Southern Comfort

What the heroine said to her friend, or What the heroine’s friend said to her
May you live long, my friend!
Has not the ancient adage that if one does
good in this birth, no evil will come, has
failed?

We did not do anything with hatred
for him to pass through many chilly
mountains, where
red-eyed wasteland warriors, with tightly
curled hair like that of ram horns that cover
their napes, chew sand to control coughs,
carry powerful, small kindling and bows,
and seize butter churning rods that reveal
foam, and capture herds of cattle with
calves from protected places, as their
leather slippers hide their steps and creak,
move the herds to their homes in the huge
forest with vast spaces, and like a boat
in the wide, huge sky, the hot sun with
its bright rays burns in summer, and the
swirling winds cause many mature flowers
of the dry-trunked, murungai trees to drop
like rainy season’s hail.

-Akanānūru 101, South Indian Poetry translated by Vaidehi Herbert

What is it about the Southern part of some places that makes it so damn laid back and friendly? I mean, the American South is defined by some big negatives (the Confederacy and all that goes with it, from then to now, oh, and by the way, if you haven’t read or seen Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu’s speech about removing confederate memorials, you should go ahead and do so right now, I’ll wait, no problem), but there are also positives, like amazing food, friendly people, warm sultry weather and a lushness of life. Having grown up with parents who took me to historic American cities like Charleston and Savannah, I saw a very elegant and stately version of the South, and it’s one I love even today. Is that a little Scarlett O’Hara? MAYBE. But frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn. Oh, come on, it had to be done!

Here in India, there is a lot to see, of course, because it’s a massive country, duh. But because of my current research for my new novel, as well as a general areas of my interest, I’ve spent a lot of tourist time in the north of India. Some of that also has to do with the fact that the north, specifically Rajasthan, is the only area of India I’ve been to that seems well set-up for tourism, and some of that has to do with the fact that a lot of the traveling I’ve done here has been when people have come to visit.

One of the things that is difficult about India, for me, is that it’s not really a great idea to travel alone, especially if you are a woman. Is it possible? Absolutely, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing it. But spending so much time here, and seeing the way women on their own, be it in that moment or in their lives, are treated with suspicion or worried over ad nauseum, has discouraged me personally from wanting to get out there on my own. I actually really like traveling alone, and I’ve done a lot of it. It’s deeply satisfying to face travel challenges and overcome them, it’s exciting to figure things out on your own in a new place, and it’s empowering to make all your travel decisions and get all the things you want. No going with the group, no compromising for other people, just you and a ton of art museums and historic sites. I mean, if you’re me. I honestly have no idea what other people do when they travel…

But here, with the language barriers and the dangers and the general lack of preparation for tourism that makes navigating anything outside of hiring a car and a guide for the day a little bit of a struggle, I have avoiding going solo. So when people come, I have the opportunity to try out new places, and I’ve been pretty lucky in the fact that a lot of my friends have chosen to explore different parts of the country. And so when my friend Sarah came recently, and expressed an interest in going south, south we went, and I got to maintain my “Taj Mahal only once a year” vow. What a life I’m living….

We decided, what with the monsoons and all, that we might as well lean into the rain and go somewhere that is well served by a vigorous soaking. So we headed to Kerala, the small state tucked up into the side of the Malabar coast, filled with remnants of the Portuguese who once invaded and conquered, in search of cheap spices and a way to screw the Venetians (but I mean, WHO ISN’T?). Once in Cochin, a significant port for centuries, and the one time resting place of Vasco de Gama (until they moved his remains back to Portugal because he would be DAMNED if he spent eternity in a colony, COME on!), Sarah and I walked (a novelty in India, but it’s actually super pleasant!) to the old synagogue which once housed a thriving Jewish community. Strolling around, fending off a thousand offers for guided rickshaw rides of the tiny city and offers for kashmir scarves, we instead enjoyed street art, spice shops, and Chinese fishing nets, as well as goats. Goats, they are the pigeons of India, except that there are also pigeons.

Then, we took a terrifying (although, honestly, at this point in my life, with so many car rides in India, how does one even gauge terror anymore?) car ride up into the Western Ghats and despite this nature special I missed most of the cool animals and instead spent some time with a bunch of trees. We had Ayurvedic massages and sat in a sweat box from the 1930’s and enjoyed air that was pure of pollution, while people all around us were insanely nice. I mean, this place was seriously pleasant. From the lovely woman who taught our cooking class, who got us the hook up on coconut vinegar (IS THERE SUCH A THING? YES!) to the amazing tea plantation nestled into the hills where we looked out and thought, yep, that’s what tea looks like, certainly, it was all gorgeous, but more than that, it was so pleasant. Look, life in Bombay is great, but good God, I think the South might be just magnificent.

The only problem? Kerala is a dry state. And yet, our hotel had wine! So maybe if I just live in hotels I could, like, make that my life? I could afford that for a little bit, right? A few months, at least? I mean, seriously, you gotta try that chicken…

And now, to the photos:

The former resting place of De Gama.

Making friends wherever I go.

Seriously, just very kind locals.

Take your son to work day.

The Kerala Folklore Museum is a graveyard of objects and it’s bonkers.

Worshipers come in all sizes.

Local dancers in light make up.

 

 

Advertisements

What Bollywood Can Teach You About India: Dear Zindagi Edition

 

“The youth is different from that in the industrial world in the sense that it has not yet fully gone through the process of individuation — it retains family and community ties — but it is different from the previous generation/s in the hope, expectations and aspirations that mark India’s youth of today”. -Suhas Palshikar, political scientist and director of Lokniti in a 2017 article in The Economic Times 

Hello, friends! It’s been a while, I know, since my last edition in this series, and I’m sure you’ve missed it terribly, although probably not as much as I have. Indeed, watching Indian movies and gleaning their myriad lessons is truly one of the happiest parts of my life. How else would I know that calendar girl is a real profession, that you can get over addiction by tying a scarf around your waist, or that the best way to find love is to leave your grandfather’s ashes on a train? Let ALONE learning how time travel works, it’s like, screw you, H.G. Wells, all you have to do is be a Vedic mathematician and the time, it flies! India. It’s a magical place.

So here we are again, with a film that was in fact very popular in India when it released a few months ago. The name does give one pause, of course. Dear Zindagi, or Dear Life, sounds like a rejected title for a Judy Blume novel, but lots of people really liked it, which made me think that maybe I would like it too. It’s about things that are interesting and important to me, like mental health (the day my therapist told me we could have skype sessions when I’m in India was on the top ten list of days of my life) and the struggles facing young women in society (women? I love women! I even AM one!) and millennial (I have to say, I do like a lot of these things that millennials like according to this business insider article that was CLEARLY WRITTEN BY AN OLD WHITE DUDE, although who DOESN’T like gourmet pizza? It’s delicious!). The movie features Alia Bhatt, the ultimate Indian millennial actress, a precious butterfly mixture of Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, Kristen Dunst in her youth, with a little Zoe Kazan thrown in for fun. It’s been hailed as a heartwarming in-depth examination of one young woman and her life, and the fact that a woman is at the center of the story and it’s not a romance is quite revolutionary in India (OH MY GOD INDIA COME ON YOU HAD A FEMALE PRIME MINISTER STARTING IN 1966 GET IT TOGETHER), so what could go wrong?

Of course, some reviews had some stuff to say, like “Dear Zindagi should have been a much better film. What we get instead, in spades, is bumper-sticker self-help notes which are strictly boiler-plate.” (Shubhra Gupta of The Indian Express) but hey, what does she know? She probably doesn’t even understand about the significance of the sweater vest in Punjab or ANYTHING. So anyway, let’s DO this thing!

We open our story in Singapore, where Kaira, whose nickname is Koko for absolutely no reason, is working on a film. Hey, I wonder if maybe her dumb nickname is why she will end up in therapy? (Spoiler alert, it is NOT.)

Kaira, God love her, is many things which I will unpack as this movie goes forward, selfish, foolish, often totally inexplicable, but I can put all that aside because SHE UPS OUR NUMBER OF CAREERS FOR WOMEN! In fact, this film actually has TWO jobs women can do so it is a double whammy win. Kaira’s job, however, is sort of ill-defined because they keep calling her a camera woman when it is very clear that her actual job is cinematographer. Why be so ambiguous, Dear ZIndagi? Camera men in Bollywood are swarthy dudes who get paid less than four dollars an hour. Cinematographers are artists who go to film schools. There is no way little miss Faux-fia Coppola over here is a damn camera man. Lesson number one! Jobs are ambiguous and amorphous in Bollywood.

Kaira, because she is pretentious as hell, wears glasses with clear glass in them to seem more serious on set. You know what might actually get people to take you seriously, Kaira? A whole pair of pants. One of Kaira’s many unexplained neuroses in this movie is her inexplicable devotion to jeans that are more hole than pant. Perhaps it’s a statement about the fragile fabric of reality? Lesson two! Jeans are metaphors and should never be whole. LIKE KARIA’S SOUL.

So anyway, Kaira is supposedly a brilliant filmmaker because she is shooting a movie or something in which a guy is begging a girl to forgive him after cheating on her for the upteenth time and she stops the shooting even though the ENTIRE CREW IS READY TO WRAP so she can do one more take with the actress gazing longingly at a passing dude while her cheating beau hugs her. Everything thinks this is the most brilliant thing since sliced bread. I think that kind of adjustment is the director’s job, and in a real shoot Kaira would be a huge douche who delayed shooting for a shitty idea that was not in her purview. But what do I know? See, the point is, Kaira is spirited! And spunky! And totally disrespectful of other people’s time! Also, Kaira was brought in to shoot ONE SCENE OF THIS MOVIE? How is that a thing? I never want to see this movie. It looks AWFUL. Lesson number three! Being an asshole on a movie shoot in Bollywood will take you places.

On the way back to Mumbai in the Singapore airport, which by the way is amazing and it has great food, Kaira and her crush, Raghuvendra, who is played by Kunal Kapoor, who is like, twice Alia Bhatt’s size, hang out, and Kaira opts for a coke instead of a drink, and neither of them eat any of the amazing food offerings the airport has for travelers. Pfftt. Singapore is wasted on these people.

It is clear that these two have slept together, and Kaira is all weird about it, which makes sense, they work together, and Raghuvendra, or Ragu, for short, is pretty thirsty. Girl, I get it, he is a stage five clinger, making hitting it and quitting it hard. Lesson number four! Guys in India are needy. 

Back in Mumbai, Ragu is all, call me and Kaira is all, whatever, bro. I totally respect her brushing this guy off. What I do NOT respect is what a dick she is to her maid!

Kaira literally gets into her house, throws all her shit on the floor for her maid to pick up, and starts opening all these PRODUCT PLACEMENT eBay boxes because she’s quirky and cool and that means she buys a bunch of useless stuff no one needs. I guess being a camera woman pays EXTREMELY well because Kaira lives alone with a maid who is apparently at her beck and call in a GIANT apartment in the most expensive city in India and she can spend all her money on eBay items. Lesson number five! Mumbai is like New York, reasonable in movies alone.

She also goes around tipping her own belongings over because I guess that’s her design scheme despite the fact that a woman who makes about as much as one of those eBay items has gone to a lot of trouble to make stuff look nice. It is at this point in the movie that I start to wonder if the secret message here is that millennials are assholes. Lesson number six! Millennials are assholes.

And that’s when Kaira takes a photo of her food! Which I also do sometimes, yes, but movie, are you reading my MIND? Kaira is on a date with her restaurateur boyfriend, who she has ostensibly cheated on? But I don’t know how exclusive they are, so you know, it could be an open thing. Kaira, who doesn’t care about this dude despite all the free food he makes available to her, observes this little scene:

This policy means Mr. India would NEVER attend this restaurant. Kaira asks her boyfriend to bend the rules for this group, which I think is included in the movie to make her seem empathetic and observant, but really it just shows that millennials are rule breakers with no respect for institutions or their traditions.

Kaira’s boyfriend, who dresses appropriately like an adult, is sad she doesn’t want to be with him. YOU’RE DODGING A BULLET HERE, GUY!

A fair amount of this movie is Alia Bhatt dancing artistically in her apartment or wherever. I personally do dance around my own apartment, of course, but I don’t ask other people to WATCH it, and my cat usually leaves when I start. So I’m not, like, thrilled by this. She also has a bunch of Polaroids on the wall like it’s 2007 not 2017 and anyone still uses Polaroids. I guess this is more evidence of her being quirky or whatever, but given that she works in film you would think she’d be a little more tech evolved. Lesson number seven! Polaroids are still a thing in India.

Kaira goes shopping with her friends, who include Fatima, our SECOND job for women, i.e. costume designer, who is played by Ira Dubey who looks so much like her mother it’s straight up frightening, and Jackie, who has no job, and is played by Yashaswini Dayama, and these two dudes, one of whom is gay, which is progressive, I guess? The gay one talks about therapy, which intrigues Kaira. No one asks that guy about what must have been a fascinating and difficult struggle to understand and accept your sexuality in a country where homosexuality is still straight up illegal. Obviously Kaira’s shit is more important, duh! Lesson number eight! The problems of a straight pretty girl are a lot more important than anyone else’s shit. 

Later, Kaira complains about having to visit her family in Goa and about how her mom wants to cook for her all the time. Yeah, that sounds like a REAL drag, Kaira. I mean, her mom is right up there with Joan Crawford, AM I RIGHT?

Kaira and Jackie go grocery shopping and Kaira gets all mushy because she sees a jar of Ragu sauce and it reminds her of Ragu the human. I did not think she liked this guy, so this was confusing for me, but I guess she does, because she buys the jar. Kiara, Marcella Hazan’s pasta sauce recipe is far superior, yo! Later, her maid serves her the pasta like DAMN Kiara, that’s a heat and serve situation, be more entitled why don’t you? Lesson number nice! Buy food items that remind you of the person you want to bone. It totally strengthens your bond!

Back at work, in a Canadian tuxedo, Kiara dodges calls from her landlord and shoots a music video. Her landlord informs her that he only wants to rent to married couples, which does totally suck and is a thing that happens in India, but her response is that she therefore has to move in with her parents in Goa instead of, oh, I don’t know, LOOKING FOR A ROOMMATE? Trying to find another place? Crashing on someone’s couch? I guess for Kiara its giant solo apartment or NOTHING.

It’s nice of her friends to help her pack. Kaira really doesn’t seem like a very giving friend, so it’s nice that her friends at least are decent people. Also she calls her friend Fatima “Fatty” which I think is just very dick. Fatima is pregnant, by the way, and I feel like that nickname will NOT age well.

Ragu tells her that he wants her to shoot a whole movie for him in New York, which is very exciting for her, but when she finds out that the director is Ragu’s ex, she gets understandably weird about it. That, however, does not justify the fact that she dances this weirdness out by listening to her own music over her headphones while dancing in a club. Lesson number ten! You can bring your own music to a club in India, it’s not odd or anything.

I can think of few more pretentious things, and I literally attended an Ivy League university.

Later, however, Fatima informs Kaira that Ragu, who is now in New York doing prep for the movie or whatever, I’m not sure this movie knows how other movies work, is engaged. Damn, Dear Zindagi! He left Mumbai about a WEEK ago. Couldn’t he just be like, seeing someone? Kaira is very upset by this, despite the fact that she seemed REALLY not into him, but I guess the point is that’s like her way of being into a dude? Her way of being upset involves eating a chili and blaming her tears on that (um, girlfriend, you were crying WAY pre chili but sure, nice try) and breaking a bunch of jars of Ragu in a supermarket and then leaving cash at the register as she storms out. Just so you know, a jar of Ragu retails at 495 rupees or about 7.50 USD at the current exchange rate. WASTEFUL!  Lesson number eleven! Indian millennials are wasteful and rude. 

So, because she has no other (or literally a hundred other) options, Kaira reluctantly moves back to her parents palatial home in beautiful unpolluted Goa where her father has a job set up for her shooting a local commercial. WHAT A DRAG. She is strangely rude to her parents who seem very nice and very proud of her and her career choices:

And who defend her from annoying Indian Aunties and Uncles who harass her 25 year old self about getting married:

And like, serve her wine and stuff. Obviously this situation is torture for Kiara, and she can’t sleep a wink in her beautiful bedroom in her beautiful home and whines about wondering whether she should take the job shooting the movie or not. I….honestly thought that would be off the table when Ragu realized Kaira wasn’t going to sleep with him again, so it seems frankly naive that she thinks that’s still an option for her, but okay, fine, I guess her talent is just TOO MUCH TO IGNORE.

Shooting an ad for her dad’s friend’s hotel, which is apparently the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone, Kaira stumbles upon a mental health conference, in which bad boy therapist (that’s not a thing) Dr. Jehangir Khan, play by Shah Rukh Khan, for some Khan on Khan action, dazzles the crowd with his laid back pearls of wisdom. Kaira is drawn to him, probably because they share an affinity for torn jeans.

Kaira is intrigued. So she goes to talk to Dr. Khan, who wants people to call him Jug (ummmmmm, why?) about her sleep issues which quickly becomes about her man issues, and her concerns about this project and how it could be great for her career, but back for her sense of self care. Kaira only recruits others to care for her, so this idea is laughable, but Jug is there for it. Jug is a more patient person than I, which is why he is a good therapist and I wouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, Jug is also a really BAD therapist in that he does not abide by any of the professional ethical boundaries he is supposed to maintain, and also, THIS IS NOT HOW THERAPY WORKS. Lesson number twelve! Therapy is whatever you want it to be in India. All things are therapy! The wind is therapy! Everything!

Anyway, Jug tells Kaira that she doesn’t have to take the hard way, there is no virtue in that path. He uses a weird extended metaphor about climbing Everest, which resonates with Kiara for whatever reason, so when Ragu comes and visits her, because I guess he is ALSO wildly independently wealthy and can afford a last minute trip back from New York to Mumbai and then to Goa in the middle of his shooting prep just so he can, what, make a girl he slept with feel okay? Tell her he’s found another cinematographer? We may never know WHY he came, because Kiara interrupts him with her nonsense and tells him that SHE is rejecting HIS movie so take THAT! I really wish he had had a chance to be like, oh, honey, no, that was a verbal offer in a club one time, no contract, no job, I came here to talk to JACKIE because we are in LOVE (oh, right, Jackie is like also in Goa with Kaira? No idea why.) But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Kaira feels victorious, but she still can’t sleep, so she returns to Jug for more totally unprofessional sessions. Also, every time Jug says something, she repeats it to everyone in her life and they all talk about how brilliant it is and it’s so so smug on the part of writer/director Gauri Shinde that I want to hit her in the face. Hey, Shinde, how about you let the AUDIENCE decide if something is brilliant or not?

Also, they have this whole conversation about how relationships are like chairs and you have to try a bunch to get the right one. This to me was like oh god gag me with a spoon but to be fair, in India I guess this is like a radical idea that ladies might need to sleep with multiple people/date multiple people/meet men who are not their direct relatives more than one time before settling down, so well done, I guess, Dear ZIndagi. Lesson number thirteen! It is a revelation that you can sleep with more than one person and not be a big dumb slut.

Jug, like, takes Kaira to the beach and stuff, and nothing makes sense. He pretends that the ocean is chasing him and I’m just like, dude, for real? Kaira, here’s a hint, when seeking out help with your mental health, do not enlist someone who has some fairly clear mental health issues himself!

Kaira goes out with Jackie, because again, Jackie has no job and apparently just followed her friend to Goa (sidenote, what is Jackie is in love with Kaira? I would love that. It still wouldn’t be a JOB, but it would be interesting. Maybe she should talk to a therapist, but not Jug, because again, he’s totally worthless). At the bar, some COMPLETE AND UTTER DOUCHEBAG starts singing, loudly, with a guitar. I legitimately hate this guy. If I was in a bar with this guy I would break a bottle and go for his neck. Guy, people are DRINKING HERE.

Initially Kaira’s face reflects my own feelings, probably because Alia Bhatt, in her position as Indian Jennifer Lawrence, seems fairly cool and like someone you could throw down on a dry white wine with.

See those dead eyes? That is what my face would look like if this happened to me. But then because of the plot or whatever they make poor Alia Bhatt look excited or what the fuck ever despite how insanely douchey this man is.

Jackie and Kaira introduce themselves to this asshole instead of leaving and getting drunk in a bar that doesn’t let random dudes just SING and disturb patrons with their nonsense. Lesson number fourteen! In India it is socially acceptable to disturb an entire bar of people with your bullshit singing.

The guy, whose name is Rumi, Rumi, for fucks sake, mansplains to Kaira that there are multiple types of music.

Instead of politely excusing herself to go to the bathroom and throw up, hoping that this horrific excuse for a human being will be gone by the time she leaves, Kiara agrees to go to a beach to listen to MORE of his music. Kiara, that’s how people get MURDERED. Jackie is nowhere to be seen, because I guess she doesn’t care if Kiara dies. I’m not NOT with you, Jackie. So far she has been the literal worst as a friend, and not awesome as a person.

I guess Kaira is actually 16 and an idiot, because she is like delighted by touching this dude’s guitar despite it being a clear metaphor for his penis. Kaira, I’m begging you, do not touch Rumi’s penis. When he asks you to make poetry with him, RUN AWAY.

When she talks to Jug about it, her big complaint is that Rumi plays too much music all the time. I mean, it would have been nice if she had identified him as a solipsistic disturber of the peace, but fine, screw it, I will take this. Jug makes fun of opera, like an asshole. Hey, man, they don’t come to where YOU live and tell you you’re a terrible therapist! I’M doing that! Then Kaira breaks something in Jug’s office. My therapist does not have so much stuff in her office which is great because I would totally break things, I’m a massive klutz, so I feel you there, Kaira.

NO. YOU SHOULDN’T. THAT IS WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE. COME ON, MAN!

Kaira and her friends get drunk but act like they are high. This scene does nothing for this movie. It’s like Alia Bhatt dancing around, but less energetic. Then Kaira has a date with Rumi, who makes her wait to let the wine breathe all of two seconds, which isn’t how wine works, and then tells her she has to buy PInk Floyd’s first album. Um, WHAT? That’s not like an obscure music thing, that’s just like a general thing. That’s like saying, you need to listen to this little band out of Liverpool, it’s a group of four guys and they spell beetle wrong, they will BLOW YOUR MIND. Come on, now! Also, he’s not even playing her Pink Floyd, he’s playing her something else, and he’s like singing off key to it. Granted, he made her fondue (I mean, you melt chocolate, it’s not exactly biryani, here, but dude, you’re an asshole. I TOLD YOU, KAIRA! She understandably hates all this, and splits like a banana.

Back in therapy, Kaira complains about Rumi some more, and it’s like Jesus, Kaira, use him and loose him already! Jug talks her through her feelings or whatever.

Sigh, I’m with you Kaira, and so is everyone else. However, you aren’t IN a relationship, you had a couple of non-dates with a psedo-musican. That’s not a relationship, that’s like a long weekend in college. Anyway, Kaira shades towards some abandonment issues, which I guess is her real thing, and Jug is like:

Great. How about you actually do a decent job as a therapist? No, then? Cool.

 

Kaira visits Rumi on the beach because I guess that’s his main occupation in life and there are these people juggling with fire behind him and this is actually one of my many versions of hell and he stops playing, ostensibly to make Kaira happy, and the crowd, which includes a white woman with dreadlocks, NOPE, is literally like, no, don’t stop, you are so amazing! Shut up, crowd. He plays on. Kaira gets closure on her non-relationship. Pieces of me die. This is like Indian Girls but less interesting. And Girls isn’t that interesting. Lesson number fifteen! Many people in India according to this movie have HORRIBLE taste in music,

Meanwhile, Jackie and Kaira skype Fatima who is about 7 months pregnant or so so I guess they have been in Goa THAT LONG? Jesus. Jackie has a new boyfriend (imaginary, I hope, I’m still rooting for this Jackie Kaira Sam and Diane thing to spark) and Kaira doesn’t know. Kaira is pissed that Jackie didn’t tell her, but to Jackie’s credit, Kaira actually might be the most selfish person in the world, so she probably DID tell her and Kaira forgot.

They have a fight which quickly resolves and means nothing and doesn’t advance the plot forward. Cool.

Kaira, in yet another pair of ripped jeans, comes to meet Jug, presumably for their session, but he’s fixing a bicycle for a pair of pre-teen boys who are not having any of Kaira’s nonsense. Boys, I feel you. Also, why is Jug fixing a bicycle during their session? Doesn’t he charge by the hour? That’s KAIRA’S time.

Then they do their session on bikes. THIS IS NOT HOW THERAPY WORKS.

Wow. Way to drop knowledge, Dr. Obvious. Where is your medical degree from, the school of hard knocks? His dime store psychology, however, is just Kaira’s price, because she flashes back to being a small child and then declares she just wants to be free from all this. Free from…your pampered life in Goa where you have no expenses or responsibilities? Yeah, girl, you seem REAL hemmed in.

Kaira then falls off her bike and Jug tells her her time is up. You would sue for this shit in the States, I’m telling you.

 

Kaira’s parents have a party for her brother’s homecoming, and also I guess it’s a set up for Kaira? Ugh. But one woman asks about Jackie, cementing my lesbian theory! Yes!

At the dinner that her mother lovingly cooked, her mom is like, why aren’t you eating? which is weird because Kaira was actually eating in this shot. I feel like they are shading towards some eating stuff in this family, and Kaira’s mother is heavy-set, and at some point Kaira is like, you just want to make me fat!, which is a really dick thing to say, Kaira. But anyway, people start talking about how Kiddo, Kaira’s brother, who has no other name, damn this family is bad with nicknames, was such a good baby, and Kaira was a mess. I understand that this is annoying, but it is one of those things that adults like to do, however it sets Kaira off, especially when her uncle? potentially? Is all sanctimonious and it’s like, dude, do you even HAVE children? If so, where are they?

I feel ya, Koko.

And Kaira explodes, and reveals that she is in therapy. Therapy is in fact a really big deal in India. I’ve told people I’m in therapy in a very offhand flippant way (see, earlier in this very post!) And I can always see Mr. India wince very slightly, not, I think, because he feels some kind of way about me being in therapy, but because he is anticipating what the other person is thinking. I have actually had people ask “what is wrong with you?” when I mention it, to which I obviously reply, nothing, I’m amazing, that’s why I’m in therapy! But it is socially stigmatized in big ways, and there is this idea that therapy is for people with severe mental health issues. Not that people actually talk about mental health here. As in so many cultures, emotions in India are supposed to be overcome by sheer acts of willpower, and being affected by grief, being addicted to something, suffering from depression, these are all moral failings, weaknesses.

Kaira is doing that finger spinning “I’m crazy” thing. She storms off and Kiddo goes after her and she decides she needs to deal with these issues. Quick, to Jug’s magical house of bicycles and feelings!

Finally, FINALLY, Kaira’s sad sad traumatic story of trauma that explains all her shit neatly tumbles out of her mouth like a waterfall. It’s convoluted and dumb but basically her parents moved to the US to start a business and left her with her grandparents when she was like 5 or something, and she was sad and wrote them letters and they never answered and then they visited and she overheard them say they couldn’t afford to take her with them and they never answered the letters but then they had her BROTHER so obviously they could have A kid just not HER and then she deliberately failed second grade or whatever so they came back to Goa.

Damn, Alia Bhatt is an ugly crier. But her hair looks so nice all curly! She should never straighten it.

Look, that does sound sad and sort of shitty, but I’m sure they had their reasons, and they mostly seem economic, and most people are just doing their damn best, and why have you never TALKED to these people about this? Lesson number sixteen. Don’t ever talk about anything with the people involved. Just don’t do it! It’s a trap!

Obviously as a therapist Jug advises Kaira to talk to her parents and gives her some strong tools to do so, RIGHT? WRONG. He’s like, that is awful, but you should let it go! Just LET IT GO! Thanks, FROZEN, for the sage advice. Why not say hello to life? Wow, that’s basically THE MOVIE TITLE! It’s all coming together NOW!

So somehow instead of talking to her parents and trying to re-start a healthy relationship with them, Kaira just sort of wanders away in an outfit that looks like a transparent patchwork curtain.

Then she dances around again. This movie really thinks that Alia Bhatt dancing around is a lot more compelling than it is.

There is nothing more India than the fact that she’s putting this in dirty muddy water.

This is not how the rorschach test works. Jug, you are terrible at your job.

So anyway she runs around and like enjoys life for the first time and finally gets a good night’s sleep and gives her mom flowers and looks at baby photos with her dad and whatever and has this cake baking scene which is so clearly romantic I don’t even understand why this movie isn’t going there:

No, INSTEAD it’s going to a place where Kaira has a crush on Jug. NOPE. I’m not dealing with this. This is total nonsense. I don’t care about this. NOPE. Do you think that in any movie Shah Rukh Khan signs on to, it’s in his contract that a woman must fall in love with him? Is that part of his rider, like, coconut water, vegan chocolate mousse, in-trailer gym, at least one love story?

Jug cancels a session and Kaira is pissed. This movie wont end. They take a boat ride together. Kaira wears a full-length kimono coat thing over jean cut offs. It’s horrific.

No. They wont. They will never get sorted because that’s being a human, recognizing that whatever you came from will live in you forever. Jug is the worst therapist ever. Jug then tells her that their next session will be her last. Um, okay, I guess? I mean, that is a thing that happens but you would think he would at least refer her to someone else.

Kaira and her brother talk about her work, and how she’s “done sulking now”. She will clearly never be done sulking, her personality is half-sulk. Then Kaira says the dumbest thing she’s said this entire movie:

Never in the history of the world has that actually happened. It is official. This movie does not know how movies work. Lesson number eighteen! In India people will fund your short film. Come here, everyone I went to graduate school with, I know you’ve got some nonsense all ready to go!

Kaira expresses her feelings for Jug which I refuse to deal with because this is such a stupid plot line that it doesn’t deserve my respect. You know what did this story well? In Treatment. That’s what did this well. Gabriel Byrne would sneer at this, and he would be right to do so.

So NOW you have professional ethics? What a fun surprise.

Kaira ugly cries again, but then she laughs, because she’s HEALED now, she’s all BETTER and that means she can finally be with a MAN which was the whole POINT even though they pretended that it wasn’t. Lesson number nineteen! Mental health is all about getting you ready to get married.

And then she makes the WORST. SHORT. FILM. EVER.

I guess it’s about a Portuguese solider who was a woman but pretended to be a man and did that for over a decade but clearly couldn’t commit to CUTTING HER DAMN HAIR? ARE YOU SERIOUS?

Everyone claps at her giant screening for this 45 second short film that someone else funded apparently (bet they regret THAT) and says how amazing it was. Yet again, Dear Zindagi imposes its sense of what is brilliant on you before you have a chance to say hey, that was really pretty shitty, wasn’t it?

All of Kaira’s ex boyfriends show up for no reason, including this dude, and that weird awful uncle is like “she couldn’t have done this without you” which makes no sense at all, but let’s stop expecting logic from that guy, his name might as well be “patriarchy”. Ragu is gracious but I’m pretty sure Kaira could have shot this short film out of a damn closet, so whatever.

Then she meets a furniture maker who is dressed in head to toe black like she is and the movie ends and we can all heave a sigh of relief that even if she’s not CURRENTLY married or attached to someone, she will be soon!

Wow. Nineteen lessons, two jobs for women, and a complete and total disregard for how mental health actually works.

Still, I mean, in a country where people actually ask me what’s wrong with me when I tell them I’m in therapy, I guess it’s better than nothing? (IS IT THOUGH?) Yeah. It probably is.

But not by much….

 

 

 

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?

img_20170129_123220

Take joy in the fluff.

img_20170129_140925

South Indian Mangalorean Thali of my DREAMS.

img_20170130_141511

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?

img_20170109_183607 img_20170115_160512 img_20170119_221549

 

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.

img_20161118_125302

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.