A busy two weeks in India -- too much to summarize even for this practiced bloviator.
I didn't take a laptop, but I found that an old-fashioned paper notebook served pretty well as a vehicle for note-taking. I did take a new digital camera, which I wanted for the mountain images of Ladakh as well as city scenery in Bombay. There are a lot of good photos; expect a photo-essay sometime soon.
The highlight of Ladakh for me were the steps one climbs to reach the Buddhist monasteries (Gompas) and Stupas. I don't have a strong intellectual understanding or personal connection to Buddhism, and the natural terrain of Ladakh is so severe that the idea of climbing any mountains without some significant planning and/or training is a little ludicrous. Climbing the man-made steps to the mountain-side monastaries was, almost accidentally, a way for us to connect to the landscape of Ladakh -- just driving to the top of a mountain doesn't cut it. The steps also connect one to the Buddhist context, since climbing 600+ steps at 13,000 feet above sea level requires a kind of meditative persistence & concentration. You reach the top of the steps, you go into the temple for a look at the statues of Buddha or Guru Padmasambhava (the founder of Tibetan Buddhism), and then you sit out on the edge of the terrace for an hour to look around. And breathe!
Also interesting are the strong ties to Tibet everywhere. Ladakh is very much in India, but in terms of language, ethnicity, and religion it feels like an entirely different country. It has a proud legacy of dynastic sovereigns (the Namgyal dynasty) and an identification with Tibet that only really came to an end in 1841, when the area was conquered by the Dogras (and indirectly, by Sikhs, as the [Hindu] Dogras were vassals to Ranjit Singh). Since then, Ladakh has been part of "India," though much of the region was taken and then later relinquished by China in the war of 1962. (Some areas in the eastern mountains are actually still held by China.) Beyond language and religion, Ladakhis have a more material connection to Tibet: there are thousands of Tibetan exiles living in Ladakh, in large, permanent refugee 'camps'. The local Tibetans we occasionally talked to, as well as many of the foreign tourists who come to Ladakh, fervently believe that Tibet will one day be free. (I can't share their optimism, though I sympathize with their hopes: knowing what I know about the ways China has forcibly integrated Tibet, it has always seemed to me like a lost cause.)
Due to the proximity to both China and Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir, the area is thick with military personnel. There are army camps everywhere; at six AM you large contingents of soldiers out for their formal morning run. And as you drive up through the mountains to various remote locations you run across more military vehicles than you do tourists. I was initially intimidated by this aspect of Ladakh, but I relaxed a bit when I realized that only a few of the army guys walking around were armed (somehow the presence of too many assault rifles makes me a little uneasy). Also, I had a chance to climb 500+ steps to a small hilltop shrine with some friendly Sikh soldiers we met at Gurudwara Pattar Sahib (east of Leh), and somehow after that I didn't feel the same sense of distaste for the military I -- as a veteran U.S. war protestor -- usually have.
Mostly, these guys just deal with extreme cold and extremely dangerous mountain conditions. At the Siachen Glacier, where the soldiers I met were stationed 6 months of every year, temperatures go down to -50 centigrade. If you fall into a crevasse, there's no Vertical Limit type rescue -- they have to just leave you there. Indeed, the soldiers said that helicopters don't even fly above 17,000 feet, which means that you're basically beyond help throughout much of the higher regions of Ladakh.
Of course, these are roughly the same kinds of soldiers who in 1999 had to try and expel members of the Pakistan army and (presumably) Kashmiri militias who had crossed the line of control and started shelling the Leh-Srinigar road. I didn't ask these soldiers whether they had seen any action in Kargil, but everywhere in Ladakh you see signs of it. New roads are being built to reduce the strategic value of the road in question. And at the Gurudwara there were memorial plaques to Sikh soldiers killed in various J&K conflicts. I was surprised to see quite a few dead in Operation Vijay (1999) as well as Operation Rakshak (1999-2001). Incidentally, the former action is loosely represented in the recent film Lakshya, which I'll talk about a little below.
The last thing to mention about Ladakh is that it is crammed full of foreign tourists in numbers I have never seen in any other tourist site in India (including Manali, which gets its share of foreign tourists). Mainly because of the attraction of Tibetan Buddhism, I think, several thousand Europeans (moreso than Americans) come to Ladakh in the summer and stay, sometimes for several months. This really became apparent at the Ladakh Festival of World Music, which was a free festival held on the "Polo Ground" in Leh. We went there for the second night, and were shocked to see between 5,000 and 10,000 people hanging out and listening to various musical acts for several hours at a time. Probably close to half of the people there were from abroad. The organizers of the concert were Australian musicians who now live in Ladakh year-round.
The advantage for people considering Ladakh as part of a (first) visit to India is that it is relatively user-friendly -- lots of locals know a little English, and cyber-cafes and international phone booths are widely prevalent. The disadvantage, which is a problem at any place where there are too many tourists, is that many tourists never really have to engage the local culture on any terms other than their own.
Lakshya after visiting Ladakh
After getting back from Ladakh, we went to see Farhan Akhtar's film Lakshya ("Goal") at the Liberty theater in Bombay. It's no longer a new film (it's been out for nearly two months), but the theater was still quite full for a 9:30 pm show -- seems like this film has been a success, at least in the metros. I was initially a little distressed that before the film started the audience was requested to stand for the playing of the Indian national anthem, but my brother-in-law informed me that this has actually become standard at the movie theaters, at least in Bombay (is it a new thing? I don't remember it at the theaters I went to in Delhi in the summer of 2003). One might grumble about fascism, etc., but perhaps one shouldn't forget that the same requirement exists at all U.S. sporting events!
The other oddity about military films like Laskhya and last year's disastrous (and endless) LOC: Kargil is that by taking an explicitly patriotic and pro-military stance they gain a special tax-free status. This means that tickets are slightly cheaper than other films. Perhaps this taints their commercial success (where relevant; LOC: Kargil was, I believe, a flop)?
Lakshya is entirely filmed in Ladakh, and indeed, we recognized several of Akhtar's big panoramic shots as places we had visited. It's not a great film -- it's essentially an Indian army recruiting film -- but there are some good parts, including Hrithik Roshan's loopy hip hop dance sequence in "Mein Aisa Kyon Hu?" as well as the nicely shot 'rock climbing' sequence before the big finale. The battle sequences are also good in that they are spatially coherent and essentially logical (this is in contrast to the previous generation of Indian war films -- epitomized by Border -- where battles seemed to be oriented around large, meaningless explosions and displays of heroism devoid of strategic consequence). Unfortunately, even these improved battle scenes are still richly packed with cliches like the standard slo-mo "you killed my buddy, now I yell loudly and shoooooot at youuuuu!!!!" shot.
In my view, the film is mainly worth watching for the landscapes. Watch it, and decide whether you want to go to Ladakh or not. (Probably you will decide to go.)
Even in monsoon season, Delhi is too hot (still around 100 degrees in the afternoon -- down from 110-120 in April-May). Bombay is much more temperate at this time of year, especially if you happen to stay in a place that has a good sea-breeze, as my in-laws' government flat in Malabar Hill does. But Delhi has some advantages here and there. One such is that the shopping is better than in Bombay -- things are a little cheaper, and there seems to be a better variety in a lot of the big markets than what you see in Bombay. I'm not sure exactly why that is, since there is certainly a large constituency in Bombay with disposable income. My best speculation is that it has to do with space and real estate costs; you simply have more display room and lower rents in Delhi. Needless to say, we did a fair bit of shopping (and eating) around Connaught Place, Janpath, Dilli Haat, and at the Defence Colony market. Every year, the big markets in Delhi seem to resemble western malls a little more. But don't worry about 'westernization' -- the number of Sari/Salwar Kameez shops in Delhi still outnumbers McDonald's and Pizza Hut by a ratio of something like 3000 to 1. Also: as soon as you leave the air-conditioned coolness of an upscale store (such as the music chain Planet M), you are back on streets with rickshaws, energetic pedestrian and automobile chaos, and the occasional wandering cow. And still no Starbucks, though a local copy-cat chain called Barista has, in the past two years, appeared in upscale markets at a rate that is rather alarming.
The point is: if the greatest specter of the globalization of consumer goods is the homogenization of public space, in India it is still basically a non-issue. A much bigger concern, in my view, is what traffic congestion seems to be doing to the quality of life of many middle-class people in the big metros. Most people I talked to seemed to be spending 2-3 hours a day just getting to and from work! Forget overpriced coffee: nothing kills your spirit like a lifetime of traffic jams, cars honking, wasted gasoline, and senseless pollution. Maybe the Delhi metro will make a difference here, once the key "Yellow" line opens up (i.e., the one that will go through Connaught Place) next year. But right now, things look grim everywhere you turn. Bombay is also bad; Bangalore, apparently, is brutal.
Bombay is damn big, and we were a little tired after wheezing in high-altitude Ladakh and sweating in high-humidity Delhi. So we spent a lot of time just hanging around napping and eating. We still did a few things:
Oddly (for me), Arjun Appadurai was giving a lecture at the National College of Performing Arts, a small campus at Nariman Point, in the shadow of the gleaming Oberoi/Hilton Hotel and the Air India Tower. It was an interesting affair -- more on that later, perhaps. We also wandered up and down Marine Drive a bunch of times, went to the "Art Plaza" (Jehangir Art Gallery), the Bandra Bandstand, an electronics "grey" market called Heera Panna (full of Chinese knock-offs of high-end gadgets), and a Sikh Gurdwara on the seventh floor of an office building. We also, of course, went to Crossword bookstore, where I picked up Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide, among several other books. (I started reading it yesterday: pretty good!)
Then, the long flight home, an endless stop-over in the Zurich airport, long immigration lines at JFK (where, thanks to new bureaucratic niceties, you now have to wait for more than three hours if you're not a U.S. citizen), and finally the long commuter train back to New Haven. After nearly 30 hours in transit and only fitful sleep, we reached a level of tiredness where we were nodding off every time we sat down somewhere for five minutes.
Enough: we ordered pizza (a little coming-home ritual of mine), checked our email, and slept.