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 1.

Attending an Indian wedding was one of my top goals for this year of cultural immersion, and only two months into the experience, I achieved this goal.  As it turns out, a traditional Hindu wedding in relatively rural India does not resemble Bollywood wedding scenes…at all.

A few weeks ago, Anita asked us residents of “The Laj” if we would like to go with her and her family to her cousin’s wedding.  Given my wedding goal, I instantly said yes without doing my due diligence.  None of my roommates were available (or willing) to go with me, so I was flying solo.

While I had agreed to go to the wedding, no questions asked, Sana did obtain some information for me from Anita.  We would spend a night in Gurgaon, a city on the outskirts of Delhi, at Anita’s house and the home of her brother and his family.  The next day we would go to the wedding and then return to Delhi the following day.  Most importantly, I would sleep in my own room.  Piece of cake.

The first step in the wedding adventure was being outfitted in a sari.  I forked over some rupees to Anita and left the sari selection to her.  (I was not allowed to partake in the shopping since the sari salesman would have charged me double what Anita paid.  The joy of being a Westerner in India.)  Anita decided on a robin’s egg blue sari with gold sequins.  However, saris are not 100% pret-a-porter.  In addition to several yards of sari fabric, the outfit requires matching churri  (bangles), a petticoat, and a tailored cropped blouse.  So Anita bundled me onto the local bus and we headed to Chirag Delhi market, where Anita bought me 24 glittery blue bangles and a drawstring-waist petticoat, and the local tailor measured me for my blouse while his various assistants giggled at me.  The concept of a white girl wearing a sari was hugely amusing to everyone.  At the time, I still found their amusement amusing.

The next day, Anita, her two little grandkids, and I left Lajpat Nagar and headed for her house Gurgaon.  After one auto-rickshaw, a bus, a cycle rickshaw, a fair amount of traffic, and two hours, we arrived in Anita’s neighborhood.  As I stared wide-eyed at the pigs, cows, and horses rooting around in the street, the local residents stared equally wide-eyed at me.  (Staring is far more socially acceptable here in India than it is in the States.)  We entered Anita’s home, which has a foyer flanked by four small rooms and a kitchen.  As far as I could tell, six adults and four children live in the house.  Anita’s brother Suresh and his wife welcomed me warmly, since in India, atithi devo bhava or “the guest is like a god.

While I sat in on their bed/couch in their bedroom/living room, drinking cup after cup of chai, an endless parade of neighbors arrived to welcome me to Gurgaon.  My Hindi comprehension unfortunately does not extend much past Namaste and pleasantries, so after greeting these neighbors they promptly turned to Anita and her family for an inquiry discussion that I became quite familiar with by the end of the wedding adventure.

Neighbor: “So who is she?  How do you know her?”

Anita: “I work for her.  She’s from America.”

Neighbor: “So she doesn’t speak Hindi?”

Anita: “No, she’s learning Hindi.  Devi, say something in Hindi.”

Devi (my Hindi name…sort of): “Aap kaise hain?”

Neighbor: “Good, thank you.  How much Hindi does she know?”

Anita: “Not much.  She thought that palak (eyelid) was the same as paalak (spinach).”

Cue group laughter.  Cue Devin forcing a smile.

(This conversation occurred between Anita and at least seventy-five people [on trains, on busses, with other wedding guests…] before the end of the experience.)

One of the neighbors who stopped by was the man across the street who Anita and her brother insisted was “cracked”, which I am still not sure if they meant seriously or not.  There is evidence in favor of him having indeed lost a few marbles though.  In the ensuing hours, the neighbor came back several times, carrying his adorable two-year-old granddaughter Simi.  Precious little Simi, wearing pigtails and kohl around her eyes, took one look at me and started screaming in terror.  Inexplicably, her grandfather insisted on shoving her into my lap – repeatedly.  Every time she screamed louder and clung for dear life to her grandfather’s neck.  Simi was one of three sweet little toddlers who over the course of the weekend I would petrify.  This began to wear my composure thin.

After eating a delicious home cooked meal of chicken, rice, and roti and finishing before anyone else was allowed to eat (remember — atithi devo bhava), we moved on to the next activity of the evening.  Suresh, his six-year-old son Sumit, and I clambered onto Suresh’s scooter and sped over bumpy half-dirt, half-paved roads to a Walmart-esque supermarket (the most “super” market I’ve seen yet in India) in search of a wedding suit for Sumit.  Though we did not find anything to Sumit’s liking, our outing gave me a glimpse of the dust, bustle, noise, and people that crowded the streets of Gurgaon.  And it gave the people of Gurgaon another opportunity to stare at me.

When we got back to Anita’s, the mehndi or henna artist, aka a fourteen-year-old kid with a tube of henna, had arrived.  At Indian celebrations, women have their hands intricately decorated with henna designs, and I was excited to partake in the tradition.  With Anita, her brother, his wife and son watching, the mehndi wallah decorated my hands and fingers with a swirling floral design within ten minutes.  I did my best not to fidget to avoid smudging the drying henna, as Anita and her sister-in-law had their henna done.  Suresh and Sumit commented on the designs and joined in this female primping session with a level of comfort and enthusiasm that most men in America would unlikely be able to match.

As the henna dried, we lay down on the cots, which are set up in the living room each evening for bed.  Contrary to Anita’s claim that I would have my own room, I realized that Anita, her sister-in-law, Sumit, and I were all going to be sleeping in the living room/bedroom together…with the light on….and the TV blaring in the next room….for hours.  When Suresh barged into the living room/bedroom at 1 AM and started a lively conversation with his wife and then at 6 AM another lively conversation broke out between Anita and her sister-in-law, I realized that personal space does not exist in this India and that this was going to be a long wedding adventure.  As it turned out, Day 1 was the tamest day by far.

This baby peed on me on Wedding Adventure Day 2.
Freshly washed laundry drying at Anita’s mom’s house.

India Moments

Ruins at sunset


Buildings are constantly being destroyed and erected in our neighborhood. Rather than using a bulldozer, construction workers tear down whole apartment buildings with sledgehammers. They begin their work at 9am and work late into the afternoon. I took this photo through the grate on my back balcony; the workers thoroughly enjoyed the photo shoot, as they waved and grinned once they noticed me. Their task looks to be exhausting but they work diligently.


Delhi Developing

The Delhi Metro is a physical symbol of India’s modernization.  Yet living in Delhi and regularly taking the Metro, for me, the intimate significance of this progress real and alive.

Today, just as I have done in New York, Boston, and Philly, I transferred subway lines, from Yellow to Violet, to get home today from NIFT, the university where I work.  As usual, I forced my way off the train like a running back, leaning hard into the crowd of shoving, boarding passengers.  Successfully through the defensive line, I headed for the nearest escalator, ignoring the “Keep Delhi Healthy – Take the Stairs!” sign.  Unperturbed by the normalcy of the moving staircase, I brushed past a middle-aged woman who was hesitating at the first step and boarded the escalator unconsciously.

As I ascended, I looked behind and noticed the woman, still at the bottom of the stairs.  She clutched her sari skirt in one hand and the escalator railing in the other, as she rocked forward and back, willing herself to step onto this evidently unfamiliar contraption.  Her husband and son waved her on from the top of the stair, more impatiently than encouragingly, as they looked toward the next train platform.  I don’t know whether she overcame her hesitation or turned away to find the nearest staircase, for I walked on from the escalator once I reached the top, not wanting to cause a pile-up.

Standing on the platform, waiting for my next train, I thought about the thousands of escalators I have taken in my lifetime: in malls, in airports, in museums, in stadiums.  I’ve never thought twice about this mode of transport.  Just a normal part of life.  Watching the woman struggle with a “normal part of life,” I wondered when she would step without reluctance onto escalators and feel that moving staircases truly were normal.

Ironically, as India modernizes, some “normalcies” of Indian life will disappear, for better or worse.  Many Fulbrighters who previously visited India five or so years ago say that Delhi is a changed city.  Pollution and litter are far less omnipresent, for example; a positive change by just about everyone’s estimation.  On the other hand, you don’t see as many cows roaming the city (a negative change in my opinion).  And many young women in Delhi have traded their daily wardrobes of colorful, sparkling saris and kurtas in favor of jeans and t-shirts.  When women in India no longer hesitate at the bottom of escalators, I wonder what cultural traits will have been gained and what will have been lost.


I want to do this… The Beauty of India: 50 Amazing Photos

Thomas Friedman opinion piece: India’s Innovation Stimulus


Devin Does a Delhi Diwali: The Final Chapter

Diwali dawned loudly.  I woke up to fireworks exploding in what sounded like and turned out to be my backyard.  Our neighbor (or perhaps our neighbor’s servant) was lighting off crackers; not the sparkly, pretty kind but the loud, nerve-jarring, and wake-you-up kind.  And Akash, our landlord’s nephew who is approximately a junior in high school watched from our building’s patio and literally paced back and forth in anticipation of taking a match to wicks of his own.  (The previous night on our excursion to the firework depot, I had confirmed with Akash that Diwali is his favorite holiday.  What teenage boy wouldn’t love a holiday that culminates in detonating your own personal store of explosives?)  Having grown up in a fire-safety-minded home, watching the neighbor hastily sweep unexploded duds off the patio, under the fence, and into the road, induced some mild concern…I’d be walking in that road later.  Happy Diwali!

Over the course of the morning Anita swept the floor and mopped the balcony, as cleaning house is part of Diwali tradition.  (Diwali is the Hindu New Year, so a clean house is a fresh start!  At least this is my interpretation.)  During the rest of the day, Reena and I sat on our balcony working on our Fulbright projects and watching the Diwali world go by.  Women in sparkling, jewel-toned saris, men in fancy kurtas, and children with kohl around their eyes walked down the street to visit friends, deliver sweets and presents, and enjoy time with their families.

As the afternoon deepened, Reena and I prepared for our Diwali puja.  Anita had draped marigold garlands over our Lakshmi and Ganesh; filled 19 small lamps and one large lamp with wicks, oil, and puffed rice; placed one sweet dessert at the gods’ feet; and instructed me in pantomime what to actually do.  (This pantomime had included Anita dragging me to the balcony and indicating that Reena and I had failed the previous night to spread the lamps adequately along the length of the balcony.  Leaving them cozily together was BAD!)  At 5:45pm we found a Diwali puja YouTube video (yay technology!) that provided a soundtrack and some explanatory text, and we kicked off our celebration in much the same way we had the previous night…except we spread the lights along the length of the balcony.

At 6:15 we knocked gently on our landlord Mr. Garg’s door.  The door swung open into the living room to reveal Mr. Garg’s daughter-in-law Meesha and sister, sitting on the flooring filling oil lamps; Ashok, the Garg’s cook, busily frying something in the kitchen; Mrs. Garg fussing over the flowers on the altar; Mr. Garg filling a metal firepit with wood; his two nephews milling about; and Mr. Garg’s son Aashish overseeing the general festivities.  The warmth, serenity, and cheer reminded me of my own family’s Christmas Eve.  The Garg’s Diwali celebration was the most intimate family moment I had yet experienced in India, and I felt grateful to have been invited.

When the preparations were complete, the puja began.  We sat on the floor in a circle gathered around the fire pit container in the living room (yes, fire pit in the living room).  Aashish poured a bit of oil on the wood, and we began to chant.  (Rather the Gargs chanted, and Reena and I listened.)  The family recited the prayer to Lakshmi, as Mr. Garg used his prayer beads to count our recitations; we would repeat a total of 111 times.  With each repetition, we threw a handful of what seemed like the matter you find on a Maine forest floor into the fire.  (I still am not sure of this earthen mixture’s significance.)  Over the course of this recitation, intermittent giggles erupted when the family fell out of unison.  Cell phones kept ringing.  (I’ve observed a national opposition to “silent mode.”)  We kept running out of the “earth mixture” and needing a refill.  All the while the living room was filling with smoke.  Given that we had essentially created a homemade fire-starter with the pine needles and oil, this was no surprise.  However, I was surprised when no one moved to open a door or a window, though everyone was visibly affected by the smoke.  Aashish wiped his eyes beneath his glasses.  The younger nephew kept turning away from the fire for fresh air.  I took the approach of closing my eyes with my hands held together ostensibly in prayer, hoping that I might look spiritual rather than smoked.  Reena at one point turned to me and through tear- and smoke-filled eyes asked, “are you ok?”  Finally, giving up on the prayer pace of his family, Mr. Garg sped up the proceedings and raced unintelligibly through the remaining repetitions.  As soon as he finished, doors were opened, and we headed onto the balcony to admire the neighborhood Diwali lights and gasp for air.

As we socialized on the balcony, Mrs. Garg, her sister-in-law, and Ashok busied themselves in the kitchen, preparing a spread of appetizers, including jalebis (the same fried-dough-drenched-in-sugar-syrup we enjoyed at Dessehra); pakoras, flavorful fried dough balls; and papard, crispy rice flour chips (which you’ve probably had at Indian restaurants in the States).  We sat and ate with the family.  Aashish and Meesha appeared after donning fancier clothes; they were off to Meesha’s parents’ and grandmother’s houses for two more pujas.  For their sake, I hope they didn’t have to survive more indoor bonfires.

After devouring some food, Reena and I said our thank yous and headed to our next Diwali celebration: a roof deck party at “surrogate mom” Christine’s house.

Walking out of the house on Diwali night bears some resemblance to traversing a minefield.  Several feet from our front door a father and his two children were dancing among the sparks spewed by a spinning ground wheel.  We had to wait for five minutes before we could walk past the roundabout on the corner because a string of crackers exploded deafeningly while throwing shrapnel into the air.  At every turn, another explosion of light or sound made us jump and set the festive tone for the evening.  But walking through the neighborhood, the big booming Diwali began to reveal more intimate Diwali moments as well.  A man and his aged mother lighting a lamp in the middle of the roundabout.  A husband and wife gazing at the fireworks from their balcony, illuminated pink with Diwali decorations.  A lit lamp sitting at the base of a telephone, alone but illuminating the night for strangers.

As we walked down the road, we quietly observed these sights and sounds, as fireworks exploded overhead.  Sometimes you stop trying to understand and just start feeling the significance of moments and days.

We managed to hail a taxi who drove us through the detonating streets under the bursting sky.  We arrived at Christine’s just as the “show” was really getting good.  (Check out Christine’s blog for shots of the fireworks.)

Christine and her husband Himmat’s roof deck has a 360 degree view of the city skyline, which offered a perfect vantage point to watch a fireworks show like I’ve never seen.  In the distance on the horizon, in the neighbor’s backyard, and on every block of the city in between, pinksgreensorangesredsgoldsblueswhites exploded for three hours.  The neighbor’s fireworks detonated basically on eye level with Christine’s roof.  To top off the sensory experience, dinner was a goat roasted on a spit before our eyes.  We chatted and celebrated into the evening with a fascinating and kind array of guests: a quick-to-laugh English couple, friends visiting Christine & Himmat; an American foreign service family whose fifteen year old daughter goes to the American school where sushi is served in the cafeteria (Reena and I were jealous); an Indian couple who love Vancouver because a Canadian doctor fixed the husband’s broken wrist in time for him to leave the next day on a cruise to Alaska; a bearded and boisterous man who called himself the “Chief Rhinoceros” because he organized a trip for the group to Kaziranga National Park, where two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos live; and an English gentleman who sells fighter jets for a living.

When our stomachs could take no more food or drink and our ears could take no more explosives, we bid our goodbyes to the partygoers, thanked Christine and Himmat for our best Diwali ever, and headed home.

It’s an odd thing to celebrate a holiday for the first time as an adult.   The traditions, the foods, the smells, and the sounds, and the songs that make our holidays special are like nursery rhymes.  We don’t know when or how we first experienced them, but we know them by heart.  Experiencing Diwali for the first time, I learned these age-old traditions all in one evening and, with my adult mindset, asked the significance of each one.  But only when I stopped asking questions and sat back to observe and experience the holiday without thought did I finally feel the significance and joy of Diwali.

Devin Does a Delhi Diwali: Part 2 (Firecrackers, Ice Cream, and Elephant)

The day before Diwali is called Choti Diwali, which means “Little Diwali” or, in my lexicon, “Diwali Eve.”  The traditions of Choti Diwali are teasers for the celebration to come on “Diwali Day.”

On Tuesday, Anita set up our puja before she left to celebrate her own Choti Diwali at home.  At six p.m. on the dot, just as Anita had specifically instructed, Reena and I began our puja observance.  Being Diwali novices, however, starting our ceremony promptly was just about the only instruction we were able to authentically follow.  Here are instructions for a Reena & Devin-style Diwali puja.

Step 1- Admire the puja set-up: five small terracotta lamps each filled with oil, a few grains of puffed rice, and a cotton wick, laid at the feet of Lakshmi and Ganesha.

Step 2- Realize you don’t own matches with which to light the lamps.

Step 3- Light the gas stove with the igniter, rip off a piece of cardboard, ignite the cardboard.  Voila – “matches”.

Step 4 – Carry terracotta lamps over to stove, and light lamps with the “matches.”

Step 5 – Return lamps to “altar”.

Step 6 – Sing “Happy Diwali” to the tune of “Waltzing Matilda.”

Step 7 – Bring lamps outside to the balcony and place them close together. (Anita informed us the next day that we should have spread them out.) Wonder why no one else in the neighborhood has gotten to this step yet.  (Answer: Because actual pujas take far longer than 6 minutes.)

Step 8 – Admire the flickering lamps and the strings of twinkling Diwali lights that neighbors are turning on in the twilight.

Lighting lamps for Lakshmi

Diwali lamps on our balcony

With our first puja officially and creatively completed, Reena and I decided to go on a joy ride to admire the strings of colorful electric lights that illuminate Delhi on Diwali.  I called Raju, a rickshaw driver who Brian and I befriended during our first few days in Delhi.  Side note: It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that Raju loves Brian and me because we are “good and honest.”  He is convinced we possess these traits because we agreed to let him take us to a shop where, in return for our browsing, Raju receives a present to give his young daughter.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that the first time Raju asked us if we would go to this shop, we had just smiled and nodded without actually understanding what Raju had said.  So when I called on Choti Diwali, Raju, laughing jovially between every word, agreed to take us on our excursion.  He also suggested that we start our excursion by visiting two shops, on behalf of his daughter of course.

After our browsing duties were complete, we were off on our adventure.  As we drove through the streets of Delhi, the wind whipped our faces, and we noticed for the first time that there was a chill in the air.  The Diwali celebration ushers in a new season.

Raju raced his rickshaw through the city, telling us about the tourists he has befriended (“I took a picture on my phone of this woman kissing my cheek.  I showed it to my wife, who is very happy I am making a good business.”), the sites we passed (“There is the Air Force on your left.”), and his family (“You will come to my Eid feast!”).

Diwali is the Festival of Lights, and the city was outfitted in a riot of electric “Christmas” bulbs, some casually looped around balconies, others hanging from roofs and straight down facades like Technicolor bangs, many haphazardly thrown up into trees.  Just as we were mesmerized by the lights flashing past the rickshaw – BANG! – a firecracker would explode, disturbingly close and surprisingly loud.  (“We can’t go down that street.  Kids will throw crackers at the rickshaw,” Raju informed us more than once.)

Raju was determined that Reena and I enjoy ourselves.  He pulled over at a stall selling crackers, and he bought and lit us a sparkler that looked like a magic wand caked in silver glitter.  When we drove past India Gate, Raju pulled his rickshaw up alongside an ice cream cart and treated us to dessert: pista kulfi (pyramidal pistachio ice cream) for Reena and the equivalent of a Dove bar for me.  As we lounged in his rickshaw, Raju showed us mobile phone pictures of his family and his home village.

Ice cream cart/rickshaw hybrid

Back on the road, Raju sought out the most illuminated attractions in the city for our entertainment.  We stopped at a Sikh gurdwara, traced in bright white bulbs.  Reena and I explored the perimeter of the temple, preferring to quietly observe the scene from the shadows and listen to the sermon blaring from speakers.  Raju waited patiently for us, sprawling in the back of his rickshaw and sipping a cup of chai.  At Lakshmi Temple, Raju ushered us out of the rickshaw and suggested a mini-photo shoot.  Reena and Devin in front of the temple; Raju and Devin in front of the temple; Reena and Raju in front of the temple; Reena and Devin in the rickshaw; Reena and Raju in the rickshaw; Devin and Raju in the rickshaw.  At one point, Raju even physically pushed his rickshaw a few feet so that we would have better light for the photographs.

Gurdwara, luminous

 - Lighting candles at the Sikh gurdwara

Lakshmi Temple

And as we sped through the streets, listening to the din of firecrackers bursting in the sky, we saw what I have been waiting to see since we arrived in Delhi: an elephant ambling down the avenue.  With firecrackers bursting and sparking overhead, I watched an elephant four times the size of our rickshaw plod by, and I had an “Is this actually happening?” moment.  These are the moments to live for.

An elephant walks in Delhi

After an eventful evening, Raju dropped us off back in Lajpat Nagar, where fireworks  exploded and startled us every few minutes.  We grabbed a quick, late dinner at Bikanervala, our favorite local food chain, and headed home.  Tired, happy, and ready for bed, we stopped to chat with our landlord and his family who were congregated outside our front gate.  As it turned out, they were headed to the local “firecracker factory store” to stock up for the Diwali cannonade.  In the typically warm and inclusive Indian way, they invited Reena and me along.  As we are in the business of “minimizing regrets” during this Fulbright experience, we forewent bed and hopped in the car with Mr. Garg (our landlord and a lawyer at the Indian Supreme Court), his son Aashish (who trained as a doctor in the US), Aashish’s wife Meesha (also a doctor), and two young cousins.

The scene at the firecracker depot was riotous.  A hundred male customers pushed and shoved to get to the sales counter where salesmen shouted at twenty-five smallish men staggering around in orange and red shirts while carrying boxes of fireworks from the store room to customers’ waiting cars.  Since Mr. Garg knew the owner, our crew slipped behind the counter where we selected our fireworks.  I would love to meet the person in charge of naming and branding the firecrackers available in Delhi on Diwali.

A sampling:

"Puppy Love" & "Narnia"

"Miami Night" & "Glitter Flitter"


Bart Simpson, Arsenio Hall, Ahhh-nald, Julia Roberts, and Whoopi Goldberg. Obviously.


Pinocchio = Bimboo?

FYI, this law is completely ignored.

After selecting enough fireworks to fill an extra-large potato sack and implode a small building, we piled back into the car and headed to “The Laj.”  Reena and I said our goodnights to the Gargs who kindly invited us to join them for their Diwali puja the next day.

This seems like a reasonable amount of fireworks to purchase in one evening.

Our first Choti Diwali had been eventful and entertaining, and as I fell asleep, I wondered if Diwali could top Choti Diwali.

It did.

Our neighbor's Diwali lamp, set outside on the stairs

Devin Does a Delhi Diwali: Part One

In Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Skeleton Jack is the unfulfilled, soul-searching Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. (Stay with me here.)  Despite leading the hoard of ghouls who are responsible for annual Halloween spookiness, Jack feels that his life is incomplete.  When he accidentally discovers Christmas Town, Jack is completely bewildered by the “children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads.” Though he cannot completely comprehend the sights and sounds of Christmas Town, this new world ignites life and excitement in his bones, and Jack wholeheartedly dedicates himself to celebrating the holiday as best he can.

I experienced these feelings yesterday on my first Diwali.  I felt the joy of the holiday without understanding it. (see postscript)

Many of you who are reading this have never celebrated Diwali.  I’ll attempt to describe an American equivalent…  If you were to amp up the cheer and minimize the bitter-sweetness of Christmas and then pump up the noise and color of July 4th and finally top it off by celebrating both these holidays simultaneously, that was Diwali for me.

Our Diwali season started on Tuesday, when we were sitting drinking chai at our kitchen table with our cook and cultural ambassador Anita.  Wanting to adequately prepare for the holiday, Reena and I asked, “What do we do to celebrate Diwali?”

“Well, you’ll need to do a puja and [a lot of other Hindi words I didn’t understand],” she told us.  After further animated discussion between Reena and Anita, the result was…we were going on a field trip.

Anita led us down the street to the bus stop, where we stood in the road (this is normal) waiting for my first Indian bus.  When it pulled up, we clambered aboard and stood in the sweaty, crowded aisle, since seats on the bus aren’t easy to come by.  Nor are foreigners, for that matter.  As the only white person on board, I garnered a lot of stares (also normal and socially accepted here).

Where’s Devin?

Anita immediately befriended the women around us and explained to them that we were headed to the market to buy supplies for our Diwali puja.  Judging from the giggles and smiles, this was a source of amusement for the bus riders.  After a ten minute trip and many “Theek-hai?-s” (“Are you Ok?”) from a protective Anita, we arrived at the Chirag Delhi bazaar.

Decorations screaming cheerful

Anita herded us into the market, where colored strips of tinsel hung like a shiny, fluttering canopy over our heads.  With Anita telling what sites were photo-worthy, we ambled our way through the market, teeming with Diwali shoppers stocking up for their pujas.

Photo-Worthy Temporary Diwali Temple

 The puja is the prayer ceremony that plays a central role in Diwali festivities.  With Anita as our haggler-in-chief, our Diwali shopping began.  Anita stopped at a small stall, laden with marigold garlands, statues, incense, and lamps, as well as several shopkeepers, one of who was crouched inside the inventory.  After much cajoling, tsk-ing, and whining at the salesman, Anita procured us twenty-two terracotta lamps (called diya), a pack of fifty cotton wicks, soapy-smelling incense, a silver incense holder, a surprisingly large bag of puffed rice, a chicken figurine molded from sugar, a statue of Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, and another of Ganesha the elephant-headed Lord of Beginnings.

Shopkeeper in his shop-cave







Puffed rice for Lakshmi & Ganesha

We now had our puja supplies.  We just had no idea what to do with them.

To be continued…

Market Moments

Sand for mandalas
Boys selling cotton for lamp wicks
Marigolds soon to festoon

…and curiouser.
The crowd parts.

P.S. The Nightmare Before Christmas is just so good.