Saturday, April 28, 2012


En route to the Koyembedu bus stand, my cab driver kept his phone on loudspeaker while the woman on the other end gradually went from rapid-fire, trembling Tamil to outright crying, speaking in gasping bursts. The driver sat silently listening, while I sat behind him silently entreating. Say something… say something… say something… say something! Nothing. Phone rings and he refuses the call. And again. And again. Heart aches for them both…
A family of five clambered onto the bus several hours into the journey, filing down the aisle to the back row, where the one empty seat on the bus – beside me – was quickly occupied by the veiled matriarch. Periodically she’d reach down to the youngest, hoist him into her lap, and exchange smiles and pecks on the cheek. During our snack break outside of Bangalore, the oldest daughter shyly worked up the courage to approach me, her mother smiling from behind. Where was I from, where was I going? And if you’re going all the way to Goa, do please eat here, as there will be no dinner stop in Bangalore… 
We called each other back and forth, this friend of a cousin of a friend. Having met with trip fiasco en route, I’d had little choice but to get off the bus in Bangalore shortly after 10pm. The nameless friend coordinated with my auto driver, retrieved me to drive the last leg, and led me right up to the elevator, instructing me to go to the fourth floor, turn left, and knock. There, I was immediately welcomed by more smiling strangers, the aunt and uncle of a friend in Hyderabad. The next morning, as she served me a third(!) dosa, Auntie asked my name. I had already slept there, joined her in the kitchen while she cooked the remaining batter, and brokenly discussed our families. Here they were giving me a place to sleep, welcoming me with smiles and a laden plate, and they didn’t even know my name. I still don’t know their names, beyond Uncle and Auntie. In the afternoon, having assured that I’d booked a ticket back to Chennai, the couple hailed an auto, gave the driver stern and specific instructions, and sent me off with a brick of sweets, a phone number, smiles, and a warm squeeze of the hand…
It’s the human factor. The crying woman, the family, the friend, the couple. Strangers whose very humanness suddenly seem to make everything ok. I’m not about to say “strangers are friends you haven’t met yet,” recalling a past comment on how that can land you in prison or some such thing, but finding the humanity in people, wherever you are – now that’s something, and it’s something you can find anywhere. Or rather, it finds you. No matter what’s happened or happening, no matter what has brought you there or what awaits you, these seemingly small things can bring a smile and a breath of peace. Even if it’s just one moment of reassurance, it’s more than enough to keep you going. To quote Aamir Khan’s “all izz well”: it may not solve the problem, but it gives you the courage to face it. It may only be that moment, but it gives you the strength to keep going and, if you’re listening, inspires you to return the favor sometime, just by holding on to that all-important thread of humanity.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The "vision in passing" dilemma, traveler edition

My decision to go to Hyderabad last week was less of a "decision" and more of an escape, truth be told. A spur-of-the-moment, get-out, buy-a-ticket style whim. In any case, once in Hyderabad and with the help of slightly more decision making than went into buying the first ticket, I determined to return to Chennai earlier than planned. Debating this shortening of my visit, a friend queried, "What would you do in Chennai if you went back anyways?" "Aside from the fact that I live there, you mean?" "But you don't live there." This I had to leap on (playfully, of course. heh). Poor guy didn't know what hit him.

Five months - does this qualify me for "living in" Chennai, or am I merely visiting, passing through? My friend had no idea what he'd unintentionally struck upon and immediately rescinded his comment, but it was a valid one. And, as I informed him, it was certainly not the first time I'd considered it. Take, for instance, over a year ago when another friend dubbed me "a vision in passing," remarking upon my generally floating presence around campus, never in one place for long.

At its most basic, this can be taken in a purely geographical sense. Staying on the move, bopping from one place to another. Even when stuck in the hostel for the night, I'm likely to be found on the rooftop - or, as with this evening, having hoisted myself to the water tank atop it (I miss rock walls). DC, Ghana, campus, DC, Denmark, campus, DC, India. Chennai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bombay, Hyderabad, Chennai. Next up, Pondicherry and "Mahabs."

I'm most inclined, though, to take it a step further, beyond the basics of physical location. "A vision in passing" - because really, nothing is truly "a vision" if you have time to more thoroughly scrutinize it. An interesting phrase, no? If anyone slows down to take a better look, that "vision" swiftly becomes more real and less idealized. The veil begins to drop, knowingly or otherwise, and the fault-lines appear. The imperfections, the flaws, those bits of us we try so hard to cover up or keep locked away - from others and, often, from ourselves. It's all so much easier to avoid when we stay on the move.

Of course, with thoughts like that, I try also to keep in mind what I see as the glory of imperfections, and the privilege that comes with being permitted to see them. Safe to say it's a universal concern, to be sure (eg. this NYT article, particularly the latter half). Caught in the limbo of travel - especially solo travel - and resettling makes the question that much more relevant. Do we remain a vision in passing, clinging to the safety of movement and a hefty veil? Or do we take the risk and go Hitch-style, "leap and hope to God you can fly"? Judgment calls, I tell ya... Either way, the view from that rooftop certainly has its benefits.

PS: I'd say this, like many things, can be applied to places as well as people....

Monday, April 16, 2012

A snapshot of Bombay

Ok, so I've got a brief check-in at the home base of Chennai - just returned from Bombay this afternoon, met up with a friend this evening, and heading back north to Hyderabad for a few days as of tomorrow (Monday) night. For now, just sharing a small taste of the lively metropolis of Mumbai. Coastal views, Bandra Fort, the tourist-covered Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Palace, etc. Note:

a.I've chosen to title the post with "Bombay" rather than "Mumbai" as many from the city continue to use the former. Funny, isn't it - no matter how many dictates we may make, the actual implementation is up to the people (well, you know. "The people."). Will opt out of babbling about naming politics at the moment, but it's interesting stuff to check up on for anyone interested, and certainly not just in India. Eg. Israel and the revival of Hebrew.

b.What is more familiarly dubbed Bandra Fort was originally the Portuguese Castella de Aguada (1640). Particularly intriguing: in a bid to conserve the area (Bandra is in the midst of rather high-end development, home to Bollywood stars and plenty of shopping and good food), an outdoor amphitheater has been created. Rather beautiful, when you're not stumbling upon one of the numerous young couples in search of privacy. ...ahem.

c.Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Palace photos taken by Rahil Fernandes, given custody of my camera while we played tourists for the afternoon. He was, after all, stuck with custody of me for the day; I thought it best to throw the camera in with the deal. Find him here- writing and photos worth a gander.

d.Kebab, paneer, mango lassi, and good company at Leo's, not far from the Gateway and Taj (Colaba area). Partnered with this, a book recommendation: Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. It's a bit of a tome of a book, but never dull. Vibrant characters in a vibrant city. We're somewhat tough literary critics, so a friend and I granted it a very noble 8/10.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tremors and the tsunami that wasn't

In the past, my hearing of natural disasters was generally composed of article threads, tweets by the "breaking news" accounts of international news outlets, and mass media on the whole. Reports were heavily numbered - category or scale of the storm/hurricane/earthquake, height of the tsunami waves, number of casualties and people missing, homes lost, anticipated financial damage, distance covered or area effected, time of impact and duration, etc. It didn't occur to me until late in the evening that today, as I watched clips of street scenes from Chennai join others on the breaking news reports, I lacked that "hard data" that usually flooded my various newsfeeds.

While daily power cuts from 2-4pm at my office in Royapettah, Chennai, now have me headed home early in the afternoon, today I returned to a similar blackout in the nearby area of Nungambakkam, where electricity had been cut for a monthly 9-5pm period. Supply and demand, you know. After leaping off my usual bus to the hostel, I swiftly dropped into my own little world of reading and packing for tomorrow's trip to Mumbai - a world interrupted only when a local friend texted with "Hey! are u ok?" Sure thing, why wouldn't I be? Before she had time to respond, my trembling bed and shaking water bottle fittingly explained her concern. I'd somehow missed the first tremor, but the second was unquestionable (and the splashing water bottle assured me that I hadn't gone mad). Still without current until 5pm, I was left with my phone as my only source of news. 8.6 earthquake in Indonesia, tremors in Chennai, buildings evacuated, tsunami alert, streets even crazier than usual, and the traffic was flat-out impassible.

Texts and calls were made to various friends in Chennai to assure each other that all were fine (and all had been evacuated from offices), calls to and from friends and family outside of Chennai who had heard the news, and, once 5pm rolled around, TVs turned on in search of the latest on a tsunami alert. While the public had, naturally, been advised to stay away from the coast (about 4.5km from my hostel), Marina Beach had indeed been flooded - by crowds of curious onlookers. Not the most intelligent move, but interest subsided as the ocean failed to respond fittingly and, gradually, panic and street insanity subsided as well. Enough, in fact, that a few friends and I grabbed an auto (-rickshaw) and continued with our original evening plans, necessarily skipping the mall (closed, along with much of the city) and moving on to a kebab stand and chai at a favorite bookstore.

It was upon returning to the hostel that I noticed the difference - hours had passed, and I'd still heard no word of those numbers I'd come to expect. After greeting my roommate, I awkwardly asked a question I never imagined myself posing. "So... no tsunami?" Next question: what's the damage? How's it look in Indonesia? And for that one, she had no answer. No numbers. Living in the midst of it, and I felt shockingly out of the loop. Why was that? Did the time difference not have me hearing about Asian disasters until further afterthefact in the US, allowing for that data-gathering period? That technicality, though, simply wasn't enough to explain it. Dare I begin to surmise, then, that it was a matter of distance - not just geographic, but personal? 

Earthquakes are not uncommon creatures, no, but I'd venture to guess they're unsettling every time nonetheless, particularly for those who recall - or, worse, lived through - the likes of the 2004 tsunami. That's probably why hearing of people crowding Marina Beach evoked a rather verbal reaction from me; how could it not, given past stories. Waters receded, crowds approached the beach in curiosity, and the ocean struck in a ravaging return. It's not the numbers our minds remember most distinctly, it's the images and the stories, memories, and emotions that accompany them. Even now, with little to no "hard data," it seems as though I've gained some greater understanding (I'm searching for a better word here...) of the earthquake and the tsunami that never was.

Here's hoping that, when those numbers inevitably roll in, they're kept at a minimum. Thoughts are with those effected.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hyderabad, dust, and an imam encounter

Goodness, it’s hot in Chennai. Sticky hot, with a pretense of a sea breeze that doesn’t really hit you until the evening. A week spent in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, however, was no escape from the heat; on the contrary, it was an exchange – lose the humidity, in favor of mouthfuls of dust. Still, touring around the city on the back of a scooter was well worth the grime collected in the process.

The 12-15 hour overnight bus between Hyderabad and Chennai, while a bumpy ride, is a cheap, relatively positive way to travel. Pro: sleeper style and AC. Con: rolling over in the middle of the night to find that someone has ambled into the bunk across from yours and proceeded to stare at you. …Creepy. Safely arrived in Chennai, I bounced from one side of the city to the other, switching from a friend near the University of Hyderabad, in suburbs west of the city, to a friend on the far eastern side of the city. Train was the most expedient (and ridiculously cheap, at Rs. 6) way to move between the two, but the trip was still a dusty 80 minutes in total.

Between meandering at the University’s annual festival and making my way through heaps of biryani (a Hyderabad specialty), the vast majority of my time was spent on the back of my friend Amby’s scooter – an excellent way to see the city, though one gets a bit saddle-sore after the first few days. March 23 marked the Telugu new year, which naturally meant plenty of delicious food, chatting with relatives in town for the occasion, and more food and chatting. So began the risk of my bursting from the amount of rice I was served during my time in Hyderabad.

Aside from biryani, Hyderabad is known for the jewels of the Old City, most notably the focal point of Charminar (1591). Heading that direction, I leaned around Amby to take street shots while he dodged the rickshaws, other scooters, and daring pedestrians attempting to cross the bustling street. Similarly dodging dozens of fellows hailing us with handfuls of pearl necklaces, we made our way through the bangle shops then jingled on down to the Makkah Masjid, Charminar’s neighboring mosque (completed in 1694). Shoeless and appropriately veiled, I was still quite clearly non-Indian, and we unintentionally attracted the interest of the imam in the process. Within two minutes of entering, we were pulled into conversation by a hajji, who then beckoned us along to the office of the imam.

While the imam sat silently observing us, the hajji led into a lengthy and impassioned monologue about the peaceful nature of Islam and its followers, their love for all as brothers, and the frustration of Pakistan and the divisions it created. The “local people,” he said, painting their mosques and houses green and flying the Pakistani flag, could not understand this properly – they were not “high minded” as we were. It seemed I, as a foreigner, had won immediate approval, while Amby was lauded because “the lady trusts you.” Most importantly, however, remember: Islam is a peaceful religion, scarred only by the black sheep that scar every group, and we are all brothers under the Creator – Americans take note. “There are no guns or bombs hidden in the mosque – would you like me to show you? I will happily take you in.” Preaching to the choir, my friend, I thought; it’s not those carefully garbed in head scarves who need to be warned against Islamophobia, though I’d happily spread the message.

After a significant amount of time spent in conversation with the hajji – the imam, silently observing me throughout, interrupted only once to ask (via Amby) what I was doing in India – Amby and I made our way out of the office with bemused smiles and copies of the Quran. Back to the scooter, back to the city center, and, for me, back to Chennai.

For a few more Hyderabad photos, check out this (relatively brief) online album.

Meanwhile, back in Chennai, it's some work and frequent outings for food, celebrations, and general revelry. I stand by my belief that building a social life is crucial to settling in. :)

Enough babbling for now. More soon- off to Mumbai/Bombay next week!