon (complete with a 20-minute revisionist eulogy for Ronald Reagan’s “humanity and compassion” from a low-level American diplomat — something I had hoped to avoid by being halfway across the world, to no avail), then took the four-hour Shatabdi Express train to Jaipur. We spent one night in a hotel here, then moved in with our host families on Sunday.

I managed to wind up with the most luxurious of all of the homes, a full on middle-class flat complete with microwave (which seems to be used mainly for storing dry goods) and a servant — this will definitely take some getting used to. I have a nice, fairly cool room (no a/c, but a “cooler” and ceiling fan… it’s been hot, around 110 F, but it doesn’t bother me that much, and the monsoon is coming at the end of the month) with its own large bathroom and (thank god!) a western-style toilet. The family I’m staying with is very nice and have welcomed me into their family. The father’s Hindi is hard for me to understand, but the mother and son (he’s 26) both speak very good English, so they can explain something if I don’t understand their Hindi. They also have a daughter around my age who is working out of town, but luckily I don’t think they will try to marry her off to me…

Our house, and the institute where I’ll be studying are in the southeast of the city, in a neighborhood called Raja Park. Besides the cows, there are tons of wild pigs roaming around, and also lots of camel carts hauling goods. Some friends and I went into the old part of the city today to soak up some local
flavor in the bazaars, and I got to see my first monkeys — I was very pleased with that. Then we went to the Barista coffee shop for iced mochas — one of the great benefits of globalization, in my opinion. Tomorrow classes will start, and things will get very hectic — 4-5 hours of class a day, and a couple of hours of homework. We will also be doing some field trips in and around Jaipur, which should be fun.

– Aaron

(to be continued…)

Memo to the Missionaries

Our neighborhood has, for some reason, recently become the target of a group from a Baptist church in Hammond, Indiana who seem to be looking to drum up some new church members. I’m considering printing up some copies of the following to keep near the door and share with anyone looking to proselytize at our doorstep.

Hello, and thank you for your interest in converting me to (insert your religion here). I appreciate the effort you are making on behalf of my eternal soul, and — having spent four years as an undergraduate Comparative Mythology major and five years at one of the nation’s most respected divinity schools — I do enjoy a good conversation about the ultimate concerns of humanity. However, to avoid wasting your time, I have compiled this handy list of the tasks you will need to complete in order to convince me to attend your church/temple/drum circle/what-have-you.

1) Convince me of the existence of a transcendent being beyond the sphere of the human and natural realms. (I’ll give you this one for free, since a truly transcendent being would be by definition beyond the grasp of our limited human cognitive faculties; as a result, we would be neither able to prove nor disprove the existence of such a being.)

2) Convince me that not only is said being capable of comprehension by limited human faculties, but that it is a “person”-al being with the attendant desires, goals, and aims.

3) Convince me that the desires of such a transcendent being would somehow be concerned with what I as an individual believe, whom I decide to marry, what I do with my personal wealth, what I eat, etc.

4) Convince me that of the thousands of religious traditions that have claimed exclusive access to knowledge about this being’s wants and desires, yours is in fact the one that actually does have that access.

5) If, for some reason, you are not fluent in the language(s) in which your religious tradition was originally transmitted, convince me that each of the translators who passed that tradition down to you was in fact guided by that transcendant being.

6) Finally, you must complete each of these tasks without reference to your individual tradition’s scriptures or other religious documents, since accepting the authority of such scripture can obviously only occur after all of the previous conditions have been met.

If, having read this list, you feel that you can complete these tasks, please begin. If not, thank you for your time, and please get off my stoop.

Can a Hashtag Get You Sued?

Alternative title to this post: “How Not to Use Twitter as a Business Tool, Vol. 842”

A colleague of mine recently expressed, via his personal Twitter feed, dissatisfaction with a product that he is required to work with as part of his job. The tweet included a hashtag inferring that the product in question was, in effect, utter garbage. Since my colleague has expressed a desire not to bring further attention to the situation, I won’t mention the name of the product or the company that produces it, but suffice it to say that this is a company that goes out of its way to cultivate customers in the higher ed world, sponsoring networking and social events — and, indeed, social networks — specifically for the higher ed web community.

Now, everyone knows that good social media tactics include monitoring the Twitterverse for mentions of your brand or product, and responding to those mentions. The companies that do it best take criticism on Twitter (Twittercism?) as an opportunity to apologize to a frustrated user and get feedback about how their product or service might be improved.

So how did this company respond?

With an email and multiple phone calls at his work number, threatening legal action if the offending tweet was not removed or retracted.

This “strategy,” if you can call it that, is really nothing short of insane. The backlash that could result from such bully tactics could very quickly destroy the goodwill that this company has spent a lot of time and money trying to build in the higher ed web community. Let’s hope they come to their senses.


Those of you on Twitter are doubtless all too familiar with the thousands of spam accounts set up to pitch porn, Viagra, and  get-rich-quick schemes. Recently, I came across a more insidious form of Twitterspam created to sell, of all things, an band.

I had stumbled across the @AltCountryMusic feed via a TweetDeck search for “” (as many of you know, I’m in an band myself, which also has a Twitter presence). At first glance, I thought this might be a useful feed to follow to keep up with what’s going on in one of my favorite genres. There were lots of links along the lines of “awesome alt country music group live” (with a link to a YouTube video), “Great alt Country music band on facebook” with a link to the band’s page, and so on. After clicking on a link or two, however, I realized that all of these links were to material by the same band. To top it off, the band has at least one more generic front feed (@CountryMusicNow), in addition to a feed for the band itself. Unsurprisingly, I lost all interest in the band upon learning I’d been tricked into listening to their material.

These sorts of feeds are not unlike infomercials: blatantly sales-oriented, under a thin veneer of being helpful or entertaining. They are, in many ways, an abuse of trust — no one really believes that Mr. T thinks the Flavorwave Oven is really that great, and the fact that we know he’s lying to us creates an instant distrust of the product. The road to success in social media is, I think, exactly the opposite of that of the infomercial: earn peoples’ trust by proving yourself helpful or entertaining, and people just might be interested enough in what you have to sell to consider buying it. Trying to force it the other way will only turn people off.

Building (Virtual) Community in the Big Easy

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend Do It With Drupal, a conference on the open source content management system (Drupal) that we’ll be adopting at the Law School in the near future. Aside from the chance to experience Abita Turbodog, great jazz at the Spotted Cat (and more great jazz across the street at D.B.A.), beignets at Cafe Dumond, absinthe, the earliest measurable snow ever in New Orleans (thanks to Avi Schwab for those photos), and the greatest snack food in history, I had the chance to rub elbows with some of the leaders in the Drupal movement, including the conference organizers, the Drupal consulting firm Lullabot.

Now, I’m not a programmer by trade or by inclination, so there was plenty of full-frontal nerdity at this conference that flew well over my head (I’m pretty sure at one point folks at one presentation were actually talking in PHP), though the introduction to the Views module by inventor Earl Miles was worth the price of admission to me. Most fascinating to me, though, were the talks about community building, particularly those by Brian Oberkirch and Lane Becker. They really got me thinking about how we can continue our mission to make the Law School’s site into an extension of the very distinct community it represents, to function as a virtual Green Lounge (the main gathering place at the school) where people can debate, argue, and laugh together.

What’s great about using Drupal as a tool for this task is that it is more than a content management system — it’s a community of people building a platform for building communities. Interaction and community are, as one presenter put it, “baked into the code.”

TweetChicago: Behind the Scenes

Last month the Law School announced its TweetChicago page, which collects together an ever-increasing number of our faculty and students’ 140-character-or-less musings on the micro-blogging service known as Twitter. Since then we’ve had several inquiries as to how we put this little experiment together, so here’s a real brief explanation.
TweetChicago is basically just built off of the standard HTML/javascript widget that Twitter makes (not-so-easily) available:

<div id=”twitter_div”>
<ul id=”twitter_update_list”></ul>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=””></script>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=”;count=5“></script>

Just change “username” above to the name of the user whose tweets you’d like to widgetize, change the “count=” to the number of tweets you’d like to display, and paste into your webpage.
Just like that, you have your first tweeter’s widget.

The tricky part comes in when you want to include multiple widgets on one page. Because of the way Twitter’s javascript is written, it will only call one tweeter’s feed on each page. You can get around this by creating a separate page for each tweeter (e.g., “tweeter1.html,” “tweeter2.html,” etc. You can then embed these pages in your aggregator page using iframes:

<iframe id=”tweeter1 src=”tweeter1.html>

Note that the tweeter’s individual pages will need to include a link to the .css file you’re using to style them, as the styles from the main page where you’re embedding the iframes will not apply to the pages contained within iframes.

This is not a terribly elegant — nor, unfortunately accessible — solution, but it’s the only way I could figure out to get around the one badge per page bug.

Bollywood 101

As regular readers of this site know, in a former life I was something of a scholar of Bollywood cinema (I promise this will be my last Bollywood-related post for a while!). A couple of years ago a friend asked me to compile a list of my favorite films, which I recently happened upon and decided to reproduce here.

For the most part, these are the films that I would include in an introductory class on post-Independence Hindi cinema and the historical and cultural contexts that produced it. I make no claim to comprehensiveness — this list skews heavily toward my interests in religion and nationalism in India and towards more recent films. But if you’re thinking of diving into Bollywood, you could do worse than starting with these films.

1. Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955) – Kapoor, the Chaplain-esque king of early Bollywood became an international hero in the Soviet Union for this condemnation of greed and capitalist corruption.

2. Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) – Perhaps the most well-known film in India, and an ideological endorsement of Nehru’s industrial-developmental socialism over the traditionalist feudalism portrayed as pervasive in village India.

3. Mughal-e-Azam (K. Asif, 1960) – One of the finest “historicals,” this period piece is best known for its lyrical Urdu dialogue and beautiful cinematography.

4. Jai Santoshi Maa (Vijay Sharma, 1975) – A throwback to the early “mythologicals” (most of the early Indian movies were stories of gods and saints), JSM basically established a nationwide cult for a previously little-known goddess; a prime example of the interaction of media and religion in Indian culture.

5. Deewaar (Yash Chopra, 1975) and
6. Sholay (G.P. Sippy, 1975) – The movies that turned Amitabh Bachchan from a star into a god; great examples of the “angry young man” genre that featured disenfranchised and dissatisfied young men as their heroes, reflecting a growing disillusionment with the ineffectiveness and corruption of the government in the 1970s.

7. Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977) – My personal favorite, for reasons ranging from the excellent music to the ridiculous costumes; also ground zero for my study of the intersection of religious and national space in Bollywood cinema.

8. Disco Dancer (Baabar Subhash, 1982) – THE Bollywood movie to watch for camp/kitsch, it is a remake of “Saturday Night Fever;” unexplainably, also one of the most popular movies in West Africa.

9. Tezaab (N. Chandra, 1988) – A terrible movie, but a perfect example of the state of Bollywood in the 80s; also helped launch the career of Madhuri Dixit with the song “Ek, Do, Tin.”

10. Khal Nayak (Subhash, Ghai 1993) – A reimagining of the Ramayana as a police drama; most notable for the song “Chole Ke Piche” and the incredibly absurd outfits worn by Sanjay Dutt.

11. Hum Aapke Hain Koun (Sooraj R. Barjatya, 1994) – Not a single fight scene to be had, Bollywood begins turning away from the angry young man and back toward the love story/family drama; as economic liberalizations begin to transform India, conspicuous consumption starts becoming a family value.

12. Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995) – A beautifully shot and acted film about the aftermath of the 1992 Ayodhya conflict and the riots in its wake.

13. Pardes (Subhash Ghai, 1997) – Not really a good movie, but interesting in its depictions of the conflicts in Indian social life as more and more Indians go abroad.

14. Dil To Pagal Hai (Yash Chopra, 1997) – A fun, goofy, infectious movie, with Shah Rukh Khan at his best (i.e. before people started thinking he was a dramatic actor)

15. Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1998) – Mani Ratnam does it again — and with maybe the best soundtrack ever by A.R. Rahman.

16. Dil Chahta Hai (Farhan Akhtar, 2001) – MTV starts making its presence felt in this coming of age drama about three hip young friends.

17. Devdas (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2002) – Maybe the most beautifully shot Bollywood film ever, and fantastic music; Shah Rukh really can’t pull off the dramatic lead, though.

18. Main Hoon Na (Farah Khan, 2004) – post-modern, self-referential and ironic, yet loving tribute to the masala film; ridiculous plot but funny and technically perfect — and great songs, of course.

19. Swades (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2004) – Something of an answer to “Pardes,” addressing the question of what happens when NRIs return to India.

20. Rang De Basanti (Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2006) – A sensation in India at the time of release, it mixes together the stories of anti-British Indian revolutionaries with the political awakening of a group of young friends.

Did I leave off your favorite movie? Of course I did. Let me know in the comments!