Cool Story, Bro

‘There is an elasticity of the air in these mountains, and a freshness, … exercise gives all the pleasant glow of an English walk on a frosty morning.’-.T. Pearson, an army surgeon who arrived in Darjeeling in 1839

When you feel, below, dead-beat,/Overpowered by trying heat,/Worn by day, at night no rest;/ Then, ’tis surely manifest,/That you should at once take train;/ Come above, and health regain —-Keble JA. Darjeeling Ditties and Other Poems: A Souvenir. Calcutta: 1908

It should not be surprising to me by this point, and yet, it actually is, to find an area of India that looks totally unlike any area of India I’ve ever seen before. And yet, come to think of it, in other very big ways…it’s really actually not.

Let me backtrack a year and some change. Speaking with a French woman at the Mumbai Film Festival within the first few months of arriving in Mumbai, someone who had lived in multiple places in India, I asked her what she thought of the other cities she’d seen. She paused, in that wonderful way the french have, and then gave what can only be described as a Gallic shrug. “All the Indian cities I’ve seen, they all really look the same.” she confided, much to my dismay. At that point I hadn’t actually been anywhere in India outside of Mumbai, and the idea that everything would look like Mumbai was, well, troubling to say the least. There are a lot of nice areas in this city, by Indian standards, but again, I didn’t really know what Indian standards were at that point, and the idea that everything would be a badly connected open construction site with luxury high rises towering over slums and the odd goat meandering around was troubling, to say the least. Of course, now I know that Mumbai is a cosmopolitan paradise compared to every city I’ve seen in this country, which, by the way, is a whole other kind of troubling, but I digress.

The point is, as I traveled to other cities, from Bangalore to Hyderabad, from Kolkata to, horror of horrors, Delhi, I realized with a sinking heart, the French woman had been correct. All Indian cities do look, for the most part, like other Indian cities. They are, at least, all the ones that I’ve seen at least, populated with the same little stalls selling the same (in my opinion completely disgusting) masala flavored Lays chips and chewing tobacco and sodas. The people dress the same, the streets look the same, the cows are either more or less in number, but they don’t really change in appearance. In any given Indian city that I’ve been to, you can find someone burning garbage somewhere, in an open-flame kind of situation that would be shut down in a Western city in no time flat, you can find a decent amount of livestock with no apparent owners (except for goats, people seem to hang on to their goats and you know what, GOOD FOR THEM, what are all these animals doing RUNNING AROUND WITHOUT OWNERS?), and regardless of the intended architectural style, you can find a whole lotta cement.The character, then, of the Indian cities I’ve visited, is no immediately apparent in its appearance, and can give the traveler who is passing through the sense that everything in India looks and is like everything else, so you could wake up in Kolkata and fall asleep in Hyderabad and not know, really, the difference.

But the Northeast, at least, is something truly different to my eyes. And I’m not the only one, historically. For decades Darjeeling was the favorite holiday spot of Colonial administrators, desperate for cooler climes and clearer air after months in muggy Kolkata. After a long back-and-forth with Sikkim, then an independent nation, the East India Company negotiated a deal to lease Darjeeling as a sanatorium for their delicate troops, and eventually acquired the land for themselves. Soon, overheated British officers and their wives and children would flock to the tea estates and colonial society of Darjeeling, enjoying their daily cuppa and the restorative breezes. These days, however, Darjeeling’s charm is largely built over, at least, to my weary eyes. But I still understood, looking around, how once it was a bit of a paradise, while now it is an overgrown ill-tended to town, but hey, the landscape is still pretty!

Settled in the mountains, Darjeeling is a gateway to the newly acquired Sikkim, a state in India on sufferance, uneasy in its political status, but stunning in its landscape. From there, heading North, you can hit the Himalayas, or just look at them from Gangtok, a city on a hill with views of the mighty Kanchenjunga, which Sikkim shares with Nepal. Here, you are surrounded by trees, otherworldly landscapes with new plants at each elevation, misty mountains peeling back condescension to reveal rocky valleys and intrepid yaks. Here, in between the trees and moss, the cuisine shifts from spices to herbs, from curries to soups, and from farmland to the spoils of the forest. We dined on nettle soup and ferns sautéed with yak milk cheese, and momos, everywhere. What is a momo, you ask? It’s a dumpling. Why don’t they just call it a dumpling? Who the hell knows, it’s India, I’m letting it go.

It’s like a different world in Sikkim. Even Gangtok itself, which has so many of the trademarks of an Indian city, is also somehow a bit different. For one thing, it’s built over a series of hills, so you end up burning up your legs on long steep switchbacks. For another thing, this is the land of the Buddha, and monasteries are everywhere, with prayer flags fluttering around every corner. All the fresh mountain air makes you forget about the smog and smoke of other Indian cities, and the scrupulously clean streets speak to a citizenship that cares deeply about their region.

As we drove up and down, from Darjeeling to Gangtok, we noticed a curious theme on all of the many roadsigns. Each one, like a member of a UPenn fraternity, started it’s message with “bro”. Bro, Drive Slow, Save Life. Bro, Army Territory. Bro, Educate A Woman, Educate a Generation. Bro, Reach For Your Dreams. I did not make any of these slogans up. They are all things we saw along the way. Don’t believe me? Check out this fan favorite:

Bro was with us all throughout this trip. Bro told us not to use the horn, a useless piece of advice apparently because no one followed it. Bro told us our hearts were cut in facets like diamonds. Sometimes Bro was practical, asking us to slow down, pay attention to the impossibly curvy roads. Sometimes Bro was playful, like we passed an area called “Bro Camp”, which we could only assume was some kind of popped-collar Polo scented summer program. Bro was often inspirational, encouraging us to be our best bros possible. Because bros stick together, you know?

Later, we realized that BRO stands for Border Roads Organization, but by that point,  bro? It was far far too late.

So there are a thousand and one ways that the Northeast is wildly different for me than the rest of the India that I have seen thus far. Momos and bros. What more can you ask for?

Now, some photos:

High on the hill was a lonely goatherd.

Fermented millet with hot water is about as boozy and bizarre as it sounds.

Let us dispense with the pheasantries, shall we?

The many faces of momos, from my less-than-expert hands.

Quite well said. #buddha #positive #atleast

Glacial lakes abound.

Misty mountain dogs.

Making friends, influencing people.

Thank god I didn’t wear that same pair of wool horn covers, I would have been so humiliated.

#streetstyle #fringe #sikkimswag

These girls came up to us and we thought they wanted a selfie but they wanted 20 rupees. Little grifters….

The Himalayas!

Darjeeling, or at least a calm part of it.

 

 

Sikkim on a cloudy day.

The Northeast, bro. You gotta go.

 

Status Symbols

“The people of India live as fishes do in the sea- the great ones eat up the little. For first the farmer robs the peasant, the gentleman robs the farmer, the greater robs the lesser, and the King robs all.” – Sir Thomas Roe

A friend of mine said something interesting the other day which has stuck with me. She is older than I am, and she has lived in India for many years. She was talking about the first wedding she went to, in a farmhouse outside of Delhi. Dressed for a country wedding, she had no idea how out of place she would feel when women arrived decked in emeralds the size of robin’s eggs, dripping with diamonds and pearls. As she described this,shaking her head, she said “The world has no idea how wealthy Indians are. All they see is the poverty, but they have no idea about the wealth”.

I’ve thought a lot about that since I first heard it. The city I’m spending time in now, Mumbai, is the product of extreme wealth and crushing poverty. Of course, the Indian middle class is huge and real, but as another friend described it, talking about her parents and their immigration from India decades earlier, “We weren’t the class who stayed in Mumbai. We didn’t have the money.” In a third conversation (I swear, this post isn’t going to just be proof that I talk to other humans) with an alumnus from my college who was talking about the luxury market in India, and the shallowness of it until recently, which makes sense, given the fact that economy only opened recently, relatively, and that indicators of wealth have been, in India, traditionally as conspicuous as possible, and even now are only more so. She described the recent tiny trend she’s seeing with people who finally have had enough money for long enough that they don’t feel the need for their clothing to reflect their wealth at every turn. This was all in the context of paying money for Western designer clothing, and how that is a hard thing for many Indians, who would pay ten times more for a sari, to make themselves do, despite the relative utility of the pair of pants or blouse in question. But still, anything to differentiate themselves with the gaudy sparkles and spangles of the majority of the population. Blingy clothing might be wedding finery, but you said more than a fair share of sparkle and shine in everyday life, and the differentiation between expensive and cheap grows more and more subtle, at least to my foreign eyes, the more glitz layered on top of it.

So how does one measure wealth, and class, in India? Especially as a non-Indian? And why does it matter? I guess for me it matters because class is everywhere here, and it becomes central to any conversation almost unbearably quickly. There is no avoiding it, even in the most benign of conversations. Even talking about the weather, sooner or later, becomes a question of class. (You think I’m kidding? Here, let’s do it in five steps or less: Oh, it’s hot, yes, glad I’m wearing shorts, Why don’t more people wear shorts here? well, people with exposure to the West/who live in liberal families do but other people don’t find it acceptable to show so much skin, so you can only be cool if you have the money or the background? and there you go. Class politics, in a weather report.)

When I first knew I would be spending extended periods of time in India, I asked a Bombay native about walking. I think I’ve mentioned this before, actually, but it bears repeating. They told me that no one walks, very firmly. Other people hemmed and hawed, yes, you could walk, but it isn’t pleasant, it’s dusty, etc, so people just don’t really do it. But then when I moved here I realized that this isn’t really true. I see thousands (literally) of people walking around every week, but most of them look a certain way, dress a certain way, live a certain way. Mr. India likes to talk about the fact that there are hundreds of Bombays, thousands of Indias, and he’s right, really. And many of them are, or were, delineated with a thousand tiny class oriented distinctions that keep everyone neatly hemmed in to a tightly woven social fabric. After all, this is the one country that the British came to and were like, “Oh I say, that’s rather a rigid class system, isn’t it? Oughtn’t one to do something about that? Horace, my good man, tell them it’s not done, it’s just not cricket!” But I sometimes feel like all India heard was the cricket part.

There was a time when class was clear, through caste obligations, through social interaction, hell, through clothing itself. The very fabrics people wore designated their class and marital status, and sometimes even their profession. In Rajasthan I have toured two separate museums with displays of turbans and fabrics whose colors and styles marked their wearer down to “sheep-herder community, widow” and “hat for candy sellers in Marwar”. Beyond such specific connotations, clearly created within closed/small communities in which social rules and ramifications were bred into inhabitants from the cradle, urban centers had their own breakdown of communities and classes, long after the breakdown and banning of the caste system. Wealth was measured by what people wore and what Western goods they had access to, especially as India opened economically to the West. But now with the rise of synthetic fabrics, fast silk production, and the influx and competitive prices of foreign goods, you can’t no longer so easily delineate status, and wealth is no longer the hallmark of the high-class. For a country whose social evolution didn’t get the rapid boost of a rising middle class or an industrial revolution for centuries, and then got it al at once in the not so recent past, class still matters deeply. But how do you even know what it is?

And so weddings, social events and visible indicators of consumption remain clearest indicators of class for many, or at least of wealth, which, for a post-caste system society, are finally, for the first time ever, the same thing. And while there are the obvious references to the fall of Rome, the 1920’s whatever, I honestly think that maybe for India, that’s not the worst thing in the world. I mean, this has been a society literally devoid of class mobility for millenia. The way I see it, If you can buy your way up, at least you’re moving, right?

Still, sometimes it seems like a fascinating minefield of expectations, assumptions and the resurfacing of prejudices no matter how many indicators of social mobility you see around you. At the stylish smart cafe that opened up across from my gym, where the waiters are intelligent, articulate in English and well dressed in their off-hours (I caught one of them after shift-change looking like any other college kid off to study in a top I wouldn’t mind borrowing) I still hear the same kind of language used on them that people use for their maids at home, or the people who clean the streets. The vast assumption about labor is pervasively lower-class, at least, as I’ve understood it. And class is still king,

I will close with a final story, despite my claims that I wouldn’t be referencing any other friends. A friend of mine took an Uber home recently, and the driver got to talking with her. She called him brother in Hindi, using a word that many Hindi-speakers use when speaking with someone who is serving them who is male, because it’s sexless, neutral, and not without respect. (Sidenote, more than one rickshaw/cab/Uber driver has been thrown by my use of the word sir when speaking to them, but if I’m going to get madamed all the time, something that literally makes me want to tear out my hair more with every occurence, they can deal with sir). As they spoke, my friend thought her driver was getting a bit friendly, which amused her, but it turned out that he was a drama student, recently graduated, looking for work as an actor, and driving Uber for some extra money. In the West that’s a totally normal story, in fact, once I was driven from Manhattan to Brooklyn by the heir to a Canadian restaurant fortune who drives Uber because, and I quote, “I like to party, but I don’t want to ask my family for money all the time, you know? And when I bartend I have too much fun.” But here in India, a labor job is for the laboring class, and the social stigma is still such that it says something about you you don’t want people to hear if you work in a job that requires physical ability but not intellectual training.

Still, he’s out there, driving people around for money and looking for acting work. And the children of farmers are spending rupees all over Europe on bags that a generation ago only old money Indians would have known about, and the Kangana Ranaut’s of the world are refusing to be thrown out of Bollywood by the Karan Johars, and slowly, symbolically, class becomes something that can be attained. For some. Sometimes. Because I don’t know a country or society that exists without classes and class scrutiny, and while this might be the most visible one I’ve been in, maybe the fact that people talk about it all the time is better than nothing.

This deeply sketchy tiny carnival ride on wheels is just a thing that exists here. I don’t know that I would worry about a kid falling, but that’s all kinds of tetanus stuff there.

I love this strong imagery for this tax.

Sunset over the sea, with fishing boats docked and humans using the ocean as a toilet blissfully not visible.

These cows I see most days on my rickshaw ride stand next to a piece of graffiti that says “happy friendship day”. I like the idea that for these cows, every day is friendship day.

This ad appeared during a screening of Moonlight. Let me know if anyone wants me to call for them.

I like that you can get your startup help, your maid help and your body massage help all on the same electrical box.

Over the hills and far away (or, thoughts on being abroad right now and coping mechanisms I’m using)

And the danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness. ― Sylvia Plath

A friend who is far away is sometimes much nearer than one who is at hand. Is not the mountain far more awe-inspiring and more clearly visible to one passing through the valley than to those who inhabit the mountain?- Khalil Gibran

Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters, and which they see as they look up to them, though they are ever so far away from us, and each other. -Sojourner Truth

Obviously, given that this is a blog the implication of what I’m writing is that it’s personal, but just to remind the reader, what I am about to share is, of course, my own personal opinions and experiences. That being said, I personally found this list of advice, a bit basic as it might be, really helpful, so if you find this helpful, that’s fantastic, and if you don’t, I totally understand. And if you aren’t on the same page with me politically, please, you are SO much more than welcome to stop reading this blog. I would much rather you not read this than say something horrible. As my hero, spirit animal, celebrity crush and person I would love to play me in the movie version of my life, Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin says: mean comments will get blasted by my vagina. Also, if you haven’t at least tried watching Jane the Virgin, well, see the above comment…

I know from my Facebook feed (more on THAT later), that I’m not alone right now in feeling alternately helpless, sad, enraged, destroyed, pessimistic, wounded, and did I mention helpless? I knew in November that this would be hard, but I didn’t really understand how it would feel being outside of the US for long periods of time during this presidency. Man, we have to find a different word for this. Unfortunate incident? Difficult time? Presidency just doesn’t seem appropriate here, does it.

On one level, being in India, or abroad anywhere, is actually kind of great right now. After all, I have a clear strong sense of distance, and it’s a relief sometimes to have that. But on another level, it’s really challenging. I’m really far away from everything that is happening, and I’m lonely in my pain in many ways. So here are some things I’ve learned so far being abroad during a political situation that upsets me. And if you are abroad, or even in the US, and you find these revelations or insights helpful, I’m very happy about that. And if you don’t, again, I would refer you to the words of Gina. I really think she and I could be friends, like, in real life. Anyone know her and want to pass that feeling along? No? Okay. Cool. Thanks.

Here are some hard things:

  1. I live in the future, but that doesn’t always do great things for me. What I mean by this is, I’m 10.5 hours ahead, 9.5 when it’s not daylight savings time. Why that half hour? Wellllllll the thing I heard was that India doesn’t want to be in the same time zone as Pakistan which, if that doesn’t tell you something about a government run on spite I don’t know what will, but of course this might not be true, in which case you are welcome to tell me the real reason, but the fact that I’ve been told this by more than one Indian here feels like a real litmus test for diplomatic relations, now, doesn’t it? Anyway, the point is, being off by most of a day can be nice, but it’s also panic-inducing. I wake up behind, in the sense that I’ve lived that day in India, and wake up to that day ending in the US. I’m always behind, even though I’m ahead, and it’s like Alice in Wonderland, I have to run as fast as I can just to stay in one place. I am always missing everything, even though I’ve already lived that day, and I feel obscurely guilty that I lived that day in my blissful happiness while so much was happening. Additionally, this screws me in the reverse. I live the whole day waiting for new news, but that’s insane, because my Monday morning is still America’s Sunday night, and nothing is going to happen while most of the country is sleeping. In my panic over information, I end up either reading too many things, many of which I’m not taking the time to parse through and verify, or throwing up my hands and shaking my head in dismay because everything is terrible. Then I share a bunch of stuff on Facebook, more on that later, and try to move on.
  2. I’m not home for marches. I can’t attend protests. There so much I would like to be doing but I’m not physically present for it. Now, I know that that really doesn’t matter on any level but my own sense of sadness, and that’s totally selfish and self-centered. But it doesn’t change the fact that it is isolating, and difficult. I am so grateful to every person chanting and protesting and being in the space of conflict, putting their bodies out there in the world. No one in my life is making me feel guilty about that but me. But I do feel guilty, and apart. Every instagram post of friends and their amazing signs, every #resist I see, I am so proud of the people I know and know of, and so sad that I can’t be present. That’s not anything but a personal problem, and I know that. I split my time between the US and India, so I know that I can go back and be there for so many things, and that nothing is about me and my presence, that’s not the point of the protest, if I’m there “experiencing” it. Still. Still.
  3. I’m having a hard time feeling happy. That is, I feel happy, and I have a sense of “what the hell is there for me to be happy about”? Well, of course, lots of things. The two baby goats I saw nuzzling today. My cat, and the sleep positions he adopts. Women learning how to monetize their centuries old crafts in rural Bihar. The amazing meal I had on Sunday. My mom, and the hour I spend skyping her every week. My life, and the things that make me happy. But what right do I have to be happy when, as one Facebook friend (and life friend) said, “The world is burning around me”?

But that’s the thing I’ve been thinking about, and maybe it’s the distance being abroad gives you, but I will say that at the very least, I have more of a sense of the United States from afar, which while isolating, also reminds me that nothing is the center of the world. Is the United States a powerful country and will the political implications of our government have far-reaching global consequences? Yes, God help us. But it also isn’t the only place that exists. It is a grim thought, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, that the place I am now has its own problems, and while it’s impossible to compare, that is what we, as humans, do all the time. For example, I am vitally worried about women and their rights over their own bodies in the United States right now. But I’m also living in a place where marital rape is legal. And yet India continues the fight, women continue to wake up every morning and push for decency, not just equality, but basic human rights. This is a country of wide scale media censorship. And yet people wake up every morning in rural India and use the one smart phone in the village to record corruption, sending it to newspapers miles away, risking their lives so that someone will know what is happening where they live. Now, I know that there are many things that make a comparison between India and the US unequal, but this is where I am physically right now, and this is the comparison I can currently be making.

And here are some good things, some things that I find comforting and inspiring no matter how far away I feel and am.

  1. After the election I vowed the Facebook could not become my news cycle. It just can’t. So I signed up and paid some money to some newspapers and they send me news reports directly and I also go to their websites and sit and read articles. And I’m giving that about an hour a day. Not this piecemeal as it comes thing. I’m giving it an hour. As I told you, I’m ahead, and behind. So I can’t wait for the news to come. I have to give it time, and space, and think about facts. I’m not saying I’m really good at this. This resolution is like three days old. I fell right on back into that trap of checking Facebook all the time, and that led directly into using it as my news source. But the anxiety that gave me wasn’t productive. I think the anxiety and pain are normal. But the lack of productivity make me feel helpless, then useless. That’s not a positive place or useful for the world.
  2. So I am taking time to read the news, sign a bunch of petitions, call my senators, whatever the daily action plan I signed up for asks me to do, and then I’m continuing with my day. So I can be productive, and write, and work, and enjoy my cat, and the nuzzling goats, and everything. Because if I never stop thinking about what’s happening, it will become normal. And that would, I think, probably be the worst thing. For what is appalling to feel normal. And in that way, India is a help, because there are a lot of things I see here that I don’t want to normalize either. I don’t want the extreme poverty, the naked children on the street, the heartbreaking things I see, I don’t want them to become my reality, and they are my reality, and I have to find a way to keep seeing them and feeling them without bleeding all the time. It’s been good practice, actually, if you think about it.
  3. I am remembering that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than exist in my country. Yes, it’s vital and important and essential, but the world is a large place, and a global perspective is helpful. There are many issues, many problems, and I’m a part of them globally, not just locally. I can’t fix them all, but I can work to be a part of solutions. II can remember that there is no one center of the universe. I can appreciate things that are happening that are good. I am allowed that, and so are we all.
  4. I felt, for the first time in my young life, when President Obama (#stillmypresident) was elected, that this was the first time I was truly proud to be American. When speaking to  my mom recently, in yet another totally self-centered statement, I mentioned that I had been proud to be American, and now I didn’t feel that way anymore. But I have to say, recently, in the past week, I’ve contradicted myself. Because maybe I’m not proud of our current head of elected office (again, not saying it, #notmypresident). But I’m proud of the thousands who marched on Washington for the women’s march. I’m proud of government officials going rogue on Twitter because they refuse to be silenced. I’m proud of the ACLU, and the thousands waiting, law-abiding citizens making sure the law protects all, peacefully resisting a ban on immigration that is against everything the America I’m proud of stands for. I am proud to be a part of that, even from afar.

So for all of you on vacation, extended stay, traveling, splitting time like I am, living abroad, whatever you are doing and wherever you are and however far away your native country feels, the close-but-far, happy-but-sad, relieved-but-guilty or whatever combination of things you are experiencing, I hope you find your coping mechanisms. And I hope these keep working for me. And I hope India outlaws marital rape soon.

And I hope, for your own good, you check out Jane the Virgin. That’s a coping mechanism in and of itself, for real for real.

img_20170128_105557

A coffin making company in Bandra, probably Goan. Loving that lavender coffin, am I right?

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Take joy in the fluff.

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South Indian Mangalorean Thali of my DREAMS.

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Thanks for the tip, #mansplaining utility box…

The Help

“Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion. These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.”
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

“No one must expect to find it an easy matter to manage a number of native servants, who will have different castes, not one of whom have anything in common with their employers; whose ideas of honesty, cleanliness and truthfulness are not merely vague, but do not exist. Their delinquencies must be taken philosophically.” Emily Short Wonnacott a letter to her mother from Poona on August 15th, 1869

I want to talk about help. Specifically of the domestic variety. This is not a subject I gave much thought before my move to India, and now I think about it quite a bit. A whole concept that occupied literally no part of my life before is now something that occupies a large part of my mind. This is one of those things that is surprising about moving to a new country, the way that something you literally never thought about ends up occupying your mind. Like water.

I didn’t think much about water in the US. It comes from a tap, which works for me, I like that kind of water. I didn’t even filter it, or put one of those things on the faucet that filters it, or think about filters, on any level. Turn a handle, get some water. Easy. Did I know that many people all over the world had a much more complicated relationship with water? Absolutely. Contributed money for people building wells closer to their communities. Understood water on a close level and a far level. Got it.

But here, water is somewhere in the middle. You have to attach a larger filter onto your water system here, and then turn it on, and get the water through a separate rubber tube. The tube is small, and the system takes a bit of time to turn on, so we fill up water bottles to make it more efficient. So that’s a thing I think about and a way I spend my time now. Filling up water bottles. This isn’t a problem for me, per se. It’s not negative, or positive, it just IS. It’s different, and takes up my time, and I think about water in a different way. And that’s fine, except, almost everything is like that. Everything I think about is different, running the gamut from slightly different to deeply different, and it piles up in my mind, until it all feels like it’s too much, and I don’t know what to do with everything happening in my head.

I don’t really want to talk about water. I want to talk about domestic help.

This is a difficult post to write, mostly because it’s a difficult thing to write about, and it’s complicated,  I cannot promise that you will love what you read, or even understand it. I’m not sure I really understand it myself, my relationship to service in India. But it is only through writing that I will be able to understand it better, really, so might as well try. What I think and feel is probably hypocritical. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. So I suppose I have to be okay with that. Maybe that’s the human condition, when confronted with the reality of life, when dealing with our own intersection of need, instinct and sense of self, that each of those needs contradicts themselves, and so WE contradict ourselves. Maybe on some level hypocrisy is more than saying one thing and doing another. It’s wanting multiple contradictory things at once.

Enough of the philosophy, I suppose. And down to the facts.

India is a land of service, of servants, of help. Let’s talk about the word, help, because I hate it so very much in this context. I don’t understand it, on an essential level. The word implies that I am lacking in something. That I can’t do something, and therefore I need aid. But I was raised to be self sufficient, and to take pride in that. Needing help is a sign of weakness, at least when it comes to basic domestic matters. Needing help implies that you can’t do something, so you need someone to do it for you, or show you how to do it. One is a temporary condition, I don’t know what to do, so you will come and show me what to do, teach me what to do, and then I will do it. The other is more permanent. I need help, because I CAN’T do something, so you have to help me do it, but what I really mean by that is that you have to do it for me. This is the way I think of HELP.

Most people I know here grew up with a human being who lived in their house and served their family in their basic domestic needs. By this I mean they had someone who was living in their home and sweeping their floors, doing their dishes, washing their clothing, carrying things to them, bringing them a glass of water when they were parched, dusting their objects, clearing their plates, and sometimes cooking for them although sometimes that was an entirely separate person. Many people I know also had someone who was employed to drive their car for them. I know a lot of car owners who don’t personally know how to drive the car they own. They don’t have to. They can pay someone to do it for them.

Now, about this human being. Who are they? Where do they come from? Well, they come from a lower socio-economic class than the people they serve, that’s a give-in. And in modern India, perhaps in India before now as well, they come from a more rural area. They are often women, except for the drivers, who are men, of course, can’t trust a woman with a car, who are sent out of their villages at young ages to find work in someone’s home. When you have children, this multiples, and you have help for your child, your cleaning, your cooking, and so on. You can have help for everything in India. You can have so much help that it begs the question, what are you actually doing for yourself?

But perhaps this is the wrong question. Or not a relevant one. I mean, it’s one that occupies my mind, that haunts me at night, that I ask of everyone I meet (IN MY MIND, I’m not a garbage person), but obviously that’s something that I often feel alone in. Because that’s not really something that seems to matter to people who live in a labor economy. It’s not about what you can do for yourself or not. It’s about what you can afford to have other people do for you. Personal competence is not a virtue to be cultivated here. Which is great. Except, what happens when you’ve built your whole personality on that value?

And what happens when you just don’t feel comfortable with help? When you weren’t raised with people who come in to you home and do things for you on a daily basis as a part of your life? Look, I grew up with insane privilege. My parents are two well-educated working professionals who gave me every advantage. I went to private school my entire life, I attended Yale University and they paid for college, I got a fellowship for graduate school, I am debt free and the product of two people who took a great deal of care and time raising me, and yes, we had someone clean our home twice a month. I recognize the immense luck and resources I have had, and I am grateful in ways I will never be able to fully express. But I still don’t know what to do about the way I feel about the humans who come to my apartment in Mumbai every day to clean our home and cook food for my husband.

This is a poor country. It is poor on a level that I have never understood poverty before. So paying people to do things for you is pretty much the norm for many reasons, and there are many reasons to do that and I get that. Also, frankly, it was very clearly explained to me by Mr. India that he wanted help in India to clean and that this was an important part of the economy and that funding people’s lives was important when you could afford it. And besides. He wanted a maid. He was used to having one, and a cook, and that was something that he wanted to have, and I knew that was part of life here, so I agreed, and it IS part of life here, in fact, we have significantly LESS help than most people we know, although the spectrum of help and how much you have is a sort of insane thing to be thinking about. Yet another thing I think about that I never had before.

I am deeply uncomfortable with people who come into my home to do things for me on a daily basis. I am deeply uncomfortable being served. I can do so many things myself, why would I want someone to come do them for me? I don’t really see the point of most things that people come to our home and do. And yet, I yep the benefit. Not much of it, really, but I like that Varsha, who comes and cleans daily scrubs my clothing, mostly because we don’t have a washing machine. And she puts away all the dishes from our drying rack, which I love. Does she do anything I couldn’t do? No. But I appreciate her. I like her. I just don’t NEED her. So what do I do with that? I don’t mind it much at a restaurant. I’m okay with Uber. This is, I suppose, the hypocrisy I mentioned before. What is the degree of service that makes me uncomfortable? How do i justify my discomfort about one thing over the other?

I don’t want to be someone who expects people to serve me. But the truth is, I don’t worry about that much. I’m probably never going to be that way. I just don’t know how to be comfortable with the idea of help. It’s like water. It takes up all this space in my mind, these things that we pay someone to do, that I don’t understand why we need to pay someone to do, that are part of life here. I don’t know what to do with this thing that is a part of day-to-day life here. I don’t know how to be comfortable with it, or like it. Someone who comes to my home and does things for me should be a positive thing for my life, shouldn’t it?

But I don’t know how to feel that way. Do you?

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The Home and the World

It has been a while since my last post. I have been in the United States for the last month, and while I thought I would be going home, canvasing for Hilary Clinton, sharing her victory over glasses of wine with my mom and writing a bunch of quippy posts and coming back. But only the first and last of those things happened, and in between my life has been a strange and polarized mix of horror, pain and fear for my country, and the euphoria of being home, of seeing so many people who I love, of reveling in Ramen shops and bakeries and amazing coffee and good red wine. I am grateful that I was home in the United States for this, I am, because being in India would have been so much worse on some level for me, so isolating, at least, that’s what I think it would have been like, I suppose I’ll never know. So I gave a lot of money (relative to my life, of course) , and signed a lot of petitions, and had long talks filled with tears and anger and rage and pain and laughter with some of the smartest best people I know, and made action plans and called my senators and called Paul Ryan, who somehow is now like the most reasonable person at the table, remember how that happened? Me neither. I saw theater, life affirming joyous theater about the Vietnam War, and Drag Queens, and Alexander Hamilton. I went to museums and spent time with objects from ancient Jerusalem that have seen empires rise and fall and watched the tides of history foam red with blood, looked at paintings that were the sole voices of the Mexican revolution, marveled at pretty gowns from the 17th century and vases from Ancient Greece and serpents from 13th century Mexico and tried to remember that life is long, and the world, somehow, miracle that it is, keeps on turning. I met babies, and the parents of babies, some terrified, some hopeful, but all in love with their wobbly noisy messy piece of the future. I met my editor, and my agent, because oh yes I suppose I should mention that I sold my first novel and it will be released in the spring of 2018, stay tuned for updates I guess. But I haven’t been writing, really. Not here, at least.

When speaking with my friend Sarah about the helplessness you feel when you can’t control the future, and everything that is happening feels terrifying and out of your control, as it does right now in the current American political situation, we were talking about how we could contribute to anything we believed in. Period. And she said, well, you’re a writer. So I guess you’ll write about it. And I thought, I guess I well.

Years ago my husband, Mr. India, back when he was just some dude I was dating, gave me a book called The Home and the World. It’s a novel set in Bengal in the early 1900’s, and it’s a love triangle set in the context of the Bengal independence movement. A husband educated in the West, his provincial wife, and the charismatic local rebel leader, all dance around each other, and it’s wonderfully done. But the thing that struck me about it recently is the way the husband and wife want impossible things from each other in very real ways. She wants to experience her husband the way she expects to, the way she’s been trained to see him, as a god, a provider, her authority and master. He wants a modern wife, someone who will be his equal, his partner. They both want the same things for Bengal, but it’s the ways the things they don’t understand about each other that destroy them on some level (oh, spoiler alert I guess). At the time, I liked the novel, and Mr. India and I talked for a long time about the paradigm of marriage within it. The title is one meant to polarize, to call into contrast two parts of life, private and public, and the way one is infiltrated by the other.

But this is 2016 and I am not a traditional Indian wife, I’m not an Indian wife at all. And our lives are infiltrated by the world, in fact, that’s how we often pick partners now, the way we chose to approach the world together. And there are challenges, to being vastly different in your backgrounds, believe me, there are. But this November, now December, I feel very grateful that I am with someone who thinks very differently and as an extension has different expectations about the world. In fact, I’m even grateful to be living in a place that conceives of the world so differently than the United States. Hard as it can be to come back, and it is hard, really, the transition is the hardest part and I dread what thing will enrage or sadden me before I get used to India again, I do, but India has given me a perspective I never would have had, and Mr. India has given me a way to think about this post-Election world that I feel lucky to possess. So I will share this with you, just in case it helps. And if it doesn’t, thanks anyway for reading.

When I was sobbing and despairing, which I still do, ps, I’m sure most people who feel this way will for a while, and that’s alright, it was initially difficult that Mr. India didn’t feel the same way. But then, I knew, how could he? After all, I didn’t have the same emotional reaction to India’s recent efforts to eliminate black money and double down on corruption the way he did, how could I expect him to be living in the same kind of anguish I was? Anguish is, by the way, someone told me recently, a kind of moral responsibility, and if that’s not the best term to describe this, I don’t know what is. But beyond the initial alienation I felt, the how-dare-you-not-feel-how-I-feel which, of course, is insane, because no one ever does, and can’t, and shouldn’t, an outside perspective did a lot more good than harm.

Because the one thing Mr. India told me that reminded me of something I sort of understood but hadn’t realized until I’d come to India, was that the United States has a democracy that is firm and robust, made strong through years of existence. Living in India, a fragile democracy if there ever was one, I still forget how young the government here is, how old my own is, how much we depend on checks, balances and precedent. The United States is the oldest colonial democracy, the longest running show on the political Broadway of life, it’s the Fantasticks, Phantom, Book of Mormon someday. You don’t run this long without figuring out how to deal with bad cast members, shitty directors, old costumes and bad crowds, right? Mr. India’s confidence in the American system, an outsider’s confidence, came at the time I most needed it. I need it still. And he reminded me of that thing I had been so conscious of on a small-scale in day to day life in Mumbai, that systems here very rarely work, at least, in contrast to a system in the West. For example, if you tell your congressman something, he’s legally obliged to deal with that. That’s a real part of the way things work. If you tell a politician something here, well, cool story bro. You get the representation you pay for here. Now, you could say that in the West too, in the US, but it’s not so excruciatingly literal, and for some reason I take comfort in that.

Another lesson I’ve learned, which is one that made me feel stupid, horrible and small, is that I really think that the United States was better than India, in terms of hate, prejudice, polarized living, awareness, all of it. I thought somehow our foundations as people were built on something different, better, really. And we aren’t. No one is above hate, or prejudice, and I shouldn’t have thought that we were. That was my own prejudice, my own ignorance, and I’m most ashamed of that.

India is a country that has known for  long time that every section of society is living in a different reality. I guess that’s probably how most large countries feel. And that’s clearly how the United States works too, but I didn’t know that. And I know it now. And the biggest lesson I can take from that is that we need to do better, we cannot be complacent in that. Because a few Americas will turn into a thousand. There are and always have been a thousand Americas. And India is working, slowly, slowly, but all the time, to fill that gap. So must we.

Usually I start these posts with a quote. Today I’m ending with one, from a New Yorker article about cleaning the Ganges.

“India is a land of discouragement. If you’re not discouraged by the harsh summers, then you are discouraged by the cow eating your plant, or the motorbike or tractor or car that is running over your plant, or the neighbor who is plucking the leaves from it just for fun as he is going by. If you can’t deal with discouragement, India has no place for you.” – Navneet Raman, the chairman of the Benares Cultural Foundation

Perhaps the reality is the world has no place for the easily discouraged, for those who give up. I am living in a place that is full of problems, problems on a scale beyond those of the United States in very real ways, they just are, but there is still the work, the people who believe in it, work for it, who refuse for be discouraged. If nothing else, I am glad to be here, and to have learned that. We have no right to be discouraged. I have no right to stop writing, silly nothing it might be to put out into the massive void that exists. Discouragement is a trap. India knows that. So must we. So must I.

Fall foliage.

Fall foliage.

Art helps

Art helps

Snake knots abound.

Snake knots abound.

I guess the trend in 1000 was just beards that became your face.

I guess the trend in 1000 was just beards that became your face.

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The cure for everything is salt water, sweat, tears, or the sea.

The cure for everything is salt water, sweat, tears, or the sea.

You and me both

You and me both

In my absence my cat has torn out a bunch of his fur so I guess he and I are on the same page, emotionally.

In my absence my cat has torn out a bunch of his fur so I guess he and I are on the same page, emotionally.

When It Rains It Pours

When a person is accustomed to 138 in the shade, his ideas about cold weather are not valuable….In India, “cold weather” is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.
Following the Equator Mark Twain

Someone recently asked me what fall was like in India. Honestly, I have no idea. The weather recently turned from the monsoon season, which was days upon days of pouring rain, flooding our courtyard and the streets around us, to sweltering weather. So I guess fall is…something like that?

Last year, I moved to India in September (GOOD Lord), at the tail end of the season. This year, the season stretched on into the high holidays, and I celebrated Rosh Hashanah in the basement of a tiny synagogue in the heart of South Bombay, waiting for the rain to pass.

It is a strange thing to live in a place where it rains for months, and then doesn’t rain for months. Still, the extremes of India actual have highlighted an aspect of Indian behavior I had not previously understood. I thought Americans, specifically East Coasters, were obsessed with talking about the weather, but that’s nothing on Indians. Every time I talk about a place, or we visit a place, or people come back from a vacation somewhere, within five minutes someone will ask about the weather. How was the weather? Did you have good weather? Is the weather generally good? I went away for the weekend just for the weather. 

I personally don’t think much about the weather in a larger sense. I mean, I look it up, so I know what to wear, but in terms of travel, it doesn’t dictate many of my decisions. Frankly, it just doesn’t affect me much. Which is probably a good thing, given where I currently live. I was reading a travel forum before I moved to Mumbai, and a woman from England had asked where she could travel in India if she didn’t like temperatures above 70 degrees farenheit. The advice from the forum? Don’t go to India.

So it’s always interesting to me that other people ask how the weather is wherever I go. Part of this might be a product of the fact that my parents consistently planned vacations for us during the winter, usually around Christmas because A. we are Jewish so who cares about Christmas and B. It’s the off-season for many European countries, sneaky travel tip! So the idea of traveling for the sake of going somewhere with better weather has never been a part of my understanding of traveling. But here, I suppose because the weather is so….present, that does seem to be a part of the logic.

Mr. India and I recently went to Cambodia, and I will say, this is the time to go, it’s much cheaper because it’s not the high season. We had an amazing time at Siam Reap, exploring ancient temples and palaces, devouring Cambodian cuisine, luxuriating in the culture, but the first thing many people have asked us has been, How was Cambodia? How was the weather? 

Somehow weather is synonymous with experience here. Could it be that a whole nation is so deeply affected by the climate? And how is that even possible when it’s so hot all the time and it’s all most people I meet have ever known? I mean, does someone from Mumbai go to a slightly cooler place for the first time and kneel down and kiss the ground or something? Does it become their mecca? If that’s the case, why does Mumbai have TWENTY MILLION PEOPLE LIVING THERE? India, you gotta start LIVING YOUR PRINCIPLES. If you like cooler weather so much, go pursue it!

Having been here a year now, I still have people asking me how I do it, that is, how do I live in India? How do I deal with the weather? I don’t know, really. Copious amounts of skirts? A commitment to natural fibers?  An investment in many ice trays? Accepting the things I cannot change? Embracing the way of tao? Maybe all of the above!

It’s hard for me not to be judgmental or roll my eyes when people eagerly ask me about the weather. I mean, I’ve just described the magnificent culture of Siam Reap, the astounding temples, the way I was so happy climbing up and down massive structures left over from the Khmer Empire and you want to know what the temperature was? On some level, I do still feel that this is petty, a silly concern. Who cares what the weather is like as long as you are seeing or doing something amazing? As long as you aren’t caught in massive mudslides, or freezing to death, what does it matter? But that said, perhaps that is in fact a privileged position, the perspective of someone who comes from a land of variety and is therefore in some ways less fatigued of the sameness that Mumbai represents, that much of India, frankly, represents.

That being said, maybe I’m just a strange person whose mood isn’t affected by the heat. Because I will say that days upon days of pouring rain left me sleepy and filled with cabin fever, eager to march out into the messy wet streets of Mumbai just to keep from going a little insane. But who knows, maybe next year I will be so used to it that I sew myself a few waterproof bubbles and roll around the town.

There is only one thing that actually feels different to me about this season, actually, and it’s the blooming of the Scholar’s Tree. This tree had white flowers that emit a heavy glorious smell, momentarily banishing all of the not-so-nice aromas of human waste and rotting garbage that otherwise make up the perfume of an Indian city. I noticed it last year in Kolkata, and this year I smelled it in Mumbai. So maybe the weather here wont help you out, in terms of changes, but that just means there are other, subtler, ways of seeing time pass on by. Happy Fall, everyone!

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Some views of Siam Reap

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Who can notice the weather when you see a thing like this?!?

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Lost causes written on the wall.

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The lizard who lives in our apartment and refuses to pay any rent.

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Snuck a peak down an ally, saw a garment worker sleeping.

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Cadfael says cool because he’s basically the Fonz.

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You have to hedge your bets to keep people from peeing on your wall.

What Bollywood Can Teach You About India: Baar Baar Dekho Edition

“Siddarth Malhotra has a love affair with Katrina Kaif. Their ups and downs is basically the entire movie.”- IMDB description of Baar Baar Dekho

“I feel it is important not to get overly obsessed and overly carried away with just the physical aspect. There is more to beauty than just the physical appearance. You are also a complete person, and a woman should have an identity beyond just the way she looks.” -Katrina Kaif

If alien life got it’s hands on most movies, regardless of the country of origin, and then came to  Earth, I think they would be rather disappointed at how the expectations don’t support the reality, attractiveness-wise. Because if you only knew the human race through film you would think we were all really really pretty. It’s a well acknowledged truth that stars have to be attractive, with some exceptions, rarely, frankly, female. I guess when you spend a few hours looking at a giant version of a person, you prefer for that person to be as anatomically symmetrical as possible. If Shakespeare’s tragedies were all about nobles, then our love stories are all about pretty people. If we wanted to watch mediocre looking people fall in love, I guess we would just look at ourselves, right?

I’ve talked more than once on this blog about colonialism. It’s almost like it’s a theme…so when we discuss a recent Bollywood film, Baar Baar Dekho, it would be impossible not to talk about one of its two stars, Katrina Kaif. Who is Katrina Kaif? If you aren’t India, you probably don’t know who the hell she is.

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Not to worry! That is, in fact, why I am here! Ms. Kaif is a half-British half-Kashmiri lady who grew up in England and has taken the Bollywood industry by storm with her leggy beauty, moderately competent dance moves, and total lack of acting talent. She originally spoke very little Hindi, and was dubbed by better hindi speakers in her films, because dubbing is a real thing that still happens in India and everyone is very okay with it despite the fact that it is appalling to those of us raised with Singing In The Rain as our filmmaking template. Seriously, dubbing? Is still a thing? COME. ON. You have two jobs, actors. Moving where they want you to move, and saying what they want you to say. You get great clothing, and people slap the food away from your hands, and lots of people want to have sex with you. HOW IS DUBBING STILL A THING?

Beyond that, there is a surprisingly large group of Indian actresses who are basically British, in nationality and upbringing, which makes them citizens, ps, and somehow that gives them easy entrance into Bollywood. It’s almost like there is still this feeling that the British are better than other people so someone who is half British or raised in England is somehow superior to other people. This is a personal theory. But…also could totally be a thing. How is that ALSO still a thing?

AND HOW IS THIS ACTRESS WHO LITERALLY CANNOT ACT HER WAY OUT OF A GUCCI BAG A THING AS WELL?

Funny you should ask.

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This is how Katrina looks when you, like, don’t get it.

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This is how.

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This is also how.

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It’s like no one has seen a woman in a swimsuit before. Seriously.

This is one of the best paid female stars in Bollywood.

In the US you would totally have had to release a sex tape to become a Katrina-level symbol without, you know, genuine ability. But that’s India for you! So anyway. This is Katrina. Accept it, it’s happening. She’s a whole thing. When aliens come, she might be their queen. Until then? Feel free to feel all the feelings. GOD KNOWS I DO.

TO THE MOVIE! I got a chance to see this one in Singapore, in a theater with subtitles, so I don’t have screenshots, just movie stills. Lame. We shall all have to carry on!

So. Baar Baar Dekho means “Look Look Again”, which…will not end up having much to do with the movie at all. That’s going to be a theme, things not making sense, things happening once and never coming around again. It’s a magical magical world of mystical things. Get excited.

In the first five minutes of this movie, we get all that backstory that we will ostensibly need to understand what this story is about in a dreamy montage under a song. Jai grows up in India, while Diya (whose mixed-culture parents seem strangely unhappy all the time and I thought this was foreshadowing divorce because the Indian dad just couldn’t deal with the British mom until they moved to Delhi and suddenly were all smiles again) meets him at a young age. Lesson one! Intercultural relationships can be saved by a move to Delhi!

They are best friends, sharing candy and what not, and swinging in a field on a wooden swing because that seems like something that could regularly happen in pollution-clogged Delhi. Alright. Jai and Diya move from playing doctor to, uh, playing doctor, that is, having a bunch of sex as teenagers. Jai’s father also dies at some point, and he has a brother who we do not see until much later but don’t worry that will never truly matter. All that matters is these two crazy kids rolling around and loving each other like crazy! Lesson two! Love is the most important thing as long as it’s for a lover and not pesky people like family members etc.

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Sidenote, young Diya has glasses, which look amazing on Katrina, almost like she is a real live person with thoughts and feelings, and young Jai (Siddarth Malhotra, oh we will get to him, don’t worry) doesn’t have glasses, but then later he does and she doesn’t? I guess that’s how couples work? Maybe Mr. India and I will just, like, switch prescriptions soon. Lesson three! A couple can only have one pair of glasses in India. Choose wisely!

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Anyway, these two have literally never spoken to anyone their own age but each other, according to this introduction. It’s like Flowers in the Attic without the incest! Jai is into math, as evidenced by the fact that he writes numbers on windows (where I come from we call this vandalism) and Diya is…well she ends up being an artist but we have no idea how that happened. Just more Katrina magic, I guess!

So as grown ups, Jai, in a sweet vest but no jacket like a douche, is giving a lecture on some math something, and all his female students are trying to screw him with their eyes, like that scene in Indiana Jones except in no way as clever.

Our India Jones here gamely keeps describing math things, and somehow this makes him two and a half hours late to his long-time girlfriend’s first ever art opening AT WHICH SHE IS DECLARED THE NEW FACE OF MODERN INDIAN ART! Damn, artistic success is easy in India! Legit not a single show and already a game changer. Lesson number 4! The Indian art scene is super easy to break into! Lesson number 5! Traffic in Delhi is appalling. I’ve learned that firsthand.

Diya’s work is this weird pseudo-silk screen stuff with like geometric designs and mandalas and photographs of Indian ladies from the past. It’s not great, but I wouldn’t hate it in a waiting room for a doctor’s office, or in a dimly lit hotel bar. She’s no Amrita Sher Gil, that’s for damn sure. BUT! It DOES up our jobs for women counter by one! Yes, there is one job for women representing in this movie! For those playing along at home, we have Doctor, Migrant Worker Turned Sex Slave, Calendar Girl, Actress, Model and NOW Visual Artist! People say she’s a painter but we never see paint (or work or tools of any kind) so let’s just assume she’s a visual artist and leave it there. We will be thinking this through at LEAST as much as the production team for this movie did!

Anyway, Diya is not thrilled about her dumb mathematician boyfriend’s complete inability to tell time but she forgives him because he throws a flower at her or whatever. They sit at a restaurant celebrating her opening that he missed and somehow, despite the fact that they must have entered together, he asks if she ordered him food, like, did she call ahead I guess? And she says yes, all things covered in butter, because he wants to have a heart attack asap. Lesson number 6! Indian mathematicians have no concept of basic nutrition. Because she knows how much butter he likes, he mentions they are like a married couple and that’s her opening! Girlfriend wants him to lock it down. He likes it, put a damn ring on it.

Here is where this movie gets weird. He has known this girl his whole life. Presumably they exchanged v-cards, what with all that rolling around they did in the opening montage/song nonsense. More than that, he has to know her, like, life goals. The movie implies they literally have been besties forever. But suddenly he is like, marriage, you say? Is that an island off the coast of Portugal? We can go there, sure! He asks to think about it, looking like she’s just tried to peg him. Look, it’s totally understandable that in a couple who have been together for a long time and met super young one person would be ready for a commitment that the other would not be. But is it really realistic that they wouldn’t discuss it? Ever? That she at no point would have been like, I would like you and I and a priest to get together for TWELVE HOURS and we circle the fire and walk out hitched! (There will never be a HIndu Vegas equivalent for this reason, I’m telling you.)

Then, he meets her dad. Again, someone he seems to have known since the age of six who he is looking at like “the hell are you stranger danger?”. Lesson number 7! Amnesia is very common in Indian mathematicians. He is like, I got this job offer to teach at Cambridge! Gotta take it!

That is where we are all like, Cambridge? Really? That’s your big one? No, it’s great, but you are a mathematician, dude. Don’t you want MIT? CalTech? Stanford? Zurich? That being said, when you google “best math universities” Cambridge comes up so….that’s clearly what the people making this movie did. Also, I guess, because Jai has fantasies of the days of the Raj. Lesson number 8, you can take the British out of India….

But Diya’s dad is like, eff that noise, son! If Diya wanted to go in England she would totally already BE in England because she has a British passport! (Ummmm, doesn’t he know about her work in the Indian art scene? What is this family?) Jai and Diya’s dad then debate about what Diya wants without talking to her one time and it’s uncomfortable. Her dad is like, her life is in Delhi! Jai is like, my work is in Cambridge! Diya says nothing because she is not there. COME on.

To the wedding! Jai hates it. He’s like, we said it would be intimate! There only seem to be about fifty guests there so who knows what his problem, there were over 300 people at my Indian wedding, or so it seemed, and everyone was like, what a nice intimate affair and I cried on the inside a bunch. Jai is having tantrums all over the place, mostly while people are measuring him (which is also strange because the wedding is the next day so why is a tailor still taking his inseam and why is he trying on hats and stuff? These don’t feel like last-minute decisions. Lesson number 9! For your Indian wedding, have an elaborate suit made same day! Avoids all stress about weight fluctuation! Costs a little more but it’s worth it!

Everyone is like, the hell, Jai, you are marrying the best person! Don’t you see how hot she is? (That second part is the subtext). His friend Raj (Rohan Joshi, a comedian who is in the movie for NO APPARENT REASON) and his wife who is not given a name so I will dub her….Bookcase! (Sayani Gupta, who I personally love, ps, she was in this short film called Leeches which is amazing and she is amazing, watch the trailer here, it’s super excellent) shows up and is like, what’s your deal, dude, you are acting like a non-real movie person! But Raj doesn’t understand! Jai wants to go to CAMBRIDGE and do VEDIC MATHS because apparently that can affect SPACE TRAVEL because this movie does not really know how academia works. Actually that probably could be possible, but this movie really doesn’t know how Cambridge works. Or how being a mathematician works. If he could affect space travel, wouldn’t that offer have been from NASA? Or a school with any kind of space program attached? COME. ON.

Jai also pisses off the pandit (priest conducting the ceremony the following day) by being like, do we have to do seven circles? Can we do three? I’m in a rush. RUDE. I did seven circles, Jai! You think I didn’t have other stuff I could have been doing with my time? You think you’ve the only person who has ever sat through an Indian wedding and thought, is all this necessary? You think Diya couldn’t be using that time to make her terrible Pottery Barn art? For a mathematician ostensibly interested in astrophysics, you sure think the world revolves around your ass.

Lesson number 10 starts now, but doesn’t kick in until later. Do not piss off your pandit. He will mess you up.

Anyway, they have a dance number which shows everyone how hot Diya is, so Jai looks like even more of a dick.

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Her jewelry is actually pretty great in this scene, though, her whole outfit is just on point and I love this style and her printed lengha combo. Don’t judge, this song was dumb, I had to keep myself invested somehow!

Diya then takes Jai to the apartment she has bought for the two of them with help from her father and he has a total meltdown, shouting about how he wants other things in his life rather than marriage and a family and what about his math dreams, Diya? His Cambridge math dreams? This is, yet again, a moment where this makes literally no sense because if they are people who have known each other forever then why doesn’t he just tell her about his interest in working abroad? Why didn’t he tell her when he applied for the damn job? Jobs don’t just COME to you, there isn’t a bat signal out there for academics. You apply to them. I tell Mr. India when I order a new pair of shoes. I sure as hell am not making professional plans without at least dropping him a TEXT. What is this relationship? I guess it’s mostly sex and swinging on that swing they have in the middle of Delhi somewhere.

Lesson number 11! Successful Indian relationships are based on a total lack of conversations about lives, goals, futures or needs.

ANYway. This scene is so painful to watch because these two people are just. So. Bad. At. Acting. You can seriously see Kaif trying to make herself cry over and over again and then the camera just blurs focus kindly, like, it’s okay, baby, it’s okay, we can edit around all this I promise. I liked Malhotra in Kapoor and Sons, but here he has the emotive qualities of dry wood. So they “fight” and “feel” things and declare their relationship over and Diya leaves and Jai gets drunk on like a sip of champagne because he is bad at drinking, just like every other damn thing he’s bad at. Diya, you have no personality but you are hot as hell. You can do better. I promise. Move on.

Diya does not take my advice. Instead, Jai passes out because he’s again, terrible at drinking, and wakes up ten days later on his honeymoon in Thailand. Some guys just can’t handle Delhi, am I right? No, it’s a time travel thing he can’t control. That’s the whole premise of the movie. The audience finds this out slowly over the course of the next hour or so but it’s so mind-numbingly stupid I’m just going to tell you right now. Basically Jai pissed off that priest, (remember lesson number 10?) so the guy, Rajit Kapoor, who is WASTED in this movie, is taking his revenge by pushing Jai through time and forcing him to realize that people are more important than math. Or something. Sort of? Basically, Jai is about to go screw up his whole like by focusing more on work than his marriage, his children, etc. We are going to see this in a series of jumps to the future.It isn’t doing to make any kind of damn sense mostly because yet again THAT’S NOT HOW BEING A PROFESSOR WORKS! If this guy was going to be an investment banker, a surgeon, something that legit takes up all your damn time then SURE, fine, why not? Or if they ever showed him doing actual mathematical research, caring about a theory, working on it, obsessively searching for answers, SURE, I GUESS do. But given that neither of those two things are happening, I call bullshit on this whole situation. Look, anyone can be a self-absorbed asshole of a parent. You don’t need MATH to be that way. You can just…be that way. ARGGGGH.

Ahem. Back to it then, shall we? So honeymoon in Thailand, because Diya and Jai are Indian basic bitches. Lesson number 12, Indians love honeymoons in Thailand. Give Vietnam a try, guys! They dance around and Kaif looks aMAHzing and sings this song that the guy I saw this movie played thirty more times in the next three days after we saw the movie. He is not Mr. India. But I did almost kill him.

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She does the dumbest dance but what does it matter, she looks so insanely good. She wears like five outfits in this song and none of them cover her midriff.

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This swimsuit is so cute. They laugh and sing and dance and whatever, and Diya asks Jai why he loves her and he says “because you’re my wife” and she does not immediately slap him so she’s a better woman than I.

When he next wakes up, it’s two years later and they are in England and she’s about to give birth and furious that he wont wake up and drive her to the hospital. We know it’s England because it’s snowing but when he gets to the hospital it’s a bright sunny summer day. Long drive, I guess. She has the baby and Jai also realizes the pandit is there (that’s real commitment to a relationship, does he does this for all the people he marries to each other? Lesson 13! After an Indian wedding, your pandit is going to be real invested in your life! Get ready!) and tries to work out how math is taking him forward in time but really just uses a white board to write “Ten Days-Two years”. It’s that kind of brilliance that probably made him so attractive to Cambridge.

He keeps going forward into the future. Lesson 14! In the future, we all have to dye part of our hair a weird color. I know, I know, I don’t want to either but what can we do, it’s the rules. He realizes he will eventually get a divorce from Diya, which horrifies him.

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Surprise to no one, future Diya keeps it tight, future Jai moves towards a beard and sweater vest situation.

He tried to figure out how this will happen, but misses the basic facts of being a non-present father to his two children (he gets a second one in there somewhere) and husband and instead assumes he has an affair with his friend Bookcase. Remember her? Love her. In avoiding said affair by…spending a bunch of time with Bookcase (Jai’s logic must be math logic that is too intense and mystical and vedic for the rest of us I guess) Jai misses Diya’s London premiere art show ( I can’t even….). Jai, you aren’t missing much, her work has literally not evolved in any way. Also, sidenote, the gallery owner tells her all the work sold that first night. I guess a lot of overpriced cafes needed wall art. Anyway, Jai thinks he’s fixed it by not having an affair, conveniently forgetting the way he let his wife down, ignored his daughter and missed his son’s soccer game. Sigh.

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Once again, Kaif tries and fails to cry.

Jai wakes up old at his mother’s funeral and although he thought he had fixed his marriage, Diya has in fact left him for that gallery owner who sold all her art. The age make up is excellent and the future looks cool with digital curtains and this very interesting cremation situation. But that hair thing is still there, sigh. Maybe I’ll do like a teal or something. Keep it fun.

Jai then lives the day of Diya’s London gallery opening once again, but this time he realizes he should spend less time avoiding an affair with bookcase by spending all his time with bookcase and more time being a decent human being. It works! He is finally returned to Delhi (ugh, bummer) and wakes up, hungover from that one bottle of champagne, and goes off to find Diya and apologize.

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She takes him back because she knows no other way, and they marry. He thanks that priest who is like, see, I told you, magic is better than math, am I right? Sure. That’s the take home here.

Then, they do a song that was released two months before the film itself and made people feel this movie would be a fun and funny romp, instead of the sweltering logically screwed nonsense that it is.

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sayani-rohan-759Raj and Bookcase! She’s so cute. Love her.

So, 14 lessons means it’s a little light on the learning opportunities, but upside we got a new job out of it for women. How did this do on the Bechtel test? Massive massive fail. Actually, as I think about it, not only does Diya not speak to other WOMEN, Diya barely speaks to ANYONE in this movie other than Jai! Not her parents, not her supposed friends, a line here and there but mostly she only exists in scenes with Jai. OH my god, what if she really DOES only exist in Jai’s mind?!?! Not only would that account for Kaif’s frightening lack of human emotions but it would also make this a MUCH more interesting movie! She’s a ghost-fantasy-sex dream! That’s why she’s so hot! That’s why nothing makes sense! It’s all Jai’s dream! That’s brilliant!

Or not.

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Shhhh. Just look at her perfect stomach and forget the rest. That’s clearly what we are all supposed to be doing here, anyway.