Next stop…

Brian’s visa doesn’t allow him to be in India for more than 100 consecutive days.  This bureaucratic stipulation gives us a great excuse to travel!  We’ll be on the road with very limited internet access, so all will be quiet on the blog front for about two weeks.  In the meantime, can you tell from this photo what country we’re headed to?  We should have some good stories from this one….

What’s a namdha?

I met Sunrise Arifa for the first time when I stopped to admire the handmade namdha rugs she had on display at the Dastkar Nature Bazaar.  Since our first meeting, we’ve stayed in touch, and I now admire Sunrise’s determination and resolve as much as the namdhas she sells.

Sunrise is a young entrepreneur from Srinagar, Kashmir, who is working to revive the craft of namdhas, laboriously hand-felted and intricately designed wool floor mats.  Sunrise is well qualified for the job.  She studied Craft Management & Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Craft Development Institute of Srinigar, and there developed the professional skills to succeed in starting her own business.  She now employs craftsmen who manufacture her designs, and she travels between Srinagar and other Indian cities to sell her rugs.

While her skills may enhance her success, it is her heritage that ensures her passion for the business.  Growing up in Kashmir, home to internationally popular crafts like fine paper mache and embroidered pashmina shawls, Sunrise saw many of these crafts diminish and dilute over time.  Markets inundated with machine-made “pashminas” masquerading as hand embroidered.  Exploitative middlemen buying paper mache from artisans at bare minimum prices and selling the products at an enormous mark-up.  Inexpensive synthetic rugs replacing namdhas among local consumers. Efforts, such as the Geographical Indicator certification of authenticity, are underway in Kashmir to protect these endangered crafts.  But in the meantime, entrepreneurs like Sunrise are taking matters into their own hands, starting businesses to bring Kashmiri crafts to a wider audience.Though being Kashmiri may have inspired Sunrise to start her own business, running a company in Kashmir, particularly as a female entrepreneur, comes with challenges.  Eight month waiting periods to obtain scoured wool from the government’s fleece processing unit.  An exorbitantly high and “unofficial” government fee to obtain the quality control certification required for an export license.  A community concerned that Sunrise will slowly lose her religious and cultural values as she becomes more successful.  A curfew that prevents her from leaving the house to go to her production unit.  The risk of being hit by a stray stone, pelted when skirmishes break out in town.

But Sunrise is determined.  “It’s dangerous, but I have to go to do my work,” she explains.  Her father supports her aspiration, but during her weeks on the road, traveling to sell namdhas, she tells the rest of her family that she is doing a school internship.  While friends say that running a business will change her, she disagrees.  “I love my tradition,” she professes.  And the 12-hour workdays she logs, the bodily risks she takes, and her commitment to reviving Kashmir’s craft traditions proves her deep dedication to her heritage and its crafts.

Want to own your very own Craftmark certified namdha?  I can send you a namdha directly from India. 

Check out The Red Thread’s Shop page or email me!

The Contrast Between Camels and Cars

While driving in Bhuj, Brian and I came upon three Rabari nomads leading their colorfully adorned camels and goats along the highway.  The jarring traffic noise was juxtaposed against the peaceful rhythm of their procession.  The slow, silent footsteps of the camels; the jangling of bells and harnesses; the occasional punctuating bleat of a baby goat.  The man and two women carried their possessions upon the backs of their camels; their belongings had been lovingly and creatively handmade.  The camels were outfitted with embroidered, appliqued blankets and tasseled reins.  The goats rode high atop trampoline-like saddles that, once removed from the camels’ backs, flipped over to become beds.

It was a beautiful and somewhat unsettling contrast, watching these traditionally dressed nomadic people tread slowly along the highway, bordered by car dealerships and even a wind turbine manufacturing plant.  On the surface, they appeared unfazed and unchanged by the modernity all around us.  We felt we had been given a brief glimpse into a past way of life that had snuck into the present.

We pulled over to the side of the road and spoke with the Rabaris, thanks to our translating tour guide.  We asked whether we might take a few photos.  They said their goodbyes, and we watched quietly as they processed away down the highway and flatbed trucks laden with machinery rattled by.


Through the Lens

So far, I have written of all that is good, fascinating, beautiful, amusing, and otherworldly in India. Elephants lumbering down the highway under the orange glow of streetlights; deserted beaches where Brian and I wandered up and down stretches of sand for hours undisturbed; warm, all-encompassing families who, for better or worse, want to smother you with hospitality; raucous festivals filled with color, music, and energy; delicious foods like freshly fried paranthas, flavorful fruits and vegetables, cardamom-infused sweets made with pure ghee (clarified butter), and a constant stream of sweet, milky, gingery chai; and of course intricate crafts linking artisans today with their ancestors from generations ago.

However, describing only the fun, easy, and beautiful parts of this adventure does not depict the whole truth of the India we are experiencing. Everyday absurdities make our lives feel more like a farcical comedy than reality. For example… the ceaseless honking of cars on streets where there is no other traffic to speak of; the misty haze of burning trash that began to hang in the air and permeate our bedroom when winter arrived; the packs of street dogs whose howling wakes us in the wee hours of most mornings yet are fed milk and biscuits by our sympathetic neighbors; the internet that taunts us by working for five minutes and then completely shutting down; the acrid odor provided by men using the roadsides as their urinals; the need to argue with every rickshaw driver over the cost of your ride; and the sinking feeling after most commercial interactions that you’ve succumbed to the “tourist tax” yet again.

While we’re usually able to laugh (after the fact) at these daily irritants, there are aspects of India that engender no mirth. Rather they are telltale signs of a harsh reality. A one-armed beggar imploring a crisply uniformed police officer not to fine him for begging; a little girl in pigtails doing acrobatics between traffic at a stoplight, as her younger brother beats a drum and her mother looks on impassively from the curb; a young man explaining that a woman from his religion would never marry a man from another because all men in this other religion treat women badly; two little children, one wearing only an oversized sweater, collecting discarded drinking straws off the ground to sell later for pennies; a family ostracizing a daughter who elopes with a man of another caste and skin tone; a young man being beaten bloody by a group for the mere transgression of a traffic accident; a tired mother holding her baby and begging, watching anxiously while my Indian friend, unconscious of the irony, tried to push the change from our dinner into our other friend’s hand.

As guests in India, we do our best to observe daily life with open minds and no judgment, acting as laymen cultural anthropologists.  Yet we cannot escape our own life experiences, and we must view the good, the bad, the ugly through a lens tinted by our biases.

Manjari Sharma’s Maa Laxmi

History, Chemistry, and Craft (Still in Gujarat…)

We spent the next day with Ravi, a driver and tour guide who would take us to visit the many textile artisans surrounding Bhuj.  At 11am, Ravi led us to his awaiting and rather dilapidated touring car.  On the way we picked up some dhokla, a yellow spongy vinegary concoction made with fermented gram flour (chick peas) and Gujarati favorite, for breakfast and then hit the road.

Our first stop was Ajarakhpur, a small village specializing in traditional Ajarakh block printed fabric, dyed with natural colors.  After turning off the busy four-lane thoroughfare, we trundled past neatly kept homes that felt more like a new housing development than a hotbed of traditional textile production.  However, we knew we were in the right place as row upon row of cloth drying on the dusty roadside came into view.

We pulled up to the head office of Dr. Ismail Mohammad Khatri’s Ajarakh company.  Dr. Khatri is the Godfather of Ajarakh block printing.  He is world-renowned, exporting fabric internationally and having advised so many art students from abroad that a British university conferred an honorary degree on him.  Hence, Doctor Khatri.

Perhaps as a result of his notoriety, we did not get to meet Dr. Khatri.  When we entered the main office, Dr. Khatri’s son Sufiyan sat in front of a computer, talking on the phone to a client.  While Ravi checked his email, Sufiyan gave us a crash course in the history and process of Ajarakh block printing.

Ajarakh printing originated in the Sind region of Pakistan in the 14th century.   In 1634, the King of the Kutch desert region invited Sind artisans to bring their craft to his kingdom.  Sufiyan was able to trace the block printers in his family back nine generations.  This long history was not without trials.  Most recently in 2001, a massive earthquake struck the Kutch, and the region is still recovering.  (Evidence of this was amply available in Bhuj where the historic royal palace and museum are still undergoing repairs.)  The seismic activity caused the iron content of the river water, used for dyeing, to increase dramatically and thus changed the dye results.  The Khatri family was forced to move their operations to this new location (hence the discordantly new surroundings), which they named Ajarakhpur after their craft.

Sufiyan went on to describe the complex 16-step process required to create a piece of Ajarakh fabric.  Dyes may include indigo, pomegranate, madder root, sapan, logwood, turmeric, and other natural products.  One design may include up to five colors and require four different wood blocks.  Mordants and other fixatives can include camel dung, soda ash, castor oil, gum arabic, lime, clay, alum, and iron.  Adding to the complexity, production halts during the monsoon because it is too wet for the fabric to dry between dye stages.  To successfully dye with natural colors as an Ajarakh block printer, you need to have as much knowledge of chemistry as art!

The many stages of Ajarakh printing

Printing by hand

Washing the finished cloth

Intricate, hand-carved wooden blocks

Sufiyan, me, and my souvenir!

Thank you, Sufiyan!  Next stop…embroiderers.

P.S. For more info on Ajarakh and the Khatris, check out this podcast from Maiwa.

To Gujarat we go…

On November 25, Brian and I ventured together on our first journey outside of Delhi.  We were headed to the states of Gujarat, renowned for its rich textile heritage, and Madhya Pradesh, the site of my research and bursting with ancient history.

We boarded a train at the Old Delhi Railway Station and settled in to watch the crowded city melt into cotton fields and camels replace cars.  Twenty-six hours later (yes, the train has sleeping berths) we arrived in Bhuj, a city of 150,000 people about 125 miles from the border of Pakistan.

Riding the sleeper train

With the Delhi winter comes “smoke”, a somewhat pleasant euphemism for lung-clogging pollution, so both Brian and I welcomed the visit to Bhuj.  The air was cleaner, and the entire experience was a breath of fresh air.  Children and adults piped up with “Hello! What is name?  Your country from is?” as we walked through the narrow streets, where cows roamed freely.  Rickshaw drivers quoted us fair prices.  A family making the Indian equivalent of Flav-a-Ice in their living room invited us inside from the street when I expressed curiosity in their operation.  We were definitely not in Delhi any longer.

A group of children watching something very interesting behind the wall...

...until an adult out of frame alerted the children that a foreigner was taking their picture...

...and then the screaming horde stampeded toward us...

...and could not have been more adorable.

Cows. Everywhere.

We had made the long journey to Bhuj in order to attend the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya Mela.  I will translate.  Kala Raksha is an organization, started by an American woman (and former Fulbrighter), whose mission is to preserve traditional arts in the Kutch Desert region of Gujarat.  Six years ago, Kala Raksha launched the Vidhyalaya, a design school for artisans, and the Mela we attended celebrated the graduation of some of these students.  A crowd of a hundred or so tribal people turned out to support the graduates from their communities, and Brian and I jumped right into the mix.

A live musical performance of traditional instruments

A man spinning

Rabari women waiting in the lunch line

A few years after Kala Raksha opened its doors, Tata the Indian mega-corporation built two imposing, enormous coal power plants nearby, forcing Kala Raksha to move to a new location in the coming months. Currently, you must pass through Tata's security checkpoint to reach Kala Raksha. The smokestacks are an eerie symbol of modernity creeping up on and overtaking the traditional way of life.

Bri and I dig into lunch with the Rabari ladies. (Note there are no forks and no other men...)

More to come…

Happy Hindustani Holidays!

This Christmas was the first that Brian and I have ever spent together, and an unusual Christmas it was.  Christmas Eve, we feasted on Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Yes, you can get KFC in India, but instead of providing mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits in the “Family Feast” menu option, the chain offers saffron rice, salsa and “Indian” gravy.  To top it off, KFC sells mojitos (not sure why, since mojitos are neither Kentuckian nor Indian) with REAL mint and lime.  Holiday joy in a cup.

On Christmas Day, Brian and I went to surrogate-mom-in-Delhi Christine’s house, where she and her family threw an absolutely delicious holiday luncheon, complete with a Western meal that nearly made Brian cry with joy. (Plus we tried our first Christmas pudding, which Christine rechristened as Brian’s birthday cake.)

Once back at home, we exchanged presents, some which Brian had brought back from the U.S. and some from Lajpat Nagar.  The jug of peanut butter filled pretzels from the Cook side of the family and the peppermint bark from the Wardell side also almost made us cry with joy.  For dinner, we had yummy and cozy mutton stew and broccoli, prepared by Erica, a Fulbrighter visiting for the holidays.  For dessert, we celebrated the most important holiday of all…Brian’s birthday….with birthday-candle topped donuts.  Brian donned a very becoming Spiderman birthday hat.

While there was no snow, no apple pie, no “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which Brian was happy about), no illuminated tree, our Indian Christmas made for a memorable first noel together.

My Indian Wedding Saga. The Finale.

After my vaudeville debut, vigilant Anita came downstairs and told me it was time for bed; we had had a long day and should get some rest.  I couldn’t argue with her there, so I agreed to head to sleep.

However, I quickly realized that the promise of my own room was completely false.  My and Anita’s cots were in the kitchen/living room/bedroom, which was still full of women, children, and crying babies.  Kids who couldn’t contain their curiosity kept sneaking past me, loudly whispering “Goodnight!” and/or tickling my feet.  Anita slept through the cacophony, until a relative would sit down on her cot, wake her up, and start chatting.  Sleep was not an option.  So ended Day 2.

On Day 3, the intensity amped up.  Since I was sleeping in the kitchen, my morning wake up call came at 6am when the chai pots started clanking next to my head.  The entire house became a hive of activity.  Friends and relatives arrived continuously for the wedding festivities, and every room and hallway buzzed with guests.

As the sole foreigner at the celebration, I was more a wedding gift than a guest.  Countless people arriving at the event paraded past me to have a look at the exotic newcomer.  The constant and insistent Indian hospitality had me exhausted by 9am.

Sensing my waning veneer of enthusiasm, Anita dragged me to another section of the house and into Nilam’s room.  To be honest, I’m unclear how Nilam was related to the wedding family, but she, her husband, and adorable daughter Anjali lived in an inviting room where I ended up spending 75% of the rest of the day.  This room served as a home base, fortifiable against the guests who constantly peered through the window blinds to see me.

Anita's formidable mother "Mata-ji" and sweet Nilam

Now over the past weeks preceding the wedding, Anita had been complaining about pain she was having in her teeth.  So for some reason during this festive occasion, Anita decided to go to the dentist for the first time in her life.  Curious about the world outside Nilam’s room, not wanting to be left behind to the mercy of innumerable curious guests, and as the wife of a dentist, I convinced Anita to take me along.  Walking out of Anita’s mother’s house for the first time, I realized that we were in one of those frenetic Indian towns where cows graze on garbage, camels tow carts piled improbably high with cargo, and the densely populated land turns agrarian within mere steps.  So down the street we went to a bright, freshly painted store not much bigger than a college dorm room.  I only realized that this was a dentist’s “office” when I notice the man sitting at a desk was carving dentures.

Anita anxiously sat down in the white plastic chair reserved for patients, while Anita’s relative encouraged her.  Within seven minutes, Anita’s dentist had poked at her molar, injected anesthetic into her gums, and yanked out her tooth with a pair of pliers.  Having never visited a dentist before, Anita had had no idea what was coming, and she tensely squirmed and groaned during the entire procedure.  I watched with my mouth hanging open.  This was a far cry from the three-hour, bureaucratic, sterile appointments at Tufts.

After Anita’s dental trauma and my four hours’ sleep the previous night, we both needed a nap.  Some guy (no idea who) drove Anita and me by scooter (yes, three adults, one scooter) to another local relative’s house, where after the requisite socializing and chai drinking we got the first peace and quiet I had enjoyed for thirty-six hours.

When we got back to Anita’s mother’s house, I was escorted directly back to Nilam’s room.  From 4pm until 10pm, I was not allowed to leave my cage.  From 4pm to around 6:30pm, kids and adults came through the room in an endless parade of staring and giggling and pointing.  At 6:30pm, we started getting dressed for the festivities.  I had to put deodorant on with a crowd of fifteen women and children staring at me from a literally two-foot range.  This was a low point

Finally, Nilam ushered almost everyone out of the room and bolted the door.  Anita, Nilam, and Suresh’s wife dressed me in my first sari, put kohl around my eyes, and a bindi on my forehead.  All the while a troupe of invaders attempted to break down the door and look in the windows for a peek.  At this gathering, there was no hope for privacy.

Teaching anyone how to use my camera proved to be a challenge. This is the best picture we could manage of me in my sari.

Now that I was in the sari, I figured that the wedding festivities, my primary reason for attending this farcical comedy, had to start soon.  However, before I was allowed to leave Nilam’s room, Anita’s son Suni stumbled drunkenly into Nilam’s room, began yelling at Anita about something, made Anita cry, and was rebuked by his grandmother before he left.  The drama, exhaustion, waiting, and tears seriously put me on edge.

Finally, after hours of me asking what was happening outside the confines of Nilam’s room, I was allowed to find out for myself.  At 10:30pm, we all went to see the bride.  In a small storeroom off the house’s foyer, a crowd of women had gathered to watch the final ornamentation of the young wife-to-be.  She looked like a sparkling doll, completely weighed down by her sari, jewelry, and makeup.

(I had planned to take one thousand pictures at the wedding.  However, every time I took out my camera I was literally SWARMED by people wanting to have their picture taken.  Here is one of the few shots I was able to take of the bride, when I was specifically told to do so.)

The Bride

After admiring the bride, we all went upstairs and sat around a grate in the floor.  Looking through this grate, we were able to see the concrete foyer, where the wedding ceremony would be held.  At about 11pm, the groom finally arrived, and the ceremony began, as we watched from above.

The groom arrived, escorted by a brigade of his friends, photographers and videographers, whose bright lights illuminated the scene like a stage set.  People pushed and shoved to try to get into the small foyer where the fathers of the bride and groom sat with a Brahmin around a fire.  The bride’s face was covered, and the groom wore a sparkling gold jacket.  Despite the great commotion outside the foyer, the fathers ceremonially haggled to finalize the dowry agreement. The bride and groom then walked together around the sacrificial fire, a ritual whose symbolic cyclicality reminded me of the exchange of rings in the West.  (Wedding rings are not a traditional symbol of matrimony here.) The bride was finally revealed to the groom, and they were officially married.  Fifteen minutes after the ceremony began, it was over.  “Now what?” I asked.

“That’s it.”

“Excuse me?”

I had traveled for ten hours, slept for about four, been ogled and teased, in order to see a wedding that lasted for fifteen minutes.  (While various intimate rituals and traditions had gone on behind the scenes, the majority of the guests only observe the final ceremony.)

Apparently, women were not allowed to enjoy the pre- and post-marriage celebration because drinking “whixey” is highly inappropriate.  The men drank, danced, and caroused, and this behavior in turn made their mothers and wives cry.  One of the three young women with a baby, sitting in the same room where I had met her the night before, had tears running down her otherwise stony face because her husband had been drinking.  We sat in the same room, but our lives were worlds apart.

The family ate dinner at midnight and then we headed back to Nilam’s room for some sleep.  But at 1am, Anita said, “Come on!  The bride is leaving!”

“Where is she going?” I asked naively.

“To live with her in-laws,” Anita said matter-of-factly.

We watched as all the women at the wedding half-led, half-carried the weeping bride to a carful of men, waiting to take her to her new life.  As they walked, the women chanted a mournful song.  While American weddings may be a symbolic end of childhood, this Indian wedding was no metaphor.  Throughout her life, the bride had lived under her parents’ roof, but her new life as a married woman was beginning; her responsibility would be to care for her husband and his family.  The wedding ended, and the event was nothing like the happy epic Indian celebration I had anticipated.  Instead, I had looked through an unsettling window into the world of women in India.

Our train back to Delhi was leaving at 7am, and we went back to Nilam’s room to get some sleep.  However, at 3am, I was still awake for several reasons: one, because I was sharing Nilam’s bed with Anita and Anjali; two, because Nilam, Anita’s mother, and two other women were busily getting ready for bed on the floor; and three, because everyone kept waking each other up to talk.

Suresh’s wife woke me up at 6:30am for the train.  At 6:40am, waiting to leave, I asked, “are we going to the train station now?”

“Yes.”  Suresh’s children were all still sleeping.

At 6:45, “are we leaving soon?”

“Very soon.”  Suresh’s son was still sleeping, and his two daughters had disappeared.

At 6:55am, “shouldn’t we leave for our train now?”

“Oh we won’t make it.  We’ll get the 9am train.”  This was a challenging statement to accept after I’d been woken up after three and a half hours of sleep to catch a 7am train.

At 8:45am, I said “are we leaving for the train now?”

“Oh there is no nine o’clock train.  We are taking the 11am train.”

I reached my breaking point.  I just rolled over on the cot, where Anita and her mother were also sitting, and gave up.

Part of Anita's family. I am enormous.

Finally, at 10:40am, we roused ourselves, said our goodbyes, and headed to the train station, where it was discovered that the train was, naturally, sold out.

We got in another rickshaw and went to the local bus station.  Trains in India can be chaotic, but buses are just plain insane.  We boarded the bus where I sat squished between Anita and Suresh (neither of whom are particularly svelte) on a seat made for two people.  Add a severely potholed road, a 90 degree interior temperature, and so many people that the aisle was entirely filled with standing passengers for the three hour duration of the ride, and that was the travel experience.  Despite the discomfort, we laughed throughout the trip, as women jostled babies into strangers laps, passengers dozed, and the bus jolted along.

We arrived back in Gurgaon, and I began strategize my exit.  However, when I suggested that I head directly to the Metro from the bus station, Anita’s family was horrified.  “But it’s Sumit’s birthday!  You have to stay for the celebration!”  Good lord, after the crazy trip they were guilt-tripping me.

After haggling in true Indian fashion over my departure time, we came to an agreement that I would leave in three hours after having dinner.  But we got back to the house and discovered that for some unknown reason someone had taken the keys to the padlocks on the bedroom/living room and kitchen doors.  After some yelling between Suresh and his wife, the apparent course of action was to knock the padlocks off the doors with a large rock.  Because of the appointed 5:30pm deadline, there was great urgency to feed me.  This added to my guilt.  I basically felt like I was stuck waiting to deplane from a 10-seater prop-plane on the JFK runway, while a group of screaming flight attendants tried to open the hatch door.

Finally, the doors were opened, the dinner was cooked, and I scarfed down my meal.  I thanked everyone profusely and prepared to leave.  However, Anita and Suresh’s twelve-year-old daughter appeared to be getting ready to go somewhere as well.  Suresh had insisted that they escort me back to Delhi, despite that Anita has never taken the Metro in her life.  “That is absolutely unnecessary!” I anxiously pleaded, but Suresh wouldn’t budge.  The combination of “guest is god” and my single femaleness ensured that I was not going anywhere alone.

Finally, I relented, and Anita, Suresh’s daughter, and I got in a bicycle rickshaw and headed to the Metro.  Unsurprisingly, the journey took twice as long as expected, and two hours later, we finally got back to Lajpat Nagar.  I put Anita and her niece in a rickshaw to Anita’s apartment in central Delhi.  Then standing on a busy street in downtown Delhi, I experienced my first moments of anonymity and aloneness in 72 hours.

In the interest of keeping this post to a semi-reasonable length, I’ve left out some details of this wild experience, but words can’t really do justice to this cultural immersion.  I had gone to see a wedding but experienced an Indian family’s purpose.  The aggressive hospitality and warmth of everyone I encountered brought comfort and provoked frustration, provided joy and caused complete exhaustion.  While I can’t say I would want to repeat this experience, I learned more about what it is to be a part of an Indian family than I ever could have from my remote perch in Delhi. The absolutely insane decision to accept Anita’s wedding invitation may have been the best and definitely the most memorable decision I will make during this adventure.

My Indian Wedding Saga. Part 2.

Yes, I’ve been a delinquent blogger!  But my excuse is that Brian and I have been on the road for almost two weeks.  So before I get to those adventures, here is another snippet of the wedding story…

So when my noisy, crowd-sourced alarm clock of hosts went off at 6am, I woke up crankily. As soon as I stirred though, a piping hot cup of milky chai appeared by my cot, and this sweetened me right up. After a breakfast of aloo paranthas, I took a quick bucket shower in the bathroom, a rather grimy cement closet with a drain in the floor. In the meantime, Anita’s older son Sunni arrived, and while the family ate, Sunni and one of his friends paraded me around the neighborhood to meet locals.

After much selecting of saris and jewelry and belongings to take to the wedding, six of us, I a full head taller than my five Indian companions, left the house and headed down the road, attracting ongoing stares as we went. We hailed an auto rickshaw and headed directly to the train station, swerving to avoid pigs, cows, stray dogs, and people as we went.

The railway is a key feature of the Indian way of life. Tracks zigzag across the country, trains feature heavily in Bollywood movies, and Indians seem to book their tickets weeks in advance (which I have learned the hard way). The wedding journey would be my first train experience in India, and it would prove to be a much more “authentic” experience than I would have ventured on alone.

As soon as we clambered out of the rickshaw, the havoc began. People jostled their way into the station, crowds thronged the platform to buy fried pakoras and wait for their trains, ragged children collected refuse thrown from train windows, and men urinated on the tracks. Trains to Delhi arrived so packed with people that boys traveled on the train car roofs, and individual bodies could not be discerned from the tangle of limbs that stuck out of the windows.

Our train was delayed, so to pass the time, I took out my Hindi book and practiced reading to the family. The concept of a white girl reading Hindi aloud on a train platform was just too compelling for passersby to ignore, however. I looked up from the book to find a crowd of twenty people had gathered around me to listen to story time. “Put the book away,” cautioned Anita.

After waiting for over an hour, Anita posed a question, “Sou-sou? Sou-sou?” “Kya?” I asked. “What?” “Sou-sou?” she asked more adamantly and began gesticulating. I realized she was asking if I needed to “pee-pee.” Accepting the indignity of being asked if I needed to “pee-pee,” I had to admit that yes, I did. But Anita deemed the train bathroom too dirty for me, the guest, to use, so the adults discussed an alternate solution. Finally, Suresh and his wife led me like a duckling following its parents down the platform, past crowds of stares. They marched me up to a small building, adjacent to the platform but separate from the station, where three uniformed officials sat, fenced off from the general population. A rapid Hindi discussion of my bladder and foreign fragility ensued, the result of which was that I was allowed to use the official cleaner squat toilet, while the officials and Suresh continued their conversation outside. When I sheepishly shuffled back out, the officials asked the requisite “What country from?” question, and I was on my way.

The train finally arrived, and after the requisite pushing, shoving, rushing to board, we squashed into some available seats. People covered every available surface. Men stretched out on top of bags on the luggage racks above our heads, and other passengers in the row facing us stared at Anita’s family and their strange white baggage. Anita shared the now familiar information about me with anyone who showed an interest, while vendors hawked their wares from the crowded aisle, child-performers beat drums and back flipped, and blind singers sang and paced the train with their palms outstretched.

We arrived at our station, where I was informed for the first time that we had to transfer trains. Unfortunately, due to the delayed first leg of the journey, we had missed our connection, and we spent four hours waiting in an empty train.

At this point in the trip, I was feeling some wear and tear. Since the beginning of this adventure the previous night, I had been stared at incessantly. I was not free to make even the simplest of my own decisions. I rarely knew what was going on. My night of frequently interrupted sleep was starting to catch up with me. But I reminded myself that as a Fulbright scholar, my duty is to be a “cultural ambassador”, to learn as much about Indian culture as I can. So I stopped my internal whining and reminded myself that the wedding experience would make this all worthwhile.

After another crowded train trip, we finally arrived at Anita’s mother’s house, a brightly painted blue maze, covered with red, white, and wedding lights. This was the site of the wedding, and it was bustling with activity. A crowd of people, Anita’s extended family, greeted us noisily. A pack of kids ran throughout the house and its many rooms, which were connected by winding staircases and passages. A small room across from the house’s entryway was filled – literally filled with barely any floor to walk on — with elderly women crouched on the floor and singing songs.

Once the first round of greetings was over, Anita’s mother emerged. She was an imposing matriarch with a gravely voice and a dominating presence. As I had been instructed, I folded my hands and said “Namaste.” I also bent to touch her feet, a sign of respect. As per usual, this exchange was merrily observed by twenty-five people. (Are you starting to notice a theme?)

This crowd then led us upstairs to the kitchen and the bedroom/living room, where three sullen young women about my age held their infant children and watched their toddlers roam around. (During the entire thirty-six hours of the wedding, I don’t think they left this room.) Various other people congregated there, and to be honest, I have no idea who anyone was. So in the middle of this crowd of strangers sitting on cots and on the floor, a plastic chair was placed, and I was told to sit in it. Surrounded by people watching, someone served me dinner, and I ate with at least a dozen adults and an uncountable number of child onlookers.

After dinner, I got into full cultural anthropologist mode. The young bride appeared, and she showed me the intricate henna designs drying on her arms and legs and extending past her elbows and up to her knees. The women singing on the first floor was the main wedding ritual of the evening, so two girls, who turned out to be Suresh’s daughters, led me downstairs by the hand.

When we entered the room, filled with women, everyone stopped singing and looked up from their low vantage point to stare at me. I waved and offered an awkward “Namaste.” A particularly feisty, skinny old lady with several teeth stood up and started yelling merrily in Hindi, prompting much laughter from the group, likely at my expense. When the women started singing again, I crouched in the corner to listen to the music. I began attracting a crowd of children, who chattered and giggled at me.

I’m not sure exactly how it happened but suddenly all eyes in the room were on me again. A voice rang out. “English songs!” A murmur went through the crowd. Soon every woman and child in the room started chanting “English songs! English songs!” Despite my protests, their stares and relentless chanting made it clear that I didn’t have much choice but to be the evening’s entertainment. So I cleared my voice, swallowed my pride, and started singing the only song that inexplicably came to mind.

“Sugar pie, honey bunch. You know that I love you. Can’t help myself. I love you and no body else….da da da dum! “

Yes, I vocalized the instrumental section. And yes, I made a failed attempted to get people to clap in time to the music. Everyone preferred to listen in awed silence. When I finished my paltry rendition of American Motown, there were murmurs of approval, and then…..”more!” So I launched into “American Pie,” then “My Girl,” then “Jingle Bells,” to which some of the Hindu kids finally started singing along, ironically.

But I hadn’t yet completed my duties as court jester. The next demand was “DANCE!” So I stood up in the middle of this sea of forty crouching women and children, stuck my hands in the air, spun in a circle, and sang four verses from “Under the Sea.” (My repertoire is small.) One of the old women took out a ten rupee note, waved it around and then handed it to me. For my finale performance, what song did I select? A LNDP college classic: “Take Me Home Tonight.” I danced and sang Eddie Money during a pre-wedding ritual in rural India in front of forty elderly, Hindi-speaking women. How’s that for cultural ambassadorship?