Friday, August 31, 2007

Akola and Raksha Bandhan

I spend the past week visiting my Dad’s side of the family in Akola, a small town that is about a 12 hour train journey east of Mumbai. I traveled with Maya kaki, Sujataben, and her daughter Janvi. Sujataben is also triplet with her sister Sunita and her brother Samir, two girls and one boy just like me, Sapana, and Saket. Sudaben, their older sister, often commented that I was like Sujataben, Sapana like Sunitaben, and Saket like Samirbhai. Sunitaben could not able come from Indore, but watching Sujataben, Sudaben, and Samirbhai together reminded me a lot of how me and my siblings act while we’re together.

While they were in
Akola, Sujatabhen, Sudabhen, and I went out shopping at several shops in Akola, looking at saris, toys, pants and shirts. They also helped me get a few kurtis, which are in fashion right now in India, especially with college students. What is uniquely nice about small towns is that Samirbhai and Kamleshbhai are good friends with a lot of shop owners. At one shop we went to for my kurtis, the owner let us take a couple home to try out at our leisure, and if I liked them Samirbhai would settle the bill with him later. Very cool.

I was also able to celebrate Raksha Bandhan in Akola for the first time, which is a ceremony where the sisters honor their brothers and tie rachis, string bracelets, to their wrists. In return the brothers promise to protects their sisters and give them some money. Every year I’ve celebrated with the family in the US and tied a rakhi to Saket, but it’s necessarily a small ceremony since most of our family is still in India. So this time it was quite a treat for me because I got to tie rakhis to many of my cousin brothers for the first time, as well as celebrate with the rest of the family in Akola and Kamgam. There were at least 30-40 people all crowded in the house, and all the brothers lined up on the couch to receive rakhis from their sisters and cousin-sisters. For me, it was often fun just to watch the crowd of people talking and laughing, jokes and stories flying about in a mix of Gujurati and Hindi, and sometimes with a dash of English for my sake.

We ended up celebrating Raksha Bandhan twice, once at Suresh kaka’s house on the 26th mostly for Heenabhen and her son Jeet since they had to return to Mumbai that evening. Then the family came together again on the 28th at Maya kaki’s house to complete the celebration. Both times lunch was catered from outside with Marathi food that I found quite spicy. We also took this family gathering as an opportunity to celebrate Harshel’s, Kamleshbhai and Sonalbabi’s son, birthday day which was on the 24th. It was especially fun to see Harshel smear cake in Sujataben’s face with Samirbhai’s encouragement.

On the 29th, Kamleshbhai, Sonalbabi, her brother Sunilbhai, Harshel, Shantanu (Samirbhai and Vishakababi’s son) and I all drove to Shegau (sp?), a town about one hour from Akola that has a temple dedicated to a revered saint. A few years ago, a trust in the saint’s name built a beautiful park, probably one of the largest and cleanest one’s in India. I wish I had pictures, but in the rush to leave I forgot my camera. The landscaping there is wonderful, flower-lined footpaths that circle a lake, at the center of which is a meditation garden and a raised temple that offers an amazing view of the whole park. During one picturesque moment while Kamleshbhai and I were in the meditation garden, there was a sunset in the west and a rainbow to the east. It was definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to in India.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Busy, busy, busy

It’s been a while since I last posted, but it’s been tough finding time by myself to write. My day starts by going with Samir Mama to his clinic from 8:30 until about 4:30-5, then after a short break to read the Times of India, I go upstairs to spend some time with Ba and Dada. Ba and I often go downstairs to walk around the Thakur Complex area, stopping by to look at the shops or visiting nearby relatives. If it’s raining, always a possibility during monsoon season, we stay inside playing cards or watching TV. Then around 8:30 we go downstairs to get Dada’s dinner, followed by our dinner around 9-9:30. Then by 11 we’re all heading to bed, so the only time I get to myself is about an hour in the afternoon and about an hour in the evening.

Still, everything has been a lot of fun. This past Sunday we went to Santa Cruz, a borough of Mumbai, to do some shopping, getting a Nintendo DS for Aditi as well as some other games, and Mami and I were looking for some punjabis. Shopping for clothing is always quite an experience here, so different from most shops in the US. In the store we sit down at a table and several store clerks begin to bring us punjabis for us to chose from. After selecting 10-12 I started trying them on and showing them for Mama, Mami, and Aditi’s approval or disapproval; Adit just read his Harry Potter book. After about half an hour, I had settled on two Punjabis; then it was Mami’s turn. Mama had a lot of fun asking her to keep on trying different outfits, much to Adit and Aditi’s increasing dismay. Finally she settled on 4 punjabis, which, including my 2, will be delivered to our home tomorrow with alterations done. Plus while Mami was looking at some saris they served us coffee, talk about service!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dr. Gandhi’s Diagnostic Clinic

I’ve been going with Samir Mama to his clinic for a week now, during which I must have seen him perform over 100 sonographies on a wide variety of patients. All of the patients are referred to Mama’s clinic by other doctors who want sonographies or X-rays done in order to make a clinical diagnosis, so Mama doesn’t spend much time talking to the patients about the results of the exam, he writes up a report for the patient to take to their regular doctor. This means that each patient exam doesn’t take too long, which is good because he sees a lot of patients. Yesterday alone, he performed over 30 sonographies, while a technician in the next room took over 20 X-rays.

The majority of patients are either pregnant women coming in for check-ups or patients’ complaining of some sort of stomach pain. I find the pregnant women to be the most fascinating patients, it never gets boring to see the tiny fetus’s heart beating, or to watch it move its hands or feet. The whole idea of what sonography can do is amazing, the ability to look inside a person without any incisions or surgery. It’s almost like a magic wand that can open a window into the body. I’ve gotten pretty good and understanding some of the images, like recognizing the kidneys, the liver, gallbladder, and other organs. Mama has also seen some interesting obstetric cases, such as a fetus with anencephaly, or the lack of a brain beyond a primitive brain stem, and another fetus an interuterine-femur deficit, or the failure for the femur to develop. Both were sad cases, but what made them even more tragic was that the mothers-to-be were unaware of their babies’ condition because they had never gotten routine check-ups earlier in their pregnancy.

After I return from visiting family in Akola, I’ll start shadowing a gynecologist, Dr. Mahesh Asher whose clinic is across the street from Mama’s clinic. There I’ll get to see some deliveries and C-sections, as well as observe Dr. Asher meet with his patients to discuss their pregnancies. I’ve already gotten to meet Dr. Asher a couple of times, since Mama goes to his clinic on Wednesdays to do sonographies. He seems like a very nice man, and he and Mama have been good friends and colleagues for over a decade.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chak de SRK!

I’ve already gotten to see couple movies in Indian theaters, one Hindi film Chak de India and the other one was Rush Hour 3 which I saw with Ami and her friends yesterday. At Adit’s insistence, we’ll be going to see Transformers this Friday, which promises to be a special effects extravaganza with only a dash of plot, as any American summer movie should be.

Chak de India is Shah Ruhk Kahn’s (SRK) latest film, and definitely one of the best Hindi films I’ve seen, probably because it was so unlike typical Hindi films. There was no love triangle or heroine, no song and dance numbers, no cliché romantic storylines, and no too much over-the-top acting. SRK plays a cricketer Kahbir Kahn on Team India who misses the penalty that causes India to lose the World Cup to Pakistan. As a Muslim, Khan is later branded a traitor who intentionally threw the game, forcing him to leave his home in disgrace. Several years later, he remerges to coach India’s National Field Hockey team and exorcise his past demons. The girls on the team are a wonderful spectrum of the diversity of India’s states, and the film nicely developed each girl’s distinct personality, from the rural girls who don’t know English to the prima donnas dressed in the latest fashions. The film did a great job of highlighting issues such as regional differences and gender discrimination, and the script and young actors did effectively made such important topics realistic and believable. SRK also did a wonderful job as usual, losing some of his humorous antics to convey a very realistic and powerful performance, while looking as cute as always. He is my favorite Hindi actor, although since I only know four that may not be saying much. Still, he is undoubtedly one of the best actors in Bollywood, he even has his own statue at Madam Tusseud’s in London.

Indian theaters are also quite an experience. There are usually only 4 screens per theater, so each one is huge with two or three levels. They also have different classes of seats with the cheaper ones like regular-style theater seats, while the ones we had were like armchairs. By far the best movie seats I’ve ever sat in. It’s still funny though, that the theater has intermissions even during English films. It leads to awkward breaks like stopping just as the heroes are captured in Rush Hour. I also learned that you are not supposed to take your trash out with you, like in American theaters. I must have been the only one to do so, and then had to wait until we got outside before I found a trash can.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

I could get used to this…

Living in America I’ve learned to do a lot of things myself, laundry, folding cloths, cooking, cleaning the dishes, etc. One thing I always have a bit of trouble adjusting to when visiting India is that every household has servants to do most of the daily chores in the house. Here at Samir Mama’s house, a cook comes in 6 days a week to make full roti-dhar-bath-shak for lunch and dinner, and on her day off we go out to eat. Also, a maid comes twice each day to clean all the rooms as well as doing the laundry, which includes placing everyone’s clean clothes in their closets. While its extremely nice not to have to worry about stuff like that, it still feels weird not to do the dishes after dinner.

It was even stranger when we went out to eat at Cascade tonight, a nice restaurant near Mama’s house that had a quite international menu. When our food arrived, the waiter went around the table serving everyone helpings of every dish, which included nachos, Chinese-style paneer and veggies, and a noodle dish. When I started to help myself to second helpings of the Chinese dish, a waiter almost immediately darted over to serve me himself. I know that all of this is the result of the large pool of cheap unskilled labor available here, but still a bit disconcerting to see it in action. Nevertheless, finding my clothes cleaned and folded in my closet every morning and not having to do the dishes are definitely some things I could get used to.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Learning Gujurati

Because my parents spoke Gujurati, their native language, at home, I can understand pretty much everything someone says in Gujurati, unless they’re using unusual vocabulary. But since I didn’t get much chance to speak it outside of home, I never got to practice it enough to be able to speak it easily and somewhat naturally. My ability to speak it always improved after a visit to India, but usually only temporarily since I was young and only stayed for a couple of months.

This time, I’m going to be here for 4 months, and at the rate I’m going, I should be fairly fluent by the end of my trip. I visit my Ba, grandmother, everyday, and since she speaks very little English, I’m forced to speak mostly in Gujurati. At first I surprised myself with how much I could speak when forced to, things I learned before but never actually had to use. I still need to work on the little things, like the masculine/feminine endings, tense endings, and a lot of vocabulary, but the learning curve is going to be pretty high here.

And my mom was so thrilled that now when I call home, I can only speak in Gujurati with her, which means the only time I usually speak English now is with Mama and Mami. I’ve even started thinking and dreaming in Gujurati, which I think is a good sign, as long as my dreams don’t start to look like Hindi films.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Mumbai Traffic

Even though I’ve visited the city several times, Mumbai traffic always surprises and fascinates me. For those who’ve never seen it, imagine a relatively busy 2-lane street with sidewalks somewhere in the US, then replace a third of the cars with trucks and another third with rickshaws, three-wheeled taxis, and bicyclists. Next for the drivers, remove any concept of right-of-way, separate lanes, or ‘safe distance’ between vehicles, requiring them to honk their horns constantly to avoid getting hit. Then take out the sidewalks so the pedestrians are in the street with the cars, and remove the median as well. That should give you some idea of what Mumbai traffic is like, I’ll try to post some pictures soon. I rather liked my uncle’s description of Mumbai driving, “you’ll be fine driving here as long as you don’t follow the rules.”

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Kandivali, Mumbai, India

Following in the tradition of several friends and my siblings, I thought I would start keeping a blog of my 4-month stay in India. This is my first one, so bear with me while I’m working out the kinks, and I’m always interested in any suggestions for posting topics.

I left JFK about 11:30pm yesterday and after a 14 hour non-stop flight I landed in Mumbai around 11pm. The airplane was by far the nicest one I’ve flown in, a brand-new 767 with decent legroom and 10 inch TV screens in economy class with dozens of movies in English and Hindi. But by far the part was the fact that the flight was half-empty, leaving the two seats next to me free. This non-stop route only started August 1st so not many people knew about it, but I would highly recommend it. It gets a tad boring if you’re traveling by yourself, I ended up watching 5 movies, but it’s worth it to avoid annoying layovers in Paris or London.

I was picked up by my uncle Dr. Samir Gandhi who lives in Kandivali, a suburb of Mumbai. His daughter Aditi came with him and she’s was extremely excited to see me. My uncle told me that she’d been counting down the days to my arrival for weeks. We reached their flat close to midnight where my aunt Malan Mami was waiting us, Adit, my other cousin, had already gone to sleep.

It feels a bit strange to be coming to India by myself, since I’ve always come with my family. But since I’ll be staying with family here, it’s not like I’ll be on my own in this huge city, which would be a rather daunting prospect.