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"

Yikes.

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

Creepy.

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
Curiouser…

…and curiouser.
The crowd parts.

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaxKiZfQcX8]

The Red Thread

It may not be immediately obvious why ten days after our wedding Brian and I picked up and moved to India.  The answer is contained in the title of this blog, The Red Thread, which my witty husband suggested.  Aside from the obvious auburn strands on my head, The Red Thread appropriately alludes to other themes.

I have come to India on a Fulbright scholarship to research hand-woven textiles, which are physically nothing more than webs of interlocking threads.  But the figurative meaning within The Red Thread is most telling, as textiles have been a “red thread”, a constant and unifying theme in my life.  I chose to apply for a Fulbright and move to another hemisphere in order to “follow my bliss,” as a certain wise family member of mine likes to say.  (The Personal Statement that I submitted with my Fulbright application explains more about my decision to apply for the grant.  You can read it by clicking here.) Now and I hope for the rest of my life, I will “live my bliss” rather than having to follow it halfway around the world.

The Red Thread is named etymologically appropriately as well.  The expression is believed to have originated in China where folklore tells of scarlet strings tied to men and women’s ankles, destining them to be together. In our wedding vows, Brian and I promised to stand by each other so that we might experience life more fully together than we could alone.  Living in India, we are actively fulfilling that promise, sharing a completely new experience and enriching our connected lives.  Though Brian is currently in the US for his post-graduate interviews, a red thread (a.k.a. me) will draw him back to India in less than a month.

Now that I have been living in Delhi for almost five weeks, I’ve noticed many men and women wearing bracelets of red string, a curious coincidence.  During Hindu prayer ceremonies, priests tie red threads around the wrists of attending worshippers to indicate that they have partaken in a sacred act.  Now I am not particularly religious.  However, in the same way that religion offers solace and peace to followers, I feel serenity and fulfillment having followed my own red thread.

How did I end up with a red dot on my forehead? More details in a following post...

 

Happy Place

If only Dastkar’s Nature Bazaar could go on forever.  I may have to make a special trip back to India next October just to revisit the show.  Here are more pictures of the crafts on display.

 

 

This wooden furniture was all intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

 

Many of the textiles at the show are naturally dyed, giving them these absolutely saturated and rich hues.

 

Grrrrr!!  Roar!!!

 

Artisans from Kala Raksha design their own products, including the most endearing cloth “board” games.  Women fashion game boards out of patchwork and embroidered fabric.  The pieces are leather or cloth figurines.  I should have bought “Chutes and Ladders.”  These games were among the most creative products I saw at Dastkar.

 

Patel Handlooms produces Maheshwari sarees in Madhya Pradesh, the region south of Delhi where I will be conducting my field research.  My first trip will be in a week or two!

 

The Nature Bazaar’s theme this year was the Camel.  “Be like a camel — carrying sweets but dining on thorns.” – Indian proverb

 

The art form of Kalamkari painting has existed in India for generations.  The name is derived from the Persian words kalam (pen) and kari (craftsmanship).

 

Kashmiri crafts seem to have had the most widespread success in international markets.  I have seen boxes like this for sale in the States for years.

 

Block-printers create beautiful fabrics, but I never considered the blocks themselves to be works of art — until I saw Mr. Tahir’s and his award-winning father Mr. Mohammad Ayyub’s masterpieces.  This block measured a foot and a half across, and its lace-like design was carved using metal tools as fine as dentists’ picks.  As I lingered over the blocks for sale, I chatted with Mr. Tahir the carver, a man about my age who provided me with a steaming cup of chai.  His family members have been carving wood blocks since the 1700s!

 

Swoon.

 

It’s high time I explained why, specifically, I have come to India.  But this explanation will have to wait until the morning.  It is 12:30am, and I am ready to be lulled to sleep by the artillery of pre-Diwali firecrackers outside my window…

Teatotaler

The ubiquitous chai is a staple of life in India. Our cook Anita brews a fresh pot for us every morning. (Yes, I feel spoiled.) Shopkeepers magically make tea appear if you’ve hung around their store too long. Chai-wallahs set up bunsen burner-like contraptions on the sidewalk, heat up dented metal kettles, and voila — heaven for 8 rupees. Paying 18 cents for a cup of fresh brewed chai is way better than paying 5 dollars for a Starbucks latte.

Here I am cooling off my chai and about to drink it like a pro.

Thanks to my “surrogate Mum” Christine for taking the picture and taking me out for lunch!

This is Indeed India!

“This is indeed India!  The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history…the one sole country under the sun that…all men desire to see and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give up that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”

- excerpt from Mark Twain’s Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (published in 1916…and still rings true)

P.S. I wish I could claim to have taken this picture.