I’ve grown these vines to become thick and green.
But every once in a while, I need to shake them.
To shake them and make sure they’re not covered in moss.
I’ve grown these vines to become thick and green.
But every once in a while, I need to shake them.
To shake them and make sure they’re not covered in moss.
“When I was a kid, I had to walk uphill both ways to get to school,” my dad would tell me when I complained just a little bit too much about getting to class.
“We used to play cricket in the streets in 100 degree heat with no AC,” I’d hear on a particularly hot day.
“I had 7 dollars in my pocket when I got on the plane to the US in 1970, my first time leaving India!” Another refrain I (and most Indian American kids) heard before all harrowing new experiences.
Between these tall tales were many more memories sprinkled into conversation over the years. I heard stories of King’s Circle, the South Indian pocket of metropolitan Mumbai where my dad grew up with his 5 brothers. Shivaji Park, where legends were made on the cricket field, had the aura of The Rucker in Harlem. I’d listened as my dad fondly remembered all of his parents’ friends who operated with more familiarity than most blood relatives would in the US and I always smiled when he told stories of his antics as a mischievous student in grammar school.
So 42 years after my dad left his hometown, my journey back to India felt like a homecoming of sorts—a homecoming to a place that existed almost exclusively in my mind’s eye. To a place whose actions were narrated by my dad’s voice and images were conjured from his words. A place completely foreign, yet intimately familiar— like a bedtime story manifested.
Half a year in to my stay in Bombay, I’ve taken the city out of the confines of my mind and started filling in its blocks with reality. But as I come across landmarks from those childhood tales, I dream of my dad 50 years prior. I see Shivaji Park, full of cricket players in their game-day whites and I watch my lanky young dad running at full speed, twisting his wrist and extending his arm to bowl a spinner to a lesser batsman. As I eat vada pav at a stall in Matunga, I’m sharing a glass of masala chaas with this younger reflection of myself. I visit Kings Circle to see my uncle, my dad’s younger brother, and I read on the same balcony where my dad studied for his entrance exams for college and I sip chai with those family friends in the truest sense of that phrase.
As little kids, our dads can do no wrong. They know the answers to all of life’s questions. Then we hit our teenage years and all of their idiosyncrasies must be hidden out of sight from our friends. As mine genuinely cracked up while my dad freestyled about donuts on the way to a high school football game, I sat in the front seat half-smiling, half red- with- embarrassment. But that phase passes quickly—hopefully—and a more natural balance emerges as we realize that our parents are merely people doing their best to impart wisdom and love and make life easier for their kids than it was for themselves.
And in Bombay I both humanize and idealize my dad even further. I see more of myself in him with every story of an idealistic young man who loved reading books and discussing philosophy with his elders. I aspire to be more like him as I think about the life he built after leaving behind everything he knew. I recognize the tension he must have felt when resolving his identity—American or Indian, from here or there. When things are tough in this city, I find strength in those thoughts.
So on this monsoon-filled Father’s Day, I’m beyond thankful for my dad. He may not have walked uphill both ways, but even leaving the apartment in this sort of rain would have been a feat—and one I haven’t pulled off today. Happy Father’s Day Appa!
Would you rather:
Make extraordinary contributions to humanity— contributions that are remembered permanently for the rest of existence— but only receive praise 100 years after your death
Make contributions that are highly praised during life but found to be empty and false immediately after your death, leading to your permanent ridicule for the rest of existence?
Me: “I see something new every day.”
Today, for example, I noticed stars in the sky for the first time in Bombay. That was beautiful.
So in order to both hold myself accountable to observing the newness of every day and sharing those moments with whomever is interested, I’ve created an Instagram account where I hope to post 1 picture a day.
You can find me at www.instagram.com/airkumar/
Along with the stars, I saw something else to appreciate the day and my adopted hometown. Check it out ^^ up there.
Once upon a time when Gods and Demons roamed the earth, Lord Indra, the King of the Universe, offended a Sage and cost the Gods their immortality. With the Universe in flux and Demons gaining control, Lord Vishnu, Supreme Preserver of the Universe, stepped in to mobilize the Gods on a quest for the Nectar of Immortality to recover their lost powers and set the universe in its rightful order.
Once-in-a-lifetime events shouldn’t happen very frequently. A good rule-of-thumb is that there should be no second shot after missing out the first time. When you hear about a “once-in-a-lifetime sale” at the mall, it probably isn’t one. When I heard about the Maha Kumbh Mela, happening in Allahabad in 2013 for the first time in 144 years (and the last time until 2157), I got online immediately to look for tickets. This was the real deal.
Allahabad is in north India, quite far from Bombay. People had been planning on going to this particular Kumbh for a long time (the normal, non “Maha” Kumbhs happen once every 12 years). Thus, airline ticket prices were high, the pain compounded by a lack of available accommodations. Oh well, I thought. Going was a pipe dream anyways.
A month later while hanging out at a new friend’s place, a different new friend suggested taking a train instead. With little hesitation, I agreed.
My real-time thought process:
~25- hour cross-country train to attend the Kumbh, the largest gathering of human beings on the planet. [YES]
~12 hours at the Kumbh to avoid needing a place to sleep [YES]
~25 hours back to Bombay [uhhh…OK]
~All of the potential issues that could pop up along the way [YOLO]
By the end of the 8 weeks of the Kumbh, ~80 million people would have bathed in the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and (symbolic) Saraswati rivers. To give you an idea of the size and density of this spectacle, here’s an excerpt from a New York Times piece from the earlier stages of the Kumbh:
“Government officials estimated that 10 million pilgrims were encamped in Allahabad on Saturday night, with 20 million to 30 million expected to bathe by Monday.
If those figures are even close to being accurate, it is as if the entire population of Texas decided to visit an area the size of Savannah, Ga., all on the same weekend.
About 80 million pilgrims — roughly the population of Germany — are expected at some point in the Kumbh’s 55-day run. By comparison, 3.1 million people visited Mecca in Saudi Arabia during last year’s annual pilgrimage, the hajj. Each successive Kumbh breaks the record for the largest gathering in human history.”
Sounds pretty solid until the news inevitably comes out each Kumbh that hundreds of people have been trampled to death. Or that the Ganges and Yamuna are toxic dumping grounds for 90% of the year. Or that we have 1 confirmed berth on the train between 3 of us—and these berths are probably 70% of the size of freshman year dorm room beds.
So, naturally, that only heightened the intrigue. This trip, if I could pull it off, would be epic. I expected to be awed and uncomfortable: awed as a participant in an outsized ritual fit for a different era, uncomfortable as a skeptic of the influence that institutionalized ritual and organized religion has on people.
Friday rolled along and the original new friend decided to pull out since we hadn’t moved up the waitlist. 3 people in one berth is physically impossible. 2 would be tough but doable. So Srilekha, the newer new friend, and I decided to plow on and catch the train Saturday morning.
The Nectar of Immortality was under the Ocean of Milk. Lord Vishnu knew that the weakened Gods would need the Demons on their side in order to churn the Ocean. Vishnu used his diplomatic ways to get the Demons’ ear, then played them right into the hands of the Gods. Vishnu offered the Demons a chance to win the Nectar, a chance at immortality. That was all it took. Using a mountain in the middle of the Ocean as churning rod and giant venomous snake as a rope pulley, Vishnu arranged the Gods on one side and the Demons on the other for the greatest game of tug-of-war of all time.
“Chai, coffeeeee. Bisleri, bottle water! Chai, coffeeee. Bisleri, bottle water!”
“Vada Pav!VadaPavVadaPavVadaPaaaaav!” a local foodwalla would shout, voice trailing behind him as he moved towards the next cabin.
The daytime on the train was pretty calm save for these bursts of energy at every stop. The foodwallas and chaiwallas and all-purpose-snackwallas would pass through, and then we’d all go back to staring out the windows, watching the city turn into suburbs turn in to villages turn in to rolling hills turn in to brown fields…
Srilekha and I sampled food brought on board with each new region— elaborate biryanis, simple sandwiches, and thalis with veggies, rotis, rice and sweets. It was all good, across the board.
Over an evening meal we had our rendition of a dinner table conversation, albeit on a cramped top-bunk with enough headspace for a 60 degree tilt from the waist before making contact with the ceiling.
The topic du jour: religious ritual.
Srilekha came from a family that practiced Hinduism differently than mine. From an early age I remember my parents taking traditional rituals with a grain of salt. Srilekha’s welcomed those same rituals as ambassadors for a culture at risk of being lost.
So we chatted about the role of rituals. We thought about the purpose of religion at-large. I argued that individuals have to make up their minds without the pressurized influence of organized religion. Lots of people blindly follow practices without much contemplation—at the very least, this leads to lost opportunities and at worst, much more.
Srilekha didn’t totally disagree, but she also explained why she practiced Hindu rituals; they were cultural references tied to our collective history and could be adapted to be made relevant to our lives today. And besides, if those rituals would make her family happy and do no harm, why not adhere?
After digging a bit deeper, we dropped the dialogue and moved on. It was dark and time to try to sleep. I say try because we were still left with just the one berth for the two of us.
The train was completely full with not an empty bed in sight. Everyone seemed to be heading to the Kumbh or further; there was little hope that a berth would free up before the morning. So, Srilekha and I started strategizing.
“Let’s take shifts” Srilekha proposed. “One of us can sleep for a few hours while the other sits. We can rotate.”
This sounded like a good idea until we realized that 1) there weren’t any places to sit and wait, given that everyone would be using their berths for sleeping and 2) neither of us would be able to stay awake in the middle of the night waiting for our turn.
So, we started looking at the bed. You know how shoes arrive straight out of the box? One shoe on its side going north-south, the other on its side going south-north? Yeah. We were going to have to shoe-box it.
I don’t recommend shoe-boxing on Indian trains.
The ocean churned and the snake spewed venom. The Demons, with their unflinching bravado, had demanded to hold the head of the poisonous snake—they were now facing the consequences. With the Demons poisoned and the ocean churned, the Nectar was for the Gods’ taking. But—the venom, so powerful, was beginning to leak into the Ocean of Milk and threatening to compromise the Nectar. Lord Shiva, the second of the all-powerful Triumvirate of Gods (Vishnu and Brahma being the other two) stepped forward and swallowed the poison, keeping it in his throat while the others collected the Nectar. With Shiva’s neck turning blue from the toxicity of the poison, the rest of the Gods grabbed the Nectar and made a mad dash. The Demons, although weakened, were on their tails and wanted immortality.
On the banks of the Sangam (the confluence of the sacred rivers), millions gather every day of the Kumbh to bathe in holy water. Those millions make the trip from across India and the rest of the Hindu diaspora to be able to receive the highest of blessings for themselves and their families. Generations will wait for their shot at the Kumbh; often, one representative of the family will make the trip and take the plunge into the Sangam on behalf of everyone else. Legend holds that one dip in the Sangam will wash away all sins for generations past, present, and future.
25 hours after our departure, Srilekha and I disembarked from the train and headed towards the banks of the Sangam as the morning sun started to take its place in the sky.
From afar, I watched the waves—of people and rivers. We stepped closer. The waves became discreet objects; individuals on the banks and in the water. I saw smiles and I saw intent focus, years of devotion leading to this perceived moment of salvation.
What these rituals mean to these people, I will never know. The idea of faith that flies in the face of evidence scares me, for taken to its natural extreme it suggests a world with no logic or structures, where anything can be true if one believes it enough. And even though our science is imperfect and yesterday’s rules are being challenged in front of our eyes, I prefer the pursuit of Truth to an ex-ante Assumption.
But… in this moment, I could see that perhaps the rituals respected by these millions (and different rituals respected by different millions in the West) are echoes of a more fundamental, ancient beauty. For every flower petal placed at the pedestal of the Gods, we give thanks to our ancestors—the givers of life. For every coconut we garnish, we pay respect to nature—the ultimate arbiter of life. One can imagine early settlers coming upon the Sangam and being awed by its power and grace. Just as our poets pay homage to the awe-inspiring revelations of today, so did theirs. But their poetry was proselytized, and over time we took their poets’ words as Truth without knowing* the underlying feelings that invoked them in the first place.
In another sense, the mythologies of the Gods are living artifacts of the civilizations that dreamt them up—a glimpse of their ideal virtues, their model men and women, and their thoughts on living virtuous and holistic lives. As we hear of Holy Nectar spilling in to the river to spring life eternal upon all seekers, maybe there was a wholly secular meaning behind the words:
While “Kumbha” refers to an overflowing pot, it also refers to a body filled with knowledge. So, the nectar of the Kumbha Mela also manifests in the form of knowledge, which liberates us while we are still living. The nectar – or knowledge of divinity – lies within this Kumbha (of our body); it must only be churned to the surface.
Furthermore, the symbolism of the planetary alignment necessary for Kumbha Mela to occur is deeply poignant. In Hindu culture, the Sun and the moon are representative of human rational intellect and mind, and Jupiter – known as “Guru” in Sanskrit – is the spiritual master. Thus, as the arrangement of these three planetary bodies decide when Kumbha Mela occurs, it is representative of the philosophy that when the human intellect and mind are aligned with the Guru, the result is the realization of immortality **
Maybe the millions at the Kumbh were paying homage to poets of the past and future. Maybe on Easter Sunday, the masses around the world were dedicated to the ancient writers who told their powerful stories. Maybe in the future, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, and the millions of people with Tumblrs and WordPress accounts will be considered the new recorders of the Truth.
Or maybe rituals are the template page on PowerPoint, putting some pre-ordained structure in place on a blank page for those who don’t want to work from scratch. Maybe those templates are catalysts for additional layers. Maybe they are necessary tools that save us from repeating our past errors and poor decisions, while limiting us from reaching the possibilities that come with a empty space.
The Kumbh was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and more than just because of the math. Beyond the banks, we saw a pop-up mega city in action, ate fresh puris with chole and bhaji, talked with sages-turned-beggars and met people from my neighborhood in Houston.
And while I didn’t come away a Yogi, I took a dip in the Sangam for posterity.
The Demons continued their pursuit of the Gods and Immortality for 12 days and 12 nights. In the age of Gods and Demons, 1 day lasted for what we know of as 1 year. During this pursuit, 4 drops of Nectar fell from the jar of Nectar—all, somehow, in India. One of those drops fell at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati in Allahabad.
Ultimately, the Demons grew too weak and the Gods prevailed. Order was restored. And now, every 12 years, we celebrate the Kumbh.
* in the conocer sense of knowing
So… How is Bombay?
It’s been 4 weeks since my last post, so I’ve had plenty of time to think of an answer. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably asked me that question at some point—and you’ve probably received a supremely disappointing response.
The reality is, I’ve seen more description-worthy events here on an average day than I would have in a month at home. Indian writers seem to have a knack for literary flair—I understand where it comes from. It’s hard to describe this place without cliche and hyperbole, although it’s equally hard to overstate the delights and absurdities of daily life in The Maximum City. Sometimes, though, you’ve just gotta give in.
So… How is Bombay?
It’s… everything. Pick an adjective, and it fits.
Everything, you say? Impossible! It’s certainly not calm!
Ah, but it is. It’s the kind of calm that transcends chaos. It’s the kind of calm that emerges when there are so many people around, lost in their own thoughts, their own work, their own struggles, that you are at once alone and deeply connected.
It’s the kind of calm that flows through the veins of every city on the sea, where high tide is rush hour and low tide is Sunday morning and the life beneath the waves is the city’s invisible nervous system seamlessly carrying goods to merchants and information to hipsters— the waves at the surface a minor estimation of the energy and complexity and elegance of what occurs below. Mumbai is like New York, I heard time and again before arriving. I can only guess what people meant. But to me, they’re both cities on the sea.*
(The small signs at the surface of a huge network fueling the city)
OK fine, but it can’t be clean
Well, Bombay has some unfathomable heaps of trash in unlikely places, I’ll give you that. Without getting into the metaphysical nature of cleanliness, I’ll still argue that Bombay is not not clean. Parts of Bombay are not clean. Other parts are immaculate. The city as a whole is only dirty in some quantitative, spreadsheet-ready, trash per sq/mile kinda way. On a Puranic/Catholic/Spiritual scale…well, that’s something you’d have to decide for yourself.
Practically speaking, the luxury afforded to a few of the lucky ones here is equal to anything anywhere. In the past 15 years money’s reached more and more people, boosting some into a previously exclusive stratosphere and millions more into the much-heralded (and rightly so) middle class. Westernization is happening at a rapid pace and while it can mean many things, one common denominator is definitely cleanliness. Walk around where I live and you’ll see cafes and shops that belong in SoHo or SoMa. Check out this video to see the indie side of things in Bandra.
(As more rapidly enter the middle class, access to the tools that can re-write the script in India are within reach)
I hear it’s colorful
Colorful is absolutely the most overused adjective to describe India, Bombay included. Annoyingly, there’s a reason.
Bombay is colorful like your one loud Uncle is colorful after a few drinks. The clothes people wear and the colors on the walls are not particularly vibrant—it’s the sounds in the air and the expressions people utter that are.
The vendor of goods-I’ve-yet-to-identify comes through my neighborhood every day yelling “EK, DOH!” (I think) (That means 1, 2) (If that’s what he’s saying) (I really don’t know) to anyone who will listen to his 2 second sales-pitch.
The cab driver, upon finding out that I speak English like an American, says with marcato on the a’s preceding the n’s and crescendo throughout each phrase, “You, American!! Me, Indian!!” the color behind the words noticeable to the least discerning ear.
(People usually call things like this colorful… I call them delicious ;) )
So… How is Bombay?
My Bombay is steadily unfolding. I’m not here for 2 or 3 days like I was while traveling—I’m here for a while. I want to do everything, now. It’s going to take some time.
I’m meeting new people to add to my already-beloved group. I’ve seen visiting friends and family come and go each week; with each passing one I feel both closer and further from home.
I’ve had way too much pani puri. Seriously, way too much.
(Multiply this by 123128927214 and I’ll still eat more)
I’m getting the change of pace and perspective I needed at work. This topic requires it’s own post. What I’ll say now is that teaching is phenomenally and uniquely challenging—teachers deserve all of the props they get from those who understand and deserve far, far more from the rest of society.
My apartment looks as boring as my dorm room did in college and my classroom did last year. I’ve got some ideas though…
I wish I could speak more Hindi; while English is the language of business and a good number of folks know some, Hindi is the language of every day life and is key to having meaningful conversations.
I’m running in the half-marathon on Sunday—I’ll add that to my list of unlikely athletic accomplishments I’ve somehow managed to pull off in the last couple years, although it will probably come with an underwhelming display of grace. In fact, I have to get my creaky knees taped tomorrow, so the physiotherapist is making me shave off the hair around my knee +/- 3 inches. Great start on the awkwardness quotient.
(Yup…I’m that hairy)
So… How is Bombay?
The challenges for a lot of people here are immense. I feel like I’m in the infancy of understanding the levers of power that allow the system to function as it does—it goes further than any book or article or hunch can take me. My hunches combined with my reading and initial observations, however, make me believe that access to good quality education is (surprise) at the heart of a lot of Bombay’s problems, as is a widespread mindset that doesn’t value equality of opportunity in theory or practice. There’s hope, though. Pratham, Teach for India and many others are bringing awareness to educational inequity while job growth is giving more and more people the cash to put their kids on a better path. Those rising incomes along with a better-educated generation of youth are changing the notion that social class is set. The upward-mobility here is real, and social equality as an ideal of Indian society will follow little by little.
I miss the States whenever I think about it for more than a moment. Luckily, there’s enough going on here that I don’t let that happen too often. Once in a while, though, I just need to watch some Modern Family, gchat with my homies, do some Facebooking, and feel like a good American living life on the web J
Much love to my loved ones! Send me an update peoples…
*Yes, I know New York is not on a sea. Give me some license here, please.
I’ve had a really hard time writing my first post while in India.
Maybe it’s because I started working again last week or because I’ve been meeting people and traveling and stuck in traffic otherwise. But really it’s because I haven’t been able to decipher my reactions to this first exposure to my second time in India.
So here are a few thoughts. Maybe I’ll have an epiphany while I write. Maybe you can psychoanalyze for me.
On first blush, Bombay looks like a developing city. Actually, no it doesn’t—it has a mesmerizing body shaped by its skyline and accentuated by the sea, plus a newly constructed tail (the Sea Link) that connects the regal South with the hipper suburbs. But it does have slums lining streets; slums filling in the gaps between high rises; slums growing vertically and horizontally like the moss I’ve been told sprouts everywhere throughout the monsoon season. Still, on my first day I saw Porsche dealerships and designer stores more frequently than I saw bhel puri. On the other hand…
[The Sea Link from the other side]
But in all honesty, Bombay did grow miles (*1.6=km) in my esteem after making a trip to Ahmedabad. With all due respect to my Gujarati friends and new family-in-law, Ahmedabad is a certifiable Tier 2 city that has a long way to go to catch up with Bombay. While there are visible signs of rapid growth – construction everywhere, pockets of modern buildings, green spaces, new non-traditional restaurants—there are more relics of the India we see on TV in the west. I’m talking herds of goats meandering down the street next to cars and men pulling wooden wheelbarrows next to overburdened camels. Ahmedabad to Bombay was the American equivalent of San Antonio to New York; there are many things to like about the smaller counterparts, but NYC and BOM are in a different weight class.
[Even thought it’s not Bombay, Ahmedabad has plenty of bright spots. Our event was held at a beautiful farmhouse just outside the city.]
I am an American. It’s pretty obvious. I talk about American politics and economics every chance I get (surprise, surprise) and I talk about American music and books and movies and sports. Of course I don’t exclusively do this, and I hope that after all the time I’ve spent on the road throughout my life I’ve been able to remove the blinders from my perspective. But when the conversation turns to America, I’m there. Moreover, when I get in a cab, I’m more conscious of my American-ness than in any other setting. Walking down the street I can hide my lack-of-Hindi and fresh- off- the- plane look behind my brown skin, but in the cab, there’s no camouflage. Usually, if I can get through the first round of “Bandra, Carter Road, Sea Link se” without a follow up question, I can ride in uncomfortable silence. Otherwise, I have to use my stock “Nehee hindi bolta hum” to signal my oratorical incompetence then hope to be able to guide the cabbie with wild gestures and loose words. Everyone around me looks like me, but in that homogeneity I feel even more different. I will say, however, that my feelings on this evolve every day. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to think about by tomorrow night.
[Rickshaws, Rickshaws, Everywhere]
Things I will not address in this post: poverty, education, mustaches, women’s rights, food, work, corruption, efficiency, deodorant, public transportation, Indian accents or Bollywood.
[Food deserves its own post or four, no?]
I found an apartment. Here’s what I wrote in my notes the first day I started looking:
“Today I rode around on the back of a motorcycle through bumper to bumper traffic and open. For the uninitiated, traffic here looks like mass chaos, teetering on the edge of some giant collision. In reality, the Bombay roads rely on a set of unspoken, counterintuitive rules. As my friend Arjun put it, the safe drivers here seem to expect that the 10 others around will take the most nonsensical course of action as they drive. Hence, good drivers tend to honk any time there is a remote possibility of an accident in the near future—i.e if someone is talking on the phone somewhere in the car’s general path or another cab is making a right turn a few meters ahead. What results is a cacophony of sounds, plus close encounters with medium-speed cars for folks on the backs of motorcycles.”
I got pretty used to searching for places on the back of that motorcycle. In fact, it took 4 days of searching in order to find something that was small enough, cheap, with a good kitchen, clean, and in the right location. On day 1, I was clutching firmly to the back handlebar of the bike. By day 2 I had one hand on the back (same for day 3) and on the 4th day I was riding hands free—but still with one ready to grab if a car pulled too close.
I think this is a general trajectory for new places—discomfort, adjustment, tolerance. For some folks there is a fourth step towards acceptance/comfort and that step might bring them closer to a fifth: rejection. For the lucky ones, the journey doesn’t include step 5, but for the rest the same journey will iterate in another place where there will be a renewed chance for step 4. I guess step 3 is the worst place to get stuck…
It’s finally here, that Feeling. That tingling in the tips of my fingers, radiating out from my heart in vessels designed to carry this and only this sensation. When it approaches I can almost hear my blood cells screaming, “The Feeling is coming!” as they scatter or risk a one-on-one matchup, leaving my extremities defenseless against the Feeling’s cold chill . Maybe the Feeling is coming from my stomach—if it’s not, it’s certainly found a second home. Or maybe it’s carried like a current in the floor, and any time I think anxious thoughts it rushes in through the gap between my toenail and my toe and flows through my body inducing the Feeling in every corner. Maybe it’s actually a hormone secreted from the thyroids or something, but the heart is more poetic, right?
I’m leaving for India tomorrow. Another rush of the Feeling.
I’m going back to work. Another rush of the Feeling.
I don’t know any Hindi! Another one.
The Feeling waxes and wanes naturally, but it can be actively neutralized more quickly with some counter-thoughts.
I’m leaving for India tomorrow!! The Feeling abates.
I’m going to be working on some awesome stuff! Low tide.
I’ll take some Hindi classes, meet some new people, and learn a new language! Retreat.
It’s only temporary, though. The only way to say bye to the Feeling is to face whatever thought is causing it and get to the roots.
For the past three months, I’ve met a bunch of fellow travelers at hostels, in restaurants, parks, and bars. Inevitably, “why are you traveling” is brought up and my answer has always favored the practical over the philosophical: I’m traveling for 3 months before moving to India for the indefinite future.
Those 3 months seemed fixed—I swear for the first 2, not a day had passed. In the past 1, the magic number switched to 3 weeks, but never less.
So now it’s suddenly tomorrow. I think I’m ready, but the Feeling persists.
My dad moved from Bombay to the US when he was 20, 4 years younger than I am now. He had never been on a flight and had never left India. My mom moved to New York City when she was 16 to start college when most peers would have still been in the middle of high school. Neither of them had any intention of returning “home.” With this as a backdrop, I can never get too overwhelmed about my journey. There’s some uncertainty- I might stay a year, I might stay for a long time- but I know that if I need an escape route, there is one leading directly back to the US.
But I don’t want that route. I want to be pushed, and I want to have a hard time. I want to have my eyes opened in the most jarring ways possible and I want to be spun around 20 times, disoriented and lost. I want to confront hard truths—am I an Indian or am I an American? Is there any middle ground?—and I want to make tough decisions.
Then I want to find a new equilibrium. I want to emerge comfortable with a different world, attuned to the hopes and dreams, problems and frustrations of a new circle. I want the Feeling to course through its special veins so much that I no longer feel it. I want to emerge with a more coherent personal philosophy and a clearer vision forward.
It may not all happen in India, and most of what I want could be achieved anywhere. If I’ve learned anything in life so far, it’s that facing discomfort and seeking out challenges are the surest ways to grow. And in India, I’ll have plenty to seek out. I’ll have some Feelings running through my arms and legs and stomach and chest tomorrow morning, but once I get off the plane, I’m going full speed!
I’ve received lots of advice about what to expect in India. The last time I went, I was a wide-eyed 12 year old (who loved every minute of the trip, I might add) so I’ve been eagerly listening to everyone’s observations. I think the constant refrain has been something like “Beautiful culture, incredibly vibrant, lots of corruption, extreme inequality.”
So while I’m going to have plenty of time to develop my own elevator pitch when asked about India, I’m coming in primed to think about a few things.
1) I’m going to be working for a private sector, for-profit company for the first time in a while. Since early on in college, I’ve been working on issues in education in one manner or another outside of class, culminating in spending the last 2 years teaching high school in Houston. Now I’ll be turning back more directly towards what I studied as part of the strategy team at Nilgai Foods (www.pico.co.in).
I’ve had a pretty strong belief that business can and must be a force for good. The problems we’ve sown around the world have been caused by a multitude of factors, and one level of organization alone (be it government, business, or NGO) is not going to solve all of them. If we want to emerge with a better world tomorrow than we have today, business is going to have to recognize that it is uniquely capable of solving some social problems within its respective realm of expertise, leaving government with a more streamlined set of issues to deal with. This is complicated, and I think there are some ways to harness the profit motive of firms to in a positive way. I’m excited to get a chance to test some of the ideas I’ve had in the real world—some will succeed, others will fail, new ones will emerge.
2) 2) I will not initially be solving any social problems directly. At its core, my job will be to help make the Pico experience awesome for everyone who tries our food, in Mumbai or anywhere else we decide to grow. I’ll be interested to see how I handle this, given that I’ll probably see more extreme poverty on my way to work every day than is possible to see in a year in the States. There are a lot of vibrant folks in Bombay with a lot of bright ideas—looking forward to meeting them and finding ways to do what we can to make life a little better for people each day.
3) 3) Corruption is ever-present, even in today’s modernizing, developing India. My dad left the country largely because of the inefficient, unethical moorings that the country’s economy seemed to rest upon and I’m sure that if I leave, the same things will play a role in my decision. But I also hear the drumbeat of a new generation committed to making corruption a thing of the past. To think that we’ll be able to see an India rid of endemic corruption anytime soon would be naïve, but I am optimistic that there can be big steps forward. From an individual level, I’ve never really been in a situation where bribery was necessary. I have an idea how I’ll handle myself when the situation inevitably arises, but I’m still curious to see how it’ll actually play out and how my philosophy around the issue evolves.
Just as my preconceptions of college and TFA were both spot-on and wildly different than reality, so shall go this time in India. I’m excited and with open-mind. LET’S GO!!
Things you can buy with $250:
170 bags of M&M’s (1.74oz)
250 songs on iTunes
½ an iPad
A trip for 2 from Marrakech to the Sahara
A roundtrip flight from Houston to NYC
Club seats at a Rockets game
And a dinner at Martin Berastegui, one of only ~80 restaurants in the world to receive 3 Michelin stars, the highest possible rating.
I won’t give an elaborate defense of high-priced dining— I’ll just say that Martin Berastegui deserved its stars and delivered some of the best food I’ve had in my life. The entire experience from service to ambiance was a lesson in what is possible from a meal—the analogy to concept cars comes to mind.
Earlier on this trip, I saw FC Barcelona play a match at Camp Nou. Despite wanting to be frugal in our day-to-day expenses I justified this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the best team in sports with arguably the best athlete in sports play a match in their prime on their home field.
Even with soccer 3rd on my list of favorite sports (and knowledge of said sport), the skill on the field announced its presence with every needlepoint pass through crowded defenses, every probe by a patient midfield, every perfectly-timed run past a two-steps-too-slow defense. Even though Lionel Messi didn’t score this time around, I came away with an awe of his talent I imagine any Jordan-watcher felt even on one of MJ’s rare off days back in his prime.
The chance to book a table at Martin Berastegui carried the same sort of justification.
The pictures didn’t come out great and Tumblr is only letting me post 10 in the photoset (the meal was 13 courses), but hopefully the snapshots give you an idea of the visual aesthetics at work. Berastegui painted. He sculpted. He sang and danced and wrote sonnets with this food. Most of the presentation was intuitive and most of the flavor combinations were challenging in a didactic way. I walk away from this meal with that feeling that only comes from singular art.
I read somewhere that it takes about 60 days to really form a habit. On and off for the last few years, I’ve tried to make writing and working out part of my daily routine. Neither has totally taken hold. Instead, I’ll get into 3-4 week stretches of productivity when something inevitably will pop up—midterms back in college, report cards while teaching, or Barcelona on this trip—and poof! the clock is reset.
Barcelona has been the Ultimate Habit Formation Stopper. I mean, I’ve probably walked 6 miles a day but that ain’t gonna cut it when I’m eating my body weight in Jamon Iberico and pintxos. These streets and beaches and hills have inspired many a thought, but I’ve shared most of them over vino tinto with fellow travelers instead of in Word. This city mesmerized me back in 2009 when I first visited with my parents, and this time around it’s only grown in my esteem. But now that I’ve made my way to San Sebastian, I plan to get back to habit formation…
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I’ll make a bold claim that I reserve the right to change: Barcelona is the best city in the world.
I’ll give the requisite 3 body paragraphs to this thesis statement, but trying to capture why Barcelona captured me is proving to be difficult. It’s sort of like watching a transcendent movie then trying to pick the best two or three scenes… It’s tough to do right away, but over time those moments crystallize. Here are a few of my first attempts to understand what makes Barcelona stand out from the pack:
1. Smart density
There’s density and there’s smart density. Density leads to congestion, crime, sickness, and general frustration. Smart density leads to innovation, inspiration, efficiency and general happiness. Density is skyscrapers next to high rises next to slums next to more high rises next to parking lots. Smart density is skyscrapers next to squares next to high-rises next to low-rises next to bars and restaurants next to stadiums next to parks and schools. There’s also low-density, which doesn’t merit any space in a discussion about cities.
Barcelona’s brand of smart density feels like an extension of its geography and culture. The city lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees Mountains and you won’t ever forget it. Walking through the multitude of bustling squares, quaint neighborhoods, and hidden alleys it’s almost always possible to either see the mountains/sea or get the feeling that you’re squarely in the Mediterranean part of the world.
It’s incredibly hard to not be inspired when you can turn left and relax your eyes and ears with vast calm waves, look right and trace the curves of the near and distant mountains, then look up and admire hues of deep blues and reds in the evening sky. It’s not surprising that so many artists have hailed from this city.
Beyond the spiritual, there’s a science behind the creativity that flows through Barcelona’s streets. Cafes line the squares where a constant buzz emerges from lunch to dusk. It’s been well documented that cafes and other communal spaces, in conjunction with tangentially related clusters of industries, have been catalysts for exponential rates of innovation. The economic impact of being able to exchange ideas and build synaptic connections through conversation should not be sold short. Barcelona’s used its creativity infrastructure to develop a world class design industry, which itself allows Barcelona to continue being a dynamic place to live. These city squares, parks, and cafes not only make walking around an aesthetic pleasure—they positively affect the city’s ability to be productive.
Maybe it’s this elevated sense of the relationship between work and life that speaks to me in Barcelona; the frenetic pace of the US has always struck me as counterproductive and behind-the-curve. Don’t tell me about our GDP— it’s not the only metric out there. Yes, Spain is in the midst of a major financial crisis—its genesis is complex, and I’m sure there are some cultural quirks that contributed. But simply put, the financial crisis did not arise because of the Spanish approach to work; it arose despite it.
Barcelona’s physical geography is ideal, its layout fosters creativity, and its buildings embody the city’s revolutionary spirit. Gaudi’s works, synonymous with Barcelona, were ahead of their time and timeless at once—where Gaudi’s contemporaries used angles and squares, Gaudi went round; where his contemporaries elevated ostentatious and overwrought religious symbolism, Gaudi drew from the simplicity of nature even in his most grand constructions. The rest of the buildings in the city, both older and newer than Gaudi’s, seem cut from the same cloth. It feels like there is some grand design tying the city together. Everything works together. Everything feels just right.
(From an exhibit about Gaudi’s use of natural structures in his design)
2. Food culture
An integral part to city’s day-to-day appeal is its food culture. I can’t think of any of the world’s “great” cities that don’t have their own unique take on food. New York has its street food and international fare, Paris its fine dining and bistros, Mumbai its chaat and chai-wallahs. Barcelona has its pintxos. A play on the small- plate tapas style, pintxos are bite sized finger foods made to show off classic and cutting-edge combinations of local Catalan flavors. At pintxo bars, patrons line up with self-serve plates, crawling over each other (in a good way) to grab the next bite of deliciousness by the toothpick. After finishing, all of the used toothpicks are counted (along with the multiple cups of sangria or vino tinto undoubtedly consumed over the course of the night) to calculate the bill. The whole system is a lot of fun; it makes the act of eating an activity, bar hopping more than just binge drinking.
What I like the most about the pintxo system is the high level of trust needed for the bars to operate. I could have easily pocketed some toothipicks to save a few euros. I could have easily left without paying my bill. In fact, even at regular restaurants here the outdoor café culture makes it quite easy to dine-and-dash, yet it doesn’t happen. Maybe I’m being presumptive here, but it seems that people here respect the role of food in their lives. The meals are slow. The wines are savored. The pintxos are prepared with ingenuity and care, then consumed with an equal appreciation. All adds up to a city that knows its food and does not tolerate mediocrity for long. Of all the meals we had, only one was truly bad—and it was the meal we had when we absolutely needed to eat something, anything, after the FC Barcelona soccer match.
I’ll keep this short: I drank absinthe at Hemingway’s favorite bar in Barcelona. It was great.
So… Barcelona is awesome. I didn’t touch on sports here, which is so important to me that I’ll reserve a separate post to discuss our outing to Camp Nou to witness the sheer dominance of the best team on earth. But it suffices to say that Barcelona is designed to inspire and inspire it has. If India doesn’t work out, I might need to take an extended detour before coming back to the States J