Tuesday, March 31, 2009

3 Nights: Marriages. Freedom & Shoe Shopping in Mumbai

Asking why anything happens in India is like wondering why anybody believes in religion; you may find your average person, anthropologist, or guru to give you an answer, but everyone avoids the topic and nobody can tell you for sure.

Mumbai was my final destination in India, and wow, did I need the break! Finally a city with the Asian atmosphere, but freedom of Singapore. Well, maybe Singapore with a twist. The first night we saw Valkryie in the theatres, where they refused to sell me a can of pop. Going the cautious route, I was trying for a cold drink with no ice, but legally they can’t sell it over the MSRP for the particular amount of mililiters, so they only sell it in a glass.

Check out the slideshow below for pictures of the Elephanta Caves, the hotel destroyed by terrorists in November, and Mumbai's beaches.

Hanging out with Rajat was a highlight of my trip; someone that could understand my perspective, culture shock, and share a couple nights out on the town. From the wine bar to a club where Bombay's movie stars hang out, to an open air lounge that reminded me of Singapore and Montreal, we partied the night away.

I also got my share of inside information from Neha, on the different "levels" of arranged marriages. Interestingly enough, there are families that don't even allow the couples to meet outside of their homes (or with their brother's present), and a family or two that might let their kids pick matches for themselves. The norm, however, especially in the upper middle class, is to match based on these criteria: 1) Money 2) The Families get along 3) The Caste 4) Astrological Compatibility and 5) What key family members think. So, if you're trapped...your best bet is to get your brother on your side!

Shopping in India is an amazing mix of markets, stores, faux clothing, real designers and export stores where tagged, labelled Banana Republic clothing is about 90% off. Not to mention the "flying shoe stores". Twice as packed as the Town Shoes on a Saturday in West Edmonton mall, these stores hold racks and racks of shoes and purses, both of which you cannot touch. About 10 sales people are ready to help you as you race to find a spot on the benches to sit down. You point, verbalize exactly what you're looking for (good luck if you're just browsing!), and they proceed to yell commands to the men in the stockroom, on the second floor. 2 minutes later, you have your choice of shoes they place in front of you. They don't fit? You want a different style? The salesmen throw the shoeboxes up (literally, they throw them) through holes in the ceiling, and catch back the alternatives thrown down at them. Don't think you're leaving without buying something....

Stelletos, a "flying shoe store" in India.


We ended our trip with a February 28th weekend in Kent, England, to celebrate my grandma, Jhaiji's 80th birthday. Just a small family party, with a random orange tree as a gift, and an atmosphere that made me wish Europe was home.

Sapna & Sonia Jhaiji & Sunny

Uncle Steve & Tina The Orange Tree Nia, Sapna, Sonia, Jhaiji

Delhi, Agra & An Orphanage

Family in foreign countries doesn’t always mean what you think it will. Say the slightest word like “cheese”, ask your mom for a bobby pin “quietly”, or mention cough syrup, and all of a sudden, 2 people are off to the store to buy it, and you have it in your hands 30 seconds later. Try to make your own coffee and they are offended; don’t eat your food and they are offended, finish your food and they can’t imagine why you won’t eat tons and tons more. Tell them you’ll go five seconds away from the home alone and they have an escort by your side. Tell them you want to wait a few years for marriage and they worry; tell them you haven’t found the right person, and all of a sudden there is a single, Indian American, rich BMW owner in Los Angeles with your email address.

Even my parents turned more brown in India (and it wasn’t just the sun).

From the time we landed to the time we left, we had use of a minivan and Rakesh, talkative, English speaking the driver that felt he had to contribute and control every discussion. If I thought Southeast Asia was random, I was delusional. Planning in India it seemed, was the only thing that was impossible, even with a so called chauffeur. While their carefree attitude can be admirable, to a Westerner with limited vacation time, it’s frustrating! Not to mention the huge “problem” I created by suggesting by “airing out dirty laundry in public”, simply by arguing with the arrogant cab

driver that I, a single female who understood the language, could take the metro in broad daylight without an escort.

The most interesting discussion surrounded astrology (at the mention of the word, 2 astrologers were on the mobile phones for me, one of which delivered a “life chart” for me). I found out later, from a cousin in Bombay, that the reason for my Uncle’s excitement was two-fold; aside from his religion, the charts are used to indicate your chances at a marriage match.

The astrological beliefs were second most surprising only to the superstitious beliefs that blew my mind. Hijiras, or the transsexual cults that exist, are seen to be witches, that can determine your fate. They come at happy occasions, like weddings or births and demand money for a dance performance. After my uncle gave them almost $100, they demanded more, and threw rice at us, cursing us, until they got what they wanted. Talk about a scam!

Delhi, itself, however, is an amazing city and a backpacker’s paradise. Agra, despite the rushed tour guides, was also breathtaking. The slideshow below should be a quick peek at the few sites I saw. My last day in Delhi was an adventure, meeting Dennis at CafĂ© Coffee Day for coffee (another Singapore reunion!) trading his work exchange stories with my family stories.

Perhaps the most moving experience I’ve ever had was our visit to the Anath Ashram, or the local orphanage. I remembered it vividly from my last visit; an image of myself as a four year old child, handing out flip flops to a huge line of children much older than me. As I walked in the doors this time, that pitiful feeling hit me again, although there was a definite lack of the grungy, grey cemented atmosphere I remembered. In fact, it was bright, freshly painted, complete with a garden. In fact, the orphanage provides school, university scholarship and arranged marriages to students each year.

We handed them their food at their lunch break, watched them eat it in about 15 minutes, wash their own dishes, They were so grateful, watching us walk in the front doors, even before they knew we had food and clothing for them. We handed them their clothing, and their dessert sqaures barfi. I wanted to get them ice cream, but apparently, 26 degrees is way too cold for them to eat icecream, they’ll get sick, they tell me. For a mere $500, my family had provided them with lunch, a week’s worth of flour and oil for the kitchen and underclothing and socks for 140 children.

“But don’t think it’s all charity”, a cousin reminded me, “Trust me, there is no way the owner would be running it if it weren’t for a much better profit than he could make elsewhere, trust me.” As much as this reminded me of Aravind’s cynicism in White Tiger, I couldn’t help but believe it to be true.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cultural Confusion: An Indian Wedding In A Country of Paradox

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Slumdog Millionaire, was a chilling introduction to this country of paradoxes. I found the film lacked so much depth in Vikas Swarup's story, it seemed simple. Not to mention it is common knowledge in India that the slumdog actors were really from the slums, paid so poorly they could barely afford outfits for the Oscars, and returned to the slums once their roles were complete. After reading Millionaire, my India: Cultural Preparation Guide and Aravind’s White Tiger, a servant’s narration of life in India, I wrongly assumed I was prepared for the days to come.

Five of my days centered around the wedding, which was a continual series of events, all of which were 1 to 4 hours late. Yes, you read correctly, HOURS late. Imagine the frustration as I tried to attend all events, sight-see my Dad’s hometown, and plan for the short 15 days I had available to me. “Nothing is impossible; this is India”, they will all tell you with a huge grin on their faces. “That is one word that doesn’t exist here”. To be fair, things got done...in a haphazard, frantic, tiresome, crazy manner, but yes, they got done. From the hectic markets with amazing goods to the whirlwind city tours, things get done.

Check out the slideshow below of a traditional Indian ceremony. You might want to set the slideshow slider to 1 second; there's a lot of pictures! Facebook users, please click to my original post link to see the real blog:

Here’s a brief breakdown of what is going on:

Ceremony 1: Sunday, February 15, 2009 A prayer and dancing celebration Location: A giant, white, outdoor tent. Time: 3 hours late. The Mendi ceremony and dinner party were part of this

Ceremony 2: Monday, February 16, 2009 10:30 AM: Chanth Only half an hour late Prayer ceremony, boy’s side, with yellow paint smeared all over the groom!

Ceremony 3: Monday, February 16, 2009: 12 noon Chura: Girl’s bracelet ceremony. Both the boy and the girl have a “little helper”, kind of like a flower girl or ringbearer, to guide them through the wedding preparation process. Songs, dance, and a really long prayer and bracelet ceremony

Ceremony 4: 12 noon, boy's side: Chapani Tora Breaking the pot ceremony, followed by lunch

Ceremony 5: 2 PM: Hand painting the walls, really random, not on the itinerary...

Ceremony 5: 8 PM: 2 hours late Bharat: The horse ceremony, with a pit stop at the temple. Also a ceremony in between where girls tie ribbons into the horse's hair

Ceremony 6: Dinner, at the hotel where the horse stopped. Milne (garland ceremony) where the families meet each other and exchange garlands

Ceremony 7: Jaymalah(Confetti ceremony)

Ceremony 8: Tuesday, February 17, 2009: Time: 3 AM, 2 hours late: Langafere The 7 Wedding vows and Ceremonial walk around the fire

Ceremony 9: 6 AM Hidden shoes ceremony. The girl's side hides all the boys shoes and makes them negotiate a price to get them back! This takes about an hour of high pitched arguments.

Ceremony 10: Tuesday, February 17, 2009: 7 AM: Drive away singing ceremony. Married couple drives away in a car, money is thrown around, and beggars run to grab the money.

Cermony 11: Tuesday, February 17, 2009: 12 NOON: Mou Dakai Gifts and money ceremony


Karnal & Panipat, Dad's hometown, Province of Haryana, India

Between hours and hours of wait time and indecision, my dad took me on a tour of his hometown, from his elementary school, to the local park, to the rickshaw ride, to the milk factory that sold icecream, it was quite the simple place. Even Panipat, where my dad's brother lives, was a simple, simple, town...but it is the best place to buy carpets in India , and added great style to my living room! (Thanks, Gunjun for showing me around the best places!)

I have to say it touched my heart to see the gigantic smile on the old rickshaw driver's face when he charged us 20 rupees (less than a dollar, and twice as much as he should have) for the ride, and we gave him 100 rupees (about $2.50). Four days of stressful, ridiculously expensive wedding ceremonies, and too much food and all it took was two dollars and fifty cents to make a local man smile as if he'd won the lottery.