Rachel in India

Rachel, a 2006 SMU graduate in History and Indian Studies, is working on her PhD in South Asian History at Boston College. This summer she’s returning to Pune, India, through the American Institute for Indian Studies for the second summer of a language intensive in Marathi.

Beyond Lonely Planet, beyond first impressions

One thing every faithful tourist carries with them is their guidebook; my personal preference is Lonely Planet. Obviously it doesn’t have everything I need to know, but it always has at least a little blurb about places I’m headed to, with the exception of villages.

R-Maharashtran-countryside-sm.jpgSo as I got ready for my class field trip to Satara and Waii, I pulled out my old faithful Lonely Planet India only to find that the city we were going to explore and its surrounding villages didn’t even make the map. That’s when I knew I had gone beyond Lonely Planet.

R-women-washing-dishes-sm.jpgThere was something enthralling about exploring these places, so far from even the most adventurous tourist track. As we wondered through village temples and walked along the banks of the Krishna River, I thought of the many faces of India, and the many lives that were lived in such dramatically different ways. From the students whom I daily see sporting their Nike sneakers and Levi’s jeans in Pune to the women washing dishes along the ghats of the river in the villages of Maharashtra, I was reminded of the vast diversity of India.

R-ganapati-mandir-in-waii-sm.jpgBut so often this idea of disparity between rich and poor plagues our view as Americans, and Westerners more generally, of India. I’m constantly struck by people’s usual initial reactions to India. They are struck by the huge gap between rich and poor, the pollution, the bright beautiful colors of women’s clothes. Others comment on the sense of spirituality or history that infiltrates so many aspects of life. Most people feel the need to comment on cultural differences such as eating with the right hand or not using toilet paper.

And while sometimes I long to go back to those first few weeks I was in India, if only to be able to see India with such fresh eyes, I’ve realized that there’s a value in being able to see India beyond these first impressions. It means seeing a much more nuanced place. A place where these things do exist, but there’s so much more, and it requires us to get beyond these first impressions.

R-university-of-mumbai-sm.jpgI returned to Mumbai recently to meet with old friends and spend time in the city that I’ve grown to love over the past few years. It’s a city that I know better than Boston, and a place that never ceases to amaze me. There is perhaps nothing that makes me happier than walking around Mumbai by myself. I love taking trains through the city and feeling the ocean breeze in my hair. It’s a city that’s very much alive. It’s a city I never want to leave. Mumbai, perhaps the most diverse city in the subcontinent, reminds me of the many paradoxes of India. Because the truth is any stereotype made about India can quickly be challenged.

r-view-of-mumbai-from-nairman-point-sm.jpgSo, as I write about India, I hope to move beyond first impressions, beyond stereotypes, and understand this place for what it is, and continue to encounter the many faces of this country that has captured both my heart and my mind.

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Caves, graves and a fort

Rachel%20with%20Buddha%20at%20Ellora-sm.jpgIn celebration of American Independence Day, I, along with some other students, decided to take a trip to the world heritage sites of Ajanta (left) and Ellora. It was as if we were taking a trip through time. These are caves carved out of stone, and some date back to the sixth and seventh centuries.

Ellora caves lacked the tourist trap feeling that accompanied our trip to Ajanta. The Ellora caves are unique because they have temples built by three different religious groups; the Buddhists, the Hindus, and the Jains.

Rachel-Jain%20Temples-sm.jpgWandering around the caves was incredible, as we climbed into Buddhist monks’ cells, stood in awe of the overwhelming Hindu rock temple of Kailas, and stared in wonderment at the detail of the Jain caves (photo left).

Ajanta caves were plagued by the tourist feel, and we had to navigate our way through at least a hundred stalls selling things at perhaps five hundred times their real value before we reached the buses that took us up to the caves.

Rachel%20at%20Ajanta-sm.jpg It was well worth the effort, though, as we stood in awe of the Buddhist caves filled with their original paintings.

Rachel-carvings.jpgAjanta was only relatively recently rediscovered in the 19th century by a British officer named John Smith while he was on a tiger hunt. These caves were much more controlled, and the experience was much more like being at an outdoor museum. Unlike many museums in India, however, these paintings have been well preserved and the Indian government is going to great efforts to restore these caves.

The closest city to Ajanta and Ellora is Aurangabad, so while we were near Aurangabad, we headed to Aurangzeb’s grave. Aurangzeb was the last great Mughal ruler, who insisted in being buried in this humble abode off the beaten track.

Rachel-tomb.jpgAs we observed the grave (photo left), I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the fact that we were actually standing on the grave site of one of the most powerful men the world has ever seen. It was also the site of the graves of certain Chishti (a Sufi order) saints. Here we had gone from the extravagance of the Kailas temple in Ellora to the simple grave of this emperor.

It was here that I had one of the more compelling experiences I have had in India. As we walked to see the tomb of a Chishti saint, my male colleagues went before me, and I, because I am a woman, wasn’t allowed to enter.

Now, this is a fairly common experience in India (and other places in the world) as I’ve visited various places of worship. Frequently there are areas of various places of worship where I’m denied entrance because I’m a woman. But when I was told I couldn’t enter, my stomach unexpectedly dropped, and I realized that there were barriers and challenges that I faced as a woman here. I’m very aware of them in the US, since I work in a male-dominated field, but it became blatantly apparent at that moment the challenges and limitations that women all over the world face. We like to think that we live in a world of equality, but the harsh reality is that our world is filled with inequalities.

Rachel%20at%20Daulatabad-sm.jpgFinally, on our way back to Pune, we visited the Daulatabad (also known as Devagiri) Fort (photo right). From the extravagance of the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora, to the simplicity of Aurangzeb’s tomb, we now came upon the military genius of the various occupiers of this fort.

We wandered through bat-filled, pitch-black tunnels, explored our way through trap doors, and climbed on the ruins of this magnificent fort. It’s no wonder no one ever captured this fort through invasion. It would be nearly impossible to get through this fort without quickly getting killed. There were a few times I wondered if I would make it through without killing myself while climbing up the steps or making my way through the tunnels.

Finally we headed back to Pune. After an incredible journey through northern Maharashtra, I was glad to be back to a place where I was no longer a tourist just trying not to get ripped off, but where I am a local (at least temporarily).

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Table for one

While I’m in India, I almost always wear Indian clothes or at the least an Indian top and jeans. This means that I have to go get cloth for salwar kameez (Indian tops and loose pants) and get it stitched. Earlier in the week I had gone to pick out my cloth, haggle for a while and then take my chosen material to get stitched. There is a tailor nearby that I frequent, and they always do a good job. So they tell me that it will be ready on Sunday at 6. I show up Sunday at 6:30, just to give them a little extra time, and of course, my salwar kameezes weren’t ready. As I’ve mentioned before, nothing in India is easy, and deadlines here mean next to nothing. If there is one thing that living in India teaches you, it’s patience. Without it, the country will swallow you alive.

To fill this time gap and nurture my patience, I headed to a nearby restaurant that serves South Indian snacks, and after 5 in the evening perhaps my favorite thing to eat in India, SPDP (Sev Potato Dahi Puri). There is no way to really explain this roadside delicacy, but needless to say, I needed a table for one. This place is always bustling, and getting a table almost always requires a wait of some sort, but not for a table for one. There weren’t any tables available when I came in, but there was a middle-aged, sari-clad woman sitting by herself. So the waiter asked her if she minded seating me at her table and she nodded her head in the typical Indian fashion. (Does it mean yes, does it mean no? I have no idea.) So I was seated across from her.

Not a word was uttered between the two of us. We just sat across from each other as we enjoyed our snacks and I sipped on my coffee. There weren’t really any words to be said. One would think that such a situation would be awkward, but there was something very calm and comforting about the situation, sitting with someone I knew nothing about and most likely had nothing in common with. And it was at that moment that it dawned on me, in a city of just over 5 million, a table for one isn’t so lonely after all.

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Back to my first love

I’m back in India, and despite the pollution all around me, it’s like a breath of fresh air. There’s just something about India that captivates me. It’s the smell of the spicy food as I walk past restaurants. It’s the people who pass me on the street. It’s this chaotic city that somehow feels so peaceful. I’m in the place where I feel I am most truly myself. I know that I’ve come back to my first love.

I’ve come back to Pune for the second time, and India for the fourth time. I’ve been here for about a week, and I keep asking myself – what is it that draws me here? What is it that keeps bringing me back? Is it my need for adventure, or perhaps some innate desire to be somewhere different from my home? But the truth of the matter is that I don’t have an answer. I really don’t know. What I do know, however, is that whatever it is, whatever keeps drawing me here, has my heart. India is part of who I am, and just being here, walking down the streets alone amongst the crowds, brings a smile to my face.

I’ve come back to my first love, and despite her many flaws, I keep coming back for more. It’s her flaws that make her so perfect. It’s the difficulty of getting anything done – because nothing is simple in India. It’s the challenge of simply finding a rickshaw to take you somewhere at a fair rate. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes, but there’s something charming about these everyday occurrences. I’ve come here to learn a language, but I’m learning so much more. So much more about life, about this place and perhaps most importantly, about myself.

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Reflections on India

It’s been about a month and a half since I returned from India, and it’s given me some time to reflect on my time in Pune and Bombay.

While it didn’t feel like much of a break when I was learning Marathi every day, I quickly realized upon arrival back here that it really was. Between teaching and researching my life has become a never-ending to-do list, but I can certainly look back to my visit to India this summer with a smile on my face.

rachel-DSC_5578-sm.jpgPushed to new limits
Every time I go to India I feel that I’ve come away with a new and different experience. This time I feel like I was able to be part of a community like never before, both in Pune and Bombay. That has shed light on both my research and my personal perspectives on India.

From a personal stance I found this trip in many ways the most challenging. It pushed me to my limits in a physical and mental way. The challenges of living in conditions that are not reality for most Americans made me look at the world in a different way. It made me realize that I am privileged simply because of where I was born. I am privileged because I have had an opportunity to study. And while I realized these things in previous visits to India, it only became all the more real in my experience this time. It also compels me to convey not only Indian history in my teaching here at Boston College, but to emphasize the role that students play as citizens of the world, not only citizens of the United States.

A shift in research
This past summer has also changed the direction of my research in dramatic ways. I learned a lot about the indigenous East Indians (Catholics) of Bombay and how they have been left out of the history of the largest city in India. This has compelled me to look deeper into the history of minorities in Bombay. India was divided into two states, India and Pakistan, in 1947 and as a result many Muslims moved to Pakistan and many Hindus moved to the new secular Indian state.

However, in Bombay, the land of the Catholics was given to Hindus who moved to the city, challenging the notion of a secular state. As I move on from here, I will be able to use my Marathi to shed light not only on the Catholics of Bombay, but on the larger impact that the partition of India had on this booming metropolis.

What is India?
rachel-August2005b-153-sm.jpgI hope that after reading this blog, you have been entertained. But I also hope that it has challenged you to think about the India that we so often see as the outsourcing center of the world in a different light. India is a place full of paradoxes, and at a time when it is so easy to define it by stereotypes, I hope that this sheds a little light on a place that most of us only see on television specials through the eyes of businessmen or journalists determined to portray an India that they believe exists rather than the place it really is.

India is a so much more than a center of IT, a place to outsource, or an exotic vacation destination. It is a place with a population that well exceeds 1 billion, but a place that is incredibly diverse. I hope that I have painted such a picture for you, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about this adventure as much as I have enjoyed living it.

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Family Matters

The time has come to leave Pune, and it is a bittersweet moment as I return to Mumbai. I’m glad to be coming back to Bombay to spend time with my boyfriend, Darren, and his family, but I’m sad to be leaving the family I have spent so much time with and that taught me so much.

This summer was certainly very challenging. The middle-class amenities that I had been so used to in India before weren’t available. We didn’t have running water for days and hot water was a pipe dream. I washed my clothes on a stone in the backyard, and had a toilet that was nothing more than a hole in the ground. My bed was a plank of wood with a about a one-inch mattress. This took at least a couple of
weeks to really get used to. I consider myself a flexible person, but living like this for weeks on end was a challenge I hadn’t completely prepared myself for. Other students had much better amenities – running water and even washing machines!

One of the family
But now I’ve realized how much family matters. Despite these challenges, my family was more than willing to take the time to speak to me in Marathi and include me in family affairs, from birthday parties to temple visits. Without this, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to pick up spoken Marathi in such a way. And now that I’ve left Pune, I know that this family will always have a special place in my heart.

Aaji, the grandmother, sat with me every morning to have tea and speak to me in Marathi. She told me all of the good sari shops and where to find anything I needed. On the floor above us Aaji’s nephew and his wife lived. They had two children, Ruhi and Shardul. Ruhi is in Law School in Pune and she was always more than willing to come shopping with me and give me advice about life in Pune. Shardul was a 13-year-old school boy who forced me to speak Marathi with him and readily corrected me with any slip of my tongue.

Living it
Throughout the past ten weeks, they have made me feel like part of the family. And I’ve found that living with an Indian family in India is a vastly different experience than living by myself. The challenges are very different, but I feel that I have experienced India in an entirely different way this time. This experience has helped me learn to value the things that really matter in life.

I’ve realized that even though this experience and these living conditions were difficult for me to learn to live with, that this situation was far better than the way most of the people in this world live. I think that for me, especially as an American, it’s important for me to not just see how other people live, but to live it. My experiences this summer have taught me more than just Marathi.

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Indian Independence Day

Over the past few years, I’ve spent some of my American Independence Days in India. The last couple of years I have spent them in Boston, an experience I always enjoy. I like the fun of American Independence days. I like the pool parties, the all-American food, and fun with family and friends. Even though this is my third summer in India, this is the first time that I spent Indian Independence Day in India, and I was very excited.

I was expecting parades of some sort or maybe other patriotic programs. There were flag raisings at schools in the mornings, and cultural programs throughout the day. But at about 11 in the morning my host family told me that we were going on a picnic. But a picnic in India doesn’t mean going to a park and having a packed lunch. It’s an all-day affair.

My host family, the Ahires, had rented a car and we all went first to a Shankara (Shiva) temple in Bhuleshwar. This was an older temple built on a hill about an hour and a half journey by car outside of Pune. It was beautiful, although many of the carvings had been destroyed by Aurangzeb. Nonetheless it was incredible to see such an old temple amongst the hills of Maharashtra.

rachel-DSC04007-sm.jpgThe surrounding nature was so beautiful; it looked like a Bollywood song and dance should be shot there. We then all sat down for lunch, a packed Indian feast.

Then we headed to a Ganesh/Ganapati (the elephant-headed god) temple. The one we went to was one of the eight naturally created Ganesh images in Maharashtra, and it was amazing to see how much this natural, uncarved stone looked like Ganesh. Ganesh is very popular throughout Maharashtra and considered the remover of obstacles.

Upon reaching the temple the line to see the murti (image) was incredibly long, certainly an hour’s wait. So we decided just to look around the temple and not go in. Then as we circled around, we found the place where everyone was coming out of the temple. First the grandmother went in, and then the rest of us followed. No one said anything to any of us and we were able to see Ganapati without waiting in line. Ganapati certainly removed our obstacle that day!

We then went to a Rama temple on the outskirts of Pune and stopped at a famous Dhaba on the way home to have some Indian snacks. It was certainly not how I had expected to spend Indian Independence Day, but I was so glad to be included as part of the family. Even though I had my final exam that I should have been studying for, this experience was certainly much more steeped in Maharashtran culture and Marathi language. It was a great way to spend my first Indian Independence Day in India.

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From Booming Metropolis to Peaceful Village

For my midterm break I went to Mumbai, or shall we say Bombay. I really do believe that there is no city in the world like Bombay.

Seven islands were joined together to create what we now know as Mumbai, India’s most-populated city. While I was only a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Pune, it is really worlds apart. Bombay is steeped in diversity: diversity of language, diversity of religion, and diversity of tradition.

While my Marathi certainly made Bombay slang (usually a combination of Hindi, Marathi and English) easier to understand, it really is a language unto its own.

Mumbai is an overcrowded city with unbearable humidity, but somehow there is something incredibly charming about Bombay and its people. There is nothing like walking along the Arabian sea or exploring churches built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. There’s nothing like being in a city that’s always alive and really never sleeps. There’s nothing like being surrounded by such a vast array of people that despite their diverse backgrounds find unity in the sense of being Bombayites or
Mumbaikars. There’s nothing like being in the booming metropolis of Bombay.

rachel-DSC03996-sm.jpgBut the truth is that the majority of Indians still live in villages and depend on agriculture to sustain themselves. The following weekend I spent in Ralegan Siddhi on a day trip for my Marathi language class. This was a village that in the 1970s was plagued with famine and alcoholism, but has made a total turnaround that started with a cooperative to rebuild the village mandir (temple) and resulted in a change in lifestyle from temperance to family planning.

rachel-DSC04003-sm.jpg Now Ralegan Siddhi exports its milk and other agricultural products to surrounding villages and all of its people have plenty of food to eat. There is now a school in the village that educates children up to the 10th standard, and students come from surrounding villages to go to this school.

We walked through the village and through the fields to talk with the villagers and see how the water tank has been built to prevent drought. Walking through this village, breathing in fresh air after months of breathing in pure exhaust, and meeting people whose lives are so different than my own reminded me again of the diversity of the subcontinent.

From a booming metropolis to a peaceful village, this is the India that I have grown to love.

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Palkhi: Lakhs of People and a Palanquin

Palkhi literally means palanquin, and in this case it is a palanquin that carries the murti (image) of the Saint Dnyaneshwar. Dnyaneshwar starved himself to death in Alandi, and the pilgrimage begins in Alandi, and continues through Maharashtra to Pandharpur, a pilgrimage of nearly 300 kilometers. There are lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of pilgrims that make this journey by foot each year, and today they came through Pune.

While many schools and offices are closed early for the Palkhi, my school ended at 2:00, the usual time. We all knew that that there would be a lot of traffic because of the Palkhi, but I think few of us expected that we would be stuck in traffic for over two hours to go all of about 4-5 kilometers. So by about 4:30 I reached the road I live on, but was unable to cross because the Palkhi was in full swing there. There were hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who were dancing and singing to the beat of drums and cymbals. Many of the women were carrying their belongings on their head, and those that weren’t were carrying the tulshivrandavan (the structure with the plant of tulsi in it) on their heads.

After about an hour and a half the actual palanquin passed by and I was able to get a good look. I was also able to get some video footage. It was an amazing sight, especially considering I had never seen a pilgrimage of such sorts before. As people passed by they handed out blessed sweets and peanuts. Many of the residents of Pune provided chai and other food to the pilgrims as they passed through Pune. The Palkhi was an incredible sight filled with rich colors vibrant sounds and joyful people. It was truly incredible to be able to witness the Palkhi.

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When it Rains it Pours

Apparently the monsoon was building up while we were waiting for it to come. I went to Kolhapur this weekend as a class trip and it poured the entire time. As we drove there small waterfalls where pouring down the hills as we winded through the Western Ghats south to Kolhapur. It took us about four hours to reach Kolhapur, and upon arrival, we found that the monsoon was alive and well there.

Our adventure began first by going to New Palace Museum where the Maharaja of Kolhapur’s family still resides. The first floor is the museum, which houses furniture, paintings, photographs, weapons, and clothing of a time not so long ago. Many of the artifacts on display were rather reminders of British rule, and the role that some maharajas throughout India played in supporting, directly or indirectly, British rule.

Following the visit to New Palace Museum, we went to see the central site of Kolhapur, the Mahalakshmi Temple. Many pilgrims visit Kolhapur to go to this temple (the literal translation from Marathi to go visit — darshan ghetla — means to take blessings).

The Mahalakshmi Temple is located in the old city, or old palace, of Kolhapur, and Kolhapur is famous for chappals (sandals). So after going to the temple we went bargaining for some Kolhapuri sandals. Then on our way to see Rankala Lake, we were detoured by a handicraft exhibition, which involved much bargaining in Marathi.

The next day we were supposed to see Panhala Fort outside of Kolhapur, but it had rained so much that the roads were flooded and we were unable to go. Despite spending two monsoons in India, I have never seen flooding like this in India, or anywhere else for that matter. The driver told us that even if we did make it out to the fort, it could be days before we would be able to return, so we decided just to go and see Rankala Lake and then head back to Pune. When I returned to Pune it rained heavily for a few more days. The flooding really is unbelievable. It’s amazing how much can be underwater in just a period of a few days. Despite the late arrival of monsoon, it has arrived with force. Because when it rains, it pours.

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