Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Two-Word Tamil Lesson

My husband Mowgli (not his real name) speaks three languages. English is his first (in case you're curious -- he gets a lot of questions about that), and at home, his parents speak a mix of Tamil and Telugu in addition to English. So if I want to understand and converse the way they do, I'll need to learn two languages as well as the particular mixology at work in my in-laws' home.

For now, I've decided that learning Tamil, slowly and randomly, is the way to go, since they live in Tamil Nadu and I should therefore be able to use it both in the house and in public the next time I visit.

One word I've learned, from doing yardwork with Mowgli, is the word for "snake," because we have garter snakes and he is not fond of snakes in any form. When he sees one, he will point and use the Tamil word for snake.

Not long ago, when a nature show ad came on, and there was a gorgeous close-up of a tongue-flicking snake in the ad, I proudly trotted out one of my five Tamil words. "Ooh, honey, look at that big bad tombu!"

That's when the laughing started. Tombu means "thumb." Pombu is "snake."

And now I know two Tamil words really, really well.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

India Diary, Part Two

If you're just joining us, today's post is a continuation of Thursday's post, which consisted of excerpts from the diary I kept when I went to India last year for a reception thrown for us by my in-laws. Again, this is verbatim except where noted by brackets.

On the endlessly fascinating street life:
"We saw a bunch of bullock water carts -- tanks of water on wheels being hauled by bullocks with brightly painted horns, some with decorative horn-covers:"

By the way, it turns out these water carts are supplemental -- the city provides water on specific days at specific times, and it's up to you to fill your tanks with as much as you need. If you can't get enough, or need more, you contact a supplemental water company, which then dispatches a bull-drawn tank.

On our one trip outside of the city:
"Went off to the waterfall -- about 40 KM away, north of the city. Passed farms w/grapes, bananas, sugar cane & rice paddies, in between villages with stall-stores at the edge of the road, schools, coconut vendors, groups of women, men & schoolkids. Lots of goats, stray dogs, cows (some on leads), and donkeys. Saw a donkey fight in the middle of the road -- awesomely funny."

My husband Mowgli (not his real name) told me later that donkeys eat newspaper, and something in the ink makes them crazy. I still wish I'd been quick enough with the camera to get a shot of the donkey fight. Most of the animals we saw, including horses, were wandering down the street. Cows tend to be tied up because they're very valuable; goats are allowed to wander because they'll eat as they go and it's cheaper to keep them that way; and the dogs are just semi-feral and everywhere, and not to be messed with.

On wandering around town and visiting a grocery store (at my request):
"Had a Coke at Domino's after taking pix of the delivery motorbikes outside and attracting the attention of the owner, who was amused by my tourist ways, but v. nice. [Mowgli] had suggested a juice bar, but I couldn't decide to save my life (Chickoo?!) and was nervous since mom's incident. And something familiar just sounded good.
Went to a grocery store -- Nilgiri's -- to check it out -- narrow aisles, and lots of choices just like in the U.S. Sort of like a Target in that they had housewares, dog stuff, toiletries, etc. [Mowgli] said later that produce was next door."

I'll leave you with sketches of some of the gifts we received at the reception. The Shiva was too heavy to bring back, but the Ganesh came with us and now resides in our living room.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

India Diary, Part One

I blame the jetlag for my fascination with the lightswitches.

I recently rediscovered the diary I kept during our trip to India last year for a reception that my husband's parents threw to celebrate our marriage. My mother and older brother went with us, and we traveled together from Newark to Brussels to Chennai (Madras) to Coimbatore. On the longest leg of the flight (9 1/2 hours) we all slept, though I noted that when I woke up I was so groggy that my husband was worried (we had only been married for six months).

Here are a few excerpts, verbatim except where noted with brackets.

First impressions of Madras:

"On the way to the hotel I was in back, trying to see as much as possible. Lots of dust, roadside shops/bars serving taxi drivers. I noticed that if I breathed with my mouth open, I could feel a fine coating of silky grit. Lots of honking. People driving fast, auto-rickshaws, scooters, trucks. We passed a modern gas station, just like ours -- big, well-lit, neon, lots of pumps."

The entry/new bride welcoming proceedings at my in-law's house in Coimbatore, which were attended by several aunts and uncles. Just before this, we'd done the entry ceremony, wherein I'd had to be the first to enter the family courtyard and house, stepping with my right foot first. Mowgli was scolded for trying to enter before me, but to be fair, we'd just traveled for over 30 hours.

" ...I lit the lamp in the family shrine. I had to strike the match with my right hand -- kind of tricky for a southpaw. All of this took maybe five minutes, then we ate, served by the ladies. I held a silver tray with dishes of kumkum and turmeric. [Amma (mother in-law)] put the gift on it, they daubed themsleves and me, then I offered the gift and they took it."

On my mom crossing the street:

"Mom's freaked out about crossing the street. There are no crosswalks and nobody stops, but nobody gets hit either. Everyone also honks. Mom stops when she should keep going."

On beggars:

"Saw a few beggars -- little kids, and an old dwarf man. [Mowgli] gave the man some money but shooed the kids away. I have to ask him why he gave to one and not the other." Note: He told me later the kids are working for a boss, so he didn't give because the money wouldn't help them.

On waiting for our driver* to pick my mom and me up at a hotel:

"Saw a few Westerners, but mostly Indians lounging, standing in groups, going here or there. Had a false alarm thinking Babu [his real name] had come -- the doorman laughed at us when we shrugged at our own eagerness. He had a great moustache:"

*My in-laws hired a driver to take us wherever we wanted, pretty much whenever we wanted, for the duration of our stay. At first it felt uncomfortably luxurious, but after about five minutes of being driven calmly through the maelstrom that is Indian traffic, it seemed more like a necessity. He also kept an eye out for unsavory types and answered all of my silly, curious traveler questions with grace.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Last Night at the Hindu Temple

For the past few weeks I've been thinking about my dad, thanks in part to the ubiquitous Father's day ads, but mostly because yesterday was both his birthday and the second anniversary of his funeral. We ended up at the Hindu temple last night, which worked out well in terms of marking the occasion; I'd wanted to do something, but wasn't sure what. Ordinarily, we go to the temple on weekends (partly for the food) but we had houseguests, and once they departed, lassitude slunk in and I was loath to change out of my lounging outfit.

The crushing heat of the last few days has been a visceral reminder of his stroke, long decline and funeral, all of which took place in Arizona. High temperatures make me wilt, and I already felt wilted on the inside. I was hoping the sweet peacefulness of the temple would perk me up, or soothe me, or otherwise make me feel better.

Not long ago, I told a friend that it doesn't seem to matter what state of mind I'm in when I enter the temple -- by the time I finish going around to all the altars and sit down to contemplate the main one, I feel deeply well. I think it has something to do with paying attention to things outside my daily grind, paying attention to my spirit life, and maybe just plain old paying attention. I don't feel the need to understand it completely, though. I'm just grateful that it works even when I'm in as sorry a state as I've been lately.

Last night we arrived to find the main tower swathed in scaffolding; Mowgli says they're cleaning it for an upcoming major festival and that they do this every so often. At first I was disappointed because I had already envisioned a stunning image of the ornate, gleaming, otherworldly structure at the top of this post. Then I realized it's an apt metaphor for how I've been feeling: in need of maintenance.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran Election Protests

I've been entranced by the goings-on in Iran for the past week, unable to stop seeking updates, and hoping for a peaceful, positive outcome for the brave souls who are willing to die for change. But I also know that the Supreme Leader is not likely to relinquish his grip gracefully.

The latest update from the BBC's website reports 10 additional deaths, the arrest of one opposition leader's family, and the use of tear gas and water cannon to prevent protesters from gathering. But their coverage, like everyone else's, is riddled with words that reflect the restrictions placed on them by the Iranian government. It's difficult, if not impossible, to verify what's happening, when the next protest will be, how many are dead. Even the eyewitness accounts can't do that -- as valuable and visceral as they are, they're too fragmented.

And that's been the most enthralling thing to me about this struggle: the unprecendented access to the voices of the people fighting this battle, from this amazing collection of young voices on the BBC's site to the Guardian's excellent aggregation of traditional media, social media, and items being e-mailed to them from inside Iran. Much is being made of the inadequacy of the traditional news media coverage of this story, but to me, it's fitting that it should be the people who figure out a way to get the story out by any technological means necessary.

One of those means has its origins in China: it's a piece of software designed by exiled members of Falun Gong to get around Chinese censorship. It "takes a surfer to an overseas server that changes I.P. addresses every second or so, too quickly for a government to block it, and then from there to a banned site." Thus the blockade of sites such as Twitter and YouTube is circumvented, and the world receives stunning images of people, struggle, hope and violence.

It is fascinating to me that the country that brought us Tiananmen also spawned a piece of technology that's illuminating a situation that has the potential to become another Tiananmen. Mowgli and I were discussing that scary potential last week, and when I said that I hoped it didn't go that way, he said he didn't think it would. With all my heart, I hope he's right.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


In Tuesday's post I talked about my sumo alarm clock and promised to talk about sumo today, so here we go.

When I lived in Tokyo with my older brother, he got into sumo, and then I did, too, once I got over the big-men-in-diapers ick factor (it helped to learn the proper name for the diaper: mawashi). We'd watch "Sumo Digest" whenever there was a basho (tournament) going on (they go for 14 days, six times a year). We took turns waiting in line for days to get tickets to one day of the basho advertised in the poster above. There were a lot of minor yakuza waiting with us, and we learned from our linemates and students that many corporations snap up blocks of the best tickets.

Sumo is an ancient sport that's connected to the Shinto religion as well as Japanese military and imperial history, and it's a test of strength and skill as well as a ritual and an exercise in psyching out your opponent. Check out these guys, preparing to fight:

There's a good five minutes of ritualized stomping and salt-throwing, and rikshi (wrestlers) crouch down at the face-off point many times before they actually go at it. They both have to have their knuckles on the ground before the match can begin, so crouching but keeping your hands off the ground is one way to stall the beginning of a match.

Things are pretty tense by the time a match begins, and it can go very fast from there, because the rules are very simple: Force your opponent outside the ring, or make him touch the ground with more than the bottoms of his feet, and you win. Approved fighting techniques include grabbing the other guy's mawashi and using it for leverage, shoving, slapping, hooking the other guy's leg with your leg, and so on.

This clip is an excellent example of a classic bout:

These nobori outside the kokugikan (tournament hall) announce the honbasho (Grand Sumo Tournament):

Finally, it's definitely a family affair; this is one of many kids we saw the day we went:

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sumo Alarm Clock

During my final year of college, my older brother and I hatched a plan to teach English in Japan. It was all the rage in those days, and so we ran off, abeit circuitously, to Tokyo. (More about the circuitous part in a later post.)

After a year and a half in Tokyo, I really needed to get away from all the crowds but wanted to stay in Japan, and so I found a job teaching English at a very small school in Kushiro, on the northern island of Hokkaido. And that's where the sumo alarm clock comes into play: he was a departing gift from a student of that small school.

He is modeled on a real sumo rikshi (RICK-shee), Wakanohana, who along with his brother Takanohana, was very popular at the time. He has woken me every morning for more than 10 years, and last night when I dropped him on his topknot, I knew it wasn't good for him. The topknot isn't just cute, it's the activation device for the alarm, and it was stuck in the "off" (down) position. I wiggled it, pushed down gently on it, and then on a whim and starting to panic, I gave it a sharp whack.

Imagine my relief when it popped up into the "on" position and the alarm statred to sound, healthy and strong as ever.

About the sound of the alarm. It's in the pattern and rhythm of the play-by-play chant of the referee during a wrestling bout, but instead of saying whatever they say for that, it says, roughly, this:

Here's the charge, wake up, wake up-wake up, wake up, wake up-wake up, looks like it's over, it's over.

Naturally, it says all of this in Japanese. Here's a video of a bunch of bouts where you can hear the ref fairly clearly.

I know what most of you are thinking: "Ooh, gross, big fat men in diapers!" That's why Thursday's post will be all about how cool sumo is.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

International Art in the Living Room

One of the perks of being married to a guy from India is all the Indian art that's included in the man-dowry. I've picked up a few international items over the years, too, so the sculptural items in our living room are a veritable melting pot of art.

A sweet little peacock from India. He's made a few flights down those stairs you can see a bit of in the lower right-hand corner.

A Hummel given to me by my great-grandmother when I was 5 or 6. (For those of you who will want to know: Grandma on Ryan Road.)

Detail from a plate depicting Lakshmi, the goddess of spiritual and material wealth. Those are elephants on either side of her -- according to this site, they represent the name and fame of wealth, that is, you shouldn't keep wealth to yourself, but share it to bring happiness to others.

The classic flute-playing Krishna; this is the first piece of art I remember asking about during one of my first visits to my husband's apartment.

I believe this is Kathi, a character from the classical dance theater form Kathakali from the state of Kerala in Southern India. He represents "heroes who are not particular about the means they use to gain their needs."

A laughing Buddha to keep us happy. The story goes that he's laughing because he's just learned the secret of enlightenment.

I love the heft of this elephant; it's only about a foot tall but its bulk makes it seem enormous.

A festive clay horse. I asked Mowgli if it had special significance, and he said, "It's just a horse."

The Ashoka Pillar, symbol of India.

The Buddha again, serene this time, and made from a coconut.

Two crystal vases from a trip to southern Poland (Krakow, Zakopane, Auschwitz, the Wieliczka salt mine) with my mom in September 2000. We were there for the nine days between our birthdays, and we spent at least five of those days looking at crystal, amber, blouses and lace. We spent the other four eating, looking at castles and murdering the gorgeous Polish language.

My favorite representation of Ganesh (we have at least four or five), given to us during our reception in India, though I have no idea by whom. His elephant head represents the soul, his human body earthly existence, and his trunk is om, the sound of the cosmos. He is known as the Lord of Success, and destroyer of evils and obstacles.

Nigerian Librarian

He began to laugh at my old, laminated library card before I could finish saying, "Hi, I'm here to turn in my old card for a new one," but it was a friendly, gently mocking, deep-voiced laugh.

"Yes, I can see that," he said, laughing through the words. I detected a French-speaking African accent and giggled sheepishly.

We both laughed the whole time I was at the desk. He explained the electronic card catalogue, and assured me I could still use the help desk if I found it too confusing. I smiled and said I thought I could handle it. He handed me a brochure on how to use the library, trying to keep a straight face while saying, "it's for new patrons, but because you have been gone for so long..." He soon gave up the charade and let himself trail off into chuckles.

As I was leaving I asked him, "Are you by any chance from Ghana?" It was the first French-speaking African country I could think of.

"No, Nigeria. You were close, though." And this time, the laugh was appreciative.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Indian Death Traditions

New York, 2 a.m., March 2009

Sometimes it's hard to think of concrete exmples of how my husband has changed my life beyond the obvious things like living together and developing a set of inside jokes. But last Friday, on the way home from a visitation, I found myself looking forward to a shower.

Bathing after a funeral or visitation is an Indian tradition that he must have introduced me to the first time we went to something like that together. It's a purification ritual, but for me, it's also comforting and provides a much-needed transition, since my emotions tend to be right on the surface after being around grief. Which is fine and natural, but not something I enjoy for extended periods.

To do it completely by the book, you'd bathe outside and wash your clothes separately. I settle for inside and in the laundry basket, followed by quiet conversation with my husband.

There are many other distinct Indian and Hindu traditions around death. Washing and preparing the body for burial is an honor performed by a close family member. The family observes a period of ritual impurty during which they cover religious icons and do not visit temples, go to see friends, or attend marriage ceremonies. Hindu rituals are performed at various intervals after the death according to family traditions. In my husband's family, it's 3 days after, 11 days after, and 31 days after the death. I think there's one more interval, too, but after that, the death is observed annually.

My father died a few years ago, in March, but we had a service for him over a year later on his birthday, June 22. The Father's Day onslaught has been getting to me more than usual this year, so I'm considering borrowing (and probably modifying) another tradition from my husband, and hoping that if I do, it will help.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Travelogue: An American in Istanbul

Recently a friend spent 11 days in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul. I wrote the other day about the amazing Turkish delight she brought back, but thought it would be fun to do a post about the trip. She graciously agreed to answer my questions and share a few photos. Enjoy!

Why do you travel internationally?

I like travelling period, always have. There are many places in the states that I really want to visit, and some places internationally that I don’t. I think the reason I like traveling overseas is twofold. First, I am a big history buff and I love my American history, but we are still a relatively new country and it is fascinating to visit places that have been around for a thousand years or more. Secondly, I enjoy learning about other cultures and finding all the quirks and nuances of other people. But most of all I think I enjoy the realization that everyone is basically the same, no matter what country you call home.

Why Turkey?

I read several books that either mentioned Istanbul or were placed in Istanbul and the city seemed fascinating. The book that was the main inspiration is called The Historian and takes place all over Eastern Europe, but Istanbul really seemed to stand out. I also spoke with several people who had been there and I kept hearing things like “it’s the best place I've ever been” and “one of my favorite cities.”

What does Turkey smell like? (I ask because compared to the U.S., other countries have distinct smells -- for me, Paris smells like freshly baked baguette; China smells like soot and pee and cooking oil. India's smell is indescribable -- too many smells competing for space, from animals and exhaust fumes to jasmine and cardamom.)

Turkey’s smell is more like India’s, lots of smells competing for space. Instead of animals though, it’s people. Some people had some pretty bad funk going on, but then other smells were wonderful like the spice bazaar and the coffee shops and patisseries.

Did you have any trouble with the language barrier?

95% of the people speak at least a little English, so it really wasn’t much of an issue, but Turkish was the first Slavic language I’ve tried to learn (other than a couple curse words and the national anthem in Croatian), so it was a little hard to get some of the pronunciations correct, but I was getting pretty good at it after 11 days.

How did it compare to the other countries you’ve visited?

I found it to be very similar to other European cities that I have been to, except for the Muslim influence and the size of the city. The city really represents east meets west since half of the city is in Europe and the other half in Asia. The food and the carefree attitude of the people reminded me most of Barcelona, but the terrain reminded me of San Francisco, believe it or not. Lots of hills and houses crammed together.

The people in Turkey were some of the friendliest people I have ever met, and the traffic was the worst I have ever seen. I’ve never been to New York, so I can’t compare the traffic and the crowds, but Istanbul has 16 million people and at times the closeness got to me. The Turkish don’t have the same personal space requirements that we do here in the states.

Where did you go, exactly?

We were in Istanbul almost the entire time. We intended on taking a two day trip to Cappadocia (these cool mountains referred to as the “fairy chimneys”), where you can take a hot air balloon ride and stay in a cave hotel, but we got distracted once we arrived in Istanbul and when we finally got around to talking to a travel agent, all their guides were booked. We did take a day trip by ferry to the Princes’ Islands. That was one of my favorite days. We went to the largest island; no cars are allowed, and we took a horse carriage up to a park at the foot of the tallest peak. Then we climbed the peak (and it was certainly a climb) to reach an old monastery at the top where we had a great lunch and amazing views of the other islands and the Marmara Sea.

Did you visit any mosques?

We visited 3 mosques (one active and two former mosques that are now museums) and one Orthodox church. The most interesting thing that I learned about mosques was that Aya Sofia, which was originally built by Justinian as a Christian church, was not designed after a mosque – and the Turks like the design so much that all mosques are designed after it.

Were there things that surprised you?

There were lots of things that surprised me, but two that jump out are:

Istanbul has to be one of the world’s largest melting pots. I have never met so many people from so many different countries all living in or visiting one city. The food options reflected this, as you could get any type of cuisine you wanted. We met an Italian-American from Philadelphia who said that Istanbul rather than New York is the true melting pot of the world, and he just might be right.

About 35% of the women we saw wore some type of head scarf. We saw very few women in the full covering, but what amazed me about them was how fashionable most of them were. Some of them were covered in long coats that were not as stylish, but still came in a wide variety of colors, and others just had the scarf on with funky clothes that covered all extremities, but were still very hip. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised by that as Istanbul is a very fashion-conscious city, but I was.

Beyond the Turkish delight, was there a local food that bowled you over?

There were several local foods that bowled me over. The Turkish meatballs (kofte) were wonderful and they were always accompanied by this simple bean salad that we came to love. We also had kebabs that were the specialty of one of the local restaurants and contained sliced pistachios that were amazing. And a dessert that is hard to describe. The shape resembled a flan, flat and circular. The outside was made of crunchy bird’s nest material (probably phyllo dough cut up), the inside had a creamier consistency like a pecan pie without the nuts. Then it was covered with shredded pistachios and topped with fresh cream. Sounds weird but it was delicious.

Were there any interactions with locals that stick out in your mind?

We took a 2.5-hour ferry to the Princes’ islands, which are a popular place with everyone, so the ferry was really packed. There was a large group of older teenagers, maybe college-age kids who wanted to sit outside (the outside seats were a hot commodity), so they laid down towels and blankets and sat at our feet, laying on each other and sleeping. At first I was annoyed by it, but they were so sweet – not intrusive at all in spite of the fact that they were practically lying on top of our feet. It was fun to watch their interactions and have no idea what they were saying but still understand their joking and teasing each other.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Double Turkish Delight

Earlier this week the candy stars aligned and we received two kinds of Turkish delight from two friends who had each recently been to Turkey. One is originally from there, and one went as a tourist.

It had been a while since I'd had the kind on the left. It has the consistency of gummy bears, and the flavors are only half what you'd expect: the green is mint, the red tastes of roses. The lemon is perfectly balanced between tart and sweet. The orange is like Brach's orange slices that have been working out and taking steroids.

The kind on the right was a such a revelation that I'm not sure Turkish delight is the right name for it. The texture was more like very chewy fudge, the dark one seemed to be made from dates, I could taste spices along the lines of cardamom, and they all had macadamia nuts. And because I am a coconut freak, the coconut coating made me very happy indeed.

In Turkey, the confection is called lokum, a word that may come from lokma in Turkish or luqūm, the Arabic plural of luqma, meaning "morsel" or "mouthful." It also may have been derived from the Ottoman rahat hulkum or Arabic raḥat al-ḥulqum , meaning "contentment of the throat."

That last theory makes the most sense to me -- my throat is definitely content after Turkish delight.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Today and tomorrow mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising, or massacre, or whatever you would like to call it.

There are New York Times op-eds and interesting interviews with today's students, to whom the date means little -- at least when they are talking to a reporter. NPR has a great piece on three student leaders who were deeply involved in the protests and how they've continued the long trek toward their goal of bringing lasting change to China.

Last night BBC World News had a riveting interview with Jeff Widener, who took an iconic photograph of a single protester blocking a line of tanks (you can see it in this slide show, at about 2:37). I was due to leave the house to meet a friend, and had considered leaving early to drop by the library on my way, but once I started watching I knew I had to stay for the whole piece, even if it meant I would be late.

They ran footage of the man waving his plastic shopping bags furiously at the tank in the front of the line, the tank advancing, stopping, advancing, stopping. I tried, and failed, to imagine the thought process of the driver, who must have known that his fellow soldiers had slaughtered hundreds of their own countrymen the night before. It's easier to imagine the thoughts of the man standing in front of the machines: I don't care if you kill me.

The photographer related how he'd gone into the Beijing Hotel, found a Western student, and whispered to him that he was an AP photographer to gain access to his room and balcony. He took a handful of frames, then realized a setting was wrong and worried he'd missed the shot. Undaunted, he moved to the next step: getting the film safely past the soldiers, who were by this time very good at identifying journalists.

The hotel guest put it in his underwear, got on a bicycle, and delivered it to the AP office.

Just over a year later, a few months after I finished college, I spent two weeks in Nanjing with my older brother, who had just completed a year of study there. We also spent a week in Beijing, riding bicycles where the tanks had been past places where people had died, eating boiled peanuts and sampling the local rotgut. It was sobering, weird, and moving, and the vast majority of the people were lovely.

Nanjing, Summer 1990