Monday, September 29, 2008

The South

I left for Madras on Friday, Sept 12 to attend my cousin Divya's wedding. This was, by the way, my 4th trip to Madras since I've been in India. Afterwards, I travelled with my dad to Kanyakumari, Trivandrum, Kottayam, and Cochin.


The wedding was a traditional South Indian wedding. What does that mean? Long ceremonies, hot Madras weather, but exceptional food (from a famous Iyengar cook, Pattapa). I even played the role of the brother, so my trip to Madras yielded me a new sister. Also, I celebrated my birthday during the wedding by having a couple of 'Sheik' shakes at Fruit Shop.

The next day, my dad and I took an overnight train from Chennai's Egmore station to Kanyakumari, the southernmost point in India. At Kanyakumari we saw the convergence of 3 bodies of water - the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. From there, we took a local bus to Trivandrum and spent the day sightseeing (though my dad got some stomach problems so he was out of commission that day). After Trivandrum it was on to Kottayam via local train. In Kottayam, we explored Kerala's backwaters by canoe and by motor boat (on Lake Vembanad). We also ventured into the Kottayam town to buy some spices. We also spent a lot of time relaxing at our resort (i.e. swimming, ayurvedic massage, and gym). After Kottayam, we took another train to Cochin. Cochin was a bit disappointing in terms of sightseeing. My dad and I agreed that we should have eliminated Cochin from the trip and instead gone east to Munnar to see the tea plantations.


I was dismayed by two things on this trip: the difficulty in finding South Indian food and the excessive use of Hindi. All of our hotels had largely replaced South Indian food with North Indian food. Also, most of the people we came across spoke to us in Hindi before realizing that we were actually from the South. But I understand that these two phenomena exist simply to cater to tourists, who usually come from states north of Tamil Nadu. Still, I would have preferred more South Indian food and for people to speak to us (and other tourists) in Tamil / Malayalam before switching to Hindi / English if necessary. In Gurgaon or Delhi, people speak to newcomers in Hindi, regardless of whether the newcomer knows Hindi. In France, it's French first and then English if necessary. Southerners should speak in their language first and then switch to another language if necessary.

Pictures:

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nangal

I travelled to Nangal, on the border of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, a few weeks ago to attend the wedding of one of my colleagues, Simran. I had a great time for several reasons: Nangal is a beautiful hill station, this was my first Punjabi and Sikh wedding and it was a lot of fun, and I was well taken care of.

I arrived on a Jan Shitabdi train to Nangal at about 10pm on Friday night (a 7 hour journey). Soon after arriving, I was taken straight to the in-progress ladies' sangeeth at the Nangal officer's club. I had decided before the trip not to dance because of my injured knee, but soon after I got to the party I was on the dance floor. Actually, all the dancing over the next 3 days was probably good exercise for me knee.

I spent the 2nd day getting to know my host family and visiting the Nangal and Bhakara dams. The day started with a sumptuous, hearty breakfast of 4+ paranthas and a few omelettes. I met the family's adopted dogs which look like puppies but are actually full grown dogs. The dams were quite impressive and the water level, while low, had apparently risen a bit because of the heavy rainfall this winter. But even better than seeing the dams was the ride to the dams through picturesque countryside which is inhabited by many curious monkeys. I would love to come back to Nangal and go on an extended trekking trip - in the fall or the early spring when the weather is even cooler.

That night, we attended the gentleman's sangeeth at Simran's house. The backyard was very well decorated and had a dance floor and professional DJ. We had to contend with a power outage for about 1 hr, possibly related to the stormy weather that we had been facing in the previous few days, but luckily the outage didn't affect the party too much and we were able to dance the night away again.

The next morning was the actual wedding in the Gurudwara. What I enjoyed most about the wedding was the soothing music that was played while the guests were filing into the Gurudwara. While for Hindus, marriage is completed when the couple circles the fire 7 times, for Sikhs, marriage is completed when the couple circles the holy book 4 times. Then, after lunch, I left with others. We first took a rented van to Chandigarh and then caught a Shitabdi train back to Delhi. But since the New Delhi station was under construction, we got off at the Rohini station and proceeded to take cab back home.

It was a fun-filled 3 days and thanks to Simran, her family, and Nirlep Singh and his family (my hosts) for showing me great hospitality!

Friday, September 12, 2008

9/11 Memorial Service

Yesterday I attended a September 11 memorial service at the US Embassy in Chanakyapuri, Delhi. Though we gathered to remember a tragic event, this was probably the single best day I have had in India because of all the people I met that day.

The ceremony began promptly at 6pm. First, 2 marines raised the flag to full staff and then lowered it to half staff. Then we heard from a State Department official and the Ambassador, David Mulford. He spoke about the need to remember this date, though 7 years have elapsed.

I must admit that it is becoming harder for me to remember the feelings of that day. I was a junior at MIT at the time. I woke up around 8:30am that day (a Tuesday) and I headed to the lab to work on my digital design project. As I was walking into the lab, I saw the 2 lab workers watching the TV, as they normally did. That's when I saw what was happening. One of the towers was already on fire, and sometime later the 2nd one would be too. For the rest of the day everyone was glued to the TV to see what was happening. And the rest is history.

Following the speeches, we went for a brief reception. The ambassador greeted each of the guests, which was a great honor for me though I was at a loss for words. I met 6 Fulbright scholars (1 professor and 5 students) and several State Department employees. After the reception, over dinner, I got to know some of the Fullbright student scholars better and was intrigued by their research topics. I told all the Americans I met that I wished I had met all of them a year ago when I came to India. I have been waiting for an opportunity like this to meet like-minded, curious Americans and unfortunately the chance came towards the end of my stay in India. Still, I'm glad to have met everyone and will certainly keep in touch and will hopefully see them again before I leave India.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

1 year in India

1 year ago, on September 8, 2007 I boarded a plane for India. 2 days later, on September 10, 2007, I was in Bombay for the first time in 17 years. 3 days after that, I celebrated only my 2nd birthday in India on September 13.


And now, on September 11, 2008, I'm still in India and that means that I have completed 1 year here. Technically, I haven't spent 365 days in India because I was in Dubai for 4 days, Europe for 11 days, and the US for 30 days. But, by the time I leave in India in late November, I will have stayed for 365 days.


Had my original plans worked out, I wouldn't be writing this blog today. I would have left in July and would be in school now. In some ways, I'm staying longer because now I'm able to 'complete' my India experience and do most of the things I wanted to do. What have / will I be able to do with the extra time?

1. Attended Vignesh's wedding (Chennai)
2. Attended Simran's wedding (Nangal)
3. Delivered dental supplies to Able Hospital (Faridabad)
4. Attend Divya's wedding (Chennai)
5. See Kerala
6. Tie up loose ends at work. Leave the BTS program running in good condition and ensure a smooth transition. Maybe even get my 2 BTSs published. (BTS = Business Transformation Study, a piece of reference collateral that SAP produces).
7. Visit J&K and / or Northeast
8. Learn more Hindi

My last day at work is October 10 and I leave for the US on November 22. Then I move to Philadelphia where I will be doing a 1 year Masters in Biotechnology program.

This 1 year in India has meant more to me than any other year of my life. To write about what I have learned and what I have experienced would take a novel, which may well be where this blog is headed anyways. But luckily, I have been a diligent blogger and most of my thoughts are captured right here on Rickety Rickshaw.

But one thing is for sure. While my days in India are winding down, I've discovered a passion for international life and I will be doing this again (maybe here, but probably elsewhere) at some point in my life.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Max's Birthday

A few days ago we celebrated Max's birthday in Delhi. Pictured here, from left to right, is me, Saurabh, and Max. Max is from Germany and is doing a 7 month internship at SAP in Gurgaon. 22 and getting his first international experience - good job! He's one of only 4 foreigners in the Gurgaon office, so it's important that we stick together.

We went back to Shalom, a Lebanese restaurant in Vasant Kunj. Unfortunately, it wasn't Shalom's best day as the entire upstairs was under construction and they weren't serving any of their drinks that required sparkling wine because they had no sparkling wine. Later on we met 6 people, around college age, who lived in India. Some of them were going to school in the UK. I went over to talk to them because I detected an American accent somewhere in the crowd, but it turns out they had gone to American schools in the UK. The 9 of us turned out to be a pretty international crowd.

All in all, it was a good night out. The Shalom in GK might be better but it's just too far away from Gurgaon. In any case, I think I'll give Shalom a break and try other restaurants in the future.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Vignesh gets married

I made my 3rd trip to Chennai last weekend to attend Vignesh's wedding reception. Yes folks, it actually happened!



I stayed with Sandhya and Harish during the weekend. As usual, I got royal treatment there. We went to a haircut salon (Green Trends) and I got a glorious head massage. We also went to the beach and to nearby 'Fruit Shop' which has numerous fruit juices and smoothies. I discovered the incredible 'Sheik Shake' which is a date-based fruit shake. In fact I had 2 of these. On Sunday, before going to the reception, I joined Sandhya and Harish in a planning session for Divya's wedding which is in a couple of weeks in Chennai. The planning session was productive except that I got bitten 7 times by mosquitoes while there. Although Chennai usually has planned power outages, we encountered an unplanned one that afternoon. With no lights to illuminate the mosquitoes and no fan to blow them away, I was an easy target for them. Almost 1 year in India later and still no 'mosquito immunity'.

Vignesh's wedding reception was the first one I attended in India since my cousin Pushpa's reception in 1990 (?). At this reception the bride and groom stood on stage and took pictures with guests. After giving the gift and getting pictures taken, guests go for food. The food, at least in a South Indian wedding, is served on a banana leaf. You sit in long rows and get served as much as you want. The food was quite good. However, unlike American receptions, this reception and I think most South Indian receptions don't have speeches or dances.

I didn't know many people at the reception but at least I had Raj Sivaraj from work and Shankar, Vignesh's cousin. I enjoyed the music at the reception which was South Indian 'fusion' music. This is essentially carnatic music 'modernized' by the addition of drums, guitar, etc. It sounded like A.R. Rehman's music. Interestingly the band played 'English Note', a song I played in my own concert. Now back to Chennai in a few weekends for Divya's wedding.