During the worst of times, we tend to pity ourselves and wonder what we did wrong. During the best of times, we try to count our blessings and surf the wave. During my odd, 40-day bed confinement to heal my injured knee, I spent all of these times going through the five stages of Indian grief, as coined by little-known Indian psychiatrist Elavarasi Kumbla-Raza. I’d list them, but they all have to do with cows. You just wouldn’t understand.
WARNING: I may say some things here that you find offensive. I apologize in advance, but this is only my opinion. No, my country is not even close to perfect, and yes, I was frustrated while visiting countries in the past. And sure, I’ll likely regret some of what I write, though much of it is in jest. Still, this is what I think at the moment, and therefore this is what I’m writing.
As many of you know, March started out great, but was soon followed by me being an utter klutz and wrecking my knee. After a rare long weekend spent visiting my friend’s jungle-like plantation, I gave a college lecture, returned to my home base, and continued work as usual. Several evenings later, a few of us were bored during a dance rehearsal (yep, I was forced to do Indian dance, which I’ve named “Hindi Hop”) and started fooling around. I was teaching several of my eager male students gymnastics moves, which they’d been begging to learn for weeks. To demonstrate a move, I flipped a student over my arm who was a bit too heavy, and when he fell, I fell, landing all my weight on my knee. I ain’t light, so the knee has thus far required bed rest and working from home, weeks of physical therapy (sketchy in India), an MRI (even sketchier), and several doctor/hospital visits. It was bone marrow edema of the knee and shin. Fun, right? With so much time home alone to think, I realized I needed to compile a list of events and happenings, and make a list of both the positive and negative outcomes. Not everything is black or white, right?
Situation: The college lecture. I gave my biggest college lecture yet, which took place in a huge auditorium with over 120 students in attendance. In our opening activity, I forced them to get up and interact with each other in a communications game. It’s necessary to hold hands in this specific game, and I literally had to go around and grab the hands of giggling but genuinely petrified gals and put them into the hands of snarfling guys. It was the first time any of them had held hands with the opposite sex, and for many in this rural village college, the first time they’d ever really spoken with each other. Not sure what to think about that.
Cons: In the program, they spelled my name “Catherine.”
Pros: They didn’t spell my name “Snooki.”
Situation: The explosion. For those of you who don’t know, well, the day after I found out I was assigned to bed rest with an injured knee, on anti-inflammation meds, had crutches, wore a brace, and went to physical therapy every day, I was sitting in my room when I heard the loudest sound in my life. It was actually so loud that I didn’t have time to be annoyed and cover my ears. I knew that since I was in India, such a loud sound could only mean either a.) nothing had happened, or b.) the building next to me was no longer standing. I put on my brace and crutches and hobbled out to see…my foyer filling with toxic grey smoke. It was already in my throat. Realizing it probably wasn’t a good idea to stay inside, I quickly put on India-approved clothing, re-put on my brace, grabbed my crutches phone, and got the heck out of there, coughing. The neighborhood was standing outside, and it took a while for me to communicate to the men scurrying about that the explosion was in MY house on the 3rd floor. A few calls and 7 guys staring at a generator later, it was obvious that one of its batteries had exploded. They all giggled as they talked with me, because when men here are nervous, they giggle. And since the generator was owned by my foundation, they were nervous. Just a little plastic shrapnel, flung-across-the-room shoes, and leaking black battery acid later, they told me a cute tidbit. “Kat-reen, it’s a good thing you weren’t in that room.” [nervous man giggle]
Pros: I’m not nervous about any more generators exploding in my house, because I have a.) no more generator, since they finally cleaned it up 4 days after the fact, and b.) I moved homes.
Cons: It’s India. Anything can explode at any time.
Situation: The weather. Just when I thought I was good at predicting this summer weather, i.e. it’s 100 every day and about to get worse, it started storming every day at 6:30. But then it switched up and added marble-sized hail to the mix, and last night, it stormed throughout the night, causing the power to go on and off, mosquitoes to flock in in droves, and the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard—akin to someone playing the timpani right next to my ear. Oh, and the ceiling was leaking in three places. Oh, and I don’t have a generator anymore (see PREVIOUS situation).
Pros: I got some neat photos of the lightening, and heck, anything that provides entertainment from my bed post is pretty darn exciting.
Cons: The dog vs. cow street tournaments keep me up at night. Totally unrelated.
Situation: I had a rare long weekend (aka Sat. and Sun. instead of just Sunday) to do something exciting, and since I was to do a college lecture that Monday, I visited the friend/co-worker who was also organizing the lecture at one of the schools in her jurisdiction. She lives in a large house out in the middle of nowhere, with waterfalls nearby and crops surrounding the house.
Here is a girl who, despite being raised in a household far different from ours, is pretty darn “Western.” She watches tv, chats on her cell phone, likes to shop, and uses Facebook. She also must wear clothing with sleeves at all times (even in her house), is treated rather poorly because she’s an Indian female, and, for three days each month, is not allowed to walk into certain rooms of her house. During these days, she must sit separately from her family, cannot touch anyone, has to eat off a banana leaf and not a plate, can only accept food that is dropped into her hands, cannot attend functions (she was forced to miss her cousin’s wedding) and must sleep on a thin floor mat on concrete. Her caste dictates that she follows these rules, and naturally she does so without hesitation. Who am I to judge? Yet to an outsider, these rules seem useless, demeaning, and just plain awkward for anyone visiting at this time. Which I was. Sitting on the floor, by a pole, in the half-lit room, with her family facing me on one side and her facing me on the other, was most certainly disturbing. Yes, it’s tradition. But why can’t things change?
Cons: I learned a lot about the caste system, but every bit I hear makes me angry—and ends in women being treated quite poorly and unequally.
Pros: Despite all those awkward meals, the food was eepin’ great! I had homemade yogurt from their cows, some delightful brinjal mash, and a kind of breakfast pancake served with homemade butter and local molasses that tasted unlike anything I’ve ever eaten.
Situation: My friend’s plantation, as well as the adjoining plots of land (there’s rarely any fencing or divides), is full of plants of every kind. It was the end of winter, which meant there were a lot of brown plants. Even so, she taught me all the medicinal uses of tiny fruits I didn’t notice, animals I could only hear the calls of, and what the trees would look like in the coming summer/monsoon season. She then brought me into her family’s plantation, which was a green jungle haven. Tall betel nut trees, banana trees, vanilla vines, winding peppercorn plants, pineapple bushes, papaya trees, coconut palms, and more lived under this beautiful, cool backyard canopy. There were roads leading seemingly nowhere, mystical fog hanging over rice patties, hills to hike, safe, cold well water, gardens…oh, it was just magical.
Pros: I got to spend my weekend in just a lovely outdoor environment, complete with spiders, birds, peacock calls, wild fruit and nut trees, and more.
Cons: Uh, none. I didn’t want to leave.
Situation: Spelling and texting. Oh man, America has nuthin’ on these folks. I’m not sure if it’s improper English usage, laziness, just texting shortcuts ‘cause it’s coo’, or a combination, but I can barely read what people write. Also, I’ve told people that certain abbreviations aren’t…good. They don’t care. Here are some real—and no, I’m not joking—texts I’ve gotten in the past few days. Oh, and if you brush it off, thinking that English is a second language, just know that it is for some of these folks—and some aren’t even Indian.
“Inform him, fr da transport.”
“Hey 2day im cumin hubl.. If posibl cum 2mro 2 hospital. I wil b der okie”
“Its good bt im thinkn of takn rest of week and goin to there for rest of week”
“Hey.u know,last night u comes in my dreams.really” (Don’t worry, it was a dream a friend had of us going hiking.)
“Ok.its good.i.ill tel tomorrow.ok.”
Cons: What you just read.
Internet Explorer could not find the word “Pros:”
Situation: International Women’s Day. In our meeting deciding what pandering events to hold for this day, one of the suggestions was to search for and show a variety of clips showing what women do around the world. In a place where women are usually required to be a housewife (yes, in the cities there are female doctors, writers, and software programmers, though I have yet to meet more than one), we all agreed that showing footage of women in Mexico as police officers, women in China as farmers, and women in Norway as CEOs. Most, that is. A good friend of ours complained. “Why do the students need to see international footage? India is pretty much the most diverse country in the world. We can just show them parts of India.” My American friend and I were sort of stunned, especially because he’s her best friend here. “What do you mean?” I asked. “It’s International Women’s Day, and you’re…comparing the diversity of India to the world’s diversity?” He shrugged it off and argued. “India is so diverse, man. There are different people in the north, south, east, west…it’s the best example of diversity in the world. We don’t need anything else. Let them just see India.” I was flabbergasted, and at that point, my blood boiled and I had to say something. I actually argued strongly with someone in a meeting. I’ve been to very little of India, and yes, there are a few African-Indian and Asian-Indian minorities, and for sure, there are many different religions, languages, and types of people. But to say it’s the most diverse country in the world, let alone thinking it’s representative of all the diversity in the world? To me, that’s not even stupid—that’s ignorant. Especially from someone who has traveled outside of India. Oh man, did that one get me going. And it wasn’t even about women, per say! You can bet your butt that during our big Women’s Day talk, when I got up to speak in front of the 200 students and staff at the foundation, it was on my mind. Not only did I give examples of my mother being a lawyer, mother, and teacher, I gave examples of what women can do all over the world. How women in the past, in many countries, have worked long and hard to forge new paths. How I am lucky that I can be pretty much anything that I want to be. And that, when I was asked to present the audience a challenge during my turn at the mic, I decided to start small. You see, many people here think women are equal. If that’s true, I asked the audience, then why can women not wear the same things men do, act the same way men do, and stay out late the same way men do? Men are allowed to wear shorts, special wash skirts, and wife beaters, and can stay out late, give women poor service when not with a man in a restaurant, beat women, and taunt them in the street. Let’s not even talk about how women have to move to the man’s home and stay home to cook and clean all day—literally. One of India’s holidays is actually notorious for being a “let’s surround and touch the woman” day. And yet if a woman were to wear shorts, or even a tank top, she’d be thought of as a prostitute. Don’t go out after 9PM, our male friends say, and let us drive you home. And sure enough, guys think it’s fine to slap us, throw rocks, leer at us on their bikes, or creepily follow us home whenever they please. Yes, these unfortunate circumstances occur all over the world, but here in India, everything seems far, far worse. Maybe it’s because it’s bad here, or maybe it’s because everyone here is so proud of this country without knowing why.
Cons: India brags about equality but continues to create an atmosphere of absolute inequality for the female population. I’m no feminist, but it’s hard to stand by and watch this kind of treatment every day. There’s some progress in cities, but women everywhere are struggling for respect and education. And no, they’re not happy about their world.
Pros: Once again, the unfortunate nature of this place makes me proud to be an American.
Situation: The food. Since I’ve been stuck in my house for over a month, I decided that cooking on one leg/a chair would provide more excitement than not. Though I’ve had to rely on groceries picked by and brought rarely by friends, I have been cooking my own food, experimenting, and not consuming gallons of oil and ghee in the food we’re normally served at work. I make everything from scratch, and despite the fact that ants may come in my flour, I’m pretty happy with my good eats. I make pancakes with bananas almost every day, my own confectioner’s sugar for frosting, smoothies, homemade pasta, chapatti, masala beet-stuffed bread, homemade bagels, mashed potatoes, real pudding, thai peanut dressing, sweet chili sauce, pita bread, and much more. It turns out that even without a stove or microwave, a rice cooker and a burner can be used in innovative ways to may pretty good food, if I may say so myself.
Cons: Where do you think all that food is going when I’m unable to even walk?
Pros: India’s food business is booming, and New York’s obesity numbers have decreased by one.
Situation: The doors and windows. What could be wrong? Oh, a lot. First of all, some of the doors have normal locks one opens with a key, but NONE have doorknobs. Instead, a bar and latch slide in and out of misplaced holes on the inside or outside of the door, meaning a door can only be locked from the inside or outside. Meaning one can easily be locked out by someone inside, or locked in by someone outside. Increased security? Maybe, but then how to explain the same thing on all doors, including bedrooms and bathrooms? Most of us believe it’s a scheme to lock women inside the house (kidding, mostly), but we really can’t figure it out. And yes, my friend locked his two roommates in at least seven times in the span of two weeks, and I was locked in twice by my landlord, who assumed I wasn’t home. I had to yell for help out a window. Speaking of which…they have an indoor screen and an outdoor piece of glass, both of which can be propped open or closed (though again, the shoddy craftsmanship means that latches give way, creating mini-doors that repeatedly slam open and closed in any wind). Open air? No, because there are—and I’m counting them right now—12 lateral bars on every window. Again, is this to prevent escaping? I don’t know, but it’s altogether rather dangerous in case of an emergency.
Pros: If I were to spontaneously bust into preggerdom, the kid wouldn’t be falling out the window at any point soon.
Cons: It’s annoying as heck, I’d be utterly trapped if a fire or something were to break out, and the poor craftsmanship means that dozens of mosquitoes fly in through the cracks every night to attack my poor albino blood.
So there’s a little for you on the months of March and April. I work from home and pray I’ll one day walk again. And that day is…tomorrow! I think by the end of the week I’ll be almost normal. My knee, I mean, not me as a person.
Until next time,
Photos: 1.) A betel nut sheller; 2.) Two hornbills just hanging out—amazing!; 3.) Can you spot the pepper picker in the tree?; 4.) More shellers at night; 5.) 7AM spiderweb; 6.) Look, it’s as if I’m in New York, ma! 7.) A local worker; 8.) With students at their graduation; 9.) Holi celebrations; 10.) Some of my wonderful students at a party.