Saturday, December 31, 2005

Monday Night Fever - Stowing Away at an Indian Wedding

Shivaji and Nikhil were getting married - and we were invited! It didn't matter that our relationship with the families could best be described as tenants-of-the-woman-whose-husband-was-good-friends-with-the-father-of-the-bride. Indian weddings commonly have upwards of 500 or 1000 guests, and we reasoned that stowaways like us are a big reason why.

This was a North Indian Hindu wedding – of the type seen in the movie Monsoon Wedding. In the South, weddings are quiet affairs, disposed of within a matter of minutes on warm afternoons. Not so in the North, where a whole range of ceremonies are carried out over several days and nights. We arrived at 8.30pm last Monday night, an hour-and-a-half late but apparently too early because not much was happening. No more than thirty people were there, standing in corners chatting and drinking the occasional bowl of soup or cup of coffee. It seemed hard to believe that Shivaji and Nikhil’s ‘big day’ was just ahead.

Then we received word that the groom’s procession was about to move off. We moved back outside and saw that a hundred or more people had gathered about 200 metres up the road, sandwiched into a space bordered by rope and tall men carrying bright, colourful lights. In the centre was a white horse in full wedding dress – it was waiting for its rider, but the groom was a bit nervous about saddling up. The groom’s family had gathered nearby, with the women dressed in saris of vibrant greens, oranges and blues. E instructed me to start taking photos, but it wasn’t an easy thing. I stepped backwards to avoid the chord of a video camera, only to find my ear inside a blaring trumpet. A rag-tag bunch of musicians were carrying around different brass instruments, belting out popular Bollywood tunes. And at my elbow was one of several drummers who were doing their best to smother the brass with a frenzied staccato drum beat. It was a messy cacophony of sounds, like something out of an Emir Kusturica film. And for a sizeable group of young men comprising the groom’s friends, it was inspiring their arms, hips and crotches to jerk and jolt in multiple and unpredictable directions.

The groom was finally persuaded to get on the horse, and the procession got moving. It was slow going, with frequent stops to allow for the increasingly adventurous gyrations of the groom’s friends. Traffic roared pas us just metres away, the odd car honking its horn to be part of the celebration. And then all of a sudden I was being dragged into the maelstrom, plonked in the center of the procession as people looked on – and wondering, I imagined, if this white boy could dance.

I learned later that the groom’s friends were drunk, that they had been sneaking nips from flasks concealed in jacket pockets. But at the time all I could think was that I had to match them. So I threw the arms up, kicked the feet out, and gyrated like I’ve never gyrated before. It is, admittedly, the dancing style I have long favoured, for it requires absolutely no skill or coordination. I soon felt like one of the boys, and we danced on as the music grew louder and the horse nudged us forward with its nose. Occasionally members of the procession came over and, holding wads of 10 rupee notes above their heads, dramatically threw them one-by-one into the crowd. Kids darted in from the road to grab the notes, but mostly the drummers benefited, reaching down with left hands to retrieve the money and somehow never missing a beat.

It took two hours for the procession to make its way down to the wedding venue. It stopped just inside the gate, waiting for the bride’s party to emerge and officially invite them in. The invitation was given, but the groom’s contingent took little interest in it, and danced on. And a man with a rifle joined the procession, firing into the air at random intervals to the noticeable consternation of the horse. As it didn’t’ look like the bride’s invitation was going to be accepted any time soon, we snuck away from the procession in search of some food.

It is customary at North Indian weddings for the guests to eat before the ceremony, and as it was nearly 11pm we were in full support of this custom. As is standard, the food was vegetarian and no alcohol was served. We wandered around the buffet, piling our plates high with daal, paneer tomato, kababs, stuffed tomato, dosa and roti. To wash it down there was hot badam, milk flavoured with saffron and almonds. We ate our meals standing with the other guests, devouring the delicious food and wondering whether the groom would ever arrive.

Just as we were finishing our meal, the groom made his entrance. By now most people had gathered in rows of seats facing a stage, and it was on this stage where the groom sat down and waited for the bride to arrive. After a few minutes she appeared, making her way to the stage with her entourage close behind. The wedding sari is notoriously heavy, and she moved slowly, weighed down by the intricate gold and silver embroidery. When she reached the stage, friends lifted both her and the groom on their shoulders and they embraced warmly. This, we had been told, was a ‘love-marriage’. Standing close by I could see the excitement on their faces, somehow shining through their obvious exhaustion after several days of non-stop celebrations.

By now a DJ had taken over from the brass and drums, and the groom’s friends moved over to the corner dance floor to keep strutting their stuff. The man with the rifle continued to fire rounds enthusiastically in the outdoor area. And, just as it looked like something official might be about to go ahead on stage, our landlord told us that it was time to go home. We were puzzled – we were going to leave before the actual wedding? ‘Oh, that’s only for the immediate family,’ she replied. ‘And it’s really really boring.’

So, just after midnight, we returned home. But the bride and groom were just getting started. The exchanging of vows wouldn’t start until 2am, and that in itself would go for two or three hours. And in the morning they would travel to Allahabad where, for the benefit of guests who could not make it to Lucknow, they would do it all again. And then, it would all be over bar the reception – which would be held on a separate night. Lying in bed that night, I wondered whether the bride’s father’s friend’s wife’s tenants would find themselves on the invitation list.

More photos of the wedding, and pics of Christmas celebrations and our photo shoot at Banda

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tailored Trackies - The Story of my Return to Domestic Life

I told the store attendant that I wanted some tracksuit pants, and immediately three men surrounded me. What design would sir like? Half a dozen tracksuits were tossed onto the bench in front of me, each still wrapped in plastic packaging. Perhaps one of these? I shook my head. How about these ones? A man appeared from behind me, two more in hand. I pointed at one, and was ushered into the change room to try it on. I came out, and the three men tapped their index fingers on their chin as they considered the suitability of my fleece pants and top. I was getting as much attention as the man across the store being fitted for a suit jacket. 'The trousers are too long,' one of them said. 'Let us alter them for you and you can pick them up in a half hour.'

My trip to the men's clothing store was one of my first forays into my new domestic life in Lucknow, which will be our home for the next month. After five months of constant, dizzying motion, E and I suddenly find ourselves paying attention to the most mundane details, such as what brand of milk to buy, and how many coathangers to stick in the closet. We are living in the upstairs room of a house in the north of the city. Judging from the stares and open mouths we encounter when walking to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread, our suburb is not accustomed to the presence of Westerners. Lucknow itself is off the tourist trail, although there is much of interest here for those tourists who choose to stop by. The city is known for its Muslim Nawab architecture, and its tasty Nawab cuisine which is said to be so delicious that it just might pierce our vegetarianism. It was the site of a five month seige during the 1857 Indian Uprising, when 3000 people sought refuge in the British Residency, disease and bullets eventually claiming the lives of two-thirds. And Lucknow is also the capital of the province Uttar Pradesh, whose population of 176 million makes it the most populated sub-national entity in the world.

But these facts and figures form a distant backdrop to my new domestic life, which in its first week has involved getting acquainted with my home suburb. I have a local coffee shop, which lets me sit for hours over a black coffee, writing in my notebook and reading the local press. It is a trendy place, a spot for Lucknow's youth to chat, flirt, and watch television as Sachin Tendulkar, the man who carries India on his shoulders, takes on Sri Lanka in the home test series. Nearby is the supermarket, where E and I were double-teamed on our first visit - one man to find out what we wanted, the other to fetch it and put it in our basket. And across the road is a restaurant that serves wonderful masala dosai. My slim hopes for anonymity were ruined on my third visit when the staff started chatting with me about Australia, and a few days later I realised that a true connection had been forged when they changed the television channel to live coverage of the Australian test series.

And on the way home I wander past sights that, although quite common in India, have certainly not featured on any other 'walk home' that I've ever taken in Australia or elsewhere. In a stretch of two hundered metres I encounter a variety of shops that you would normally only find in a major shopping centre, each located in a patch of dirt at the side of the road. Among them there is a florist, a barber, a fruit seller, a tailor, a bicycle repair man, and several chai stalls serving up glass upon glass of the sweet, milky drink. If I want to cross the road I have to watch out, for the traffic is dense and wild, cars, motorbikes and auto-rickshaws screaming past without a thought for pedestrians. And sitting at the side of the road is the ubiquitous cow, relaxed as it chews on the odd bit of grass, unconcerned about the human traffic around it.

At nights we do much as we would at home - relax, read a book, or watch TV with the family downstairs. Last night my ears pricked up at the sound of some familiar music, and I looked up to see that 'Indian Idol' was on. Just a few nights earlier we had stayed up to watch the final of India's version of 'Dancing with the Stars'. It is much like the Australian version, except most of the stars are drawn from Bollywood-type productions and would put most of our professional dancers to shame. Just two couples were left in the final, and the hosts kept promising that the winner would be announced after the next commercial break. As I found myself falling asleep in my chair, I decided to head up to bed. I had to get up early the next day - there was, after all, no milk in the fridge, and we needed new towels for the bathroom. I fell into a deep sleep, exhausted by my return to domestic life.

Photos of Taj Mahal, monkeys, Marharani living and Lucknow

Jack Kerouac on meeting people

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Tout in Sheep's Clothing - A Beginner's Guide to India

The trip from Delhi airport to the hotel was supposed to be easy. We had arranged for a driver from our hotel to be at the arrivals gate - he was to be smiling broadly, holding a large piece of cardboard with my name on it and ready with a welcoming cup of chai. But as we have learned after a week here, India is the sort of country that will never have 53 different words for 'easy' or any concept that is associated with the undemanding, or effortless, or simple. Perhaps Hindi is still waiting for this concept to appear in the language. In any case, our driver wasn't there, so the first person we met in India was a tout. So was the second person, and the third. 'Where are you going, sir?' 'Taxi?' The fourth person was a kind man who offered to call the hotel for us. One in four - we would never see such good odds again.

To walk down a street in Delhi or Jaipur is to be alive, in the moment. There is colour, noise, activity. Cars, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, people - even the odd cow - scream and honk their way down the cities' roads. Crossing the road against this chaotic parade is a supreme test of patience and nerve, like a game of pick-up-sticks but with the added thrill of playing with your life. Just walking in a straight line along the side of the road requires all your skill and attention. You are taking all of it in, noting the fruit seller up ahead and the motorbike on your rear and the child pulling at your trousers... and it's then that the tout approaches. "Scarf, sir?" "Bag, sir?" And if it's not a scarf or bag it's a shirt, or a pair of shoes, or a set of postcards, or a wooden elephant, or a fake beard. And it's all very cheap, and of very good quality.

An online dictionary gives a neat definition of the word tout: "One who solicits customers brazenly or persistently". They are part of what gives India its character, and almost by definition are incapable of appearing at a good time. There are many types of touts, but the ones we have had the most contact with are the auto-rickshaw drivers. These guys are very handy when you want to go some place - but less so when you don't. We have spent about 7 hours daily talking to these guys, usually as we are walking along the street trying to get across the road, or to that restaurant over there, or to some other place that will not involve a trip in a rickshaw. The conversations go something like this. "Sir, where are you going?" "I'm just walking, thanks." "Do you need a rickshaw?" "No, I'm fine, thank you." "Very cheap." "No, that's okay, I'll just walk." "Where are you from, sir?" "Australia." "Ah! Ricky Ponting country!" "Yes." "Very strong team." "Yes, thank you." "Sir, which hotel you stay at?" [No answer] "Sir, where are you going?" And so on. Each exchange takes about two minutes, and only come to an end after you decline the ride 17 times. And you walk on, and a minute later another driver approaches. "Sir, where are you going?"

It is exhausting. I call on all my reserves to be patient and polite. There is a reason, after all, that these guys hassle tourists so much - one driver told us that he earns just US$20/month, and we globetrotters are cashed up. But every so often my manners gauge hits empty, and I hear myself spraying lines like "I don't want a rickshaw! Did you hear me when I said 'no' the first time?! When I say 'no' I mean it, alright? Now go away!" And a pained look crosses their face, and they drive off, and I wish I'd handled it differently.

Not all the touts are so obvious - sometimes you might not even know that your custom is being solicited. On our first day in India we met a tout who was so smooth that it wasn't until later that we pinned him. E and I wandered into Banana Leaf retaurant on Connaught Place in Delhi, excited about our first Indian meal. Two Indian men sat down at the table next to us. Our thali arrived and as we hesitated slightly over how we should begin eating (with our cutlery? with our hands? with dishes eaten separately or all mushed together?), one of the men at the next table sniggered to himself. We glanced over and told Mr Tout that it was our first thali, and he laughed and chirpily walked us through how we should eat our meal. He worked in the area and often came to this restaurant to eat; we were from Australia, it was our first time in Delhi and yes, Australia does have a very strong cricket team. Over the next hour or so we talked easily about a range of topics, including Indian food, the importance of family and the sights around Delhi. My ears were only slightly pricked by a slow drip of information about how we might travel around the Golden Triangle (the very popular Delhi-Jaipur-Agra (Taj Mahal) route): it is much easier if you hire a driver, more comfortable than the train, you can stop whenever you like, and it doesn't cost that much when split between two people. But these details never got in the way of the rest of our conversation, which was easy and fun. Mr Tout made his mistake when, after gently offering his own recommendation for where we might hire a driver, he left the restaurant with us and ever so casually guided us in the direction of his recommended travel agency. He left us there and, as we sat inside talking with the agent about cars and drivers and 'quality service', we noted that this wasn't, as he had suggested, the official tourist office, and we reflected on our lunch companion's uncommon familiarity with travel guidebooks. And we remembered that just before we walked into the Banana Leaf restaurant, we had walked past this very agency and asked someone for directions to the restaurant... about five minutes before our friend had sat down at the table next to us. We reconstructed it in our minds, and discovered that Mr Tout had spent an hour with us with the sole purpose of presenting a genial character, gaining our trust, plugging his travel agency, accompanying us to the agency in person and, most critically, having the doorman sight him so that later in the day he could collect his commission.

It was a very smooth operation, and seemed to point to only one conclusion: trust people at your own peril! It's a safe starting point for us now, while we are still finding our feet, but we hope to abandon it soon. And it is a strange mystery that, at the end of a week of days that have left our heads and bones aching from the crippling effort required to do some very simple things, I am still intrigued and inspired by India, and will enthusiastically head out tomorrow to see what else the country will throw my way. Perhaps we are gradually coming to understand why so many travellers to India find that they love it and hate it almost in equal parts, but always feel compelled to return.

Photos of a mobbed Edwina at 'English corner', Hong Kong, Delhi and Jaipur