Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts

1.04.2018

Green World: Notes From a Visit to Puerto Rico (December 2017)

We recently spent a few days in Puerto Rico -- just a short trip with kids to get out of the cold and snow, largely possible due to my wife's amazing skill managing frequent flier miles and credit card points. Here are a few limited observations from a tourist with very minimal Spanish.

The good news is, the island is still there and still eminently visitable. It's still the warm, green, inviting place I remembered from several earlier trips, though the energy seemed subdued and the numbers of both locals and tourists seemed down. My daughter was seeing it all for the first time: "It's so green! It's a whole green world!"

San Juan has power, though many traffic lights are currently not turned on, which makes driving interesting. (At one point we were trying to locate some quarters for a parking meter, when someone told us that because of Maria, there is currently no parking meter enforcement in the entire city! Nice... for us at least.)

A few big beach hotels on the Condado were damaged by the storm, including the super-deluxe Condado Hilton (still not open). Most are open, though it seemed to me they weren't as crowded as one would expect.

Outside of San Juan, power is much more spotty. We drove around the east coast of the island and down to Ponce, and it seemed like most of the way there was no power. Even in a relatively sizable city like Caguas, in the middle of the island, the traffic lights were all off; at one intersection I saw a hopeful banner someone had made: "Como el morivivi, Caguas Renace!" (Like the Morivivi [the island's indigenous "shy" flower], Caguas reborn!")

6.07.2011

A Few Scattered Notes after Visiting Trinidad

Our visit to Trinidad coincided (purely by chance) with the national T&T holiday known as Indian Arrival Day, as well as a 20/20 Cricket match between India and the West Indies in Port of Spain, and we were able to experience a bit of both. My son also really enjoyed seeing nesting Leatherback Turtles (in Tobago), as well as various rainforest snakes and birds (Tree boas! Scarlet Ibises!). And we had a superlative experience staying at Pax Guest House for three days in the foothills of the northern range.



The conference I attended seemed to be very well-organized, with some snafus here and there –- the keynote by Leela Sarup, for one thing, wasn’t announced on the web version of the program, so I didn’t learn of it until after it had already happened.

The quality of the presentations was also a little uneven, with non-academic rants and reflections mixed in with traditional academic papers. Sometimes this led to intriguing chemistry, other times it just made for wasted space. While the conference did describe itself as focused on “Global South Asian Diasporas,” the most interesting discussions really had to do with the Indo-Caribbean diaspora – but of course that’s perfectly fine.

Literature. This was not really a literature conference, but there was at least one panel on Naipaul, and I was fortunate to meet two Indo-Caribbean writers, Cyril Dabydeen (who is from Guyana originally, and lives in Canada) and Raymond Ramcharitar (who is from Trinidad and continues to live there), in person.

At the Naipaul panel, I enjoyed papers by Nivedita Misra (a recent immigrant to Trinidad from Delhi) and Kevin Baldeosingh. Misra did a helpful survey of Naipaul’s various writings on India, arguing that his Trinidadian / diasporic background remains the central lens through which he sees the “homeland.” And Kevin Baldeosingh helpfully mentioned and quoted from some Indo-Caribbean writers besides Naipaul – including Harold Sunny Ladoo (“Yesterdays”) and Raymond Ramcharitar (“The Island Quintet”).

At another panel, I was happy to see the poetry of my friend Christian Campbell cited as part of a paper on Indian women and Chutney music. The poem cited was “Curry Powder,” which is about Campbell’s Indo-Caribbean grandmother – who married an Afro-Caribbean man, and left her Indo-Caribbean / Hindu heritage behind. The full text of Christian’s (remarkable) poem can be found here: link; here is an excerpt:

Coolies and niggers fighting these days
But great-grandmummy Nita did not fight
When she found herself facing the West
Instead, touching the Negro face of a Bajan,
Manny. She did not wear saris no more.
Calypso she liked and could wind down
With the best of them. She became deaf
To the ethereal ballad of Krishna’s flute.
She chose Manny, not Lord Rama in her
Hindu epic gone wrong. At her wedding
She never once uttered Ganesh'sname
And she loosened the grasp of Vishnu’s
Four hands from round her waist.
So her sisters disowned her in the holy
Name of Mother India. But she made
Dougla babies anyway and did not give
Them the sacred names of gods: Brahma,
Shiva, Gauri. She named Grandaddy
Leon, a good English name, like all the other
Rootless Negroes. And so Trinidad became herself.


Race Relations. One of the deficiencies of the conference was a seeming reluctance to engage with the issue of the sometimes vexed relations between Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians. There were Afro-Caribbean presenters, moderators, and audience members around, but people generally didn’t seem that interested in talking about some of the problems between the two commuinities. By contrast, if you look at the writings of Raymond Ramcharitar at the TT Guardian, you see an enthusiasm for tackling this sticky subject -– and not shying away from the seamy underbelly of Trinidadian history in the interest of an anodyne multiculturalism. See Raymond’s blog, archiving his TT Guardian columns here: Trinidad Media Arts and Culture. I don't know if everything Raymond says is correct or verifiable -- there is a fair amount of bitterness in his writing that makes me wonder -- but it's at least interesting reading. Here's a bit of one of Raymond's recent columns, outlining the history of racial conflict between Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians in the 1990s:

All this was allowable in the name of Ken Gordon’s “press freedom” —which also allowed Indian Review Committee agents (Anil Mahabir, Rajnie Ramlakhan etc) into the daily press to spew Hindu fascist rage and racial contempt for AfroTrinidadians. This was exactly what the Creole world believed all Indians were like, so (in their minds) justified talk radio’s filth. “Indian” talk radio content was a stream of bewildered rage that this was happening in daylight.



The PNM still lost the 2000 election, but when they were “let back in” by Ramesh Maharaj and PNM stalwarts ANR Robinson and Abu Bakr, in 2001, they mobilized their police, judicial, and media arms. The media spread the gospel: the UNC (Indians) were all corrupt, evil, and tiefed from “real” Trinidadians. The judiciary and police initiated lengthy, public prosecutions of the Indo Chief Justice, Sat Sharma, the Indo chief doctor, Vijay Naraynsingh, and Indo voter padders (all acquitted).

The disengagement with race-relations issues was particularly awkward at the Naipaul panel near the end of the conference. It seemed that no one on the panel really seemed to have noticed that Naipaul’s early novels, including the canonical House for Mr. Biswas, are often contemptuous in their engagement with the Afro-Trinidadian community. (Enough so that Walcott famously wrote a rejoinder in “The Fortunate Traveler, mocking Naipaul as “V.S. Nightfall”). The black characters are subservient (like “Blackie” in Mr Biswas), and there’s generally little reference to the class of upwardly-mobile and ambitious black Trinidadians Naipaul would have met at Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain. (Some of these figures do appear in later books like A Way in the World, but they are often hysterical figures or desperate showmen. It is difficult to think of even one affirmative portrayal of a black character anywhere in Naipaul's writing...)

Dance and Music. If race-relations was a bit of a blind spot at this conference, the discussion of music in particular was much more satisfying. A book that seems to have been influential for people doing cultural studies of Indo-Caribbean musical culture is Tejaswini Niranjana’s “Mobilising India” (Duke, 2006). It was cited in both of the papers I saw that dealt with Chutney Soca music. It’s available on Amazon via Kindle ($13) or more for the regular book.

One presenter, Ananya Kabir, was working on the phenomenon of Indo-Caribbean women engaging in “wining,” which is a highly suggestive kind of dancing. It’s normally associated with Afro-Caribbean women dancing to reggae, rapso, or soca, but it’s also quite common with Indo-Caribbean music, especially around Carnival time. You can see the trailer for Jahaji Music here:

Jahaji Music from surabhi sharma on Vimeo.


Pichkaree Music. Another presenter gave a very interesting paper on a kind of music called “Pichkaree” music after the tube that is used to spray color at Holi (known as Phagwah in Trinidad). Pichkaree music could be defined as “conscious Chutney” – equivalent perhaps to “conscious” reggae and hip hop in black diaspora music. One major veteran of Pichakaree music, Ravi Ji was actually in the audience. I spoke to him after the panel briefly and asked him where I could find his music: “We didn’t have money to record much of it.” This is sad, though Ravi Ji did assure me that more recent generations of Pichkaree performers have been recording their music.

Meanwhile, you can read some columns by Ravi Ji at the TT Guardian if interested.

The same presenter, Sharda Patesar (a graduate student at the University of Trinidad and Tobago) also mentioned that the emergence of Pichkaree music had something to do with the apparent rise of anti-Indian lyrics in Calypso music beginning in the 1970s. (I tried to confirm this online with examples, but couldn’t find too many. At the Trinidad and Tobago News, there is even a discussion disputing the basic premise that there are in fact Calypso songs with anti-Indian lyrics. In his recent column, Raymond Ramcharitar does mentino two songs from the 2000s, “Kidnap Dem” by Cro Cro and Singing Sandra’s “Genocide,” as having lyrics along these lines.)

More Music: neo-traditionalism and Tassa. By far the most comprehensive discussion of Indo-Trinidadian music was Peter Manuel’s presentation, which focused more on the evidence of traditional Bhojpuri musical forms in Indo-Trinidadian musical culture than on the newer, hybrid Chutney Soca genre.

Manuel pointed out that you can find Trinidadians who still practice very traditional Bhojpuri folk forms, such as “Chautal” and “Birha”.

He also had some interesting comments on the style of drumming called Tassa – that is prevalent in Trinidad but not so common in India itself. Manuel seemed to suggest that in Trinidad that Tassa drumming has become something more complex and “virtuosic” than it is anywhere in India.
Manuel has produced a documentary called “Tassa Thunder,” which is excerpted on YouTube here:



Language. There’s a fair amount of Hindi in Chutney soca music, mostly derived from Hindi film songs, but it seems the vast majority of Indo-Trinidadians have lost access to Bhojpuri or Hindi. Hindi has been introduced in many Trinidadian public schools, but it’s not clear whether that will lead to a substantive increase in the number of functional Hindi speakers in Trinidad.
It was curious at first to hear the Pujari at the Mandir at Waterloo doing interpretation in English (in between hymns sung in Hindi). But of course it makes perfect sense – and it probably won’t be long before we start seeing Hindu and Sikh services that resemble this approach in the U.S.

Jhandis. One of the things you notice around Trinidad are the “jhande” – little colored flags. (Trinidadians call them Jhandis.) There is of course a tradition of using Jhande at specifically Hanuman mandirs in India, but in Trinidad (and other parts of the Indo-Caribbean world), the “jhandi “ has become much more widespread than that –- many Hindu households use them to mark their houses at the font gate.

Jhandi flags

1.08.2009

Dabbling in Regional Indian Cinema on an Air India Flight

BakulaNamdevGhotale_acass_246x250.jpg People talk trash about Air India, but it has one distinct advantage -- if you're lucky enough to fly to and from India on one of their newer 747s, which are equipped with personal video screens, you have a wealth of Indian TV, movies, and music to entertain yourself with, while eating Chiwda (instead of peanuts) and not-too-bad shrimp curry. (You still have to sit in a cramped little chair for 16-24 hours without losing your mind, but that would be the case on Lufthansa too.)

Our son wasn't too much trouble on this flight (he slept through much of it), so I was able to sample a range of subtitled Indian movies in different languages that I otherwise might not see. In some cases, I didn't watch whole films -- sometimes just an hour or so -- but it was an interesting experiment to compare a group of films that normally are only seen by members of specific linguistic communities. People sometimes talk about Indian cinema as if the only films worth watching are made in Hindi and produced in Mumbai, but perhaps the folks who are saying that only watch those films?

The most entertaining, and highest production value film I watched was the Tamil film, Sivaji, The Boss, starring Rajnikanth (star of several YouTube "superhits," including "Little Superman"). I initially enjoyed the sense of Tamil ethno-linguistic pride in the film (Rajnikant's love interest is named "Tamizhselvi"), though it did start to get old after a little while (I did not see such an obsession with regional identity in the Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, or Punjabi films I sampled on this flight. Is the Tamil-centricness of Sivaji, The Boss unique to this film?).

Rajnikanth's manic physical comedy and dancing, and the film's over-the-top sets and situations, are really why someone who is not a long-term Rajnikanth fan watches a film like this. I couldn't say that the anti-corruption plot made any narrative sense, though there were some powerful "crowd" moments here and there; there's just a whiff of the rough edges of actual Indian politics. More than anything else, it seemed like Rajnikanth's mission in this film is to entertain the audience as fast as possible, and continue doing so until every last bit of amusement is squeezed out of every damn frame of the film. (I wish I knew where he gets the energy.)

Incidentally, Sivaji, The Boss was the most expensive Indian film ever made, in any language, as of 2007. It was a super-hit in the South, and successful even dubbed into Hindi.

After Sivaji, The Boss, I sampled two Malayalam films. I watched most of a wonderful family comedy called Madhu Chandralekha, starring Jayaram and Urvasi. I have to say I definitely enjoyed the story about how the ordinary, unglamorous wife of a successful singer and composer becomes jealous of a glamorous young woman who comes into their lives. It felt very real and honest, and Urvashi (a regional actress who came out of "retirement" for this film) is convincingly unglamorous, if that expression can be permitted. (We have all seen movies television programs where an obviously incredibly beautiful woman tries to "frump" it as someone bookish and unpopular, but the audience knows it is only a matter of time before the Grand Makeover occurs, and Beauty Emerges Triumphant. Not so here.) Incidentally, here is a song from the film.

Also worth checking out is a Malyalam film called Smart City. Set in Cochi, a quick Google search revealed that this "honest man vs. the corrupt business establishment and gangster cronies" film seems to be based on a real, 2004 proposal in Cochi to build an "Internet City," where a multinational corporation based in Dubai would develop a whole region of the city as a kind of high-end Internet/IT/Multinational hub. Though it is by no means an art film or a work of political propaganda, Smart City is quite serious in its opposition to this kind of "think big/get a piece of the action" approach to development, and touches on a sensitive and important issue that is much broader than just Kerala (i.e., the controversies over "Special Economic Zones").

One small observation: both the Tamil film Sivaji and the Malayalam film Madhu Chandralekha had physical comedy about what happens when one eats absurdly spicy food. In Sivaji, Rajnikant coolly eats a plate of hot peppers to impress his love interest and her family, before allowing himself to spazz out in the bathroom. In Madhu Chandralekha, the jealous wife makes wildly spicy food for her husband to try and alienate him, because she doesn't feel worthy of his love. Comedy of course ensues when the wrong person eats some of the food. Just coincidence, or is there a tradition of comedy over spicy food either in South Indian movies, or even Indian movies in general?

The Marathi film Bakula Namdeo Ghotale was much smaller in terms of production values or professionalism than either of the Malayalam films or the Tamil film I watched, but it was still entertaining, if not exactly Cannes Film Festival material. First, Bakula Namdeo Ghotale features actors in starring roles who look convincingly rural (i.e., the male stars all have "bad" teeth, and are not conventionally good-looking; see what I mean in this song from the film). The plot is nothing too exciting (a conniving Sarpanch falls in love with the wife of the village idiot; the wife fends off his advances and protects her witless husband), but, again, the actors held my attention because they seemed "real" to me.

I watched a little of the Punjabi film Ek Jind Ek Jaan, but quickly got bored and quit. What struck me here, by comparison to the Malayalam and Tamil films in particular, was just how low-budget and uninspired the film looked, even with an "over the hill" Bollywood star as the leading man (Raj Babbar). I should point out that there are some higher-end and more ambitious Punjabi films out there, so this is not a comment on the Punjabi film industry in general, so much as Air India's particular selection. (That said, I have never seen a film that had Raj Babbar in a major role that I found watchable. Shaheed Uddham Singh, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, and LOC Kargil were all nauseatingly bad.)

I also watched a few minutes of a Gujarati film, but neglected to write down the title, and so can't say anything about it. Like the Punjabi films Air India was showing, it looked rather cheap and conventional.

While most of the other regional films being shown by Air India have been released in the past two years, their two Bengali selections were both "classics," from the 1970s and 80s. The one I watched on this flight was Aparna Sen's 1984 art film, Parama, about a housewife who has a flirtation with a young, avant-garde photographer. It was very well done; with the photography theme, it reminded me a little of Antonioni's Blow-Up, but with a nostalgic, Bengali high culture sensibility. The young actor Mukul Sharma, who played the photographer in the film, opposite Rakhee Gulzar, reminded me a little of Dustin Hoffmann in the 1970s.

Needless to say, making even half-assed comparisons between different regional cinemas would have been easier if Air India had been showing films comparable in scale and status. There would really be no point in comparing Aparna Sen's Parama to something like Sivaji, The Boss.

Still, here are some sketchy thoughts: though it makes a big fuss out of adhering to Traditional Tamil Culture, Sivaji, The Boss is as over-the-top and glossy as any big, loud, Bollywood movie. This is not terribly surprising; there is a regular exchange of ideas and talent between the Hindi and Tamil movie industries, and watching this film I felt as if I were watching a Bollywood film that happened to be in the Tamil language. The only major difference might be the presence of Rajnikanth himself, who has an utterly unique style and an iconic status that has no equivalent anywhere else.

The Malayalam films I sampled were smaller and less ambitious, but the trade-off is that they both had an honesty to them that I liked, even with dramatically different themes (married life/relationships on the one hand, and corruption/multi-national development on the other).

The other regional films I sampled were less compelling, though between the Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi films on offer, the only one I found watchable was the spirited Marathi film Bakula Namdeo Ghotale. I do not know if the naturalistic appearance of the actors or village settings is common in Marathi films; if so, it would have to be a reaction against the artificial sleekness and hyper-cosmopolitanism of Bollywood cinema -- and ironic, given that Mumbai is actually in the state of Maharashtra. And because not much is written about Marathi films in English (most of the links that turn up in Google are simply various options for illegal downloading), I have no idea whether this film is typical or not.

Are there other recent films in regional languages that readers would recommend? Also, any recommendations for off-beat, "multiplex" oriented Hindi films? (I have had my fill of Bachchans and Khans for now.)

12.31.2008

Getting to Know Goa, Slowly

Though it is undoubtedly one of India's most popular tourist destinations, it might be surprising to readers that Goa most definitely is not being overrun with big-time real estate development projects. There are some large resorts around (the "Taj Exotica"), in both north and south Goa, and a really insistently Philistine foreign tourist could potentially stay in Goa and never leave one of those places. But Goa is not becoming another Dominican Republic or Jamaica, with mega-resorts so dominant they threaten to eclipse local populations and culture. The best beaches are still, by and large, open to the public, and while some are quite crowded (Calangute), many of the public beaches we've visited seem perfectly tranquil, with a mix of foreign (largely Russian) and Indian tourists enjoying the sun and sand.

It's also worth pointing out that the state has a substantial economic, industrial, and cultural life that has nothing at all to do with tourism. (To give just one example, Goa is apparently popular with pharmaceutical companies, because the low levels of pollution in the air and water make it easier for pharma factories to achive high levels of purity in manufacturing medicine. The local Cipla plant makes the Indian/generic version of AIDS cocktail drugs that are sent to sub-Saharan Africa, and delivered to patients at a cost of $1 a day.)

This resistance to outside money and mega-tourism projects is not for want of trying. This New York Times article from March 2007 is a good introduction to some of the debates over the direction of Goa. The short version is this: the state government was more than ready to implement a "regional plan" that would open doors to major development projects, but a popular "Save Goa" protest movement emerged in 2006-7 that forced them to drop the plan. As a result, you do see some pockets of new tourist development, but it is measured and limited. (The article foregrounds the story of an investor whose focus is on finding distinctive individual houses in Goan villages to renovate and then market in a limited way.)

The emergence of a movement to protect Goa's distinctively laid-back, but fluid cultural heritage does not come without some problems and dangers. Yesterday, we had the distinct privilege of meeting a local Goan writer and journalist named Vivek Menezes, who had a lot to tell us regarding both the history and current status of Goa.

One article Vivek published in 2006 details the tensions produced by the boom atmosphere that was prevalent at the time:

Chakravarti continued, "Piece of the action is ...driving Goa to the edge," and writes movingly about tears at his friend's funeral marking "a sense of loss for a Goa we pine after but can no longer recognise."

It's a sentiment that’s nearly universal in 2006. Long-stayers, relative newcomers and locals all describe a sensation of being under siege.

This feeling is particularly strong at the fringes of Goa's burgeoning tourism marketplace, in the decades-old long-staying communities that developed from the hippie phenomenon of previous decades. On the heels of a series of directives from the centre, officials from half a dozen different state agencies are turning up at people's doorsteps, checking the ownership and legal status of homes and businesses, and denying licences and permissions required
to et up shop in Goa. (link)


I would recommend reading the rest of Vivek's article, where there is some great material from people abroad who have come to the state not as tourists, but to live and settle here.

My preliminary outsider's sense is that the feeling of "crisis" Vivek was referring to in 2006 may be at least temporarily at bay with the collapse of the regional plan. Some people still seem to have a sense of nostalgia for the lost "old Goa," but in a region with history as rich as this one, it's not always clear whether they are talking about the 1990s (Goa NRG/rave culture), the 1970s ("Dum Maro Dum"; western hippies), the 1920s... or the 1570s.

Vivek lent me a book called Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (edited by Jerry Pinto; Penguin India), in which I've been encountering some interesting essays that address some issues relating to Goa's earlier history. More about that below.

First, William Dalrymple has a great essay in the collection called "At Donna Georgina's," which was originally published in his book The Age of Kali. Here are two paragraphs that give an account of the rise and fall of Goa as a center-piece of the Portuguese commercial empire in the east:

In its earliest incarnation Old Goa was a grim fortress city, the headquarters of a string of fifty heavily armed artillery bastions stretching the length of the Indian littoral. But by 1600 the process that would transform the conquistdors into dandies had turned Old Goa from a fortified barracks into a thriving metropolis of seventy-five thousand people, the swaggering capital of the Portuguese Empire in the East. It was larger than contemporary Madrid, and virtually as populous as Lisbon, whose civic privileges it shared. The mangrove swamps were cleared, and in their place roses the walls and towers of Viceregal palaces, elegant townhouses, austere monasteries and elaborate baroque cathedrals.

With easy wealth cam a softening of the hard eges. The fops and dandies had no interest in war, and concentrated instead on their seraglios. Old Goa became more famous for its whores than for its cannons or cathedrals. According to the records of the Goan Royal Hopital, by the first quarter of the seventeenth century at least five hundred Portuguese a year were dying from syphilis and 'the effects of profligacy.' Althoug the ecclesiastical authorities issued edicts condmening the sexual 'laxity' of the marrie women who 'drugged their husbands the better toenjoy their lovers,' this did not stop the clerics themselves keeping whole harems of black slave-girls for their pleasure. In the 1590s the first Dutch galleons had begun defying the Portuguese monopoly: by 1638 Goa was being blockaded by Dutch warships. Sixty years later, in 1700, according to a Scottishsea captain, the city was a 'place of small Trade and most of its riches lay in the hands of indolent Country Gentlemen, who loiter away their days in East, Luxury, and Pride.

So it was to remain. The jungle crept back, leaving only a litter of superb baroque churches -- none of which would look out of place on the streets of Lisbon, Madrid or Rome--half strangled by the mangrove swamps.


I'm a little skeptical of this account, in part because there might be material factors leading to the decline of the Portuguese empire that outweigh the culture of extravagance and profligacy Dalrymple is describing here. (Admittedly, I haven't studied this in depth.)

Dalrymple goes on to give an account of an interview he had with a contemporary 'old Goan' -- a woman named Donna Georgina, who 30+ years after Goa's annexation by India, remained nostalgic for the time when Goa was still a Portuguese colony. In fact, there has traditionally been a small group of diehard Portuguese loyalists who agreed with Donna Georgina. But more numerous have been Goan writers and intellectuals with a strong pride in Goa's unique cultural identity and heritage, who also comfortably identify as Indians.

One example of the latter was Armando Menezes, who happens to be Vivek Menezes' grandfather. After Goa was liberated in 1961, there was a movement to absorb the state into Maharashtra; the state does contain a fair number of Marathi speakers alongside those who speak Konkani and Kannada. (There are also a significant number of Konkani speakers in Maharashtra.) In the same collection where I read Dalrymple's essay there is the text of a speech given by Menezes in 1965, just as the debate over the future status of Goa was underway. Menezes puts a great deal of weight on the Konkani language as a feature distinguishing Goa from Maharashtra, but also manages to offer a more general vision of Goa's cultural identity:

All that the Goans want is the freedom to choose. Ther are a few things which he cannot choose, but which have rather chosen him. This soil, this Goa, has chosen him; and wherever he lives and toils and dies, there is a corner of a foreign field which is forever Goa. His tongue has chosen him; it is metaphysical impossibility to chose another. One can choose one's wife; one cannot choose one's mother: that is why it is called the mother tongue. We must be the merest renegades, the merest waifs and strays blown about the streets, if we fil to recognize that. And one cannot choose one's history. Untold centuries, even long before the arrival of the Portuguese on Indian shores, have chiselled our souls to what we are; we have known the confluence of many cultures, the impact of many destinies. The Goan soul is woven of many strands and is, at bottom, a coat without seams--even in spite of the recent attempts to tear it to tatters.


I like this formulation because 1) it doesn't lean exclusively on the history of Portuguese colonialism (which would be merely another species of Raj nostalgia), and 2) it manages to be proud without being exclusivist. Goan culture has long been a composite formation, and needs to continue being such, if it is to continue to grow and develop.

British author Graham Greene also referred to the conundrum of Goan identity when he visited Goa at just around the time Armando Menezes gave the speech quoted above. Much of what he wrote in 1965, describing the style of living here, still seems somewhat salient:

There are few extremes of poverty and affluence: most houses, however small, are constructed of laterite blocks with brown tiles of great beauty. They were built by Goans, not by Portuguese (for the Portuguese lived only in the towns), often by Goans in exile, in Aden or in Africa, who hoped to return one day, for the far-ranging Goan has a loyalty to his village you seldom find elsewhere. It seemed the fiurst thing one Goan asked another--not in what city he worked but from what village he came, and in distant Bombay every Goan village has its club of exiles--350 clubs.



In the first Indian village outside Goa on the road to Bombay you are back to the mud huts and broken thatch which are almost a sign of affluence compared with the horrible little cabins made out of palm fronds and bits of canvas and any piece of old metal on the outskirts of Bombay. These are dwellings to escape from; how can their inhabitants feel loyalty to Mahrashtra--the huge amorphous member-State of the Indian Union neighbouring Goa, into which Goa must almost certainly be sooner or later submerged?


Without agreeing with Graham Greene's assessment of poverty in Maharashtra, one can be pleased that his prediction of Goa's inevitable cultural and political absorption has turned out not to be true.

(That's all for now; I might have more Goa posts as I continue to see and read more things. Happy New Year, everyone!)

12.23.2008

Hello from Delhi (and Dehra Dun, and Chandigarh)

We'll be returning to Goa in a day or two, but meanwhile there was some family visiting to attend to in the north.

First up, Delhi. My dominant impression of Delhi this time around is of seeing construction everywhere for new Delhi Metro stations. In a couple of years (when Delhi hosts the Commonwealth Games), I'm sure it will all be wonderful, but right now it adds to the traffic headache. That said, I was impressed by the new domestic airport terminal (the old one was hopelessly insufficient), and by what I took to be preliminary attempts at revamping the central train station.

We were happy to get to meet Jai Arjun Singh at a Crossword book store (Jai, thanks for waiting for us) in Saket, south
Delhi. The bookstore was in a massive, opulent new mall called "Citywalk Select," which has designer boutiques everywhere (Indian, European, and American), and the general feel of the massive King of Prussia mall near our house in suburban Philadelphia. It was certainly surreal, after seeing continuing signs of poverty elsewhere in the city, and Samian wondered how there could be enough Delhi-ites who can afford to pay $500 for Kate Spade purses to support these stores. Also surreal in such a place was the presence of the writer Ruskin Bond, who I think of as an R.K. Narayan-type writer (simple, elegant, and compelling storytelling), not someone you would ever expect to see in this kind of place. In this case, he was doing a book-signing at the bookstore, which was surprisingly packed.

When you're traveling with a two-year old, you don't get to read quite as much as when you're either alone or with other grown-ups. Still, I've been reading bits and pieces of Carlo Levi's Essays on Delhi here and there, and I thought some passages from his essay "The Invisible Capital" (1957) might be of interest:

The city of New Delhi appears, as you drop suddenly down towards it out of the sky, as something unreal and abstract, an immense placeless space, a utopian place. It doesn't really seem like a city; there is no centre, no cluster of houses, only a vast expanse crisscrossed by immensely broad boulevards that seem to stretch out endlessly into the distance, and dotted here and there by monumental buildings, isolated in the greenery. Much as in the shapeless, amoeboid city of Los Angeles, the distances are so vast that you can only move around by car (this modern conveyance that ensures medieval isolation). It is also reminiscent of Washington, with its plan of an administrative capital, silent and reserved; to an even greater degree, it is reminiscent of London, in the attempt to blend a sense of power with a yearning for the earthly paradise prior to the original sin.


I think the comparison to Washington is probably the most apt (I don't see the comparisons to London or Los Angeles at all). More from Carlo Levi on Delhi below:

Construction began here in 1911, in the last few years of a wold that promised eternal progress and security, and New Delhi remains -- as if it were somehow separate from living reality -- as a perfect document of that time and that empire, of its rationale and the principles upon which it was founded. It is, first and foremost, a magnificent monument to an immense empire, the embodiment of an act of detached, prideful will, a will that celebrated and affirmed itself as eternal by projecting itself into the future. But this power chose not to touch, or roil, or modify nature: rather, it seemed to prefer to identify itself with a nature that existed before time itself, a paradisiacal nature, with an absolute naturalistic utopia . . . In this paradise of the viceroys, the detachment is absolute: remote from the real inhabitants, from life itself, and from all of life's muddled heat, pain, and movement. Everything matches a rigorous hierarchy of reason, a precise, age-old, meticulous ceremony.


The above seems like the point of view of someone who came to Delhi and spent a lot of time in government buildings. From the other point of view, one could say that it's those massive government structures that are detached; the rest of the city, even caked by dust and choked by suspended particulate matter, is very much alive.

One more paragraph from Carlo Levi:

In this gigantic hidey-hole, it is possible to avoid being seen, like gods, and to see nothing. Even today a foreigner who lives in a large hotel or a government building can entirely ignore the country in which he or she lives. Soviet writers, who scrupulously attend, with their interpreters, the sessions of the pan-Asiatic congress (the reason for my journey here), with the paternal grandeur and quasi-British detachment (though instead of whiskey they brought with them Armenian cognac), have waited a full week for the sessions to end before taking their first glances at India. It is possible to stay in New Delhi and see nothing, understand nothing: but it is not easy, because the other reality (to which the sole concessions are stylistic: the Mughal architecture of the viceroy's house and other buildings) filters through everywhere unstoppably, just as the tendrils of plant life work their way into the cracks in an old abandoned wall. The vast English lawns have become, through some unknown alchemy, though still bright green and perfectly trimmed, part of an Indian countryside. All that is needed is a woman washing her sari in front of the India Gate, or a begggar lying careless on the grass: all it takes is the trees, and the orange light of sunset.


Though it's now somewhat dated, and certainly bound up with Levi's particular experience of Delhi as an "official" visitor, much of what he says here seems to me to still apply.

A few more travel notes...

We went to attend a wedding in Dehra Dun, and were staying at a guest
house near the Doon School, the English-medium private school that has educated a shocking number of contemporary Indian writers. On a free afternoon, we walked over to the front gate, and tried negotiating with the rather imposing security team about seeing the campus, but no dice. (Samian made up some story about how we have a friend in America who went there, but it didn't fly.) We were left admiring the lush campus from outside the eight-foot walls, and walked back to our guest house, past local women carrying gigantic loads of felled tree branches on their heads. (Perhaps we saw enough.)

Meanwhile, the town of Dehra Dun is choked with traffic, and the streams that run through are heavily littered with trash and heaps of used plastic bags. (The government knows it's a problem. In several states we've passed through, we've seen state propaganda against the use of plastic bags: "We, the citizens of Uttarakhand, pledge not to use Plastic Bags." I don't know if it's working.)

The drive from Dehra Dun to Chandigarh was particularly scenic, though the views were marred by the fog (smog) that hangs heavily over much of northern India at this time of year. Our driver had some colorful stories, one about a place called Kala Amb (black mango), where, legend has it, there was a special tree that had a branch that only grew black mangoes. For years, the Panchayat of that town conducted its business near the tree, and whenever someone was to be hanged, they were hanged on the black mango branch.

Another intriguing story our driver told us was about the road from Dehra Dun to Rishikesh, where, according to him, wild elephants sometimes like to come out and sleep on the roads at night. You have to go around them, and not trouble them too much, lest they decide to uproot a tree, and smash your car with it. He said there was one particular case of a deranged elephant, who had been exiled from his herd, who went on a rampage and killed quite a number of people in this way (I have no idea if this is even remotely plausible, but it's an intriguing idea: the alienated, sociopathic elephant.)

4.20.2007

The Chaat of Destiny

Some paragraphs were accidentally omitted from Somini Sengupta's recent article on Chaat and other Delhi street foods in the New York Times. Because I am a devoted Somini Sengupta groupie (a "Sengroupie," if you will), I was sent the missing paragraphs as a gift, under strict order not to reveal my sources:

The reporter visits a lost alleyway in Mastinagar, a suburb of Delhi. In the alley are an endless variety of special chaat stalls unknown to western taste-buds and unimagined by western food tourists. This is as “street” as it gets; if pressed, the people of this alley all state that they have never been near an air-conditioner or even a piece of plastic. Indeed, it is highly unclear whether the residents of Mastinagar have ever been outside Mastinagar, or even know that their “Shehr” is in the city and state of Delhi. In the lost alley, one finds an almost infinite variety of Chaats, some of which were tasted by a reporter. A short list of the highlights follows:

Orientalist Chaat: This type of chaat will fulfill all your desires for mystical knowledge and understanding, and set your brain on fire. If this chaat is eaten, it is said, the eater will learn a thousand yoga poses (a DVD is included), a thousand Sanskrit chants that will lead to Enlightenment, and perpetual unity of mind and body in pure relaxation bliss. After eating, you will have reached the other side of the moon, tasted the stars, found the ergonomically perfect chair, and finally know the answer to the question, Why Did the Bodhi-Dharma Leave For the East? (NOTE: Insiders report that Orientalist Chaat is exactly the same as regular Chaat, only 10,000 times more expensive.)

Erotic Chaat: This chaat is an aphrodisiac composed entirely of garlic and crushed Viagra powder. Not especially tasty, but surprisingly "potent," as a reporter subsequently discovered.

Chaat Feng Shui: This Chaat, which is composed entirely of wind, water, and garam masala, is not meant to be eaten, but rather dispersed around a room in need of redecoration. Pirated Chaat Feng Shui originates from China, which continues to flood the Indian market with inexpensive rip-offs of actual Feng Shui.

Message Chaat: Kiwi, lime, mustard seeds, and ice cubes. Once the ice cubes have melted on your tongue, it is said, your message has been telepathically sent to the individual you are thinking of (the strength of the message is increased if the recipient has also eaten chaat recently). This type of Chaat is especially popular with Delhi's young men, who are notoriously shy when it comes to talking to women they are not closely related to.

Immunity Chaat: The demons that chase you will be temporarily silenced by this chaat. Their multifarious coloration will be neutralized to blue, and the eater will suddenly be able to eat the blinking blue demons for extra points. This Chaat is also said to protect the eater from "Delhi Belly," and is generally eaten by those who are planning to go on to eat other Chaats. As a result, some Chaat addicts of Mastinagar jokingly refer to Immunity Chaat as the "Gateway Chaat."

Penn Masala Chaat: This chaat tastes a little syrupy, but it is known to cause the eater to burst into spontaneous acapella renditions of Bollywood tunes.

Raagapella Chaat: Raagapella Chaat is ssentially similar to Penn Masala Chaat, but with a funny/clever desi-ized version of "Motel." Many insiders predict Raaagapella Chaat will soon give Penn Masala Chaat a run for its money.

Gandi Chaat: Universally known as the best, most sublime form of chaat of all, Gandi chaat (also known as "Drrrty Chaat") is exceptionally rare. This chaat is made of pure, ancient Indian dirt, and is served with ketchup. What constitutes the dirt is of course a strictly guarded secret; insiders say it comes from tribal regions of India that have never once been visited by outsiders, where all the inhabitants are albinos. Food archeologists have been desperate to understand the properties of this mysterious form of chaat, and have repeatedly tried to have samples sent by secure couriers to western labs for analysis. But the Drrrty Chaat is so addictive that no courier has every withstood temptation -- and the Chaat has always somehow gotten eaten along the way. All the couriers have also mysteriously died, leading to the rumor that this Chaat, if ingested outside of India, will lead to instantaneous death.


(What other varieties of Chaat can be found in Mastinagar?)