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Car Windows and Cake – Hardly Enough…

What do you do if a beautiful beggar child is befriending your daughter?

Every day on the drive home after school we pass a busy intersection near our house. The light is very long and most days we are caught in traffic for a generous five minutes waiting for the light to turn and the cars to inch forward.   There are a handful of regular beggars at this lucrative intersection – most of the cars are coming from the embassy district and they are heading out to moneyed neighborhoods.   After six months of this routine we recognize the beggars, which is a good thing for them, since it becomes harder to avoid the pleas of someone you have been watching for over half a year.

Maya is a little girl about Lala’s age (10).   She is unkept and dirty, but the child has a beaming face and a smile that’s difficult to forget.  Lala has been giving her food and water from the car for a while  – and now, the exchange flows from Maya to Olivia with quick conversations through the window and yesterday, a red rose.

To know that Lala’s middle name is Rose and to have watched Maya give away the only tangible thing she had – the flowers she sells to support herself, her family, and most likely her handler – left me with much to think about.   Where does this relationship go?  How do I support Lala’s need to reach out without becoming too involved with this little girl?   Should we do more for her?    Can we help her in a way that could change the pace and promise of her life?

What Lala sees and how she responds to the world and what I model are all significant episodes in a little life that has yet to be lived.   Regardless of whether this relationship goes or grows, Lala has already played a role that will teach her something.  I can’t help but want for her the notion that she is not powerless in a world that doesn’t always make sense.   Yet at the same time, she needs to accept that there are things we simply cannot change.  Can she do that and still see that the weight of the world doesn’t necessarily have to inhibit or paralyze us?

Does this make any sense out there?   Sometimes, the private conversations we have with ourselves don’t always translate well.

As for the larger questions here, right now I have no answers.  Both Lala and I need to follow our instincts and just see where we land.  Today, Lala packed Maya a lunch bag filled with healthy goodies.  I’ll keep you posted.

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And now a story grossly counter to the one shared above.  It’s about the chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.  The chief minister is the head of the state’s governing coalition (think parliamentary system here) and it’s the most powerful political position within state politics.  UP’s chief minister is a woman named Mayawati.   She hails from one of the “backward classes” and considers herself the voice of India’s Dalit caste – formerly described as the “untouchables”.  Personally, she reminds me of Ursula, the blubbery and wicked octopus in the Disney movie, The Little Mermaid.   When we moved to India this summer Mayawati was embroiled in accusations of misusing vast amounts of public money (millions?  maybe a billion? more?) to build grand-scale statues of herself in public places across UP.  She also builds statues of the founder of her party and of elephants, her party’s symbol. (Political parties and politicians have symbols so illiterate voters can recognize them on ballots.)  Also worth mentioning is that the leader of Mayawati’s party is called the “supremo”…. so Mayawati is the supremo of the BSP and the chief minister of UP, which, by the way, has a population of nearly 200 million people.

This week, Mayawati literally looked like an octopus on a stage when she was draped in a super-hero-sized garland of cash at a political rally.  Take a look:

Yes, that’s a big necklace of Indian Rupees – worth a speculated 400,000 to 2 million USD.  She also has a penchant for lavish public birthday parties with huge cakes.  I’ve read that Mayawati has grown very rich since becoming chief minister.  I suppose that’s no surprise if you’re shoplifting with eight arms.  Meanwhile, residents of UP face high crime rates, poverty, and poor health services… but they get to eat free cake on the supremo’s birthday.

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Here’s what we’ve been up to…

Traffic on Delhi’s nicest highway:

I had a Girlfriend visiting from Nairobi…. (sorry Maya – this was the only shot I had of you)  and look at her chugging down my  whiskey sour!  (Thanks to a friend with connections, I even have marachino cherries in those sours…)

Our house dogs, Julie (black) and A Boy Named Penny (white chest):

Born to be couch potatoes:  (or bed bugs…)

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How to Wear a Sari

First – Put on your “petticoat” and do your make-up, hair, primping routine. Stomp around the house and make sure the kids are fed and in place for whatever secret life they have when you leave.  Become background scenery in your husband’s photo:

Two:  Grab your helper fairy extraordinaire, give her SIX YARDS of fabric and stand still, ready to be wrapped like a sausage roll.

Three:  Wrap and Tuck, Wrap and Tuck, Wrap and Tuck…. suck in the tummy and drape the extra cloth over your shoulder.

Four:  NO, you are not a princess.  You are a mommy pretending to be a princess and you still have to fix the damn video game when it freezes…

Five:  You’re done for now…. until a few drinks later when you try your newly acquired Bollywood dance moves.  Be prepared to re-tuck.

Ham it up for the camera… and your kids.  They love a good show!

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International Women’s Day

A few items caught my attention in the papers this week.  Like the old days in the States, the Sunday papers here have classified ads.  My favorite section is the “matrimonials”.  These aren’t announcements – but want ads for brides and grooms with that particular Indian twist:  the section is divided by caste, among other delineations.  There are brides looking for Brahmin grooms,  “High status Punjabi business family seeks suitable alliance for their smart, talented, fair, slim N/M (never married?), daughter 76/157 cm (birth year and height),  convent educated, professionally qualified, looking for well settled, high status, business/industrialist, high paid professional N/M boy….”

And grooms looking for brides:  “ A prominent Gupta family’s son ‘76/5’10”, handsome, good looking (if you have to say that twice, than you’re probably not!), MFA Florida State, B.Sc Berkley, scope of expected income no limit.  Seeks well-educated girl from status family.  Service class excuse.” (Which means, don’t bother responding if you are from a family of tailors!)

There are also sections for Christians, Doctors, Engineers, NRI’s or Non-Resident-Indians, Handicapped/Disabled and Divorcees.

The Indian Constitution makes it illegal to discriminate or identify a person by caste, but it’s difficult to escape the identification.  Surnames reveal caste, as do hometowns, professions, etc… So really, everyone knows, regardless of whether they care.   The obsession with caste is reflected in vocabulary.  I read one newspaper article about a High Court ruling that supported affirmative action for the “backward classes”.

The caste system was first organized by skin color when lighter skinned conquerors swept across ancient India.  Eventually, the northern, lighter skinned Indians became the Brahmins, the highest caste.   As social and economic structures became more stratified and complex, society was subdivided into even more castes and sub-castes and the Brahmins finagled a religious excuse to freeze movement among castes to protect their “forward” class privileges.

The sad thing is that the residue of culturally institutionalized discrimination coats everything here and taints efforts to organize a  civil society that protects and enriches its citizens.

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But enough of caste and on to a more fun story:  Monday was International Women’s Day and Air India celebrated with an all-female cockpit crew on a flight from Mumbai to New York.  The airline fell short of setting a world record of having an all-female cabin crew, including the attendants BECAUSE…. (you’re going to love this!)  the Supreme Court here has ruled that any flight that serves alcohol must have male pursers.  So, flight AI-141 had four women flying the plane, eight women working in the cabin, and two men pouring booze.

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I bought my first sari this week.  I was looking forward to the experience.  I imagined that I would sweep into the store and several beautiful and very helpful ladies would unravel swaths of silk before me.  They would drape them over my shoulders in front of a mirror, and give me a thumbs-up or wink or knowing look that said – “yes, this color is for you”, or a shake of the head, a furrowed brow or a frown that said “no – you look like dead meat in that”.   Instead, this is what I got:

Three blind mice.  This was a most infuriating shopping experience.   I had to beg the men to show me samples.  I think that they didn’t want to unravel the cloth because they would have to later fold it.  I had to beg for bright, happy, festive colors.  I had to beg for different samples of quality so that I could compare silk, crepe, organza, cotton… and how each hung.  In this photo, I’m trying to describe a halter top that I want to wear underneath the sari.  You can see that I finally have some attention as I’m sweeping my hands over my upper body trying to describe the top!  There is a happy ending – I left with a beautiful swath of embroidered and beaded light, silk something-or-other and my tailor thinks he can make the tradition-breaking top that I want.   I wear the sari Saturday night and with luck and a few well-placed pins, it will stay wrapped and the halter will stay up after a night of dancing…

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Domestic Bliss

This quick submission is offered to my girlfriends, who think that every day is charmed here in india.  I won’t pretend that my days are dull – they aren’t.  What they are is very much like yours – routine and domestic and occasionally mind numbing.

The first thing I do every morning is make the kids’ snacks.  I hate this chore.  Jim sets the breakfast table and puts out the cereal and milk;  I’ll supplement the cheerios with a smoothy or fruit or toast.  (Bored yet?)

Then, in quick succession:

Throw-on my running gear and pack my gym bag with the day’s threads.

Yell at kids to get out of bed.

Fuss around for late library books, sign school papers, reading logs, etc…

Yell at the kids to get dressed.

Pack my anvil, otherwise known as MY book bag.  I can’t leave the house without stuffing it with newspapers, my book, another book (just in case), and sometimes my computer if I’m behind on email and all the other stuff that lives in it.

Yell at kids to get into the car.

Search around for my school ID.

Jim yells at me to get into the car.

Eddie and I do his reading homework on the way to school.  (I HATE HOMEWORK)

Deliver the kids to class.  I always forget something – like the day when Eddie had a field trip.  We arrived just as the bell rang – he, weighed down with his book bag, disposable snack, water bottle… and me, balancing two plates of homemade cupcakes for the afternoon party.  And can you believe the teacher looked at me and said, “Eddie didn’t bring a hat?”

Please tell me there’s a special hell for kindergarten teachers.

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I’ll spare you the minute details of the rest of my day.  They include chores, shopping, lots of traffic, troubleshooting, crisis management, leaping tall buildings in a single bound – you know well the routine.  It’s all made more interesting by the heat (we hit 91F this week), sewage stench, power outages, blown fuses, nanny mood-swings, and the crisis-of-the-day (inevitable).  There’s also a few personal projects and endeavors of mine that make me feel a bit more “whole” – but I always have to squeeze them into my mommy-schedule or stay up late into the night.

Before you know it, I’m back at school collecting the kids and fielding their play dates, soccer schedules, chinese lessons.

Dinner – It’s a guess who will be sitting with me at the table.

Showers – Imagine bathing cats.

Bed-time routine – Long and tiresome, involving milk, books, undressing (George sleeps naked), dressing (Eddie sleeps covered head to toe), and listening to a day of 5th-grade gossip.

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See?  My life is a Yawn, too!  I hope I’ve managed to bore you so much that you didn’t make it to this last sentence and skipped to the photos:

This is pure, raw sewage that’s dumped into one of Delhi’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhood parks.  These poor men say they make 150 Rupees a day, or about three dollars.  They say that scooping the muck is a never-ending job because the city won’t stop the filthy run-off.  Can hell be any worse than this?  UPDATE:   I’VE HAD A FEW Q’S ABOUT THE COLOR IN THE PHOTO… basically, what I think happens here is that the sewage gets dumped, oxygen levels in the water increase, algae grows, feeding off the elevated levels, this upsets the bio-diversity balance, etc – Something like that, anyway.

Here’s a wider view of the lake in Hauz Khaus:

These young beggars saw Lala and her friends rolling down the side of a hill and couldn’t resist joining the fun.  It was a precious sight  – to see them laugh and to hear them giggle.

Here are colors of Holi:

This is the guard station at a market.  I love how they sand-bag themselves for protection.


Lala’s favorite spot:

And finally – I’m posting this for my mother – three generations of Blakebrough girls. Ten years from now, will Lala tower over me?

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Holi…day!

We celebrated a riotous Hindu holiday today called “Holi”.  It’s a street-side festival of color and laughter and the closest celebration to Mardi Gras that I’ve encountered since we left New Orleans.  There’s public revelry, exhibitionism, and consumption all in the spirit of new beginnings.  Here’s a taste of the mood before I give you the background:

That’s Jim, or “Hubba” as I often call him – and our landlord, along with the boys and half-naked revelers in the background.  This being conservative India, the comparison to Mardi Gras ends there, as only men can get away with being topless here.  It’s about noon in this photo and the fun has been underway for a few hours. We first went to our neighbor’s for the initial dousing in color and a bit of breakfast. The colors are powder – don’t ask me what the powder is or where it comes from… I don’t want to know.  Some dyes are “organic” and easily wash off the body – and others are not and do not.   However, if you play Holi, you have to be prepared to accept anyone’s powders – organic, synthetic, nuclear!

Here’s how it works:  you walk the streets of your neighborhood with bags of colored powder and you smear the powder on anyone you encounter who appears willing to play.  You can also make colored water balloons, or buckets of colored water, or use water guns.  It turns into a fun battle for the kids, or anyone willing to raise the stakes to friendly warfare… all in the name of laughter and fun.

There are several explanations for celebrating Holi:  One is that being awash in the colors of spring makes us all look alike – reminding us that we are ONE and similar. We should let go of anger and grudges and  whatever it is that mires us in unhappiness and begin the season fresh, in love and peace.

Two, Holi is the celebration of divine intervention and the destruction of a bad mythological king.  And Three, Holi actually means “to burn” and represents the burning away of evil and the resounding strength of goodness.

For the most adventurous and traditional, Holi also involves the legal consumption of bhang, a marijuana-like leaf that, when ingested, makes  Holi a holi-day to remember!  I saved recipes from the Hindustan Times for bhang donuts and bhang pot pies.  I haven’t found much chocolate in Indian sweets, but I bet bhang brownies would go over well here….

Happy Holi, all.  Or as the locals say, Holi Mubarak!