Thursday, September 30, 2010

The New School and A Piece of National News

After a lengthy (and largely unwise, on my part) hiatus from schooling, my club has successfully enrolled me in a college, which is nice for a number of reasons, the first being that it's more age-appropriate for the 3 graduated seniors that make up our clubs. The school is simply titled School of Interior Design. It's housed in what would probably be some kind of apartment building otherwise over four floors and one other workshop setting. It's nice and clean, and the spots that are dirty are dirty in a "we're working here" way rather than a "we are too lazy to put trashcans in our schools" kind of way.
The classes that we take in the first semester class are Drawing and Painting, Color Workshop, Studio. TRD, IT, History, and Structure.
Drawing and Painting and Color Workshop are quite self-explanatorily titled classes that basically involve me painting things. I have now been wishing that I hadn't avoided all art classes like they were some kind of poisonous animal throughout my entire school career. To put it bluntly, I really suck at painting. I like it fine, and at least I'll get better at it. It's a new thing to be learning, so that's good. The professor (or the sir, as they call it) is a really awesome guy. He has a cool beard and sunglasses that he usually wears to cover up an eye injury from an accident. The only mark the accident has left, however, is that half of the white part of his right eye is red, which to me only adds to his badassery. What is also awesome about this guy is that he's a lot like MacGyver (if you're not familiar with this classic 80s show, find it on DVD and catch up - it's terrific). Forgot your easel today? MacGyver Sir, as I have taken to calling him, willing just whip you one up out of toothpicks and a piece of thermocoil. Also he's quite a good artist. So while I display an ineptitude that has likely never been seen before in these two classes, I quite enjoy them.
Another Sir teaches Studio and Structure. I'm not exactly sure what the stated purpose of studio is, but right now we're working on a complicated project that started with us randomly drawing a bunch of lines and boxes on a sheet of paper and will culminate with us creating a 3D model representing something that developed from the original drawing. It's kind of cool but a lot of work, and again I have absolutely no talent in the subject. Still, I like the Sir so it's allright. Structure is like physics and math - the numbers and calculations of architecture. I like it because the math is pretty basic and I know how to do it and Sir is really impressed with me when I know something like Newton's Laws or the Pythagorean Theorem. I think I could do ok in that one.
TRD and IT involve using a parallel (basically it just helps you draw straight lines) to do "drafting", which is the name for drawings of designs of things. It could be one specific piece of furniture, or a birds-eye view of a room, or whatever. The problem is that the Ma'am for that is very very focused on extremely minute details of whatever project we are doing, and if she doesn't like the work that you just spent two hours doing, she has no qualms about ordering you to do it again. So these two bug me quite a bit.
History is ok - they learn a lot of the stuff that I learned in AP World about ancient civilizations, but then they have to do things like memorize how wide the alleyways were in the Indus Valley city of Harappa from 5000 years ago. How these type of rote details will ever help us in architecture is beyond me, but hey, at least there's a history class here.
I definitely like it better than the other school - the professors remind me of the college professors I know back in town. They are cool folks who trust their students, and for the most part, the students return the trust with a maturity that wasn't present in my high school experience. Interior Design is far from my forte, and I think the teachers will soon become exasperated with my extreme incompetence, but I'm learning skills that I really wouldn't have an opportunity to do anything with at home, and that's the whole point of this exchange, right?

Ayodhya is a site in India (I really don't know where it is) that is purportedly the birthplace of Lord Ram. I'm sure that most of you aren't familiar with him, but he's really really important. It wouldn't be a stretch to call him an equivalent to Moses or someone like that. Jesus probably would be a stretch. The Ramayana, one of the two seminal Hindu religious epic poems, is the tale of Ram. His stature in their religion is exceedingly great.
For obvious reasons, there has always been a temple there, but back in the day (1700s or so), the Mughal Empire (an Islamic dynasty) smashed the temple down and built a mosque there. Then the British came along and the issue was not resolved one way or another. But ever since 1949, there has been a legal battle raging about whether the Hindus should be allowed to have a temple there, or whether the Muslims should have a mosque there. For 60 years this pitched battle has been raging, and today the Allahabad High Court made a decision.
The tension leading up to this decision was incredible. Extreme rioting and violence was predicted all over India no matter which way the decision went - and nobody was really able to predict what the decision was going to be. At the site today there were nearly 200,000 security personnel on hand to stem the potential tides of rioters. The state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located (one state to the south of me) was completely closed. Nobody in or out. Cell phone signals were shut down in some areas. It's nuts.
What the court apparently did was release a 10,000 page verdict. They made it so long so that it would take a really long time to decipher what it's true meaning is (and it's going to be something very simple). Hopefully the Hindus and the Muslims will cool off and no blood will be shed.
This case is a big deal. The potential for riots is keeping home from school for two days. Well, on that front I'm not complaining.

There's some serious unrest on a lot of fronts here - Ayodhya is just an extensin of this. I might post something on all of that unrest next time. But for now, in the spirit of the Brazilian bloggers always writing something in Portuguese at the end, Challo.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ganpati Part 2

Ganpati Part 2

As you may recall, the festival celebrating Lord Ganesha lasts for 11 days. The final three days of these 11 were pretty fun, at least for me personally. Prior to these experiences, the Ganpatis had been sitting in the societies. Along with the Ganpatis was the presence of some exceptionally loud drums. I must admit, I'm really not used to this kind of obtrusive noise just coming from the street - it's the sort of thing you would actually call the police for in the US. I did get accustomed to it, and eventually I came to realize that what sounded like the sound of some kind of military band was really just two little kids equipped with really loud instruments. And at least they never really did it when I was trying to sleep.

Other than that, every day at about 9 o clock there was a society prayer, which my parents only went to once out of 11 days. One day they hired a professional to come sing religious songs for them. There are always a few people manning each Ganpati station and if you go up to one of them, they will always give you a small handful of some treat, always called Prasad, no matter what food it actually might be.

DAY 10 - This was my first day of the new school, and I actually had homework. So I was resigned to a night of drawing and sketching, which is far from my forte. But Pratik said "Tonight we're going to drive around and see all of the awesome Ganpatis. We won't be back until after 12 and the Ganpatis look really awesome and it's a great cultural opportunity for you and you're coming." Well, I thought "eff it, this is a cultural exchange not an Interior Design exchange". Good decision. There are some really awesome Ganpatis around, and the other thing was that all of the crowds at the Ganpatis were very eager to have a foreigner come to see their beloved Ganpatis, so everyone was immensely friendly to me. We went out for dinner at a tastilicious restaurant and all in all I had a lot of fun. Among the awesome Ganpatis was included one that was riding a gigantic dragon. The dragon was some kind of animatronic thing - it moved, it made noise, and it breathed steam out of its nostrils every 10 seconds. I'll have a bunch of sweet Ganpati photos up on Facebook in the next day or two.
Fortunately Sir was very forgiving at school.

DAY 11 - The final day of the Ganpatis. There was a gathering at our societal Ganpati and everyone in the society that I encountered that day impressed upon me the importance of my attendance and one man who seemed to be running the show told me that he intended for me to make some kind of speech. So I went, after probably my most hair-raising motorcycle ride yet from Akshay (which is really saying something) I arrived at the society's Ganpati.
A spot directly in front of the Ganpati was cordoned off by small wood barriers and all the young guys of the society were in there. They instantly invited me in there. The Ganpati looked amazing - it always does, but they seemed to go all-out on the lights that night. Also, there was an unbelievable amount of Prasad placed in front of the Ganpati. There must have a hundred dishes in front of him. They were all covered up, though, so I couldn't see what they really were.

The nightly ceremony included drums, a bunch of organized religious chanting, and a burning of a giant plate covered with candles. My bit ended up being that I went up and was asked what I thought of the Ganpati celebration (I enjoyed very much!), led a recitation of the Gayatri Mantra (which is something I say everyday in yoga), and then led the crowd in a very simple Ganpati cheer. All of it seemed to go over very well. Everyone is always very excited when a foreigner does anything related to their own religion.

After that, Pratik told me that my yoga teacher had specifically invited me to come to her society and see their Ganpati finale celebrations. I was surprised and rather touched by the invitation. So we went to see that. Theirs was a little less organized and more relaxed. People were just sitting around the large central courtyard of the society, watching little kids participate in these goofy games. They reminded me of the Field Days we used to have back in elementary school. Kids were doing things like having races holding spoons with lemons in their mouths, trying to go as fast as they could without dropping the lemon. I liked both experiences quite a bit.

DAY 12 - Technically, I suppose, there are 12 days, the last one being where the Ganpatis are taking to the river. I've discovered that the Ganpatis are made of some sort of hardened sand, so that when they are dumped in the Tapi River they will just disintegrate into the water. I think. Not a hundred percent sure on that. Apparently the Ganpatis this year are eco-friendly, as in they are supposed to not pollute the water at all. I can only applaud this idea, as the Tapi River, for all of its merits, is abominably polluted, and the thought of dumping a bunch of dissolving statues with potentially harmful chemicals into it made me cringe. It was an eventful day in the city. It was tough to get around in the streets. The Ganpati processions stop for no traffic. Also the unsmiling cops were really out in force today, and they were pretty heavily armed with shotguns and assault rifles. Apparently this is a pretty big drinking day, despite booze of any kind being completely outlawed in Gujarat.

For this, my family went to the home of my mothers parents on the other side of the river. Before the Ganpatis are dumped into the river, they are loaded onto trucks and paraded through the streets one last time. Their house has a balcony that overlooks an especially well-traveled Ganpati parade street, so it was another great place to see a bunch of Ganpatis. Another thing, once all of the people sitting on the trucks saw that a gora was taking photos from the balcony, they got really excited and started making poses and offering me huge encouragements to take photos, which was very amusing to me. It was a very enjoyable day for me. I like the food at my grandparents house a lot, and I also like them a lot, so all of that was good. They rent out part of their house to a young doctor, and actually we seem to have kind of a standing invitation to just come to his apartment anytime we feel like it. And actually it's in his part of the building that the balcony with the view is located. So we passed most of the day alternating between watching the Amitabh Bachchan classic Sholay (which, by the way, is an awesome movie) and stepping out to the balcony to see all of the neat Ganpatis passing by. Also my grandma made chicken as a surprise for me. I nearly cried with joy.

So overall, I've definitely enjoyed this festival and I'm going to miss seeing all of these cool statues about when I move around the city. Ah well. There's no shortage of other upcoming festivals, that's for sure.

I was going to write about my new school, but this post has become quite lengthy anyways. So I'll save it for another day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ganpati part 1 and other updates

Time for a Hindu mythology lesson/Indian history lesson about the latest festival.

Once upon a time, Shiva (one of the big 3 Hindu Gods, along with Brahma and Vishnu) left his home for a very extended time to go up to Mount Khailash in the Himalayas to meditate (this mountain is real and apparently if you climb it you are liable to find Shiva there - of course the catch is that you have to climb one of the Himalayas). During the early part of his approx. 20-year absence, his wife Parvati had a son, a fellow named Ganesha. Being the son of a god, Ganesha was rather a powerful guy. Anyways, upon his return Shiva attempted to enter his house. His young son had been told by his mother to let no strangers into the house. And he and his father had never met. Shiva became quite enraged with the impertinence of whom he thought was a simple doorman, so he broke through the door and beheaded his son.

Being informed of his horrific mistake, Shiva ordered his closest servant to go out into the woods, behead the first animal he saw, and to bring the head to Shiva. The animal turned out to be an elephant. So Shiva fixed the elephants head to the neck of his son and revived him. His wife said something along the lines of "who is ever going to worship a God with an elephant head?" At which point Shiva decided to vest quite extraordinary powers in his son so that people would worship him. From that point on, Ganesha became the number one deity asked for advice.

Now the history part. It's not quite as lengthy. In the early days of the Indian revolutionary movement, leaders needed a place to meet. So they contrived a festival in which everyone in a community gathered to pray to a statue of Lord Ganesha. In revolutionary days it was a foil, but they decided that they liked it, so they kept it.

Begininng on September 11th (this year at least, it changes every year through unknown determining factors), in every society (which is just what they mean by neighborhood) a Ganpati comes. A Ganpati is a sizable statue of Lord Ganesha. It could be made out of anything. Most are made, I think, of some kind of plastic material, but that kind of makes it sound less fancy than it is. I believe a few are from porcelain, and there's this really cool one around that's made of newspaper. That one's my favorite. Basically all of them are giant statues of elephants with a bunch of adornments like Indian clothes and jewelry. They're extremely attractive.

For weeks a kind of stage has been sitting in our society, and on Saturday the Ganpati came to it. This event was very exciting for the people of the society. Apparently they really love Lord Ganesha. It was celebrated with trademark record-settingly loud drums and some dancing. I participated, as usual exceptional self-conscious about my own dancing. It was pretty fun but was unfortunately rained about by a completely unexpected and cataclysmic monsoon rain. Ah well. I still like the rain. It's one of my favorite parts of this.

For the rest of the 11-day festival, the Ganpati really just sits there. At nine o clock every night, a kind of prayer specialist visits our society and leads those who choose to come in a kind of chanted prayer. I haven't actually been to this because, I don't know, my family doesn't ask me to and I kinda feel like it would be rude to just gawk at a bunch of people doing something very seriously religious to them.

I would post some pictures of the Ganpati but with my Internet connection it would take like, hours. And I apologize, but I just don't want to do that. For some reason the Facebook uploader works very quickly (relatively speaking, of course), so that's where I publish stuff mostly.

Other News
I've never really been completely healthy here. The climate is just so very different from the US, and the food, while tasty, is not what I'm used to and sometimes it messes with my stomach. I'm frequently exhausted during the day, but oddly enough I have a lot of trouble getting to sleep at night. I also have really nasty headaches a lot. Right now everything has culminated with a bout of fever, headache, stomacheache and all sorts of other disgusting details that are unnecessary. It's getting very annoying to me that I can't stay healthy here, but I guess that's just a part of adjusting to a new climate. I mean, I don't get sick that much in the US, and this is honestly just about the most unpleasant I have ever felt in my life.

I have a new school. It's a college for Interior Design and Architecture. I love it, based on the one day that I toured it before I came down with this abominable illness. It's clean (Shardayatan has about 50 metric tons of trash all over the place), the students seem to have moved passed the age of 6, and they actually learn. More on all of this later. I must say, Interior Design has never exactly been my calling. As in I have absolutely no experience or prior interest. But nonetheless, it seems fairly interesting, and Sam Estenson probably didn't think he would be going to a Fishery school when he signed up for Rotary, so I can deal. And my other exchange student friends will be there too. It runs from 8 AM to 230 AM, attendance is compulsory, and there's school on Saturday. So basically it's like a school day in the US, except for the Saturday. I think it might be nice to get into kind of a busy school rhythm again. It'll feel like I'm living a little bit more normal life.

I've also started a guitar class four days a week, and I think I might buy a guitar so I can practice at home. And guitars, like everything, cost about an 1/8 as much here as in the US, so that seems to be an excellent life investment for me to make. So between the new school, yoga, and guitar, I suddenly find myself exponentially more busy than I have been previously, which is definitely a good thing. I've been talking to some past India-exchange students, and a lot of them say they were having trouble finding things to keep busy with early on. Indian school is unfortunately just so completely worthless to an outsider that it's tricky to find things to do. I consider myself quite lucky all of this has fallen into my lap.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

At War with the Mystics

Faith is intertwined into everyday life here to a much greater extent than in the US. It would be cruel and inaccurate to call it blind faith, I think, but they follow the words of their holy mythology very literally and without question. My brother was telling me a story that had great similarities to that of Noah's Ark, and I told him that in Christianity we have a very similar myth. He told me that it was no myth, it was the truth. Whereas I take most of the Bible's stories as metaphorical, my family, and most other Indians that I have spoken to, quite literally believe every tale, every miracle that has been worked by their gods, even though, like in the Bible, some of them are ludicrous.

This devotion also lends itself to faith in other forms of mysticism that are not directly related to Hindu religion. There is a cult astrological devotion in this country - it's actually very similar to the planetary work that Professor Trelawney has Harry do (I'm sorry for more Harry Potter references). Mars sits in the 12th house tonight and that sort of thing. Anyway, Pratik has a friend who is an astrologer. I hadn't met him before, but given my birthday, time, and location, he was able to formulate a series of life predictions about me. Now there is no credence to these predictions. It remains to be seen whether or not he is right.

There were a few things that startled me though - he predicted, three days before it happened (and I was there to see his prediction) that I would have a problem in my left eye. I completely forgot about it because I mostly disregard this astrology as BS. But three days later my left eye was swollen and irritable. Pratik reminded me of the prediction, and I was quite surprised.
In his prediction write-up, this friend included a few paragraphs about my nature and personality, and I must admit, about 75% of the time he is spot on, so directly, precisely accurate that it's hard to believe that it's chance.

Now I'm going to talk about another form of truth-predicting that my family does. There's this guy who comes who subscribes to a Japanese-originated form of healing/mysticism/mind-reading called Raki (that might not be how it's spelled but that is how it's pronounced). He came to the house a couple weeks ago. He had never met me. He asked me the usual introductory stuff - where are you from, how many brothers and sisters you have, all that stuff. Nothing that he could gauge anything from. Then he told me "your favorite school subject is history". Which is right, and there is no way he could have known this. The scary thing is, in their country, history is not even a subject. So for him to so accurately select history is to pick a topic that he really doesn't even consider a topic. He spent about 15 minutes telling me things about myself and my family, again with about 75% accuracy. The Raki-uncle has been doing healing work on my Mom, who has problems with her knee and with depression. He's also apparently going to see Akshay successfully through his exams. Pratik is trying to lose weight - the Raki man has given him very specific advice on exactly what to eat on different days in order to do so.

I'm not a religious guy, and most religious and beliefs of this nature, I kind of take with a grain of salt. But I mean, these guys knew a lot about me. There's plenty of proof for me that their stuff works, all of their astrology and Raki mumbo-jumbo. In the US, this kind of junk is laughable. But here, most people subscribe to it, and worryingly enough, it seems to work. I feel like some crazy idiot listening to it, but I've seen it work.

It creeps me out. It also makes me think.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I can only say with maybe 80% confidence that I correctly spelled the name of the latest Indian festival. But I can say with 100% confidence that it was awesome.

It definitely seems to be festival season, and it doesn't seem to show any signs of stopping. There's another one next Thursday in which giant statues of the Lord Ganesha are going to be delivered to every society. More on that when I get to it.

Anyways, Janmastami comes to me only a week and two days after the last highly enjoyable festival, Rakshabandhan. Janmastami celebrates the birthday of Lord Krishna, who is a very important God in Hindu culture. I believe that the story goes that Krishna was born in jail, where his maternal uncle was keeping his mother captive. At the moment of his birth, midnight, his father rescued him and put him into a foster home for safe-keeping. I'm pretty sure the entirety of the story is much more exciting than that, but my brother is asleep right now so I have nothing but Wikipedia to explain it to me.

So the way that they celebrate Krishna's birthday is by smashing pots. What they do exactly is tie a string between two buildings, which is easy on the narrow streets where most societies are located. Then they dangle a pot from the middle of the string. It can be any amount of height off the ground. In my society they were about two stories off the ground. Then people build human pyramids from the ground to try getting someone high enough at the top so that they can smash the pot.

Mostly trained pot-smashing squads do this. At about noon on Thursday the main one in our society was smashed by a team that was traveling around in a truck. All of the team members look hugely happy at all times during this ceremony, dancing and clapping, with thunderous drums accompanying their every action. I saw two pot smashes - one in my society and another one that Pratik and I spotted while we were on the way to his friends house.

In big cities, Mumbai especially, they dangle pots from ridiculous heights, at least 8 or 9 stories. Only the best pot-smashing squads get to attempt to scale these heights. I saw some teams on TV attempting to climb and break some of the pots, and it was just ridiculously high. The situation was ludicrously precarious. I saw one team fall when they were probably five stories off the ground, and the results were cataclysmic. Gigantic crowds come out to watch these events, and the dozens of men kind of basically fell into the crowd. Apparently no one was killed, which is good news that I kind of have difficulty believing. There was one team that traveled all the way from Spain to participate. Also they pay the equivalent of about $200,000 to the squads that successfully break the pots.

So I went to watch 3 Idiots at Pratik's friend's house and we got back at about 9 o clock to discover that there were three new pots strung in the houses right next to mine. I was informed that at midnight, the exact birth time of Lord Krishna, all of the neighborhood kids would get together and smash the pots themselves. At 11:55 the drums, right outside my house, announced the beginning of the event. They were deafeningly loud. Akshay and I went outside and all of the neighborhood boys started to have a psycho, drum-accompanied dance party. I had not met most of these folks yet, and I still don't know most of them by name, but they were extremely welcoming and they seemed plenty excited to have a foreigner in attendance. It was a hugely festive occasion. I was not allowed to be involved in the pyramid by my family for safety-related reasons (disappointing but understandable) but I was still very much a part of the party.

It was very very fun.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

I love Aamir Khan

I have seen three Aamir Khan films this week. I have decided that I have to dedicate an entire post to this fantastic man.

In the cinematic hell that is Bollywood (this is not an insult, it's the truth - they just don't usually make very good movies), Aamir Khan is nothing short of a saint. His movies are Hollywood standards, terrific, and by Bollywood standards, stratospherically superior to anything else on the map.

Now Aamir Khan is a terrific actor, but he has also become a major producer. He produced Lagaan, which was terrific, and Peepli Live, which was an excellent movie that I mentioned in a previous post. He has not produced all that many movies personally, but the production company that he founded has produced quite a few. Also, whenever he makes a movie, apparently he is quite involved in the story and production in some kind of uncredited way.

My first taste of Aamir Khan came long before the idea of Rotary Youth Exchange, much less the destination of India, was anywhere in my thoughts. After the AP Exams, our AP World teacher Mr. Wold screened Aamir Khan's historical cricket epic Lagaan. I think the entire class loved it, me included. It was a fantastic first taste of Bollywood. Lagaan is an awesome movie and thanks to Mr. Wold it has a bit of a cult following in Northfield. Go see it.

On Sunday Pratik, Purav (a friend) and I rented this movie called Mangal Pandey and watched it. It was an unusually good print in that it had English subtitles, which was terrific. It was in a pretty similar vein to Indian historical epic that demonizes the British. But it was quite dramatic. I didn't like it quite as much as Lagaan but it was still way above the average Bollywood film.

Then there was this drama called Rang de Basanti. It was a very complicated movie and I won't explain it, but it was basically a very well-done statement on how the numerous problems of the Indian government (namely the incredibly pervasive corruption) are derailing the youth of India. He starred in it. He was excellent. It was a very good movie, daringly dark by Bollywood standards.

Today, though, I watched 3 Idiots, which features, among other things, a fantastically unpromising title. 3 Idiots is the highest grossing movie in Indian history (but in the Avatar way -unadjusted for inflation, I mean). It's a story of three friends at an engineering college where the headmaster rears them to compete like gladiators. It's an indictment of competitive Indian society and it's cutthroat but often completely ineffective educational system. There's very little learning for the sake of learning in school here.
Basically it's extremely funny and hugely touching. I usually like to be more emotionally detached when speaking about movies, but 3 Idiots is the rare movie that has the power to change its country (apparently schools are reconsidering the way they do things solely based on this movie) and to really just give a person a huge appreciation and gratitude for the life they are given.
I thought I was watching an American movie - that's the highest compliment I can give it. There was so much care taken in the construction of the story, and the songs were completely different from the usual Bollywood songs that just exist to show off the bodies of the stars. They were songs that were actually trying to make some point that was relevant to the story. And they were musical songs too.

So after watching 3 Idiots, I have had my faith restored in Bollywood. Maybe it is only one out of fifty movies, but every once in a while they can make something really special.

Aamir Khan is responsible for most of these great movies lately. He's amazing.