Saturday, February 20, 2010


Yeah, I forgot to say that I've decided to blog elsewhere because nobody (except two people) read this blog and, well, my other blog has a slightly more diligent following.

But since that other blog has stuff about my daily life and my deep, innermost thoughts (chyea) in addition to my South Asian interests...I'm not putting the address here.

Much love and alvidaa.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

College Essay (Unedited)

Thought I'd share a rough college app essay I wrote about my experiences in learning Hindi.

3. Select some experience from which you have derived exceptional benefit and describe it, explaining its importance to you.

I am accustomed to looking like a barking chicken. Whenever I tell people that I am teaching myself Hindi, I get one of two reactions: blank stares (typically from my “gori”, American friends) or “Va! Aap kaafi aachhi Hindi bolti hain!”, which is really far too much praise from a native speaker for muttering a shy “Kya tum Hindi bolte ho?” (Do you speak Hindi?)

In Hindi, you answer the phone “Victory to Vishnu!” You drink a cigarette; the night spreads; you eat a beating. You eat the sun. (Dhoop khaana means ‘sunbathing.’) One misplaced m, and you’re no longer saying ‘weather’ but ‘husband of maternal aunt’. You have to think in sentences whose verbs go at the end, to the effect of producing vertigo: ‘to the school the teacher the child is taking.’ The future and the past are summed up in the same word: kal. In Hindi, everything is right now, and also forever. When you consider that the Hindi word for ‘today’ also means ‘come here’ and ‘right now,’ your heart beats a little faster; you begin to panic. A Fatboy Slim track runs through your head. Language does something to us. It’s something exhilarating and at times transcendent, all in a way that feels deeply corporeal. With every new word, we become slightly different, not quite our old selves.

I always have to remind myself that the joy of learning Hindi is that it isn’t easy. Every new word curling against the page is so abstract from the limitations of my Western-thinking mind, sometimes even one new sound, one new arrangement of a sentence, can open up a whole new world inside my mind. Lakshya, meaning ‘luck’, brings the faint remembrance of marigold-scented Holi cards opened on my way to school on a blustery March day – the winds of fate. Prerna, ‘inspiration’, recalls the quiet harmony of a spring morning overlooking a lake, humming radio rock tunes with a group of people I have just met the night before – not a moment of understanding, but a moment of not needing to understand. Aakaash, the Hindi word for ‘sky’, offers the anticipatory taste of a summer hail storm on the tongue – a momentary flash of Krishna-blue lightning. Intizaar, ‘longing’, is the gulping moment between a classmate asking you on a date and your response. To me, these aren’t just words. These are Lilliputian victories; the foundational blocks of a seemingly alternate universe. There is an old Czech proverb: you live a new life for every new language you speak. It’s as if I’m feeling the universe expand beneath my very feet.

And yet, things crumble. There is no word for ‘handicapped’, only “somewhat decrepit.” My sense of virtue is thrown through a loop when I learn that the ultimate act of devotion for a Hindu wife is to become a satima, accomplished by casting her body onto her husband’s flaming funeral pyre. The practice was outlawed during British rule in the 1800s, but old habits die hard in India. Halfway through a conversation about Indian impoverishment and sex trafficking, a girl I’ve just met tells me that her grandmother was Indian. Cherokee, in fact. I am appalled when I ask a friend in faltering Hindi – partially incompetence, partially the knot of tears in my throat – if it is true that the police beat the lower castes without reason. “Zaroor! Ve apne maar arjeet ki hai,” he laughs. Of course. They have earned their reasons, he says – he is referring, of course, to karma, a concept most westerners only give a passing nod.

It doesn’t take long to realize that language is fleeting, fragile. The sense of power you once wielded with the pen is diminished. You are silent. You can barely excuse yourself to scuttle off to the bathroom, even though your ego feels as though it’s been tossed in a blender and, at any second, you just know you’re going to throw up. Curled over the sink, you find a jar of Fair and Lovely cream on the countertop; impulsively empty it into the toilet. You realize that intelligence, like beauty, is relative; largely a point of vanity. With each new word, something you thought you knew for sure in your mother tongue is stripped away. You feel raw, exposed. Brought to your knees, you begin to appreciate life in a whole new light.

Ghanna ghanna ghir...

Right. So I haven't updated in a while.
January's been a weird month.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow: कल

Yep. That's it. Future? कल. Past? कल. Just two little letters: क and ल. Kal. That's the only word you need to know. Simple, right?

Well, sure. Maybe for you.

But for me, wrapping my head around the Indian concept of time in which everything is now, and also forever, doesn't seem so simple. Take a look at the Indian word for 'today': आज (aaj). It seems harmless at first. But when you realize that Hindiphones say "aaja" for both "come here" and "right now", it casts a different slant of light on the western concept of time.

Right here. Right now. Right here. Right now. Will you wake up to find your love's not real?...

Sorry, is Fatboy Slim ruining this for you? Moving on.


In India, the cyclical cognition of time seems to lend itself to the "now and forever" rhythms of rural agrarian life. In America, we have a forward-backward perception of time. You put your past "behind" you and you look "forward" to your future. We call it a 'linear' cognition of time, though it doesn't seem to make much sense these days when everything new and modern appears to be moving up. Think: skyscrapers, airplanes, hell - even space rockets. It makes you wonder why we talk about time horizontally at all.

(This is where a little ancient Greek comes in handy.)

The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is the word you're likely familiar with, though its conception is really incomplete without kairos. Chronos refers to chronological, or sequential time. Kairos is the time in between, an undetermined moment in which something special happens. While chronos is quantitative, kairos is more qualitative. In the Indian interpretation, you are suspended within the moment. In the western interpretation, you experience moments of suspense.

It makes you begin to rethink your relationship with time, doesn't it?


Right here. Right now. Right here. Right now. Right here here here here here here here here...

A rough translation of this song into Hindi would be one long "AAAAAAAHHHHH!"


Okay. Love you all, happy twenty-ten, etc. I feel like I'm not finished with this topic, but I don't quite know what else to say at the moment. I'll come back to it eventually.

[PS. For whatever reason, कल also translates in noun form as 'doohickey', according to my dictionary, and as 'gross' when used as an adjective. What in the world is a doohickey? Does anybody know what that means in English?]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

New books by post!

Howdy y'all!

I mean...namaskar!

I'm very excited at the moment because two books have just arrived in the mail: Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russel Rich and How Much Should a Person Consume?: Environmentalism in India and the United States by Ramachandra Guha.

Oh my goodness. First of all, these books are just so beautiful - smooth, unfurled pages, colorful, unstained covers, and just the right weight and thickness to prop my eyelids open on a rainy (or snowy, as the case may be these days) afternoon. I bought them new, which I rarely ever do with books. My knowledge of the Indian subcontinent, up until this very moment, has come from outdated National Geographics, scuffed-up copies of the Mahabharata, and snippets of Al-Jazeera on CNN (which is, of course, the most enthralling news channel on the planet.)

Hey, I suppose it's one step closer to a plane ticket.

Awhile back I read (and reviewed) Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. I was so disappointed in that book. Gilbert had traveled to India on a whimsical soul search, but everything about her spiritual journey smacked of ethnocentric mockery and slack-jawed gaping at Indian "weirdness" (though to be fair, I believe it was unintentional - and I am probably biased). Though Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russel Rich is yet another American travel experience, I have a good feeling about this one. Rather than imitating Gilbert's desire to escape from worldly concerns and commune with God, Rich throws herself into a frighteningly foreign throng in order to understand the most rudimentary building block of human experience: language. In a "rash" moment, Rich moves to Udaipur to learn Hindi, and her memoir details the unexpected lessons she learns through it. I am really excited to delve into this one, mainly because my own experiences in learning Hindi so far have been incredibly transformative.

What started out as an innocent curiosity has tried my patience more times than I can count - but I always remind myself that the joy of learning Hindi is that it isn't easy. Every new word is so abstract from the limitations of my English-speaking mind, sometimes even one new sound, one new arrangement of a sentence, can open up a whole new world inside my mind. To me, these are not just words. These are Lilliputian victories; the foundational blocks of a seemingly alternate universe. And through this foreign lens I have come to understand my own language, my own country, and my own people better. That's why I'm always eager to share what I'm learning about India with the people that I meet.

I once met a man from Ethiopia while traveling on a bus from Boston to New York City. He was just CRAZY for America. He told me a great and epic love story, from his beginnings on a small farm growing up with eleven brothers and sisters in Ethiopia to his struggle to survive on the streets of New York City. He had fought for America in such a way that I had never heard before. He was proud of where he came from, where he was going, and where he was. He was simply happy to be alive. After he got off the bus and we went our separate ways, I never looked at life in quite the same way again.

So maybe I'm a little crazy too, but I really can't wait to review this book for you guys. Maybe I can't convince you to start learning Hindi, but I want you to know how much joy there is to be had in the experience if you're willing to seize it.

Oh, boy. I'm beginning to sound like a high school math teacher. Moving on.

How Much Should a Person Consume?: Environmentalism in India and the United States by Ramachandra Guha jumped out at me from its, er, "shelf" at because of its obviously unique approach to this hot-button issue. In some of my previous posts I explored the differences in agriculture between India and the United States, and what the water crisis really means to a country in which half of its hospital patients typically suffer from water-borne diseases on any given day. Based on research conducted over two decades, Guha's book plunges into the differences between environmental philosophies in India and America and arrives at a new "social ecology" approach to conservation, critically important to the relationship between these two great democracies and to the future of the world. It seems to be written in a friendly lilt, an approachable read for anyone interested.

Anyway, that's enough for now. I'll post my reviews soon enough.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Bengali Wedding.

I'm very pleased to say that my pen-pal Devi has agreed to let me share the pictures she sent me from a wedding ceremony in her community in West Bengal - this is a traditional Bengali Hindu wedding. The captions below the pictures are her writings.

"Weddings are big events here - festivities can go on for days. Marriages are most often arranged and set at an astrologically auspicious time, such as this wedding parade set after the full moon. Before sunrise I could already hear things getting started with the neighbors, whose son will be wedded."

"Before the bride makes her entrance, the groom and his family make preparations for worship in the temple. The crowd was very joyful and it was a real Bengali party, even though the strongest drink you'd find in this group of Vaishnavas would be a straight glass of Sprite."

"I got a sneak preview of the bride-to-be upstairs in her father's house. Ordinarily she is a somewhat plain, plump young lady, but here she is dressed so ornamentally and so radiant with happiness that she looks like a gandharva, or angel."

"The bride meets the groom for the first time. She covers her face with betel leaves to symbolize the humbling effect of her husband's presence."

"Two of the bride's brothers lift her and circumambulate around the groom. She pelts flower petals at her husband-to-be, and his friends must dart in to 'shield' him from her love."
"A cloth is placed over the couple's heads and their eyes meet for the first private."

"Now everybody else gets a sneak peek, too!"

"After the pandit offers a prayer to the elephant god Ganesh, he puts a coin and a spot of mehendi in the groom's right hand. The couple's hands are united with auspicious substances such as sweet grass, purified water and strings of flowers. This ritual is called panigrahana hathlewa."

"Now the father adds his hand in a gesture of blessing, giving his lovely daughter away."

"If you’ve ever wondered where the expression 'tying the knot' came from, it probably came from Hindu ceremonies in which the bride and groom’s clothes are literally knotted together for the rest of the night. The Vedas say that there is a knot in the heart caused by the false ego which thinks 'I' and 'mine' separately from its Creator, and when a man and woman are united the knot in the heart tightens. One thinks, 'I am this body. This is my wife, my family, my country, my religion,' and so on. But if a man and woman unite for the purpose of serving Krishna, they can work cooperatively to undo the illusion of material existence and thus progress spiritually. Then one thinks, 'I am servant of the Lord. Everything belongs to Him. Let me utilize it properly by engaging it in His service.'"

"Here, the bride and groom await the lighting of the sacrificial fire. They took half an hour to recite their vows, which they wrote up themselves and included things like 'always respect each other' and 'no domestic violence'. That's the unfortunate thing about Indian weddings. They take forever. There are a few more rituals after this, but the ceremony had already gone on for four hours, so I made my exit."

Four hours? That's completely understandable. This post was getting a little picture-heavy anyway. Thank you, darling Devi!

Stay tuned!

Bahut bahut maaf kajiye, sabhi. (I'm very very sorry, everyone.)

I haven't abandoned this blog! Don't let yourself think that even for a minute. I've just been very busy this month preparing for examns (yes, that's an n), but I think my hard work has paid off. So far I've earned 18 college credits this semester with a 3.835 GPA - though that doesn't include the grade on my final math exam, which was all calculus. (Believe me, I should've taken Algebra.) I have a feeling my GPA will drop a little once I see the results on that...aahe.

Anyway, there's so much I have to share with you this month, so stay tuned!