Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Rickety Rickshaw

About a month ago, I purchased my own mode of conveyance. As you can see in the picture to the left, it is a simple bicycle with some useful accessories. Deciding what to buy was a difficult decision. Here were the options I considered:

I. Car

Most people in Gurgaon recommended a car. I could take the car to the office, use it any time of the year (including the cold winters and hot summers), and take it Delhi without having to pay 400Rs for a cab each way. I could also take friends out to malls, movies, etc. with a car.

But, there were several problems with getting a car. First, I can't drive manual. I could get an automatic car, but that would have been more expensive. Second, I am not accustomed to driving on the left. Third, I didn't feel that a car was a necessity. Everything that I could do with car I could do without a car (i.e. office cab, friends' cars, taxis, cycle rickshaws, walking).

Price range: 100,000 Rs - 500,000 Rs

II. Motorcycle

This was what I had really wanted. Getting a motorcycle in the US is not so easy - you have to get a motorcycle license and take motorcycle classes. In India, depending on where you are, you don't really need a motorcycle license. I talked to a few dealers and showed them my US driving license. They said that it was enough to get a motorcycle - whether it is or not I don't know, but hey, this is what they said. Also, motorcycles are called 'bikes' in India.

However, of the people I talked to, about 90% strongly recommended that I not get a motorcycle. These people included my US family, my India family, and my colleagues. When I saw the driving conditions in Gurgaon, I knew why they said 'no'.

Price range: 20,000 Rs - 50,000 Rs

III. Scooter
The pluses and minuses of the scooter are about the same as for a motorcycle. Most scooters can't go as fast as bikes, but some new ones can go even faster. Another difference is that a scooter is slightly safer than a bike because there is a gap between both knees so you are not trapped in your scooter in an accident. Also, a scooter is slightly cheaper.

Price range: 10,000 - 50,000 Rs
IV. Cycle

The cycle is the cheapest option. It's also easy to maintain. And, it's safer than a motorcycle / scooter because you are off to the side of the road, not in the middle of it with motorists. It's also good exercise. The disadvantages are that you can't go as far with it as compared to the 3 options above and it's not as safe if you need to ride it at night since you're completely exposed and not travelling that fast.

Price range: 1,000 Rs - 15,000 Rs

The hierarchy of transportation vehicles in India goes:

1) SUV - kings of the road, above all laws, terrorizer of the streets. To be feared be any and all.
2) Car - a respectable way to get around.
3) Motorcycle - the 'cool' option. A fun way to travel but don't expect people to give you space. They will purposely drive close to you, especially if they are in 1) or 2), to show you where 'your place' is on the road.
4) Scooter - basically like 3), but actually it's a bit safer. Because there is no equipment separating your legs, you can actually jump off in an accident. In a motorcycle, you are going down with the bike.
5) Bicycle - pretty low on the totem pole, you get no respect from anyone. Cycle carefully and yield to all traffic, including oxen and definitely buffalo.
6) Pedestrian - even lower on the totem pole than cyclists. You're not even safe on the side of the road, because motorcycles and scooters can still get you.
7) Not leaving your house - sometimes the safest and smartest option!

I went with option 5 on the list and am happy with my choice. My cycle also has some important accessories. First, I have helmet. Second, I have a powerful light (xenon LED I think) attached to my handle bars to pierce the night, dust, and fog. Third, I have a bell for announcing my presence (as if any motorists would even care). Fourth, I have a combination lock (thought it's not very long). Fifth, I have a cushion seat cover, for obvious reasons. My bike has 6 speeds, which does the job. What I need however is a carrier that will attach to my back wheel.

Right now, I ride my bike to Viyepar Kendra, Galleria, malls, etc. to do some shopping and occasionally to work. My ride did become rickety, recently. As I was riding to work, I went over a pot hole and my handle bars jarred loose. I paid 20 Rs to my maid's husband to fix the problem, and now it's good as new!

So there you have it: My Rickety Rickshaw (which will indeed be a rickshaw when I get my carrier as I will then be able to give people a lift).

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The life and times of maids

I just had a 20 minute discussion with my maid about her life (in Hindi no less, with my trusty Rough Guide to Learning Hindi / Urdu at my side), and so I thought I should write this now while the thoughts are still fresh in my mind.

I and many of my colleagues use the term 'maid', but most people in India still use the term 'servant' or 'maid-servant'. In fact, 'servant' is more common if the 'domestic helper' (the most politically correct term) lives with his/her client family. However, things are changing and maids are more empowered (mine carries a cell phone). And, she is trustworthy. This is worth a premium to me. Initially, I was planning not to employ a maid and instead do the cooking / cleaning / clothes washing myself. However, having a maid has forced me to speak and understand Hindi. This has been one of the best things about having a maid.

I came to Gurgaon just when another SAP colleague was leaving the company and the city. I moved into his flat without paying a broker fee, which would have been 1 month's rent or 12,000 Rs. Second, I got a good maid straight away. Jasvir recommended his maid to me and I have employed her since the beginning. I was lucky because I didn't have to go through the trial-and-error selection process where you try a few maids and fire each one because of some act of dishonesty or unreliability. The turnover of 'non-live-in' maids (maids who don't live in your house) is very high. If you're not happy with your maid, you can easily find another one. Likewise, if your maid doesn't like you, she can easily find a new client.

For the first few weeks, I communicated to my maid exclusively through Jasvir and my neighbors. At this time I didn't have any cooking necessities like a fridge, stove, spices, etc. so my maid prepared a daily tiffin for me. This consisted of rice, chapati, some vegetable, and salad and cost 50 Rs per meal. After getting the cooking necessities, which happened in mid-October, my maid started cooking for me. She cooks extremely well, making things like Aloo Gohbi, Tomater (potato, cauliflower, and tomato), Aloo Palak (potato and spinach), Dal (various kinds), Chappati, Rajma (kidney beans), Chole (garbonzo beans), and other things. My maid also cleans my apartment and washes my clothes daily.

I have found that my maid is reliable about 70% of the time. There are times when she doesn't show up for stretches, either because she's ill (which I believe given her living conditions) or because she is attending festivals somewhere. We have worried about her illnesses but she has gone to the doctor a few times and so far it has been nothing serious. My maid must be in her late 40s and gets up at 5:30am each day to work at her client's houses - so she is clearly a hard worker. My guess is that she works in about 5 houses, all in my area. Of course, there are arguments about money between her clients and her. The problem, I believe, is her husband. Her husband is an out-of-work gardner who charges about 600 Rs for gardening. Essentially my maid is supporting both of them and also sending money to her children who are in Rajasthan.

Recently, I used my maid's help to prepare for a party I had at my apartment. I called 10 of my friends over for an American / Italian style dinner. I bought soup, garlic bread, pasta, sauce, and vegetables from the story. We boiled the pasta and sauteed the vegetables. We mixed the two with some spices - I think we went a little overboard with the spices and the pasta became a little too 'Indian', but the crowd seemed to enjoy it. We called my aunt and grandmother in Bombay to get directions for the cooking.

I now communicate with my maid 90% on my own, of course with my trusted Rough Guide at my side. She knows what I like and makes it - she even makes Rasam now because my grandmother asked her to do this for me.

My maid lives about 10 minutes (walking) from me 'on the other side of the road' which, if it's where I'm thinking, is a not-so-great part of town. She lives with her husband in one room of a flat with 4 rooms. The flat is owned by a policeman who charges 2000Rs per room (which is equal to the amount I pay her per month). However, the other 3 rooms are occupied by about 4 people each, mostly Rajasthani workers who mostly go to the market and buy the cooking supplies that my maid needs to do the work at her various houses. However, my maid owns a small 1 room house in UP (Uttar Pradesh). Her space is very cramped here in Gurgaon. I have also met her niece, a talkative 14 year old girl who occassionally comes to my flat to help her. Unfortunately, this girl has already quit school. The reality is that money now is more important than money later, so education falls by the wayside.

So how did our conversation end?

Maid: "India bahut garib hain." (India is very poor)
Ravi: "Hainji, bahut Lodi hain." (Yes, too many people)
Maid: "Bahut garib, bahut lodi, paisa nahi." (Too poor, too many people, no money)

The fundamental problem with India is just that: too many people. You can trace almost every single problem in India to this one fact.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

3 months in India

I completed 3 months in India on December 9, 2007. I'm happy to report that I am safe and sound and that while I've gotten a taste of India, the adventure has yet to truly begin.

September was a month for settling in. I arrived in Bombay on September 10 and took a few days to adjust to the new time. I then travelled north to Delhi. It took the remainder of September and half of October to get set up in my apartment. I did a fair amount of travelling in October, visiting destinations like Chennai, Goa, and Haridwar & Rishikesh. November and December have been pretty busy, so I haven't gotten to travel as much.

I have a had a few bouts with minor illnesses (stomach viruses, cold, flu, etc.) but nothing serious. Now, I feel much more adjusted to the environment. The dust does not bother me as much, but the heat might be an issue after March. The weather has been chilly for the last month, but I have a heater and extra, thick blanket to fight off the cold. Plus, I am going to the gym regularly now, which seems to have strengthened my immune system. I have also adopted a healthier diet, eating 90% of my food from my maid, who cooks healthy food.

I finally registered with US Embassay in New Delhi. Hopefully I will get to know about social events for other expats. The plan for January and onwards to travel much more. I still need to see Rajashtan, Kashmir, Bengal, the North-Eastern states, and Cuddalore.

Emotionally, I have gone from highs to lows to highs in these 3 months. After all, India is a country of highs and lows, so I should not have expected anything else. I was on a high in the first few weeks, delighting in everything that was different in India and feeling ecstatic about finally getting the international experience I have been waiting for most of my life. This period was followed a low that lasted several more weeks in which I was paranoid about my health and my safety. I realized in this period that you have to be careful in India and especially in Gurgaon, where poverty is juxtaposed with the new middle class. I also realized how different I am compared to others - and yet how similar we are as well. In the 3rd and current period, I have more or less accepted the differences and have adjusted. I have also made a more concerted effort to learn Hindi.

Monday, December 3, 2007

And God Said, 'Let there be light!'

I didn't really know what to expect on the day of Diwali. I have heard stories about what it's like to actually experience Diwali in India. In a country like India, I thought, anything is possible. The enthusiasm people have for Diwali was apparent given the festivities in the weeks leading up to Diwali. The way people really turned out for SAP's Diwali events, the Mela festiveness, and the incenssant fire crackers in the nights for the previous month (which scared my US colleagues who thought I was in the middle of a gunfight when I was on calls with them) told me that I should be ready for something big on the day of Diwali.

I had made plans to spend Diwali with a colleague of mine, Kunnal Bali, who graciously invited me to spend Diwali with him and his family in Dwarka, a suburb of Delhi. Since I wanted to see Diwali in all its glory, I asked people where I should go and they said that Delhi was the place to be. So, to Kunnal's house I went. Kunnal and his friend, one Suchit Sharma, picked me up from Maple Heights around 5pm. We stopped at a small market in Dwarka and after withdrawing some firecracker cash, we joined a mob of people to purchase some firecrackers for our night of explosive fun. I spent about 2,000 Rs on an assortment of crackers including sparklers, bombs, rockets, chakris. In hindsight, I overpaid for the crackers by about 500 Rs. I still have a lot to learn about negotiating. One of the great things about the fire cracker boxes are all the pretty women the manufactuers put on the covers. They sure know how to market to young males (like myself)!

After picking up the crackers, we proceeded to Kunnal's house. While we were driving there, we dodged mischeviously placed bombs on the side of the road. Every now and then, we screeched to a halt when a bomb was directly in front of us. Finally, we reached Kunnal's house and we breathed a sigh of relief that the car was still intact. Before we could engage in some cracker bursting ourselves, we needed to perform the traditional Diwali pooja. Incidentally, this was the first time I had witnessed a Panjabi style Pooja. It was different from the kind of poojas I have seen, which have more chanting (and smoke in your eyes). Here, since Kunnal's father is a musician, the family sang songs while Kunnal's father kept the beat on some pots. It was a very entertaining pooja. Unfortunately I didn't know any of the songs. During the pooja, many of Kunnal's family and friends stopped by to join the pooja. We had a full house before not long. The pooja was dotted by the sounds of fire crackers going off outside - I found this very amusing. This was clearly not meant to be a somber pooja!

After the pooja, it was time for the fun to begin. We armed ourselves with 2,000 Rs worth of firecrackers and set off. We met scores and scores of Kunnal's friends outside. We even took a ride on Suchit's heavy duty bike - a powerful bike known as a Bullet. We cruised around the narrow streets of Dwarka and once again dodged flying firecrackers. Only this time, it was more dangerous since 3 of us were riding helmetless (shame on us) on an exposed bike. Despite our existing firecrackers, we felt we needed more fire power. We purchased my favorite - flower pots and some more rockets. I also remember an abandoned house on the corner which I was sure would be blown to pieces given that it was the favorite spot for bombs. It's a relatively safe place to plant bombs since it's away from cars and people know to proceed cautiously at this spot.

After the bike ride, we set off by foot to wish a happy Diwali to Kunnal's friends and relatives. Each time we went to someone's house, we were graciously invited in and offered sweets, snacks (including Madrasi mixture, which is as familiar to me as apple pie), and drinks. We must have visited about 10 such houses. After these visits, I must have had enough food to equal a normal dinner. And after one such visit, as we were leaving the house, Suchit lit a cracker, I think it was a Bullet Bomb, near the bike. I thought I was far enough away, but alas I was not. As I was talking to Kunnal, a burning piece of the cracker landed on my foot. Unfortunately, I wasn't wearing closed shoes. I was wearing my sandals, with socks. Before I knew it, the piece of the cracker had burned a hole in my sock and burned my foot!! Can you believe that? It was actually quite painful. The scar is still there. I'm starting to realize that injuries to your feet tend to cause long term scars (like those from my mosquito bites early in the trip, which are still there).

The rest of the night was unreal. Jasvir said it best. I just couldn't find the words to describe what it's like to experience Diwali in a traditional North Indian town. Quite simply, it's like a video game. It's like a game like Contra, Doom, Unreal, etc. In the dead of night your visibility is not more than 10 meters because all you see a mixture of dust and smoke. As you're driving in your car there are rockets flying everywhere. It's every man for himself. All of a sudden, there are loud booms and flashes of light. It's a very festive war zone. There are no rules, except the ones you chose to follow. For example, if you do plant a bomb, tell the traffic to stop so their cars don't explode when the cracker bursts in the fuel tank. One of my most memorable scenes was driving in Kunnal's SUV to a neighboring town to wish Nitin (another colleague) a happy Diwali. We were as usual dodging rockets, blasting one of my favorite songs, Chak De India, in the car. I have never felt so much like the hero in a video game.

And thanks to Kunnal's family's political connections, we were even more above the law than usual. While the cracker bursting is officially supposed to stop at 10pm, we launched crackers until much later. As we were driving back to Kunnal's house, we saw Kunnal's friends again. There were in a mood to party. We parked the car, popped the trunk, and lo and behold, there were speakers. We blasted some Panjabi music and danced right there in the streets for a good 10 minutes. Only in India.

We came home around midnight, and finally ate dinner. Exhausted, we went to sleep. The next day, we woke up around 12pm and had a leisurely lunch. As is customary in this town, the poor people from a neighboring village came to perform their traditional dance on the day after Diwali. They are trying to raise money to build a temple in their village. Seems like a good cause to me. It is said that if you give money to these folks, whatever you wish for will come true. We'll see if that happens for me. In any case, this was a Diwali for the ages.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Diwali - Mela

Hello readers. You all must be wondering, "Was Ravi asleep during Diwali?" The biggest festival in India, and no blogs on this? Yup, I have gotten a little delayed in my blogs. Thankfully, today is Saturday and I have time to write a few entries. But after writing roughly 15 entries, I have realized the following: the bigger the event, the longer it takes for me to get a blog out on it (because there is just more to say). And the more pictures I have, the longer it takes as well - because I have to transfer the pictures to my computer, delete the ones I don't like, compress the remaining ones, and upload them (one by one) to the website. Uploading is hard to do from home, because my Internet connection is weak. And worse, if the power goes out, the upload process is interrupted and I have to start over. And once I do get the pictures uploaded, I have to arrange them to fit with my text - or I can just push them to the bottom (which tells you that I'm feeling lazy). I think you will see fewer pictures from now onwards on my blog.

Diwali was Friday, November 9, this year. Like Christmas, however, the festivities began well before Diwali. As you saw from my SAP - Diwali blog, we had celebrations all week long at work. On Thursday, we had a Diwali Mela (Mela = get together) at Maple Heights (my apartment complex). The event was pretty cool - I went to the small field in the center of our complex to check out the action with my friends Jasvir, Saurabh, Saurabh's wife Manjari, and Saurabh's parents. We brought our own firecrackers (patakas) and burst them in the nearby parking lots. Of course, when we started doing this, the kids came running to us begging to have some firecrackers. Of course, we gave some to them, and of course, they helped themselves to some more. Net net, our stash got very low very quickly. We also had some sparklers which we used to light the crackers. The problem is that the sparklers were of low quality so we would sit there for 1-2 minutes waiting for one sparkler to catch fire. But after we got our sparklers going, we lit some high quality crackers - my favorite were the flower pots. These are incredibly bright - they remind me of smelting equipment where you just see a bright white flash of sparks. Once you light the flower pot - the sparks shoot up about 10 feet into the air and fall away like a fountain. Besides bursting our own crackers, there was a professional fireworks show along with dancing and food stands.

The professionals also launched these strange contraptions into the air - they looked like giant top hats. All in all, I had a great time at the Mela (and even had some South Indian food at the food stalls). The Mela was a great appetizer for the real thing on November 9!

It's Rocking in Delhi

Literally. Early this morning around 4:40 am I was awoken by a earthquake 4.3 on the Richter scale. The earthquake lasted about 15-20 seconds and the epicentre was at the Delhi and Haryana border. Normally, a 4.3 earthquake would elicit some discussions in California: 'Did you feel that?' etc. But in India, a 4.3 earthquake is borderline deadly given that the buildings in India are not exactly earthquake proof. I live on the 1st floor of my Maple Heights apartment. I think being on the ground floor is safer than being on the higher floors. Being on the higher floors, you're more susceptible to building sway. On the other hand, if you're on the ground floor, the risk is that all the higher floors can come crashing down on you. In any case, there was no damage as far as I can tell.

How does that song go: "It's Rocking, Yaara Kabhi Ishq Toh Karo..." Except the earthquake wasn't caused by anyone falling in love. More due to the 're-alignment of the Sohana tectonic plate fault line that has been in the past led to mild tremors in the region.'

Monday, November 12, 2007

Chotton Ki Asha

Service is one of those things that changes your perspective and fills you with a sense of purpose. In our daily jobs, most of us sit in front of a computer, evaluate scenarios, develop spreadsheets, write programs, etc. Physical labor is virtually non-existent. The only work-related physical labor we do get comes when we move the mouse or type!

Yes, thinking is our greatest asset and it's what separates us from other life forms. But from early times humans hunted, farmed, built houses, etc. We need to work with our hands and break a sweat. Why do I say that? Because on those rare occasions when we do this - exercise, gardening, sports, or even hands-on service work, we feel good afterwards. Of course, the 'good feeling' of service comes from more than just working with our hands. It comes from seeing the results of our work, and helping people less fortunate than ourselves.

We should realize that when the cards of life were being dealt, we got the high cards - the Aces (good families), the Kings (financial security), the Queens (good education), and the Jacks (safe locations). Whatever low cards we were dealt, we traded for higher cards. Our good fortune, then, comes from inheriting 'a good situation' with all the conditions ripe for success, and making a few tweaks here and there to create a great situation from a good situation.

But there are many people in the world who are disadvantaged from the start. The boys, girls, students, and women who attend the Chotton Ki Asha community center in Sonya Vihar, Delhi, are by no means the most despairing lot in the world - that infamy would have to go to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, or any other war torn country, where making it through the day alive is a miracle in itself. Here in Sonya Vihar, the people are on the 'border'. By lower class standards, they are living average lives. Things could be better and things could be much worse. A place like Chotton Ki Asha is there to tip the balance in favor of a positive life. With some encouragement, mentorship, access to technology, and hope, a better future is within their reach. A better future includes things like a college education, basic health awareness, and a decent job. And, of course, the gems amongst the lot will have an opportunity to discover and cultivate their talents and maybe they will go on to lead highly successful lives.

A lot of planning went into the day of service. Getting 70 people to even fit inside the center was a challenge! The Center consisted of the following rooms that needed work: 2 classrooms, a doctor's office, and a beauty parlor. The classrooms needed to be beautified while the medicinal supplies in the doctor's office needed to be organized. Another group of volunteers left for the Ashram orphanage about 20 minutes away from the Center to distribute toys to the kids. My job, after doing general cleaning with the rest of the group, was to work on beautifying the classroom. The work actually began the previous day, with the cutting of shapes in the office. We even hired a professional painter. Our theme was animal-based. The highlight of our room was the splendid mushroom, which the painter painted to perfection.

At the end of the day, the teachers and students were ecstatic with the results. We were equally happy with the results. But, to be honest, the Center was already in decent shape when we arrived there. We were told to be prepared for 'slum' conditions, but most of us agreed that Sonya Vihar was more like a simple village than a slum.

And seeing the USAID logo made me feel a few things. First, pride. People need to recognize that the US is a good country that does good things. No, we are not perfect, but our heart is in the right place. Second, this was one of those experiences (like seeing the oxen, or people running across the highway, or more recently, the smell of certain fragrant leaves on the road to Viyapar Kendra) that made me feel that I was really, really far away from the US. When you're in the US, you see things on TV about the work people are doing abroad to improve lives. And now, to finally be in one of those places, is a pretty amazing experience. It made me wish that instead of joining a standard i-banking job after college, I wish that I had joined the Peace Corps and lived the ultimate adventure. Here, I still have 2 Blackberrys, email, etc. I'm still too connected to the West. But in the Peace Corps, I would have been dropped in the middle of nowhere, in a village, left to do whatever I could to improve life in a rural area however I could. 2 years and 3 months later, I would come back to the US a new person, with a new perspective, and having left my adopted village a better place than what it was when I came there. That's the kind of full immersion I really want. In a shrinking world, I think it's good to maintain distances. These days, we are too dependent on IM, email, cell phones, etc. What ever happened to going abroad - and really going abroad and severing all but essential contact with home? You can't have 1 foot in each location if you are to truly get the most out of where you are. Full immersion is the only choice. That's when you can do the most good.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Diwali @ SAP

On Friday, November 2nd, we had numerous Diwali festivities at our SAP office in Gurgaon. In fact, for that entire week, we had festivities including almost daily games and competitions. This was the first year SAP - Gurgaon had festivities - largely because we recently hired a managing director for the office who helped organize the event. All in all, I'd say it was a pretty successful first year for Diwali celebrations.

Saurabh, Pankaj, and Rajwinder.

My friends from the GRC team with their elaborately decorated office space.

Me with Rohit Gupta, another Palo Alto transplant.

GRC office space....

The fashion show (all who were dressed up participated, including me =) )

Office decorations of the KMCC team.

Office decorations of the KMCC team.

And more pictures of the office lobbies (on various floors), decorations, and my taxi cab friends....

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Karwa Chauth - A North Indian Tradition

Every now and then (actually, pretty frequently), I come across something in India that grabs my attention. A couple of weeks ago, that something was the festival / ritual of Karwa Chauth. I first heard about this on my way to volunteering from a colleague who was observing a special, pre-Karwa Chauth fast. She described the basic ideas behind the fast. Later, on the actual day when Karwa Chauth is observed (exactly 9 days before Diwali), my office was almost deserted of women. What exactly was going on?

I came home and satisfied my curiosity by doing some good old fashioned Internet research. If your as curious as me, check out this website: It's where the picture above comes from. Here are the basics on Karwa Chauth.

On this day, wives get up before sunrise. They worship various gods and pray for a long lives for their husbands. If the mother-in-law is around, she gives the daughter-in-law food (sumptuous food, I believe). At sunrise, the wives begin the fast.

In the evening, the wives get dressed up in their finest clothes. They then receive gifts from their mother-in-laws. Everyone (I'm assuming that there are many people in the house at this point) starts to assemble a puja in one corner of the house. The women then carry out the puja.

At night, the wives break the fast when they see the reflection of the moon in a plate of water, or through a sieve. This part confuses me. Why does the wife look at the moon indirectly? Is it because their viewing the moon as a God? At this point, the fast over, hopefully the husband has come home from work, and everyone enjoys a sumptuous dinner.

According to some people, there are some additional procedures observed. The first thing the wife sees before the fast is her husband. In the evening, she breaks the fast when she glimpses her husband. So, in effect, her husband are the first and last things she sees before and after the fast.

Based on this description, Karwa Chauth is all about a women's devotion to her husband. But, this is not what Karwa Chauth was originally intended to be about. Women in India used to get married at a very young age (15 or so). They then left home and went to live with their new in-laws. In the new village, which could have been very far from home, the brides might not know anyone in the village. So, to solve this problem, the brides would befriend another woman in that village who would become like a sister to her. She would go to this woman with all her problems (in those days, she couldn't call or email home with her international Blackberry....). Karwa Chauth, then, was a festival to celebrate the friendship between the two women.

I think this is a very honourable tradition. Of course you want to celebrate friendships, especially when you are far away from home. However, I'm not sure how this tradition became about the husband. When I first heard about this, I was of two minds about the ritual.

On the one hand, it was nice to see because you would never see anything like this in Western cultures. A wife being devoted to her husband is a nice thing to see in this world, where couples are so often going off in their own direction.

On the other hand, where is the festival where the husband does the same thing for his wife? I don't think one exists. I also asked my mom about this. Her reaction was the same. Where is the festival for the wives? Plus what about all the women who perform this puja who pray for long lives for their husbands only to have their husbands die at an early age? Where is their reward? If you take the festival simply as a once-a-year act to celebrate the marriage, then I can accept it. But if you really think you're going to get a longer life for your husband from it, then I'm not so sure...

Still, I feel that Karwa Chauth made more sense in the olden days. Even if we accept that Karwa Chauth is no longer about the celebration of the new 'sisterhood' (which I think is a great idea) and is now about the all powerful Indian husband, I don't know how much sense it makes now. In the olden days, men were the protectors while the women tended the home. Those Indian men who were not vegetarian would go out hunting for food. If not, they would be working in the fields. And, they were the ones who were charged with protecting the village / state. So, their service might be called upon in battle. In short, the life of a man was more dangerous back then. Given that, I have no problem with a festival to wish for a long life for the husband. In those days, the man was making a great sacrifice for his wife and family. Without him, the family would lose significant income and protection. If I were a man living a tough life in those days, I would really appreciate something like Karwa Chauth because I know that while I was suffering, my wife might suffer for one day as well. Solidarity in suffering.

But now, this is not the reality except for military families where the husband is serving overseas. In those families, I think something like Karwa Chauth is a good idea so that husbands know that they have support back home. In most other families, women are just as important to the financial security of the household as the men are. The wife goes to work at Infosys as an IT consultant. The husband goes to work for Wipro as an IT consultant. They come home at the same time. The wife then cooks the dinner. And then once a year, the wife performs Karwa Chauth for her 'valiant' husband. How is what her husband is doing any different from what she is doing?

And then, there is the problem of women who are in loveless marriages who are silently pressured into observing Karwa Chauth. Imagine fasting for a day for someone who you don't really love. Instead of celebrating the marriage during the fast, if you're the wife, you're probably wondering how you got yourself in this sorry situation in the first place.

Here is suggestion: given that men and women are equal these days, we need to amend the festivals. Keep Karwa Chauth because of its nice cultural significance, but create a new festival where the husband does something similar: A fast, or perhaps he builds something for the house. Something which requires some sacrifice. The exception is if the husband is already in a profession which demands great sacrifice, then the status quo is fine. Wife should be devoted to husband and husband she be devoted to wife. If something like this already exists, then someone please let me know.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Glimpse of Goa

My Goa entry will be very short, unfortunately. Quite simply, I didn't spend enough time there. Goa requires more than 2 days - but even for the 2 days that I was there, it was very relaxing. I stayed at the Taj Exotica in South Goa. This hotel is part of the luxurious Taj chain.

Coming from Delhi, Goa was a completely different experience. The last thing I remember about Delhi (before arriving in Goa) was being prodded left and right at the airport when waiting in the security line. If there was 1 free centimeter of space in front of me and I didn't inch forward to occupy it, I would get nudged in the back. This has to be one of my least favorite things about India, along with the Gurgaon / Delhi pollution-dust-smoke amalgamation that is doing battle with my lungs every day.

But when I arrived in Goa, everything was pleasantly different. First, it was quiet. Gone were the honking noises and yelling voices in Delhi. The airport in Goa is small and touristy - you will see many people from all over the world. I had airport transfer to my hotel. The hotel greeter mentioned that I didn't look like a 'Raghavan' - meaning that I looked more like a Christian. I'm still trying to figure out what that means. Most of the Indians I met in Goa are Christian, and the only difference I noticed between them and the Hindu Indians was a lack of a mustache and maybe a more conservative haircut?

The trip from the airport to the hotel was 45 minutes through quiet jungle areas. Along the way, I saw countless Christian shrines, which were very cool. The whole time, I just didn't feel like I was in India. Come to think of it, anything south of Maharashtra feels completely different from the North. South of Maharashtra, people have no trouble understanding my American accent. North of Maharashtra, it's a miracle if anyone can understand me!

The hotel had it all - pool, private beach, life size chessboard, golf course(s), tennis, volleyball, Italian restaurant, seafood restaurant (on the beach), etc. I met many foreigners while there, including an American in the shoe business. He was evaluating India as a potential spot for manufacturing for his shoe brand, which I found surprising. After all, I had always thought that India was not good for manufacturing given our infrastructure problems. I also spoke at length with many of the hotel staff, who, I think, were very happy to see an Indian staying at their hotel (not that I was the only one) rather than the usual Western tourist. Also, many of the Indian working at the hotel are from South India - Kerala, TN, etc. so they were also happy to talk to another Southie.

In the end, I spent a relaxing couple of days here, and I realized that I need to come back see Goa properly. If I can get the vacation, then a week here would be great to see the historical sites in both South and North Goa. And of course, Goa would have been a fun place to go diving. Unlike the frigid, murky waters of Monterey, diving in India might actually be pleasurable.