Sunday, 30 August 2009

Five Delicious Days in Paris (or Global Nomads Return To Old Stomping Grounds)

I just got back from Paris. Pothik and I had five intense days of monuments, delicious food, art (lots and lots of Monet), biking on Velibs and plenty of walking.

Pothik and I were children in this city. It is a bizarre feeling coming back. We talked a lot about how profoundly growing up in Paris has shaped our sensibilities as adults. Being little Indian children in a European city was strange way to grow up - we were immersed in so much rich culture - a culture that wasn't ours. Or perhaps it was, in a way, because we had a complex identity that included so many influences from all over the globe.

Because we don't spend much time in Paris as adults, being in the great city floods us with rather vivid memories of our childhoods. Our mothers would drag us around to museums until the whole concept became normal, then, fun! We read all the French children's books (Babar, Tintin, Le Petit Prince) and watched the local TV stations.

It was particularly interesting going through the halls of our elementary school - the International School of Paris. It was a fun place that embraced the variety of ethnicities of the students. Pothik and I remember celebrating Hannukah, Diwali (Indian festival of lights) and Chinese New Year with our classmates, where we would learn different songs and eat different types of food.

We're all grown up now - so our interests have changed a little. We spent a lot of our vacation exploring Le Marais, which we think is the coolest neighbourhood in the city. Our hotel was located very close to Le Marais, so we had the opportunity to eat at cute little restaurants and shop at bohemian little boutiques almost every day.

We are both big Monet fans - as children, he was perhaps the only artist that we could really appreciate. So we took a day to go on a pilgrimage to his home in Giverny. As a child, I fell in love with a book called Linnea in Monet's Garden. I read that book so often, it became part of the fabric of my imagination. It follows the story of a little girl visiting Monet's garden. On this trip, I managed to find a copy of the book, and it brought me right back to my childhood.

Of course, there was plenty of eating to be done. We had too many crepes to count (I always stuck with the crepe sucre, while Pothik went crazy with the Nutella crepes...). We also ate steaks, mussels, Vietnamese food, escargot and plenty of beautiful summery salads.

We enjoyed the nightlife a little. Le Marais lights up at night, almost every day of the week. People are out eating, drinking and just being merry. Yesterday, we went to the very chic Buddha Bar, and were VERY DISAPPOINTED that the place does not convert itself into dance club. The ones in New York and London do! Get with the program Buddha Bar Paris!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Last Days of Summer in London

I'm back in London for two weeks, to see my family. But fortuitously some friends from my past are here - so we have been soaking up the last days of summer together.We've been having long luxurious lunches in our garden. My mother is an excellent chef!
Here we are in front of my parent's house in London. It's an adorable London townhouse!
My mom's handiwork! Too much wine though, for a summer day!
Avanti, a friend from high school has moved to London. Here we are catching up.

Pothik and I go way back. We started our friendship in Paris, where we both attended the International School of Paris for primary school. Then, randomly, we both attended the Jakarta International School for high school. So, our journeys in life have constantly woven into one anothers.

Paris, where we met at the age of about 8.

Today, we spent the day in Bath. We went to the Jane Austin museum (the boys only barely tolerated this), and then we frolicked in the beautiful lush parks of Bath. The new addition to our little group is Naz, Avanti's boyfriend. It was a merry little bunch.
It was a beautiful day! Sunlight! Blue skies! So NOT London!

Of course, even though we were exhausted at the end of the day, I couldn't resist visiting the little independent bookstore, and dragging the crowd with me.

Tomorrow Pothik and I take a train to Paris. We'll be there for five fabulous days! More details and updates to follow!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

"The soul of India lives in its villages." - Gandhi

Yesterday I had a wonderful day in a village an hour away from Pondicherry. It was all color and sunlight and little girls with their pets and old ladies with their concern about the fact that I'm not married. Rather than write about the experience, I've decided to present a little photo essay of sorts. In terms of chronology, the photos begin at the bottom of the post and work their way up! I loved my time there so much, I may move to this village permanently some day and become a peanut farmer.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Happy Independence Day, India!

Today is India's Independence Day! And everybody is celebrating. I was feeling a wee bit better when I woke up this morning, so I decided to take an early morning stroll along the beach. According to all my Indian friends (who all happen to be security guards), the single most potent cure for any ailment is an early morning walk. Indeed, it is considered a kind of panacea to these guys.
On this important day, I decided to celebrate by paying homage to the Gandhi statue by the sea. Everybody was out and about - the rich, the poor - everybody was happy to have the day off. My security guard gave me a little cut out Indian flag and a little needle so that I could wear the flag on my shirt. By the sea, it seemed like everybody had the same little flag pin. Even one, slightly loony, beggar had a nice colorful flag pinned to his gray rags.

On my walk back, I bumped into Nina and Cristina, my classmates, who had come to the beach to read the morning paper. They commented on how strange India's relationship with the West is. While everybody is so proud of India's independence, they also seem quite proud of the colonial remains. The independence day announcement in the Pondicherry papers had a nice big picture of the Joan of Arc statue next to it, and no sign of Gandhi in sight... I suppose that for the masses, colonial rule was simply a blur of white folks and big yellow buildings, and now, life is pretty much the same. Politics don't figure very much into people's daily existence. Today, they are just looking forward to the fun and color and parades and bazaars.
I, for one, am happy for India. I sincerely hope that she continues to prosper and develop. I hope that the standard of living goes up here and that the widespread poverty becomes a thing of the past. I also hope that the caste system continues to be eradicated and that dalits no longer face economic oppression.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Conferences and Colonial Cocktails...

This week, I attended a conference in Pondicherry that brought together scholars from the US, Europe and India who all study Tamil issues. I was really looking forward to it, actually!
I haven't been spending much time thinking about my dissertation and my academic interests, and conferences always get me excited about what I study.It was interesting for me to see how differently academic institutions function across the world. While in America, our research is driven by large, theoretical questions, in India, students are asked to collect lots of data and then think about how this data may be useful. As a literary scholar in America, I am interested in the power dynamics that govern the writing process and the way that gender is constructed through literature. My counterparts in India function completely differently. Their advisors give them a topic, such as war poetry, and they spend their years in graduate school making tables of where particular words appear or they look through all the available manuscripts to track changes. I am very grateful that I am firmly located within the American system, which fosters a broader, more theoretical approach, because honestly, I would not make it through a day of plotting metaphors on a graph. Over the course of the many conversations, I made valuable contacts with Indian scholars I can work with in the future.

The conference took place at the French Institute - so we were treated to lavish lunches, dinners and cocktail parties. Under the tents, in the midsts of lush manicured gardens, it seemed like little had changed since the years of French colonial rule here.

Of course, as a half-Indian woman myself, it was only appropriate that I wore a sari. Although the layers of fabric that get tucked away are sort of unwieldy, the open mid-rift is perfectly suited to maximize airflow. I am now a big fan of this particular form of clothing.

I got to know some really interesting people - such as Herman, a Dutch professor who studies both Sanskrit and Tamil, and Simon, a Dutch graduate student who is about to marry a Tamil girl from Chennai. Berkeley had a fine showing. Besides Jennifer, who organized the event, Kiran was there as was Matt.

Unfortunately, I've had a cold for the last week, and so I was totally sniffly during the whole conference. I also think all the cocktail parties and excited conversations may have slowed down the recovery process. On the up side, I found a copy of Le Petit Prince in Tamil at the conference book stand. That managed to help me overcome the doldrums for a few hours...

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Poor

I haven’t written much about the poverty in this country. I suppose for me, the pain of it all is still too near. Pondicherry is relatively well off for an Indian town. Still, life is hard for most people here, as it is everywhere in India. I have spent time in other developing countries – the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia – but nothing compares to the poverty in India.

For the most part, I have managed to compartmentalize my emotions, so that the constant drain of observing suffering doesn’t constantly overwhelm me. Sometimes, however, it is impossible not to feel really wretched about the state of the world – about the unfairness of it all. I came to India after extended stays in Berkeley and London, and the drastic disparity between the quality of life in these places really hit home. Even middle class people here have few possessions and eat simply; the masses of the poor walk around in rags and eat a single meal a day that consists mostly of rice. How different this is from back home, where most families throw away so much food every day, because they have overestimated their needs. Or where children clamor for more pocket money to buy the latest cell phone. Children here are so happy when their parents can afford money for their lunch or school uniform.

We always hear about India’s booming economy, and I believe that the quality of life has improved significantly over the last couple of years. However, the reality is that most people here, even in the middle classes, live in very basic conditions. I hope that the economic developments will continue to bring in wealth, but the recent global recession is definitely going to set things back.

Around my house, I am always a little saddened by the sight of the rickshaw drivers. Now that auto-rickshaws dominate the streets, there is no longer much need for the slow, manually driven pedi-cabs. As a result, it is mostly older, poorer men that drive manual rickshaws. It is such hard work for them. They tend to be very thin and as such it is quite a burden to push the weight of another person in their rickshaw. They earn significantly less than the auto-rickshaw drivers per ride, and fewer people use their services, because it is a much slower ride. Many of these auto-rickshaw drivers live on the street with their wives and children. It is a pitiful sight.

I really don’t know what to do about it. A couple of times I gave the wife of a rickshaw driver a hundred rupees, which is a huge amount of money by their standards. But now, every time I pass, she desperately asks for more money. While I would love to constantly give her more, part of me knows full well that creating a relationship of dependence is not the solution. But there just doesn’t seem like that much else to do.

What makes everything worse is that alcohol is very cheap in Pondicherry. As a result, men that work in really difficult professions often turn to the bottle. This leads to a lot of domestic violence. Sometimes, men that are perfectly strong and healthy degenerate completely because of their alcoholism. It is self-destructive, self-defeating behavior. A lot of wealthy people use this as an excuse not to give poor people money. I understand their logic, but I also wonder if I were living under such difficult conditions, whether I may not turn to some sort of substance abuse as well. When you are well off, there are so many healthy ways to self-medicate. When you are desperately poor, what pleasures can you turn to that will help take your mind off the endless, meaningless labor?

Friday, 7 August 2009

Zooming Around Pondy

Two-wheelers. That's what they call motorcycles here. It is one of my favorite ways to see the city! Here are a few photos from my experiences zooming around on a bike, when my friends have been kind enough to take me with them.