Sunday, November 27, 2005

Flex & Flexibility

Earlier this week I finally did it…I went to C.G. road and for 130 rupees, I bought a basketball. At St. Xavier’s High School, a 10 minute walk from the house, I found a court and invited some of the other NRIs to play. The rims were rusty and netless, but as beautiful as friends in a foreign land. And to our surprise, some locals came to join in! Now, everyone we’d asked had told us that no one plays basketball in Ahmedabad, but suddenly people were showing up from all sides to get in a game. We couldn’t even command the full court, since some hardcore barefoot guys started playing on the other half, and it seemed unwise to challenge them. I learned that this herd of cricket-denouncing misfits plays every day at the school, and I’ve already been back three times this week, ecstatic to be getting some outdoor exercise with my favorite sport. While they’re not exactly the Globetrotters, and lanes and traffic rules don’t apply on the court any more than they do on the street, the competition isn’t that bad. And the comic relief is worth all the unnecessary hacking (when I’m back, I’ll be yelling “ARAY!” to call foul).

Also this week, I began my yoga classes. The instructor comes to the house every morning at 7:45 am, and for an hour, I fumblingly attempt to balance my body’s natural clumsiness. Now, here’s where the contrast hit me hard. On the basketball court, I was outrunning and outjumping everyone. By the end of the second game, my new local friends were begging me to dunk for them and to play for their team in some tournament this December. A group of fairly athletic guys were openly admiring my skills. And yet, every morning, a petite young yoga teacher shows up at the door and utterly humiliates my physical abilities. She effortlessly turns her limbs to rubber, and stifles laughter every time my “tree pose” goes “timber.”

Yesterday, she even saw fit to make the following comment, which you should never say to a guy, unless you happen to be a bigger guy: “your muscles are quite weak.” Apparently yoga teachers don’t care much for the male ego. And while she’s small enough that I could pick her up and toss her into a basket if I wanted, she was right…I am weak, in muscles I never knew I had. Muscles I don’t use every day, neglected ones, rusty as the rims at St. Xavier’s. Muscles that refuse to move now, wondering where I’ve been all these years.

I’ve started to realize that my entire concept of physical fitness needs an overhaul. I’ve always considered myself athletic, and done fairly well in most sports. While I never had bulging biceps or perfect pecks, I used to work out often in college, and was probably more muscular than your average skinny Jain boy. I even took pride in having a six-pack stomach (of course, that’s easy enough to have when you’re so thin your skin is like a layer of saran wrap on your muscles, but I never admitted that until now).

When times got busier in med school, and the gym became a low priority, I always promised myself one day I’d get back into weightlifting and try to regain the pounds I’d lost since I stopped working out. However, doing so would be a continual uphill battle against my genes, my diet, and my lifestyle, which all work to keep me the lanky person you know and love. And I’m forced to wonder, what have I been working toward? To adhere to some abstract western standard of what the male figure should be, when I can’t even stretch my hamstrings to 45 degrees? The message is clear: it’s time to throw in the gym towel, and to fall back on the yoga mat. Time to breathe with rhythm, and to retrain my body towards a new ideal of fitness.

I guess I’ll never be the strong silent type, but I’ll settle for quietly stretchy. And though I’ll never flex huge muscles, I realize it’s unproductive to be working isolated body parts in an attempt to adhere to rigid standards of social appearance. In such matters, one needs to be flexible.

In other news, my mom arrived on Thursday morning, and it’s wonderful to see her again, even though she immediately made me clean my room and comb my hair, and concluded with an encore of reorganizing my closet. I don’t know where anything is anymore, and I feel more at home than ever.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Boundary-Breakers: Belonging in Bombay

This weekend I visited Bombay, an impromptu trip planned when I received an invite late last week from Anjali’s cousin Seema – she and a friend were planning to explore the city. So I hopped on the overnight Gujarat Mail train towards Mumbai Central; due to my late ticket purchase, I did not have my own sleeping berth, but rather had to share one with an aunty. Yes, that’s right…I shared a small 6 foot by 2.5 foot sleeper bench with some random aunty, my entire body pressed against the mercilessly vibrating metal wall of the train so as not to have any of it pressed against her. Needless to say, I got no sleep, due to discomfort and the fear of being pressed with charges should I so much as move a limb.

Eight eternal hours later, we arrived at Dadar station; I peeled myself from the cabin wall and flopped into the mess of rickshawallas and beggars greeting the train’s arrival. Seema and her friend Inith met me there, and we took a cab over to the Queen’s Necklace area of Worli Seaface, where Seema had managed to score a flat with a sea view.

As we went sightseeing, Seema and I discovered that being American carries a price. When we tried to enter a museum, the doorman peered suspiciously at us, and asked Inith (an Indian native) in Hindi where Seema and I were from. We replied in Gujarati that we were from Ahmedabad, but he flung our flimsy performance away, and marched us over to a police officer standing next to a special ticket booth. Here they asked us for 300 rupees each (the regular ticket price, which we had already paid, was 10 rupees). We refused, and were denied entrance…non-Indians had to pay 30 times the regular cost.

Indignant, we left. The loud and clear implication, later voiced explicitly by Seema’s aunt, was that “no matter how much of the language you speak, you will never be Indian.” Just as I learned when first entering Hong Kong over two months ago, red white and blue somehow emanates from my brown skin like the smell of dollar bills. Everyone wants a sniff. When vendors see an American, even one whose genes have assured him an Indian face and whose ideologies have sprung from the subcontinent, they catch the odor and happily hike their prices. Well-trained beggar children trail behind an American like a tail on a slow-moving comet. We’re not seen as Indian-Americans looking to reconnect with our culture of heritage – in the eyes of the Indian tourism industry, we’re oversized wallets. Belonging only to a global economy. Not really American, not really Indian, but vehicles of currency.

The specious flip side of this coin showed itself the next evening, when we decided to explore Bombay’s nightlife. Inith had other plans, so Seema and I started off with dinner at Indigo, a restaurant in Colaba that caters to a posh crowd. We walked in, and the first person our eyes met was Bollywood actor Rahul Bose, whom I recognized from the recent Hindi film Silsilay. Like the harmonica before an a capella performance, that note set the tone for the rest of the night.

We ate our dinner in the midst of tables of plastic people. The kind who are driven everywhere so they don’t have to step on the filthy street. The kind who use laughter as a social device. The kind whose company we would never be fit to have in our own country. Though the caste system doesn’t operate in the States, the economy operates everywhere, and it was startling to note that the converted dollars in our pockets meant that we were suddenly Upper Class in Bombay. Our dinner menus were personalized with our names. We were called “Sir” and “Madame.” Though the working class of the tourism industry refused to admit us as Indian, this new credit card class was happily accepting us as its own. Of course, the premise behind it was the same – both groups did not see us as people, but smelled our currency.

After a pricey dinner, we walked to the Taj Hotel to go to Insomnia, reputed to be the hottest new dance club in Bombay. Wandering around inside to find the club’s entrance, we spotted a spillage of fancy people through a glass doorway. Checking to see what the hubbub was about, we wandered into their midst, and suddenly Seema was paralyzed. I followed the gaze of her widened eyes, and saw Anil Kapoor, another Bollywood film star, walking away from a guarded door. Seema was shaking with nervous excitement by this point, but since I’m not much of a Bollywood fan, I was only overcome with curiosity – where was he coming from, and how could we get inside?

Now, here’s where our earlier experiences gave me a boost. I somehow became absolutely certain that if we were to try and break our way through the boundaries and into the place Anil Kapoor had just left, no one would stop us. In fact, people would welcome us. Not because movie stars normally welcome random people into their parties, but because the boundaries had already been broken for us by the color of our passports. We had been informed definitively on the streets that we were not Indian, but dollar bills in human form…and the smell of money knows no boundaries.

Buoyed by Plastic Confidence, I convinced Seema that we weren’t going to be dishonorably dishoomed by security guards, and we strolled through three patrolled glass doorways with our heads held high and our noses in the air. Inside at last, we were greeted by two rows of servers with silver platters, offering us fine wines and hors d’oeuvres, calling us “Sir” and “Madame.” We haughtily stepped past them, and into a lush room where the people were as polished as the furniture. Gorgeous people, many of them models of the two classic varieties: Beautiful and Disturbingly Skinny. The media was there, filming their plastic conversations. Full of purposeful laughter, and full of Bollywood (I didn’t recognize anyone, but Seema told me Mini Mathur was there, and a couple of others whose names I don’t remember).

Seema’s nervousness finally turned into a need to go to the bathroom, so she left while I tried to figure out who to mingle with. I decided on a harmless-looking photographer, who told me we were at a Mont Blanc fashion show for the Indian designer Shahab Durazi. Next I spoke with a random guy on a couch, who told me he owns a fashion store (not a clothing store…a fashion store). He asked me who I was, and I told him I was some invitee’s friend from America, and that we had arrived late and had missed the show. His eyes exploded into white. “You missed the show??? You missed EVERYTHING IN LIFE!! How could you miss the show? Shahab Durazi is the best yah, simply the best designer…his colors, his style…last year Aishwarya Rai closed out the show, man…YOU MISSED EVERYTHING IN LIFE!!” The man was obsessed, so I left him. I was just working up the courage to talk to a couple of models sitting at the bar, when Seema came back and said, “you’ll never guess what just happened.”

On her way back from the bathroom, she had accidentally entered the dance club Insomnia from the back door, and gotten in free (it’s usually a 1200 rupee cover charge). She then made sure the doormen recognized her face, and told them she would be back in one minute with her friend. We went back to the hotel’s main lobby, and just then Anil Kapoor walked by again, so we introduced ourselves and I took a picture of him and Seema (I’ll post these pics once she emails them to me).

We searched for and found Insomnia. A sign outside said “Closed To Public For Private Party,” and four doormen stood guard with a large guestlist, checking everyone’s name. But Seema’s ploy worked perfectly, and the two of us walked straight through with confidence, giving a knowing nod to one of the doormen and not deeming to look at any of the others. People with the smell of money on them, getting in for free where they shouldn’t be.

Inside, we discovered it was a pre-wedding dance party for a young couple and all their friends. Now it was my turn to be nervous…pretending to be someone important to get into a celebrity party was one thing, but pretending to be someone’s relative or friend in a close-knit crowd was far trickier. Everyone was greeting long-lost friends with hugs and knowing slaps on the back. We could make up a story, but would it work? I searched my memory of the movie “Wedding Crashers” for inspiration.

But this time, it was Seema’s turn to take the position of confidence. She mingled effortlessly, telling people we had been invited to an exclusive fashion show upstairs and now had the hotel’s permission to check out its other private parties. I left her and wandered around the party. I decided to use a different story, and took the identity of “Samir’s cousin from America”…firstly because it’s a true statement, and secondly because in a crowd that large, there was bound to be more than one Samir, and I could take advantage of the resulting confusion. People believed it, and when they asked whether I was bride’s side or groom’s side, I answered randomly. But late into the night I had grown tired of creating new identities, and I finally told a close friend of the groom, “I’m no one. I crashed your party. It’s fun.” He was too drunk to make much of it, so I left him stumbling and enjoyed some chocolate mousse served in a crystal glass. I still didn’t know who was getting married, but they had to be pretty wealthy to be able to rent out Bombay’s hottest new club in a 5 star hotel on a Saturday night, and pay for everybody’s drinks.

I savored the mousse, and marveled at what had taken place. In one crazy weekend, we had managed to do what many people who live their entire lives in Bombay never get to do. We crossed boundaries. We went from markets on the street to parties with movie stars, and the wealthiest of wedding functions. (In fact, Seema’s mingling at Insomnia had been so successful, that by the end of the night she got us both invited to the actual wedding!) The next day, Inith was speechless as we told her the story, and she rightly commented that most Indian youth who dream of meeting the stars never do. But we, scented human dollar bills, had the right-priced ticket to get wherever we wanted to go.

I asked myself – what am I? The entire weekend, I had pretended to be different things, trying not to be an NRI for the sake of museum tickets, gladly being an NRI for the sake of upper class parties. I’ve never felt truly American in the U.S., and now on the other side of the globe I find no one believes I’m truly Indian. I wondered…as I dance between my two cultures, will I ever get the steps right, or will I continue to be off-beat in both America and India? And does my perceived culture change internationally, owing to the inequalities of the global economy? Bombay’s lower and middle classes didn’t accept me as one of their own, because NRIs are not “true Indians.” Bombay’s upper class let me in not because of the color of my skin, or the hue of my spirit, but because of the green in my wallet and the white in my lies. Perhaps being able to easily cross boundaries brings with it a price…where do you really belong?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

P(ee) is for Professionalism

Here in India, two things get the job done – connections and presentation. You can’t get anywhere without connections…knowing the right person is the only way to get through the door. Once inside, it’s all about how you present yourself. Being from America carries more weight than it ought to, but is no substitute for walking into a room with a commanding professional presence. Whether you’re selling something or trying to conduct research, do it in style and people will listen.

This morning I had the connections. A friend of a friend who knew a friend that could do a favor. So walking into that nursery school, I was confident that the principal would at least hear me out, and not just humor me until I left (as others have done). When I met her, she was all ears, and even told me that in a couple of minutes when her quarterly parent-teacher meeting began, I could give a short talk on autism and then hand out my forms for everyone to fill out. This was a golden opportunity to have research subjects cornered, and get some good work done.

But nature was calling, so I asked first if I could use the bathroom. The school was situated in the basement of the principal’s house, so she pointed the way upstairs and told me to hang a left at the dining room. After answering nature, I leaned over to flush. It’s important here to note that toilets in India don’t have Western flushing mechanisms. Commonly, there are two knobs on the wall to one side of the toilet, and you simply pick one and hope it does the trick. I’m sure there’s a method to it, but I have never bothered to take the moment of mental exertion it would require to figure that out.

So I picked one, and cautiously rotated it…but caution could not help me. The toilet was a bidet, and straight from the mouth of the bowl spewed forth a concentrated stream of water aimed directly at the right leg of my pants. When it collided with khaki cotton, it left a damp oval running from the middle of my thigh down to below the knee. A dark brown lake in the middle of light tan pants. Ripe for assumptions.

There wasn’t a hand towel in the bathroom. I opened the door and stepped into the dining room on a desperate quest to find one. As soon as I came out, I was greeted by a grandmotherly figure, who shot me an extremely un-motherly look. Centuries of parental disapproval focused in her narrowed eyes; glaring at me, she barked, “WHO IS THIS??” As if expecting me to answer in the third person. I almost obliged and said, “This is Rishi,” but curiously opted to say nothing and simply bolted down the staircase instead.

Back in the basement, a gathering had formed. Parents of all shapes and sizes, looking at the young man who’d burst in on the meeting. An introduction by the principal – “Everyone, this is Rishi, he has come from America to speak with you” – announced the beginning of my talk, and the principal beckoned me to the front of the room.

If you’ve ever attempted to walk while keeping your legs together, you know it’s awkward, to say the least. Downright difficult, in fact. It made the slow-stepping stroll from back door to center stage a tad…tedious. And though I tried to Charlie Chaplin my way through, there was nothing I could do to hide the inevitable object of everyone’s attention. And you know what followed. Barely veiled grins danced on mothers’ faces. An eyebrow reached new heights on the principal’s forehead.

An ABC chart hung on the wall…“A” is for Apple, “B” is for Ball. “P” is for Professionalism, I thought. Presentation. It’s all about how you walk into a room.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Conversations with Children

Kids have such incredible shock value. At any moment, anything can come out of their mouths, absolutely unexpectedly. It makes me wonder – at what age do we stop saying what we mean, and start candy-coating our thoughts for public consumption? Recently, I met for the first time three nieces of mine – two are twins, the third their cousin sister, all about 7 to 8 years old. One of the twins seemed very shy; every time I looked at her, she would freeze and cover her face, turn her back to me and steal anxious glances to ensure I had put my attention elsewhere before she moved on. This continued for most of the evening, until I finally asked her, “why are you hiding from me?”
Giggles.
“Really, are you that shy?” I asked, trying to sound harmless.
Then her answer came, and, I must admit, took me aback.
“Because you look funny.”
“…What?”
“Your hair. It is like a joke.”
“My hair?”
More giggles.
I looked to the others for some explanation. The eldest of the three diplomatically took center stage and offered to translate for her younger cousin.
“What she means is, you are like a joker. Your look is very funny, no? (She asked this as if the answer were undisputable.) So she does not want to look at you.”
No giggles at this point. They weren’t teasing me, but earnestly trying to inform me of the oddity of my appearance. Three heads nodded dutifully.
When I finally looked in a mirror to try to see myself through a child’s eyes, I saw that I had forgotten to comb my hair after my afternoon nap. Of course, it wasn’t all that different from my usual look, so not much comfort was to be found in that, but I had to laugh. I had never been put so soundly in my place, and that at the hands of people whose combined ages did not add up to mine! I wondered – would any adult have been able to put it to me so easily?

Another little girl surprised me a couple of weeks ago. Once in a while I go to the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts to catch a dance performance or play. Usually I’m by myself, since my grandparents don’t like the uncomfortable concrete Greek-style seating, but I don’t mind – in med school, I had to learn to be okay with going to movies and plays by myself, as it’s sometimes hard to get people to go out on your schedule. So there I was, sitting in the third row alone, when a young girl came and sat next to me. She didn’t hesitate with an air of Requesting Permission, as an adult would when sitting next to someone in an almost empty theater. I looked around for her parents, but didn’t see anyone who seemed concerned about losing a child. She was looking curiously at me, so I struck up conversation. I learned that she was 11 years old, and a bharatnatyam student. Finally, I had to ask –
“Did you come here by yourself?”
She didn’t respond, but busied herself with putting chapstick on her lips. I let it go.
“So are you going to be a dancer when you grow up?”
“No, I want to be an all-rounder when I grow up.”
“An all-rounder? What’s that?” I asked, clueless, like most adults.
“Someone who can do everything. I want to be able to mountain bike, and dance, and paint, and play music. Then, once I can do all that, I will become a scientist for NASA.”
And just like that, she broke down traditional tunnel-visioned ambition, and gave me what had to be the wisest answer I’ve ever heard to that common question. Of course – why should we only be one thing when we grow up? Is that what being an adult means? Narrowing ourselves?
The show started, so we watched in silence, and when it ended she took off running without saying bye, leaving the chapstick in lieu of a glass slipper. The mystery broke down outside the theater, where her parents waited for her, and told her to “thank the nice man” when I returned her lip balm.

Finally, I know what I want to be when I grow up: an all-rounded joker (with funny hair). I don’t think you need a degree for that – I think you just need to have children.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Traffic on the Road to Happiness

Mount Abu is named after Arbud, a mighty mythological snake that helped to create the landscape upon request from the great saint Vashishth. All the 330 million gods of the Hindu pantheon are said to have frequented this mountain, and Mahavir Swami once gave it his blessing. The only hill station in Rajasthan, it was once a summer resort for Rajput kings, then a sanatorium for British troops before independence, and is now a popular spot for tourists. My grandparents took their honeymoon here, spending their nights in the garage of the local hospital (thanks to family connections with one of the doctors there…my grandfather, at that time, had only 15 rupees to his name). And now, half a century later, I have arrived. (dramatic pause) And there was much feasting.

Mt. Abu is an especially popular spot during Diwali, when holiday-happy Gujaratis pour across the border into Rajasthan to escape Gujarat’s Prohibition laws. Gujarat is a dry state; and it’s a good thing, because I can’t imagine what the drivers in Ahmedabad would be like if they were drunk too. (Actually, taking a step into reality for a moment, no one pays attention to Prohibition. The liquor smuggling trade in Gujarat is huge, and supported by politicians who need the booze to throw large campaign parties where people conveniently forget what they promise. Plus, wavering on a platform is normal if you’ve had something to drink, right? Imported liquor is actually cheaper here than in other states, since it’s not subject to government taxes. Still, for the average tourist, bars are a big attraction of the holy mountain.)

But I digress. On our first day in Abu, we visited Sunset Point (later we figured out we got a better sunset view from our hotel room) and Nakki lake (said to have been carved by the fingernails, or nakk, of a god). The magnificence of the scenery was murdered by the masses of people stepping all over it. My grandparents, who have visited the mountain often, say they’ve never seen such a rush of people in Abu. Add the fact that Indians don’t have much of a Western concept of “personal space,” and you get the hot, crowded idea.

Next day, we headed out in the morning for the Delwara Temples, Abu’s main Jain attraction. These beautifully carved temples are studded with awe-inspiring marble pillars and tiles, chiseled with religious fervor into stories of Jain lore. They were built in the 11th to 13th centuries, and other than being partially destroyed by a Muslim army in 1311, have withstood the test of time. (Renovations were made after the Muslim army left. They had broken the noses off many of the sculptures, so now what you see are repaired carvings in two different colors of stone – aging gods and elephants sporting marble nose-jobs.)

I stood before an idol of Neminath bhagwan and prayed. In my head, I remembered the words of my grandfather earlier in the day – Love everyone. We should try to love everyone in life, even those who do wrong. As I prayed, a crowd tried to get past me deeper into the temple. Someone bumped my shoulder. Another knocked my folded hands apart. Love everyone. No one said “excuse me” or acknowledged that they had interrupted my prayer. Love EVERYONE, I thought forcefully. A frustrating reality on display: it’s easier to love all humanity when you aren’t faced with large crowds of it. Maybe that’s why monks have to seclude themselves to reach enlightenment. Maybe that’s why mountains used to be a good place to find enlightenment, before people went blasting roads into them and bringing the family.

Outside again, we visited Achalgar, where a short hike takes you to another temple overlooking the lush green hills and scummy green lakes of the landscape. We negotiated with a cow for our parking space, and after some nudging he grudgingly trudged over a few feet to allow us room. When we returned from the hike, he was still there, staring unpleasantly; it seems I had misunderstood our agreement. To appease him, I offered him the rest of my smoked cob of corn, which he popped like a pill, closing the deal. He then moved over and allowed us to drive away.

The rest of the trip was filled with relaxation, pedal-boats on Nakki lake, hikes up to Toad Rock (see pic), and time spent reading books under trees filled with white-haired monkeys. I’ll end with a memory I’d like to keep. On our last evening, we rested in the hotel, playing 24-card rummy and watching the sun drown in fire behind the mountain. As the sun breathed its last, my grandfather said, “Isn’t it amazing? The earth rotates around the sun…we’re always turning about an axis…and yet, not a drop of water from the oceans falls. How can it be? Not even a single drop falls into space. How can such a simple thing as gravity do this?”

At first, his remark sounded a little ridiculous. Physics principles plodded through my head. Well, gravity is a powerful force, equal to the… Luckily, I shut up before I began, and after the last drop of sun had fallen from the world, I gazed at the look of wonderment on Pappa’s face. He, a man who has studied science all his life, was truly astonished by the sight outside our window. He looked like a little kid who had just opened a birthday present. So I threw my physics principles where they belonged. I suddenly felt a step closer to happiness. And I hope one day, decades from now, I will look out my window and at least for a moment forget all that I’ve learned from books…and in that moment, I’ll ask no one in particular – “Isn’t it amazing? That the oceans haven’t fallen into the sky?”

On the drive away from Mt. Abu, groups of monkeys lined the exiting road to bid farewell to the holiday traffic and to accept biscuits tossed from car windows. I can’t help but imagine that the Hindu gods who frequent the mountain were on their way up as we were on our way down. On their way back to reclaim their quiet haven. After all, who needs congestion on the road to happiness?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Explosions of Enlightenment

Diwali – The Festival of Lights. Like Navratri, a festival with many different meanings and manifestations, a tapestry of India’s multicolored threads. In Gujarat, Diwali honors Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth; here chopda pujans (literally, “book worships”) are held to herald a prosperous new financial year, as businesses close their yearly books of accounts and open fresh ones. (Of course, in modern times, many people are using CD-ROMs in the ceremonies rather than books, since most of their accounts are on the computer.) In north India, Diwali celebrates Rama’s return to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. On this day, Rama was coronated King and thousands of lamps were lit across the land, symbolically banishing the dark days of Rama’s exile. And on this day in Jain history, Mahavir Swami attained nirvana. Diwali thus signifies enlightenment and renewal. During these holidays, people clean their homes and light diyas, preparing for a fresh start. They buy new clothes and feed each other sweets.

And they go deaf. Because enlightenment is not a quiet affair. It occurs in the sky, in momentary fire-flowers that slowly dribble to earth. It occurs in small alleys, in explosive sprays of combustion. It goes BANG.

As each night falls, a car backfires. A rifle blasts. Then another, and another…endless rebellious rifles taking potshots at Maruti sedans. You begin to worry. You heard about the explosions in Delhi; no one is safe from terror. Loud BANGs in the night could mean something. Flashes of light coming through the dusty window don’t seem so innocent. For a moment, it seems like it is reminding you of a memory you do not have. Telling you what it feels like to be at war. To sit inside your room and try to stop your heart from jumping every time something goes BANG.

Then a child laughs, and you remember – people are simply busy enlightening themselves outside. Ha. You go on the terrace of your brick tower of a house, and watch as kids light fuses and scurry away, squint your eyes in anticipation as the atmosphere takes a colorful and noisy beating. Then you duck, because a kid just chucked a fire-flower in your direction, and it fizzed to a stop just a few feet above your head before dying in the branches of a nearby (flammable) tree. You open your mouth to yell at him, then stop the hypocrisy with a memory, one that is actually yours – you and your brother, young, in India, setting off rockets from an empty Thumbs Up bottle on this same street. One of the rockets flew upward and then curved sharply to the left, flying straight into the balcony of a neighboring apartment in a flash of blue light. The only things faster than the rocket were your legs as you fled the crime scene. Ha.

You eat another sweet, and wonder how people can happily shop and blow things up, when just a few days ago several people died in a Delhi shopping market with a giant BANG.

And you pat yourself on the back for packing earplugs when you came to India, because you may need them now. Because the firecrackers of today are louder than the ones you remember as a child. You used to hold sparklers, waving them to form letters of fire in the air, like a devilish, almost-literate sprite. Now people buy “Time Bombs,” which create noise levels of 86.7 decibels, when the “scientifically permissible” noise level to prevent damage to the human ear is 75 dB. And Time Bombs are the quietest of Diwali’s most popular sellers; some firecrackers create sound waves of 125 dB – louder than a rock concert – all concentrated in one brief BANG a few feet from a child’s ear. They make noises that make you feel, for a moment, like there’s a war going on outside.

One ENT surgeon in the Times of India said that he gets 10 new cases of hearing loss every Diwali. 120 dB, he claims, can blow a hole in your eardrum; however, the Supreme Court of India has deemed anything up to 125 dB “legal.” A recent research study shows that Indians become hard of hearing an estimated 10 to 15 years earlier than is expected based on data on aging in other countries.

You notice your grandmother watching TV. The volume is turned up so loud that your earplugs seem like a good idea even inside the house, and you realize that no one is as disturbed by the BANGs outside as you are.

Because modern enlightenment is not a quiet affair. It doesn’t smell very nice, either…but there are people working to change that. “Green firecrackers” hit the market this year, advertising lower levels of smoke and pollution. They match the new Green Rickshaws, the ones with CNG painted on them in white block letters, boasting the use of Compressed Natural Gas rather than less air-friendly petrol. Made by people who value eardrums and noses over enlightenment.

Through all the colorful and noisy beatings, and in spite of sobering newspaper articles, the atmosphere retains a festive smile. It looks like Christmas in New York, the way all the buildings and trees on C.G. road now have decorative lights outlining them. And family keeps stopping by, to engage in games of “how much can we make you eat?” Yesterday Bhanumummy and I made a Rangoli, from colored powders we’d bought from a street vendor (see pic). My first attempt at one – even as a child, I could never color completely inside the lines on paper, and using powder on the floor didn’t make it any easier. But our multicolored powder tapestry now proudly decorates the entrance to the house.

It shows a peacock, in honor of the gorgeous birds that strut the campus of Gujarat University when we take pre-sunset walks. I’ve often stood mesmerized by these creatures, especially one recent day when a male spread its feathers in full flutter to attract a nearby female (see pic), who wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was. In fanned-out glory, his feathers reached a height of almost six feet. Yesterday, I was almost tempted to pluck one of the feathers from a nearby male, just to hold it and see it up close – but that would be cruel, so I kept walking. A few minutes later, on the opposite side of campus, a man in a white kurta came up to me and handed me a peacock feather! Flashing a yellow-toothed smile, he laughed and just walked away. As if he had come specially to reward me for not taking feathers into my own hands only moments earlier.

Later, in a dream, I imagined a peacock exploding – BANG. Colors everywhere. A surprised and naked peacock watching hopelessly as its beautiful feathers scattered in the wind and dribbled down to earth. Then, from the bushes, an army of yellow-toothed men in white kurtas scampered to collect the fallen treasures, and proceeded to hand them to foreign students who happened to be walking nearby. Foreign students who harbored secret desires to own peacock feathers.

The once-proud feather now decorates the entrance to my room. It still quivers from the explosion, and shimmers with blue-green enlightenment.

Day after tomorrow, we leave for Mount Abu, where we will stay for three nights. I’ll tell you all about it when we return. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, you can check out the pictures from the past month, recently posted to my Ofoto site (email rishiblogpics@hotmail.com, password blogpics). Saal Mubarak!