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Mary: “curiouser and curiouser”

August 13, 2011

Of late I have found myself pondering what a very strange and curious concept time can become here in India. The watch on my wrist ardently claims to be on intimate terms with the precise time and date and yet I constantly question its faithfulness. How can it be that even when it tells me that class should have started five minutes ago, teachers and students alike are still casually sitting around the library, sipping chai? Or what of the fact that while my first day here seemed to stretch out long and lanky, invading at least three or four neighboring days time, this past week has seemed to gather its things all in a rush and exit promptly through Friday afternoon’s back door? Perhaps during the strange dimly lit hours of Tuesday and Wednesday, when the electricity was caught in a continuous cycle of fading and surging, time managed to steal away and get some work done ahead of schedule before slipping unnoticed back into its place just as the power returned. I must admit the time disease seems to be an eternal epidemic though, extending far beyond the house on Devi Path where I have recently taken up residence. How else could you possibly explain the rickshaw-wallah who weaves his cycle between horse-carts and cows while talking on his cell phone, or the procession of hundreds of elaborately decorated and barefoot people who, on a pilgrimage to the sacred places of India, stop traffic for hours on one of the largest highways in the city as they pass by the Ganesh temple in Jaipur? Indeed the phenomenon seems to stretch back as far as the beginning of recorded history when we consider how in the Hindi language a single word, kul, means both tomorrow and yesterday and parso can stand for either the day before yesterday or the day after tomorrow. The conference of ancient civilization with modern metropolis is a phenomenon rarely experience or truly understood in America and the thing I am finding most marvelously baffling about India.

Aside from the time travel sickness though, I’ve had quite a wonderful week! Allow me the pleasure of backtracking from Friday’s back door to the rainy early morning of Monday. I finally figured out (after a ludicrous but largely accurate reenactment for Rama-Ji at the breakfast table) that the unearthly EEEEAHHHH bird call which wakes me so early every morning is in fact a peacock. This actually makes me quite happy and I have nearly managed complete forgiveness for the creature. On Tuesday, most of the other students and I went to a little coffee shop called Mr. Beans, perhaps the most “westernized” place I’ve seen yet in Jaipur, to study Hindi. We had all been seriously craving coffee (especially Lauren, who’s from Seattle) and were thrilled to have a few hours to stumble over the pronunciation of our vocab words away from the scrutinizing looks of our professors. The return trip also allowed for my very first experience in the back of an auto-rickshaw! It was very much like being in a tiny roller coaster that smelled simultaneously of curry and cow patties, and yet it was not entirely unpleasant.

On Thursday, we took a small school field trip into the old city area of Jaipur. We had to stop at the Foreign Registration Office (F.R.O.) to pick up our passports and acquire the official temporary residence cards which are required for anyone staying in India longer than 6 months (technically this doesn’t include us but just to be on the safe side, MSID always has their students apply). When we got there we were all quite surprised to find that the building seemed to be on fire. Despite the nonchalant attitudes of the faculty standing in a circle outside, we were obviously very concerned. Luckily, before any of us tried to call the fire department (not that we would have any idea how to anyways) Rishi-Ji explained they were actually in the middle of a pooja, a religious ceremony in which a large cleansing fire is built, and it was taking place in the courtyard next to the building. The area of the old city where the F.R.O. had been built actually used to be a temple and so once a year, a priest was brought into the building to perform the pooja, to continue to honor the sacred land. We ended up having to wait for about half an hour, watching as the priest went around to each member of the faculty gathered outside and prayed over them, placing the bindi on their forehead. The fact that all of this was happening, unannounced, at an official government building seemed quite strange to me but Rishi-Ji just called it a “true taste of India” experience which made me smile.

After the F.R.O. office we went deeper into the old city, where the main market place, called Johari Bazaar, is found. We wound our into the side alleys and back through what seemed like several centuries, what with the tiny little cubbyhole shops and fruit stands which looked like they had been around since before the East India Company first made anchor off the western coast, again leaving my sense of time wildly out of whack, finally coming to the specific part of the market where bangles, known in Hindi as churis, are made. We were actually lucky enough to stumble across one shop where the artisan was deeply engrossed in his work. Indian bangles, usually made of wood, silver, gold, or other metals, have a specific wax, called lakh, placed around the inside rim of the bangle. This wax is especially revered in the Hindu faith and it is considered improper for a woman to allow a “naked” bangle to touch her skin, without the special inner layer of lakh added. It was really a beautiful process. The man sat cross-legged next to a tiny little portable stove with hot coals on top and a small flame in the middle. He slowly heated a stick of wax over the coals, pausing a couple of times a minute to flatten and elongate the stick with a heavy square of metal with a handle on top. When it reached roughly the desired length, he took a golden bangle and wrapped the lakh under the inner lip, cutting the wax at the appropriate length. Finally, he twisted the bangle on a large wooden rolling pin to press the wax in tight as it dried. It was mesmerizing to watch, the man knew his work so well he could probably have done it with his eyes closed. The adeptness with which he moved his nimble fingers left me staring incredulously.

Back at school that day, our professor told us how all bangle makers actually belong to a specific caste, known as the munivar and that each successive generation amongst a family of that caste will continue to be bangle makers. There are actually hundreds of occupational castes like this one, from utensil makers to house sweepers even to gymnast circus performers, which really surprised me and led me to realize I really have no idea how comprehensive the caste system is. Later that night, when Emily and I were recounting our field trip for Rama-Ji she told us that most people don’t refer to the bangle makers as the munivar though, simply as belonging to the working caste. I’m sure I’m hardly even beginning to comprehend the complexity of this strange social stratification system though, it just seems like the more I learn the less I know.  I’m also feeling the same way about Hindi. It’s honestly mind boggling how very little Hindi I know. It’s very unnerving to start a language completely from scratch, especially one as foreign to me as Hindi. Having taken French for nearly five years now and being used to language classes where I can at least vaguely understand what’s going on around me, it’s been quite difficult to go back to absolute square one. On the other hand, I am really surprised how much I have learned in just twelve days! I can sort of carry on a basic introductory conversation with someone and I now know how to bargain the price of something in Hindi. Also, I must say that I am absolutely in love with the Devanagari script. It looks so beautiful and ancient, like a cryptic message from some lost civilization.

This weekend is one of the largest festivals of the year, known as Rakhi. It is the festival of the relationship between brothers and sisters, a most wonderful reason to celebrate if I’ve ever heard one! Sisters buy these special red string bracelets with little beads on them to tie around the wrist of their brothers on Rakhi day and give them lots of sweet treats and sometimes small gifts. In return, the brothers give their sisters money. There are parades in the streets and feasts throughout the day. Rama-Ji has been shopping all day today and yesterday in preparation for her visit to her brother’s house tomorrow. She said the all the students at the university today were in joyful, festive moods and could hardly focus on their studies. Unfortunately, Emily and I will miss the parades and such because seven of us students are going on a weekend trip to the city of Jodhpur, roughly 500 kilometers to the southwestish. It’s more of a desert city than Jaipur and the second largest city in the state of Rajasthan, so it promises to certainly be an adventure. Plus, we are taking the train! A “true taste of India” experience I have been looking forward to for quite some time now!

Oh, and just in case anyone didn’t catch the reference in the title, it’s taken from the following line in Alice in Wonderland (which I reread this week just for the fun of it): “Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). I felt it captured quite neatly the feel of this post. 

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