Friday, December 30, 2005

The Watchman's Reminder

Late at night, the security guard for our society clink-clanks his cane as he patrols the grounds, a rhythmic ritual that disturbs the drowsiness of the almost-asleep. It is a monotone, shrill, metallic reminder to the still atmosphere that hard-earned relief from the stifling bustle of daytime is but temporary.

It's 4 am, and I refuse sleep's enticement because I am to catch a plane in three hours. After three months of relatively restful routine in Ahmedabad, I'm putting on my shoes, stretching my legs, and letting the pace of life quicken. Already the speed of new experience has raced ahead of my ability to compose it into words. The number of things I wish to tell you, to preserve in blog form and fuel future nostalgia, is far greater than the spare moments I have in which to do so; I will likely not be as consistent with this space in weeks to come as I have been in weeks gone by.

Goa will be the setting of my New Year's celebration, after which I head to Kerala, then Bangalore. My weeks in Ahmedabad are now few, and I increasingly find myself musing on how much I will miss this life once I return to California. I want to drink it quickly, for fear of it evaporating before my eyes, leaving my mouth parched and the air heavy with memory.

The watchman is clink-clanking slowly and surely, telling me it won't be long before my days are once again full of noise and purpose. I will defy him as long as I can, and keep this night's silent music playing in my head, letting it be the soundtrack to a film that fights its own end. I'll do my best to keep you updated in the meantime.

Happy Holidays, and may your New Year live true to its promise of revival.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Love From a Stone Heart

Our SpiceJet aircraft split the morning sky efficiently, like a human imagination, the swath of its slice producing dichotomies out of continuity, segregating perceptions, separating grayscale from color. Through the west window, night reigned, a white moon refusing to let its luminescence spread through a black world. Through the east window, a bleeding sky gave birth to a sun, and clouds rejoiced, setting their droplets ablaze. The males in our group sat on one side of the aisle, the females on the opposite, and we sleepily stole glances at the beauty of each others’ windows.

When we landed in Delhi, we feasted on warm dosa and began the sightseeing. The main attraction was the new Akshardham Swaminarayan Temple, an almost-finished religious center built from the sweat of 55,000 volunteers over 7 years. Security at the temple was more daunting than that of the airport – any cameras, cell phones, and “hanging purses” were not allowed through, presumably to discourage photography, conversation, and unauthorized hangings via leather strap. Finally through the metal detectors, we were greeted by the largest temple complex in India, a maze of sculptures and ornate pillars modeled after the finest of ancient carvings, a self-proclaimed revival of stone artistry. The carvings indeed rivaled those of Delwada in intricacy, and mesmerized the eye with their sheer size and number. Unblinking stares and gaping mouths wandered on our arched necks, struggling to take in the magnificence.

However, the faded stone only gave an illusion of chiseled antiquity. Inside the walls beat the electronic heart of technology, its copper veins giving life to the temple’s tales. One need not bother recreating spiritual stories from rock sculptures, for the temple has lifelike animatronic robots that tell you about the birth and growth of the Swaminarayan philosophy. One need not read ancient scriptures, for the complex includes a gigantic movie screen to show you a brilliant film on the life of the original Swaminarayan, a film with more special effects than Bollywood has ever seen, in a hi-tech auditorium complete with wireless headphones to provide English translation for the Hindi-impaired. One need not walk barefoot to see it all, for there is a boat ride to navigate you through a wax-figure history of India’s cultural accomplishments. It’s a dichotomy of austere ancience and flamboyant modernism, an unlikely combination of Delwada, Imax, and It’s A Small World, but somehow this new religio-Disneyland sews it all together seamlessly.


Since Akshardham was so impressive, I was afraid that the Taj Mahal (our next major stop) would be overshadowed. However, when we set eyes on the 17th century tomb of love the next day, it seemed clear that not even Akshardham could surpass the breathtaking beauty of that comparatively simple, sincerely mysterious monument of Agra. The Taj beamed back at our happy faces in calm marble confidence, secure in its position as the most famous of Indian shrines. Here cameras clicked wildly, and hanging purses swung innocently on women’s shoulders. Our guide, propelled by flesh and not robotics, recounted the tale of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, how he built the Taj to honor her dying wish for a lavish grave, and how soon thereafter he was imprisoned by his son and thus prevented from building a black Taj Mahal counterpart for his own body across the river.

The Taj Mahal stands as an icon of undying love. However, Mumtaz was Shah Jahan’s third wife, to say nothing of his 400 mistresses. Our guide assured us that Shah Jahan disowned his harem after Mumtaz’s passing, but somehow the facts taint the romance. His son imprisoned him for many reasons, one of which was the Shah’s tendency to spend money building monuments instead of on his people. The son was no virtuous lad either – he killed his brothers before imprisoning his father so he would be heir to the throne, apparently a common practice in those days, so that a winner-take-all game of Survival of the Psychopaths decided which of a king’s sons would inherit the kingdom. But forget about the blood and the multiple partners, and what you’ve got is romantic (Undying Love’s ingredients may contain artificial colors and preservatives).

We left Agra and drove to Jaipur, passing along the way Bollywood-like fields of golden yellow flowers, which I watched carefully in case a prancing actor emerged from the shrubbery. Jaipur is the Pink City of India (more of a sienna), boasting palaces and forts of red sandstone, which we traversed while our guide wove more tales of violence and multiple lovers, the bread and butter of kings. When we got hungry, our guide took us to restaurants conveniently situated next to large tourist shops, and soon a pattern of cunning deals between shop-owners and drivers became apparent, reminiscent of Bangkok. We walked the halls of kings, we shopped, we eventually gave in to fatigue and returned to Ahmedabad.

It is fascinating how the actions of men are oft forgotten, yet their proclamations are preserved and polished in stone. Diamonds are promises, marble sculptures reminders, and since both outlast the reality of love's vagaries, both are honored with symbolic value. We consider a "heart of stone" to be cold and unfeeling, yet we choose to promote ideals of love with the very same materials, wearing them on our fingers, decorating our temples with their permanence. If the heart of stone outlasts the lover's emotions, the meaning of our symbols may always be at the mercy of a sculptor's skill.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Arrival of the NRIs (Plus a Top 5 List)

The past 4 days have been a dizzying whirlpool of shops and relatives. I took my second trip to Mumbai, this time not to crash fancy parties, but to visit family, find bargains, and take relaxing sunset walks on Juhu beach. Those of you who know my distaste for shopping (electronics and sports equipment excluded) will sympathize with my mom for the Herculean efforts she made to get me to buy as many clothes as I did. I’ve emerged looking more desi than ever, wearing kurtis instead of t-shirts and chapals instead of flip flops. I’m even growing my hair out a bit, which is a bold undertaking, considering my naturally curly (read: afro) tendencies. This alteration of appearance comes just in time for the December NRI Invasion, when Indos from every country flock to India to enjoy the mild (no monsoon) weather. I’ve seen more friends and family from the U.S. in the past week than in the past three months, and feel strangely more Indian because of the incoming contrast. As if I’d been here for years, and others just decided to drop in from distant waters. An unjustifiable feeling, considering I’ve spent only three months here, but a nice and homey feeling nonetheless.

Most of these visitors had told me of their travel plans – only one did not, and it was wonderfully surreal when she jumped out of thin air in a mall in Mumbai. I can’t say I didn’t have my suspicions of her arrival…but while Pooja may not have caught me entirely unawares, when she did appear, her entrance was no less stunning for the lack of surprise. Her exit was just as swift, since family obligations beckoned, but I’m looking forward to welcoming her to my new hometown of Ahmedabad in a week or two.

Today I got the chance to welcome several others, greeting Pranavmama, Parulmami, Samir and Nikki in our Ahmedabad home when they awoke from their post-international-flight slumber, then picking up Viral from the airport, where he had the look of an American deer in Indian headlights (it’s his first time in India, not counting a childhood visit he doesn’t remember, so the atmosphere was a bit overwhelming). It will be interesting to compare reflections with those recently arrived, to see how the light scatters differently.

Tomorrow morning I'm leaving to go see Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur with family on a quick 3-night trip. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some laughs - here's a Top 5 List of recent quotables from the locals of India (for full effect, insert desi accent):

5. “I trust men only because I trust God.” (sign inside a Mumbai train station – can't this be read in two different ways?)
4. “Rap…oh, yah…is that where they do the yo-yo-yo?”
3. “You chose to come here, and so you got healing. You chose to go somewhere else, you might have got a pizza.” (healer at pranic healing center, after cleansing my aura)
2. “I run my business without advertisements – it’s all mouth to mouth.”
1. “Relax your lungs. Lose your eyeballs.” (among the stranger instructions from my yoga teacher)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Untitled?


A few weeks ago I found myself sitting among a small group of painters at Ahmedabad's Kanoria Center for the Arts. The Kanoria Center is a prestigious training ground for talented young artists, who gain access to its facilities through a special six-month fellowship. I had been invited there by Sitanshu Yashachandra, the renowned Gujarati poet (whom I was introduced to by Vikram Uncle in the hopes that I might gain some perspective for my own budding poetic aspirations). Sitanshu Uncle, softspoken and whitebearded, balanced an aura of eastern yogic wisdom with a vocabulary of western intellectualism astonishingly well. He sprinkled poetic insight about him with ease, and the young herd of painters trotted around him like a group of panting puppies waiting to lap up some inspiration. I soon became one of them.

We sat in a small wooden room, canvasses of unfinished paintings (like half-spoken sentences) leaning on the walls. After introductions, Sitanshu Uncle settled his eyes' spotlight on me and said, "Rishi is a poet as well - he writes about the medical experience. Do you happen to remember any of your poems? Please, let us hear them."

In this way I came to be the evening's entertainment program. As I recited my poetry, words (and shirt) dripping with nervousness, I was faced with a dilemma. The poems I chose were all medically oriented, to give justice to Sitanshu Uncle's introduction, yet I was for the first time performing them in front of a non-medical audience from a non-western culture. Would they understand me? Should I explain to them the meanings behind the poems, tell them the stories of the patients who inspired me before spewing forth encrypted rhyme? How could I create a context for what I was about to say?

This is part of a larger dilemma for artists in general. Art is individual expression; yet, those artists who display their works would not do so unless they felt some inner need to connect those expressions with another person. It might be argued that all expression is a manifestation of a desire for connectedness (but that's a whole 'nother blog). However, the only real context an artist is able to give his or her creation is in the form of a Title. How else can a 16th century painter explain his motivations to a 21st century museum patron? That little card beside the canvas, that boldfaced type before the poem, lies in a unique realm of dialogue partly inside and partly outside the domain of the art itself. It's a place for hints, for intimations, and for leading questions. It's a place we go for advice when the connection with the artist eludes us.

I always used to be disappointed, and I suppose even a little peeved, when an artist chose to title his work "Untitled." It seemed to me a cop-out. As if the artist himself couldn't come to terms with the creation, and wouldn't deign to give it a name. A Title is a rich medium of communication - how could someone let go of the opportunity to use it to further the artistic effect? I feel that the best titles are ones that add another dimension to the work, that could live in their own right, and that lead you in new directions of thought. For example, "Nude Descending a Staircase" doesn't do much for me...I could have figured that out on my own, looking at the painting. However, "Bullet With Butterly Wings" (one of my all time favorite song titles) gives new depth to the Smashing Pumpkins track to which it refers. Nowhere in the song will you find the title phrase, and if you were to hear the song without knowing its title, you might come up with a different interpretation of its meaning entirely. The title, therefore, becomes as important as the rest of the work. It is the artist nudging you in the shoulder and saying, "here's a view into my thoughts."

At the Kanoria Center, I got a unique opportunity to initiate this discussion with a captive group of live artists. As they toured us around the complex and showed us their artistic efforts, I asked them what goes into the decision to title a painting "Untitled." One of them gave me a very good explanation - he said that he uses such a non-title when he feels that any additional hints would contaminate the viewer's experience of the piece. An Untitled painting is one that should speak for itself, without the artist complicating brushstrokes with letters. This can be expanded to mean that sometimes context is unnecessary, and perhaps even harmful. Art itself is the way that someone from one culture and period of time can communicate with someone in another. By letting the art speak for itself, you allow the viewer/listener/reader to form their own interpretation of the piece, and in so doing partially relinquish your ownership of it. When you do not seek to sway the direction in which your art leads other people, you let them recreate your work in their own design, using their own imaginations. You let the art provide its own context, and let others provide their own titles. This requires generosity of a very different nature. It's like letting your children go forth into the world and become what they wish to be, instead of seeking to turn them into something you expect.

The pinnacle of human creation is the birth of a child. This is art on a fantastically different level. The creation lives, breathes, becomes. Unlike any painting or poem, it interprets itself and comes up with new meanings that the artists may never expect. And yet, at every birth, parents are put into the strange position of putting a Title such a self-evolving work of art. We give each child a context before the process of self-interpretation begins. We explain the child to the world, give an intimation as to his or her personality before knowing it.

Shakespeare wrote, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." Others disagree. There is a group known as the Kabalarians who insist that there are mathematical properties to our names that help determine our natures and futures in a world where Chaos reigns. Do our names become self-fulfilling prophecies? I'm not quite sure, but I do know that my experience in this world would probably have been different had I been named Yudishvramachandra Shri Popatlal the Seventh. For one thing, schoolkids might have made more fun of me (or, the disturbing thought comes, maybe less!)

Interestingly, cultures each have different ways of naming their newborns. Gujaratis often use the father's name as a child's middle name. Some South Indians use the father's name as the child's last name (I could be wrong about this...many South Indians have explained to me their method of naming, but I must confess continuing ignorance...suffice to say, it's something different). My newest niece has been given the unique name Ice - but since her mother is Gujarati and her father South Indian, no one has yet resolved the dilemma of what the rest of her name should be! Perhaps, she should remain Untitled until she herself can decide.

This, again, is part of a larger discussion. As human works of art, we live, we breathe, we become. We label, and we become comfortable with classifications. We become bound by images of the self. There are many sides of my personality that are withheld from expression due to an image I have come to identify with...the image of the person I expect myself to be...my classification, my self-given Title, which may or may not have something to do with the title given me by my parents. The past few weeks, these thoughts have flung recurring questions at my flickering self-image.

Every experience I have with the arts adds a new aspect to the question. A week ago, I went back to the Kanoria Center and met a sculptor who was kind enough to explain to me the process he undergoes when carving a slab of rock into a human figure. It is a process of transformation, much like the process we go through during our own maturation. Two nights ago, I attended a concert for the winners of Fame Gurukul (an Indian version of American Idol), where crazed fans pushed each other to get closer to their favorite singers. After the concert, I hitched a ride on a scooter to get back to Ahmedabad, ended up making friends with the guy on the scooter, and accepted his invitation to go to a birthday party for one of his friends that night. At the party, I found out that he and his friends are all members of a traveling folk dance group...individual dancers with a group identity. When inside the group, they call each other by nicknames, possibly to preserve the sense that their identities depend upon one another. Outside the group, they are simply different people. Our identities and our labels dance with each other, spin each other round, and teach each other the steps as they go.

So I ask you - how is your self-image affected by the titles you carry? What has your experience been with your name - do you like it, does it ever constrain you, do you ever dissociate from it? If you are an artist, what goes into the process of naming your work? I would really love to hear your answers to any of these questions. It will help me answer the question now flinging itself at my mind - can we ever silence our own labels, and allow ourselves artistic freedom with our continuing self-creation?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

On Eating and Social Responsibility


Indians (and possibly all Asians) are obsessed with feeding their guests. Step into the home of an Indian person and open your mouth, even if only long enough to breathe the spicy air, and it will be tough to shut it again without something being stuffed in. Perhaps a sweet, some chai, even just a cashew must be swallowed before you escape. If you’re Indian yourself, your innate mathematical sense tells you to ask for one spoonful when you really want two, and to eat with one hand, so that the other can play defense against the overweight auntie shoveling more shak onto your yellowing, oil-dribbling plate. There is a powerful sense of obligation in our culture to feed others.

I never realized just how deep-seated this sense was until a few nights ago, when we dined at an all-you-can-eat pizza place. Another pizza came, and the classic struggle began: no, I don’t want more…come on, just take one...no, I’m full…here, I’ll put two on your plate…except instead of family urging family to take the plunge into overeating, the waiter was begging us to eat more. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what he stood to gain by it. He wasn’t even our waiter, so there was no large tip on the horizon, and the restaurant would make more money if we left; yet his cultural instinct was so strong, he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he kept serving up more slices.

Now if you know me, you know I love food, so it may seem strange that I’m complaining about this. But I’ve come to hate overeating, because of what it does to my health and sense of well-being. I realize that my reputation as a garbage disposal may still be strong in some households, but the past few years have seen me change (dramatically) into an advocate of smaller, more frequent meals. This has meant trouble when we visit relatives in Ahmedabad, since eating less at another’s table is often taken personally. I’ve stuffed myself to bursting point, for no reason other than to make my hosts feel better about themselves. I recall a night many years ago when I was given 5 large sweets after an overindulgent meal, and told by well-meaning relatives that I had to eat them all before leaving the table. I actually resorted to stuffing them into my socks when my relatives weren’t looking, and dumping them out the window once in the safety of my room upstairs.

They probably lay outside for weeks, decomposing into the soil of a country where millions succumb to hunger. Where does this overpowering sense of obligation go when the hungry hold out their hands to us on the street? And why do I get the sense that in many of my extended relatives’ households, they could care less about who I am or what I think, as long as I have something to eat? Does my act of chewing and swallowing absolve them of all familial responsibility to get to know me? Food certainly fills an awkward silence every bit as well as it does an empty stomach.

So I’ve come to dislike it when people say, “eat what’s on your plate, there are people starving in {insert developing country here}.” A fat lot of good it does those people when we eat more than we need. I might as well walk up to one of the starving children in (insert developing country here} and say, “I realize your body’s needs are neglected. Hell, mine are too. I don’t want to blow out my metabolism eating 150% of my daily need, and suffer from obesity later in life. But I take the hit, and I do it to preserve our social structure. You’ll never understand, will you?” (A plea from the bottom of my gut – if you can’t eat everything on your plate, there are options – take it home, give it to a beggar outside, or simply take less the next time around. Please don’t overeat and hurt your own body in a misguided attempt to stop starvation in Somalia.)

All these musings on feeding and hunger led me to be quite surprised when a group of NGO workers in Ahmedabad opened Seva Café. I attended a meeting on one of the debut evenings of the café (way back in October), where passionately service-oriented volunteers discussed the particulars of their new eatery. The concept was this – open a restaurant/café where no one is required to pay for their food. Rather, explain to the guests that whatever they choose to give in return for a meal will help to feed the next person that comes in. So, after every dinner is served, a bill is placed on the table that says “Total: Zero rupees.”

At first the concept startled me – why would so many volunteers dedicated to helping the plight of India’s poor spend all their energy providing food for people who could afford to pay? What was productive about opening a café to serve people like me free of charge? However, I soon witnessed the brilliance of the endeavor. The café creates an atmosphere where the spirit of service comes to life. By relieving you of your monetary obligation for the food you’ve eaten, it leaves you with the feeling that you’d like to do something nice in return for someone else. Perhaps you can pay anyway, which will help finance the meal of the next guy who walks in. Perhaps you can go back and help do dishes (which I did once, only to be kicked out of the kitchen less than an hour later for being too slow!)

In effect, the café turns the idea of obligation onto its head. We’re conditioned to think that if we pay money for a meal, our obligation is done – just as many here seem to think that feeding a relative fulfills the purpose of family ties. But by taking away this reflex, it forces us to imagine what we can do to help others in return for the unexpected gift we have received. Not obligation, but motivation.

The café is located on the fourth floor of the building opposite from the Municipal Market on C.G. Road…a location mostly inaccessible to the poor and the hungry. But while it does not serve the needy directly, it goes a fantastic length to stimulate those of us who may have forgotten that the food we eat is a product of someone’s service to pass that sense of service along to others. Today, the café attracts a wonderful mixture of NGO volunteers, international students, and interested locals, who engage in dialogues of change and take turns helping the place stay alive. I urge those of you coming to Ahmedabad during the winter holidays to show your support, and if you do, call me up, and I’ll be there to join you. Seva Café helps show us that in the end, our responsibility is not to serve food, but to serve each other.