January Hyderabad Update

January 16th, 2008

So another month has gone by bringing me to my sixth month in this culture swap living in Hyderabad, India. I wish I could say time has flown, but I think the combination of my need for constant reflection and evaluation of my time here has made me painfully aware of every single day.

December in the US is usually an exciting time for me- I love (I am realizing now) the holiday “cheer”, music, decorations, the crazed shopping, and the chocolates everywhere you look. December in India has no feel at all. We did have a holiday – bakrid – where we brought home two goats, slaughtered them in the driveway, cooked Biryani until 4, stuffed our faces and then slept the sleep of deep food coma… but that’s just not the same as Christmas and New Years at home, ya know?

The highlight of December was definitely the visit of Sarah and Lisa, two teachers from the school I worked at last year and have spent the greater part of this year recovering from. They were a breath of fresh American air. I forgot how American I am, and how much I really do fit in best with Americans. I never would have thought so, but in a recent conversation my friend Lynn commented that America has a way of making people feel less welcome and less like they fit in than they actually do. I think that is definitely the case for me.

So with these gals Akbar and I went on another holiday. We’ve been averaging one cool trip per month, and this month’s was a doozy. We showed them around Hyderabad, where all these raunchy guys asked to have their picture taken with them. Even though we said no we could see them taking cell phone snaps as we walked away. The girls got a lot of attention like that- because Indians LOVE white skin. It’s odd the way they worship it. The drugstores here are filled with aisles and aisles of products like Fair & Lovely and Lightening Tonic- creams, soaps and bleaches to lighten skin.

We were worried about how Akbar’s family would react to the Americans, but they were curious and delighted and excited to have them. His mother cooked up a feast – unable to speak English it’s how she communicates – with fresh shrimp and deep fried vegetables. We had to fight both food coma and jet lag to leave the house again to continue our adventures. We went on from Hyderabad to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I would go into detail about those places here, but Akbar has been working for hours writing detailed blog posts about each day of our trip, so I’m going to let you guys read the details there: http://akbarpasha.wordpress.com/. But I will say that for me the highlight of the whole journey was seeing Gandhi’s memorial in Delhi. A solitary black tomb stone marks the spot where he was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist, and an eternal flame commemorates the light Gandhi’s life and teachings continue to shine on this country today. Gandhi will always be one of the few people I respect and revere – so I felt it fitting to steel a great big rock to bring home with me.

There are many hilarious stories that came up on our trip, but I think the hero of this 10 day tour was definitely Akbar. A quiet guy who prefers browsing on his laptop to interaction with people, Akbar spent 10 solid days with 3 girls who never ran out of things to say. I’m not quite sure how he handled it. Around day 8 he looked at me in the morning and said- I think I’m going to get my period soon. Because India is still working on gender equality, it is a country that naturally separates men and women on many fronts. This means that when we got into an auto (a cab that’s actually an economical lawn mower with a bright yellow roof, no doors, and a greasy man driving in the front, equipped with seats to fit 3 people but typically seen with about 25 people jammed in) Akbar had to snuggle with the driver in the front. And because they’re not so weird about men touching here as in the US, the auto drivers had no problem snuggling back. In this way Akbar was molested and felt up by many men on our world tour – ask him about it, he loves to re-live it.

Perhaps the best story that came out of our segregation was our day-long Vipassana meditation in Rajasthan. Sarah really wanted to do some meditation or yoga in India. I understand the draw- when I was planning my trip here I too imagined doing those things, and then quickly abandoned them when I saw the third-world-style in which these classes are conducted. I had my doubts, but it was free and in a beautiful ashram on the hills, so we decided to go. When I called in the morning to confirm the directions and the time, the non-English speaking gentleman who answered shouted “Call back. 1 years.” I think he meant 1 hour. We were welcomed in typical Indian fashion – no information, no overview, no one to explain to us the expectations of the day… we were directed to sit in the meditation hall, so that’s where we went. After about an hour of sitting in a cold, dark room, a man came in to get things started. And by get things started, I mean he switched on a recording of a very old man who would be leading us via cassette for the next 8 hours of this day. Uh-oh. He (the tape-man) switched between an undecipherable Hindi and an even more unrecognizable English. After an hour I got fed up and went to sit outside in the sun- where peacocks, parrots and humming birds were having a field day. The rest of the group emerged hours later for the lunch break. I don’t know how much meditation everyone was doing. I know I napped and watched peacocks. We talked for a moment about leaving, but because the girls and guys are not allowed to interact (and we’re technically not supposed to talk either) we were strictly told to split up and shut up. So the comedy begins after lunch, and must be prefaced with the fact that Sarah was obsessed with taking pictures during our trip. So the scene is that I am napping by the peacocks by this time joined by Lisa. Sarah and Akbar are at it hard core in the cold dark room with the tape-man, and Sarah comes out in a few minutes with the message that she is ready to leave. She says she’ll try to get Akbar, but I tell them that Akbar is really hard core about meditation- I bet he’s in the sixth level of samadhi by now. She goes in, can’t get his attention and comes back out.

Later we hear from Akbar that somewhere around lunch he too was fed up and frustrated with the tape-man, and decided he wanted to leave. He noticed Sarah outside with her camera, and mouthed my name to her- so she could come get me. Sarah obliviously took his picture, waved, and went on to her next shot. Immediately after she disappears, a stern-looking Indian man, clearly a Vipassana expert, snaps his fingers and summons Akbar. Then he basically cusses him out for trying to hit on a white chick, and yells at him for talking. Akbar tells him that he wants to leave, and the man tells him he cannot, because this is a full day meditation session. Akbar tells him that he is with a group and he needs to talk with them, and again the man refuses to help him out. So poor Akbar, scolded and insulted returns to the cold dark tape-man room. Poor guy. We cheered hip up with Pizza Hut at the end of the day- how else would you end a day of meditation in Rajasthan?

Baa Baa Black Sheep Have You Any Sacrificial Flesh

December 24th, 2007

My brother in law just came to visit us from London, and his gift to me was a book on Al Qaeda- because he thought I should know everything about “their” culture. While I don’t think that’s exactly the kind of literature that will help me feel like one of the gang here, I must say that I think I’m getting there.

I say this because we just celebrated Bakr Id in full form here. With the Qurbani (sacrifice) of two goats right below our balcony. I must be getting used to India because it didn’t phase me quite as much as I thought it would. Or maybe I’m actually becoming Muslim.

2 days prior to Id our family started to arrive. Akbar’s grandparents, his aunt and uncle and cousin. It’s interesting when family comes. On one hand, the amount of work that has to happen is quadrupled. With just a few extra mouths to feed there is suddenly an extraordinary amount of effort that goes into preparing lavish meals from scratch. So everyone (especially and mainly the women) are exhausted the whole time. When Akbar and I first got here our mail focus was to lessen the work load. We made simple suggestions like toast and herbal tea for breakfast instead of idlis or dosas made from scratch- for which my mother in law spends an entire day washing grains and grinding them into batter to use for 3 days. But these suggestions went unheeded. Quality of life here is directly measured by the food you eat. And that means nothing less than lavish full course meals that cause back pain and fevers for 3 days afterwards. On the other hand though, without any work the women in my household have nothing to do. Their dedication to full time motherhood and wife-dom leaves no time for dabbling in personal interests or hobbies. Low levels of formal education means reading or writing are out. And not having much disposable income leaves them pretty much tied to the house. So when there is no work they alternate between watching tv and just sitting around, mostly re-telling the same stories.

So anyway, we were prepared to be exhausted by this holiday. The celebration of Bakri Id starts from the tenth to the twelfth day in the Islamic month of Dhu’l Hijja, and marks the anniversary of the day when the Quran was declared complete. On the Id day, all the men in our household go to the mosque. Akbar’s grandmother makes her prayers in the house, starting at 6 am.

After the Namaz, Qurbani (sacrifice) is performed. The animal sacrifices made during Bakri Id are mainly to provide food to the poor and to commemorate the noble act of Ibrahim.

During the week of Barkr Id the streets of Hyderabad become lined with sheep and goats for this sacrifice. Only the wealthiest of households can afford to participate in this ritual. The animals are painted yellow or green and their horns are decorated. They range in all sizes. Obviously the bigger the animal to sacrifice, the greater the blessing. Akbar’s uncle in Bombay performs this Qurbani with 4 goats that cost 40,000 ruppees ($1000) each. That is about what a middle-class family could live on for 4 months. These goats are brought up from birth specially to be sacrificed. They are fed milk and yogurt every night and sleep on a bed with silk sheets. They are fattened and groomed for years to be worth the prestigious status of Qurbani. The ones Akbar brought home for us weren’t as fancy, but they were BIG. Two large goats were tied to the post in front of the downstairs apartment, where we normally park the car. A large tent was put up to give them some shelter and grass laid down on the ground for them to munch on.

We went down to look at them that evening. I think they knew they were going to die the next day. They were both very still. They made no sounds, showed no fear, and would not look at us, no matter who approached. They gave no signs of a nervous animal in a new place. It was like they were resigned to their fate.

It is said that every true Muslim who possesses wealth equal to or more than 400 grams of gold or is capable of affording two square meals a day, is expected to sacrifice an animal. A goat or a camel or a sheep is slaughtered during one of the three days of the festival and the meat is then distributed. One third portion of sacrificial animal meat is given to poor, another third to relatives and remaining for self and family. The story behind this ritual is that apparently God asked Abraham to sacrifice his child to prove his love for the lord. Not willing to back down, Abraham lifts his knife to sever his child’s head, and just as he is swinging his arm God replaces the child with a goat. And so now the ritual is to sacrifice goats. We can argue if it’s right or wrong or barbaric, but it sure is better than sacrificing your own kids.