Friday, April 4, 2008

Retro-Journal: Globalizing India and an Amish Y2K in Late 1999

I visited India in late November/early December of 1999 with my girlfriend at the time, Indrani Nicodemus. Indrani is herself the child of immigrants, one from Jamaica and one from India. She’s an artist with a soft spot for hippies who was working in a bank at the time of our trip but had worked in L.A. on movies and TV shows as well. As an artist, she tends to be open-minded, fond of foreign travel and drag queens, but with a rather merciless attitude toward evildoers, supporting the death penalty and showing a fondness for news accounts about court cases and criminals. She grew up in a house full of what most Americans would consider exotic food but was envious of families that lived on standard American fare such as hot-dogs and hamburgers.

Among the first signs that we were indeed in a foreign country when we arrived in India were the stray, hungry dog and the much more healthy-looking stray cow wandering around the airport. I had expected cows, but I hadn’t expected them to wander unowned and unmolested through densely urban areas, roaming more boldly than squirrels do here in the U.S. If I were asked to pick the new official symbol of Delhi, where we were staying for the week, it would have to be a massive, handsome, serene-looking, Brahma-style bovine standing on a traffic island or median divider in the midst of dense traffic, a common sight there, and not one that causes alarm.

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much that the Indians would regard as a traffic problem. The concept of “tailgating” is clearly unknown to them, since vehicles, people, and animals of all shapes and sizes routinely zip along within inches of each other, largely ignoring lane divisions, sometimes using hand signals to wave other vehicles in the desired direction moments before what would have been a messy impact.

Perhaps the Indians are kept calm by the fact that many of the stoplights on the roads are emblazoned with the word “RELAX.” To American eyes, those lights look very British. In fact, they look very much like Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirts. Another amusing sign was a Coca-Cola ad covered with swastikas (the Nazis got the ancient symbol from the Indians, who’ve been using it since the real Aryan invasions centuries ago). I suspect the Coca-Cola home office in the U.S. wasn’t consulted on that one.

Our first full day in Delhi, we visited a massive multiplex-odeon of a Hindu temple called the Birla Temple. Next, we visited Delhi’s big Red Fort, where our guide described the artificial, indoor rivers that ran through the place centuries ago and described the scores of dancing girls who once performed atop the marble platform in the big reflecting pool for the pleasure of the emperor. Outside the Red Fort, I saw a boy charming a cobra in a basket for Western tourists. At the end of day one, we visited the relaxing Lodi Gardens, which are a bit like Central Park would be if, here and there, they threw in the ruins of a few thousand year-old tombs the size of houses that you’re free to stroll through, with hardly a tourist or plaque in sight. That was rather sci-fi.


We were in India for a wedding, and the trip taught us that Hindu weddings are not a day of celebration built around a moment of union. Hindu weddings are more like a week-long way of life.

We went to Delhi at the invitation of my Indian-British friend Sangeeta. Her brother Vivek was getting married there and though I had never even met him, I was invited to join the festivities, along with Indrani. Indrani had never set foot in India before either, nor is she Hindu, but she owed it to her ancestors in the southern-Indian city of Vishakapatnam to take a look at the old country (incidentally, Vishakapatnam had started being called Vizag again when we visited, as it was nicknamed back in the days when the British ruled). So the trip came with a built-in party and a lovely traveling companion. How could I say no?

The wedding festivities had already been going on for a few days when we arrived. Guests would come and go as they pleased while the engaged couple’s families tried to guilt-trip everyone into showing up for every single event. Our first night, there was a sort of singing face-off between the families of the bride and groom, the lyrics drunkenly composed the night before. Each family sang about itself, sang about the in-laws, and musically harangued the numerous goddess statues arranged in that night’s pavilion, demanding good fortune for the bride and groom. The mother of Sangeeta and Vivek had a particularly good singing voice, successfully replicating the high-pitched, singing-mice tone that the actresses in Indian movies have, if you know what I mean.

Speaking of high-pitched voices, eunuchs are a still-thriving tradition in India. That’s right, bona fide de-testicle-ized men. They gleefully pester/entertain people at big family events, and on that first night we saw one dressed as the god Shiva enter and dance, armed with a six-foot trident and an artfully-concealed water cannon beneath his Shiva-wig, with which he sprayed the crowd. This ancient tradition reminded a pleased Indrani of the drag queens back home. That night, Indrani and I bowed before strange gods and received dots of paint in the middle of our foreheads, in the traditional Hindu fashion.


Day two brought a visit to a relatively modern and ecumenical temple of the Bahai faith (an inclusive, tolerant offshoot of Islam) and the complex, town-sized ruins of the Qutb Minar complex, centered around a giant tower by that name that marked the triumph of Islamic invaders over the northern part of India (India’s history is so complex it makes you feel as if the U.S. has no history at all). The Qutb was a technical marvel in its day and remains the tallest all-stone structure in the world. Near it stands a humbler but still-impressive (and more importantly, still-standing) iron pole from the fourth century A.D., all that remains of the Hindu temple that formerly stood there.

After quick stops at the British-style Parliament House, the President’s house, the Prime Minister’s house, and the Arc de Triomphe-like India Gate — where one of Delhi’s countless street entrepreneurs charged us for gazing at the monkeys he was walking on leashes — I had the bright idea of trying to end the day with a visit to a mosque during evening prayers, but that turned out to be the one time of day you aren’t allowed in. A minor setback.

The second night brought a big dance party at a hotel, during which fabulous, sari-wearing Indian women danced both to traditional songs and, for good or ill, to the pop hit “La Vida Loca.” One cosmopolitan moment saw a charming new friend of ours, usually referred to simply as “the Captain,” sporting his Sikh-like beard and headwrap, dancing with a busty lass from Texas, the only other American in the group. The Captain had a way with the ladies, despite or perhaps because of his habit of saying confusing, cryptic things like: “You know what they say about the men hired to work at the back of the ship, hmmm?”


On day three, Indrani and I headed off to the nearby city of Agra to see the Taj Mahal, despite guilt-inducing pleas from the family of the groom not to leave town. “You’ll miss the women having their bodies painted with henna! Indrani will miss her dance lessons!” Nonetheless, we went — I hated to be ruthless, but it was our first trip to India and we weren’t skipping the Taj Mahal. Because Indian weddings last for days, it is at least somewhat socially acceptable to drift in and out of them.

Prior to the Taj Mahal itself, we visited a similar-looking tomb in Agra sometimes nicknamed the “Baby Taj.” The most exciting part of that, for us culturally-displaced Westerners, was probably the army of huge monkeys that dominate the place. My excellent India Handbook by Robert and Roma Bradnock mentioned in passing that the monkeys at the temple are very aggressive and can attack without provocation, something that I think should be printed in big, bold-face capitals, possibly in an inset box, perhaps with a headline such as:


And, as my friend Scott Nybakken told me after our return home to the U.S., it’s a good thing we didn’t get attacked because monkeys like to go for the face.

The Taj itself is, as I had been told in advance by Reason magazine science correspondent Ron Bailey, even more beautiful than it looks in photos, the way its white marble hangs so powerfully but delicately against the sky, like some giant Maxfield Parrish painting. My only regret is that Indian air pollution made it hard to see the Taj from the nearby Red Fort of Agra (not to be confused with the Red Fort of Delhi). Back in Delhi, the air pollution of this still-industrializing nation is so bad it can leave your throat scratchy, but I didn’t really mind, not even during our hair-raising rides in the little, open, three-wheeled cabs often used there.

Speaking of cabs: I feel a bit stupid confessing this, but my favorite part of the whole trip may have been the four-hour cab ride (each way) from Delhi to Agra and back. We hired a normal, four-wheeled car for the day (which you could do in India for about twenty dollars) and were treated to a bewildering, non-stop flurry of all manner of vehicles, pigs, donkeys, camels, cows, big-teated dogs, wandering monkeys, ramshackle buildings, burned-out vehicle wrecks, beggars, farmers, merchants, and peanut salesmen. It was such a fascinating living kaleidoscope that I didn’t bother trying to take a single photo of it. It just wouldn’t have been the same as being there.

I do, however, have photos from the rest stop where we rode a camel. Getting off is the scary part. When he stopped and bent down, he did the front legs first and then was stubborn about the back, so we were leaning forward in a way that taught me I can hold onto things very tightly. I hope they haven’t noticed the thumb-holes I punctured in the camel’s snazzy cloth covering.


Day four was mainly for shopping, and we purchased various trinkets and strange religious tracts. Indrani got me a statue of my favorite Hindu god, the elephant-headed, prosperity-bringing Ganesh (as seen in Apu’s back room on The Simpsons, for you non-Hindu readers). Indrani noted with enthusiasm the inexpensive pashmina shawls, and I made a mental note that I knew what to get her for Christmas back in the U.S., where pashmina was all the rage.

On the fourth night Indrani donned her own sari, marking the first time her curves had ever been graced by one of the toga-like, traditional Indian cloths. Then we set off for the groom’s family home, where we were reminded that in India, all the fuss is over the groom. His various attendants put a veil on him, waved money around him, prayed with him, sat him upon a white horse, and then paraded him through the streets of Delhi, occasionally shooing away beggar children or, at one point, slapping a clumsy worker serving as a light-bearer for our procession. I thought New York was a callous town, but Delhi has left me capable of rolling up a car window to silence panhandling lepers.

That night, we also attended the main wedding ceremony but left a bit early and missed the couple’s ceremonial walk-around-a-fire routine, which is more or less the “I do” moment. It’s suprising we didn’t miss even more such crucial moments, since no one in India seems to believe in providing precise schedules and we never really knew what to expect when. But that’s all right. It reportedly took until well after midnight to get to the fire bit, and Indrani and I needed the sleep.


On day five, the bride and groom hunted for gifts in a giant bowl of milk and received the alcohol that Indrani and I bought as gifts at a liquor store in an alley near a Delhi porno theatre showing Night of Shames. It’s the thought that counts, though, and I’m assured the mere presence of long-distance travelers at a wedding is an honor there.

That night would be our last full night in Delhi, the night of the main reception. More food was consumed, more music played, more lovely dance partners conjured up by the Captain, all in an ornate, Vegas-like outdoor reception area behind a restaurant. The music ended abruptly at 11:30pm due to a Delhi noise ordinance, but Sangeeta began moving through the crowd, assuring guests “It is not over!” That was the last time Indrani and I saw her on that trip, though, just before we exited. For us, the wedding festivities were over.

Amongst our fellow wedding guests was a British man named Julian who worked for the British Museum and was a living storehouse of historical information [SIDENOTE: Julian, the lucky old geezer, was then dating the sister of the lead singer of Echobelly, mentioned in one of my Retro-Journal entries for 1996 -- so why not watch another Echobelly video while we think of it?]. He spoke slowly but wisely on that fifth night about the fact that Hinduism and the religions of the ancient Greeks, Norse, etc., are really “the same religion,” in the sense that they are all full of gods that laugh, have sex, go on adventures, fight wars, and so forth, while this monotheism thing that has cropped up recently here in the West is an aberration and in many ways less fun (it’s really only happened once, since Christianity and Islam are both offshoots of Judaism).

One thing that is certainly less than fun about India, though, is its tangle of regulations, which make it hard to start businesses. Socialistic policies result in an almost feudal pattern of lots of people holding low-paying, relatively unproductive jobs in the orbit of the handful of wealthy people. The woman Indrani and I were staying with, whose son was one of the producers of the international hit film Bandit Queen — and to whom we are immensely grateful to this day (despite being oblivious now about how to contact her and say so — long story) — had a ski-masked security guard and a live-in manservant, who we’re told probably each make only a few dollars a day (which explains the eagerness of the panhandlers and annoyingly persistent street merchants).

The manservant, incidentally, had a hard time understanding my Hindi-impaired pantomimed attempts at communication. I largely avoided him after the crushing failure of my seemingly straightforward “Please come over here” performance art piece, but I must give him credit for removing from our room the feces left behind by our hostess’s Pekinese-like yet lovable pooch Nino. Speaking of dung, thanks to India, I finally figured out the secret of flushing British-style toilets: Move the handle from the idle to the flush position in the quickest hand motion you can do and then it should catch. I still don’t know how to get much hot water in the showers, though, even amongst the wealthy. Is it evidence of Indian poverty or British plumbing? Not sure.

Each night, we’d struggle, alone or with a cab driver (such as the ones who slept crowded together on cots beneath a nearby hotel until summoned), to find the way to our hostess’s house through the maze of the New Friends housing complex, and along the way we’d note the common practice of sitting out on the sidewalk by a fire at night, making food or just watching the flames. A bit eerie when it was quiet but pleasant at the same time.


Our last full day, day six, brought trips to the groom’s family’s local temple (chock full of gods), a trip to another temple dedicated to the monkey-faced god Hanuman (a deity who’d make a great action figure), and best of all a visit to the giant, playground-like, four centuries-old observatory complex called Jantar Mantar (all covered with hash marks, big stone arches, giant staircases, pillars, and various markers of the stars’ progress). It’s amazing the amount of effort and material that went into tracking the stars and planets, in Delhi as in so many parts of the world, for the largely-unscientific purpose of astrology.

After a failed effort to locate a giant royal tub in another big garden area (Haus Khaz), we started packing for the trip back to the U.S. and finally succumbed to the lure of television, watching a little Indian MTV (similar to the stuff you see here but with a much bigger dose of traditional costumery than would ever be deemed hip in the West). We wondered whether we can rightly call an ad slogan such as “Oh, woman, stay girl!” ungrammatical if the Indians have been speaking their own version of English for so many years now and are so numerous. I suppose it would be as presumptuous for me to judge their constructions as it would be for the British to condemn Canadian syntax. An aside: VJ and pop star Raageshwari may be cute, but her video for the song “Y2K” was sadly derivative of Janet Jackson. She should stick to taking calls from viewers, I think.


Looking back on the whole excursion, one of the greatest ironies was hearing foreigners complain about the U.S. not being capitalist enough for a change — since India was upset at that time over American protestors and American politicians alike in Seattle asking the World Trade Organization to impose strict environmental and labor standards on a cash-strapped developing world that could ill afford them, as their competitors in fat, lazy American labor unions are well aware and as their self-appointed defenders in the antiglobalization movement and countless NGOs (non-governmental organizations, a term both condescendingly socialistic and frequently inaccurate anyway) are usually blissfully unaware.

Present at those historic antiglobalization riots in Seattle in 1999 was Ron Bailey, the very man who had told me about the Taj Mahal’s beauty before my departure (we worked together on a John Stossel broadcast called Is America #One? about economics around the world), and he said the one consoling thought to anyone concerned about the progress-stymieing, trade-blocking, nativism-encouraging, primitivist idiocy that is the antiglobalization movement is the fact that it is an incoherent grab-bag of unrelated causes, like so many leftist protest movements. He recalled seeing everything from black-clad “anarchist” vandals (simply by turning his head, he could see a speaker praising the peacefulness of the protests or watch people smashing in the windows of nearby shops) to people dressed as monarch butterflies holding “Free Tibet” signs (this week, Ron’s responsible for ACSH’s new report on the misguided crusade against industry/science ties and for a cool Reason article on the intriguing question “Is It Wrong to Make Intelligent Animal Slaves?”).

The really objectionable thing about the antiglobal philosophy, though — and about protectionism in general, whether from the left, rightists like Pat Buchanan, or populists like Ross Perot — is that taken to its logical conclusion it simply shatters the networks of trade and social connectedness humanity has struggled to create across the planet’s surface since the dawn of civilization, returning us to that primitive and short-lived state in which each family struggles to raise its own tiny garden and lives in a lean-to in the woods, soon to be killed by sabretooth tigers.

The most benign modern analogue, though, is probably the Amish — who are not mere technophobes but are in fact quite consciously paleoconservative in that they know avoiding technology helps them maintain traditions and community ties virtually unchanged — and avoiding trade and/or tech connections with the wider world is fine, so long as it’s voluntary and not imposed on the technophilic rest of us via violent “anarchist” threats or equally force-based trade restrictions imposed by an Obama or a (Hillary) Clinton rewriting NAFTA.

And indeed, I confess it was to Amish Country in Pennsylvania that Indrani and I fled for New Year’s Eve that year, just in case Y2K computer glitches made high-tech New York City descend into chaos — though we didn’t really expect trouble (and she was happy to wear her new pashmina shawl). Indrani and I still talk occasionally, but we eventually broke up because she wanted children, and, as I told her at the outset, I do not — making me a real embodiment of modernity, since birth rates tend to plummet as populations modernize (another reason that “sustainable development” and hyper-localized agrarian living is a self-defeating strategy for misguided greens hoping to keep humans’ numbers down).

I don’t see much of the Amish anymore, but I am going to a farm-themed party tomorrow, as it happens, and though I haven’t bought any outlandish overalls or a corncob pipe, I will wear a nice big-collared white dress shirt that belonged to my late maternal grandfather, Earl Geer, who was a lifelong farmer, not so unlike the Amish in some ways. [UPDATE: Party delayed! But that means more time to finish harvesting, I reckon.] I suspect most of the other people at the party, New York media folk, will never have even considered how they would raise banty hens if they lost access to electricity or whether they could shoot predatory coyotes by moonlight alone, but I don’t fault them for it — I like globalized modernity, too, obviously, or I wouldn’t be living in a hyper-modern city like so many of those antiglobalization activists.


David said...

“Farm-themed party”?

Todd Seavey said...

Yeah, I assume people will have toy pitchforks and so forth — unless they’re too lame to participate in the theme at all, which is so often the case with theme parties. Make an effort, people.

In fact, it was right around the same time as my India trip that I went with Indrani and Nybakken to a “90s party” Kyle Smith threw and _no one_ except the three of us did anything to participate in the theme, unanimously thinking “but it _is_ the 90s, so there’s no way to ‘dress up like the 90s’ yet — it’s just a joke.”

But is it really so impossible to step outside the current moment and see some of its stereotypical elements, people? I went as a militia man, Scott was a grunge guy, and Indrani was a superfabulous Scary Spice. Victory was ours.

Then again, maybe the others were in costume as uptown yuppies…but I don’t think so…

Todd Seavey said...

But to get back to that global trade thing again — the fact that a likely-duplicitous Clinton campaign has to _apologize_ for even discussing free trade with Colombian officials is a reminder the Dems don’t belong in power:

Disgusting. As my new favorite t-shirt (which I may have to wear a _lot_ once the weather gets warmer, if it ever does) says over a “No to Hillary” symbol: RE-DEFEAT COMMUNISM IN 2008.