At this point of the Dhol drum beat, my shoulders usually assume their role in the bhangra song. 10 seconds is all it takes. My eyebrows probably rise in a look of confusion mixed with arrogance, to convince anyone watching that I know what I am doing. Being an inventive, self-conscious, and mediocre dancer is torturous.
It took 24 years for me to realize that I’ve been entirely too selfish about this music. Like many first generation Americans with immigrant parents from India, I spent a childhood embarrassed by my culture, ignoring it in attempts to fit in with my midwestern peers. I only realized how much I needed this culture the day I left home for college. I went from having nightmares about my school friends getting a glimpse of pictures of videos of my Diwali choreographed performances that my mother forced me to do, to shamelessly calling the same mother to walk me through making mutton biriyani over the phone so I could impress a lady friend. My wardrobe welcomed chinese collared kurta shirts soon after the law approved of my drinking habits. I even returned to a sidepart hairstyle, which I spent a dozen years deliberately running from in fear of looking like my ancestors. Now I “Don Draper” it, just like my grandfather did.
But in trying to recover my roots, I might have gone too far. I made the foolish assumption that this self-narrative was heroic – that my early epiphany of realizing and accepting my identity around this culture had never happened before for anyone else. That I would show the world I knew how cool India was. So I moved there, wrote this blog, bought more ethnic shirts, instruments, grew a mustache, and never failed to be the first person at any wedding or celebration to initiate locking legs and circling while fingers pointed in the air to remind the world that our shoulders were designed to move up and down faster than any other creature on land.
And how did this wisdom that I was no hero suddenly find me? Sudhir Venkatesh’s study on why crackdealer’s live with their mothers in book Freakanomics? Aasif Mandvi’s jokes on the Daily Show? Goldstar’s rock performance at the hotel cafe? Anand Giridharadas’s book about moving back to India after growing up in Midwestern USA? Neil Patel’s highly trafficked blog about being an entrepreneur? Slumdog Millionaire? Bobby Jindal’s 2009 Republican response speech? All these success stories should have gotten through to me, but despite it all I still refused to believe that I was not the voice of my generation. I now know that my mistake was in believing that “this” was even “mine.” And I have a performance by a New York fusion percussion n brass band called Red Baraat in Louisville, Kentucky to thank for this enlightenment from a free ticket that I nearly disregarded because the concert buddy that invited me skipped town and left me to see the show in Kentucky by my lonesome. .
First impressions are given far too much credit in our advice dialogue in this society. And my first impression of the band was full of skepticism. An Indian guy playing a dhol drum with a bunch of eclectic looking bandmates with a gradient of skin tones from one member to the next. Dreadlocks! What type of hippie jam band bastardizing a drum beat that Jay-z introduced to our night clubs 10 years ago was this? This appeared to be as bad for me as it might be for the band that looked out into a crowd filling only quarter of the available seats in the auditorium. Sitting down to bhangra music! Would I be the first to teach the room this lesson? Or would I run as fast as I could to Bombay Grill, or just to the hallway and virtually recruit as many brown people in this mid-southern city from my iPhone?
I did nothing. There was no need. 1 song in, the singer requested the houselights to be turned on so he could see “his” people. Maybe 20 Indians total were in the room – but they were not who he was referring to. Calmly he advised everyone to leave the seats and proceed to the stage, where an empty dance floor awaited them. This was the climax of the internal awkwardness I felt at the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts. As I’ve seen countless times from the stage or the audience, this was bound to fail and the band would just follow the motions and try their best to get through the rest of the set and leave town and forget about that moment of uncertainty.
But the people tonight listened. Slowly the dance floor filled up. The singer gave them 4 instructions for how to dance, and they took his advice and followed each step: putting the hands in the air, turning the light, bouncing the shoulders, and swaying the hips. The music continued, but I sat. In shock maybe. Could Kentucky have something to teach me about my Indian culture?
My body felt cold instantly. Goosebumps on my neck. My face turned from brown to red. But it was not from embarrassment. It was some sort of weird combination of pride, awe, and pleasure. I looked down and saw a community who had forgotten about the world. They shared a heart beat from the dhol drum, and breathed in unison the brass sounds. This could very well be our future. Young, old, black, white, yellow, brown, all shapes and sizes moved by the complex coordination of sounds. I was amazed. I’ve seen a dance naturally take form to live music a thousand times. But it’s never been music from my motherland that choreographed the motion of other ethnicities. And I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in Kentucky.
My eyes teared up as I zoomed past the 4 year old girl standing on her chair untwisting 100 invisible bulbs to a black mother and 11 year son, both very heavy but using biggest body parts to elegantly infuse the dance floor with soul. The son mimicked the mother’s moves, trying to pick up on her occasional head turn action that tied the entire routine together. Once he got it, he side stepped his way to the 70 year old white female employed as an usher by this venue and proved to her that she could do it too. His glasses nearly fell off, but his smile kept them from hitting the ground.
And then the white tuba player in the band, wearing green shoes and losing his hair to its recession grabbed a microphone and started freestyle rapping. A black college age man put on his sunglasses, walked up to the stage, gave some respect to the tuba player through his smart phone, and then switched the tone of the dance floor into hip hop party. The music continued, mixing in Latin flavors, jazz reminders, all while grounding the rhythm in Punjab. I even saw hipsters shaking their hips in ways they probably never did before. Friendly tension started to build though, as the community formed into subgroups. However these new divisions ignored our normal demographic divides of color, age, income, or sexuality.
A dance-off took place between a 15 year old athletic black break-dancer and a 75 year old bald Chinese man wearing glasses and Air Jordan’s. Both parties won the contest in their own rights, and I could hear their laughter despite the distance or noise. Head stands followed. (Not by the elderly). The group of teenage friends was an unlikely bunch. A flamboyant white kid wearing a skin tight golf shirt who didn’t need to maintain control of his arms in order to express himself encouraged the rest to show off their best moves. Moments before, he failed to get a cheer from the audience behind after his headstand building on the momentum from the two break-dancing moves that preceded it. He just didn’t care.
The dance circle continued and new moves were displayed, but for some reason the oldest looking, biggest kid of the group kept crossing the circle like it was a moshpit, refusing to share his own moves, but instead trying to dominate the ring. Surely now the harmony of the room would be broken. But I was wrong again. The clumsy kid, realizing he was out of line after a 9 year old kid pulled him aside to teach him about dance circles, finally found his signature and invented a move turning a bicep flex into a synchronized step for the entire group to adopt.
The break dancer who faced off against the older Chinese man picked out a lady, and brought a 1960’s feel to the show, spinning her around while still maintaining respect for the dhol. Behind them stood a 240lb white woman wearing a shirt that reached her knees. However, her knees were in constant motion and at that exact moment in time she needed no one to dance with. This new form of music she had discovered was the partner she had been looking for all these years, maybe. To her left stood the Guru – A 30 year old Indian man with long hair, a beard, and wearing traditional attire. He began the experiment with dignity, offering the room authentic movement to the sounds, though they were subtle. He had now become the leader of what resembled a soul train, teaching others his eastern ways. Close behind was the affable college student who brought my father a plate of Indian food 1 year ago during the cricket World Cup. He borrowed moves from the Guru, but incorporated a timely pause and look towards his friends who were seated, begging them to join in on the fun. The hand wave that followed this break brought his actions back into the dance, and soon enough back into following the Guru’s lead.
A 6 year old black boy taught a smiling middle-eastern student how to move both of their feet faster, but I still don’t understand how. Far away, a group of hippies with less exaggerated upper body movements, but much heavier and repetitive stepping movement, start gesturing a motion of slicking their hair back, embracing their unkempt appearances. And a tall preppy white high school student wearing a sweater vest and glasses coordinated a train that snaked the invisible boundaries of the party to unite them back together for balance of the show. Feet leaped from the ground as everyone on stage and on the dance floor jumped at the same time as the show came to a close. I looked at those who were once seated and we are all now standing. Two plump older Italian looking women in the very back by themselves were clapping as hard as they could and hooting and hollering as the dhol beat became faster and faster. I entered a flashback to every enjoyable dance experience I’ve ever had despite not having danced once this night. These bloody New Yorkers managed to recreate the best parts of awesome weddings without requiring any sort of commitment through the Red Baraat disguise of a traditional Indian wedding band’s makeup.
Would this all have happened if the venue marketed the event to the vibrant Indian community that lived minutes east of us? Could such a diverse integration of a community happen again on a dance floor in this city? Was this dhol drum somehow articulating a Morse code-like narrative to give hope for our future by the consequences of its noise tonight? Questions burned. They still burn.
But a great weight was taken off my shoulder. I no longer felt responsible for achieving fame in order to share this “thing”. It wasn’t mine to share. It was within everyone in that room the entire time, and is probably within the reader of this nonsensical attempt at a memory. This really has nothing to do with culture, India, or the dhol drum. Nothing that humans have created over the past thousands of years through our decisions on how we organize ourselves can take credit for it.
It is simply encoded in our souls, this thing, that we are designed to experience moments in life that can’t be taken away and destroyed. Moments when we realize our power, purpose, and passion. An instance when a temporary language is created between us that will never be spoken of again. And though we all hear the beat, the melody, the words, the feeling that we share at the core of the music puzzles the greatest writers on our planet about how to best describe it using the incompatible characters that we are limited to in our many languages. Perhaps I came the closest I will ever come by simply saying:
It took an evening in Louisville, Kentucky to realize this. After 8 hours of studying theory, statistics, and banging my head against a library wall, I threw on my finest sports coat and ventured out for my first night on the town in downtown Louisville.
This weekend is Idea Festival. It has been one of the best surprises this town has afforded me in my first two months here. I was looking forward to the event after the kickoff event – Thrivals 3.0 – featuring Jackie Robinson’s son (David), Janelle Monae and her “motown meets silicon valley” label Wondaland Arts Society, Howard Bloom, who spoke passionately about public relations work with Prince and Michael Jackson and several other inspirational speakers who were handpicked by U of L’s Professor Nat Irvin.
I entered the theater with very little background information of the speaker who was scheduled to talk today. I saw something about “Gandhi” on the flyer, and made an assumption that it was an Indian, perhaps someone talking about philosophy or yoga, or something I was half interested in. Within 5 minutes I lost any buyers remorse for purchasing tickets for this event, and realized I was meant to be in this very room, in Louisville, Kentucky, at this exact moment.
Anand Giridharadas was able to articulate everything I experienced in my short tenure in Hyderabad, while enlightening hundreds of us on insightful observations he had made as a journalist in Mumbai (Bombay) India over 6 years. He spoke with charisma, poise, and conviction, and intentionally paused, keeping listeners in check with the realization that we might never get this education ever again in our midwestern/southern lives, before revealing a new idea that kept us asking for more. None of his propositions were left undefended, but there was very little that was academic about his tone.
He clearly ordered his thoughts into a presentation that alluded to things his audience could understand. It felt like I was learning with him – which is a quality I have attributed to some of my best professors and mentors.
I understand that up until this point, I haven’t said anything about his actual message. I am not sure how well I can share the perspective he donated to us tonight, but I will try to summarize what stood out to me. I urge the reader to purchase this man’s book, that will be coming out in 2011. He too has experienced the frustration of not being really an American or an Indian. Referencing a comment made by someone in the audience tonight, Indian’s don’t know whether to charge us 100 rupees for entrance (US prices) or 50 rupees (indian price) so they charge 75. Before I get to his presentation, I need to preface it with a list of the similarities between us, which is absurd.
1. We were born in Cleveland, Ohio to parents who grew up in Bombay, India and visited India every 2 years as children.
2. We attended college in Michigan.
3. Shortly after college we worked in India.
4. We are both the son of a professor
5. This year, we both started Ph.D programs.
Anand described his fears of the future in America, while optimistically proposing what we should do to avoid them. Giving examples of TATA cars that cost under $2000, he suggested we stop limiting innovation to luxury items like ipads and smartphones. He gave a staggering statistic about how there are more people in the world with access to mobile phones (mostly “dumb phones”) than toilets. (6 billion) Manufacturing jobs should be focused to serve the markets that demand products based on need instead of desire. Instead of redesigning existing products by stripping away features to lower costs, we should start from scratch, building a lower cost and useful product designed specifically for the market it is intended for. Not everyone in the US owns an iPhone. Damnit.
The US has always exported culture to the developing world, but Anand argues that the world no longer sees our way of life as an end-goal, but simply as a “means to an end.” Just like our movies, basketball shoes, and Yankees hats are knocked off, so is the culture, and Americans do not see a dime in return.
The brilliance of this speaker is exposed as he concludes his talk. By this time, I have gotten over the fact that he might be a better dresser than me, and has found a more distinguished hairstyle. I start thanking my stars that the New York Times selected him to share these pearls of wisdom with a much larger audience than the Hyderabadass could ever hope to talk to. He talks about community, about culture, and changes in geography that is impacting them. He proposes that our generation is becoming more and more ‘placeless’ transplanting to new places for work and losing identities. We have less in common with each other because technology gives more options. Tivo restricts watercooler conversation because we no longer watch the same tv shows on the same nights. For the first time in the history of the world more people live in urban cities than rural communities. We are desperately longing for communities, which is why our search tools focus on this (Yelp) but we’ve lost a connection from this old way of life, and it will be difficult to recover.
It was a great speech, and I was overall impressed that this went down in Louisville. The timing was perfect, with the controversial premier of NBC’s Outsourced, which was discussed briefly, but also a subject of Anand’s latest piece in the times. A badass, indeed.
Over in India, negotiations and bargaining have always been a part of local culture. Bollywood is no different. Indian movie producers and distributors are playing “hardball” with big theatre chains, refusing to release any new movies unless they get half of ticket sales revenue (during the first month of the release.) The industry has been suffering in recent months, and producers are having a tough time getting financing for new movies. This slum-dog-millionare–badass hasn’t seen a good Bollywood movie since I was in Hyderabad, and is very disappointed to hear about the cinematic slump in Bollywood. Hopefully both sides can reach an agreement.
Here is rough recap of the travels that a blog can only touch the surface on trying to summarize…
Travel problems seem to follow me wherever I go, Rome, Leipzig Germany, Hyderabad, and now most recently Bombay. The 10 day vacation planned was all set, flights, hotels and trains all booked through much appreciated help from family and friends all around India. Marie, my American travel accomplice was set to come in on the 11/30 night, and we were off to Goa 5 hours after her arrival to enjoy the country I had made my place of employment. I was ready for a vacation.
But…Maries flight did not reach the 30th. The time difference was overlooked, and although her arrival time on the eticket said 11/30, the plane reached 12/1. Go figure. We managed a last minute flight to Goa the following morning in the end, and barely made it on the plane on time as the security guards and I had an 30 min confrontation about my guitar possibly having a bomb hidden in it….yes, these guys wanted to disassemble my guitar to remove the electronics inside, suspecting I was a terrorist planning on the blowing up their airplane. Apparently, I get that a lot. The funny thing was that not a single person asked me for photo id. We finally made it on the jet and enjoyed 3 days in Goa, a place full of warmth both on the beaches in inside the native people of the land.
My family is from Moira, a village just outside of Mapusa, and it felt damn good to be back there. My grandmother and aunty prepared a huge seafood feast for us, and shared pictures telling stories about our family history. Most of the stories were told about my grandfather, a man I will always strive to be like. I was surprised to hear the actual details of his job as head of affairs for the Palanpoor Newab. (Muslim king) The stories I heard that day from my grandmother will always stay with me, and it was one of the most memorable days I have had in India so far. Since arriving in August, I have constantly wished that both my grandfather and my cousin Nigel were still around to witness my move back to the motherland. My fascination with the Newab and Nazim rulers was only to understand more of my grandfather;s life. This afternoon spent in a small Goan village finally filled that void.
The following day, my auntie took Marie and I north to a remote beach shack that her friend Toffee lived at. Toffee was another character I met in India who I will always remember….By far the coolest woman with a very unique perspective on life, and the most relaxed attitude with absolutely no tension. She was sort of like a female version of the character Johnny Depp plays in Pirates of the Carribeean.
With little no no commercialism, Mandre‘s beach gave us the ambiance we were looking for in Goa. We sipped on Kingfishers, ate fresh seafood, made friends with crazy Britishers/Argentinians and soaked in the sun without being marketed to by dolphin boat companies, women with beads, or any other members of the tourism industry which unfortunately has taken over the state. The only salesmen I met on this beach pitched me on an ear cleaning service costing only 15 rupees. Awkward…
Later that night we met up with some of my Hyderabad friends also visiting Goa and got a glimpse of the internationally famous nightlife. We started off in a club on Baga beach that looked like identical to the club in the movie “Scarface.” I was joined by 4 attractive girls all wanting to dance, and dance we did. Wild night, and I have to modestly admit that I might have owned the dancefloor this crazy night in Baga. In fact, A group of guys came up to me and simply shook my hand, no words spoken. Straight up respect.
We wrapped things up in Goa and made way for Jaipur, the pink city of Rajisthan. We left Jaipur 2 hours after arriving and hopped on a train headed for Udaipur, the city of lakes . Two of my friends from WMU invited me to visit them in their beloved hometown. Accepting their invitation would prove to be the wisest travel decision I made in India.
With a change in transportation mode from planes to trains, I was still not able to avoid confrontation. We started off this trip with a mix up in our tickets, sitting in the wrong train compartment. The rightful owners were very upset about our honest mistake, and apparently called us “dumb white monkeys” in Hindi. I was irate when my cousin translated his words later in the night. I like monkeys tremendously, but I hate racism.
I have been met with similar racist remarks often on this trip to India. My father and mother shared the came citizenship as these people, but that has certainly not earned me any more street cred than any other foreigner with absolutely no Indian heritage. This public humiliation was something I did not expect when I decided to move to India. My father has never experienced anything similar to this in his 25 years in the US. Moreover, I feel embarrassed that this happens to a guests like Marie and other westerners. They are respectful people genuinely interested in learning about Indian culture. This is something that needs to change in India, starting from the tourism industry which blatantly charges white people 10x more for entrance fees into the beautiful attractions in the country. They charged Marie 200 rupees to get into places that darker skinned people and only had to pay 30 rupees to go to.
Back to the train…I let the situation on the train go without retaliation, much to my own regret but for the peace of the travels we had ahead of us. The result was that we had the best 4 days in Rajisthan that anyone could hope for.
Summary of Rajisthan – Stayed in a palace penthouse, beautiful scenery, architecture, boat rides to island palaces, met the Maharana (King) of Udaipur by interrupting an important business meeting to introduce myself as”Jason D’Mello from Kalamazoo” and took a picture with him (see below) riding unstable elephants down over populated streets, watching Rajisthani performers and dancers, eating on lake front palace restaurants next to the 2 British men who I had interrupted to meet the king 2 hours earlier, heavy bargaining and negotiating in fabric stores with my cousin Sonia, and mischief throughout the Palace Penthouse.
The King and I
Got back to Bombay in high spirits, parted ways with my travel friends, and made a last minute trip back to Hyderabad for business. It was a vacation that couldn’t have been scripted, it was just simply brilliant. I wish you all will have a trip like this sometime in your own bad ass lives.
It seems fitting that my departure from Hyderabad would be an struggle. 4 months ago, I would never have imagined over 30 people coming to see me off. The day itself was chaotic, as the work in the office was not completely finished, but as with any start up endeavor nothing really goes as planned. I said my goodbyes at the Threshold office I had tenured at, went to my house to say goodbye to my new family. I bought a beautiful painting of a famous lord krishna scene to thank them for the generosity the past 120 days. After all, they gave me a wonderful home without charge, and showed me the kind of warmth and hospitality that traditional Indian household’s are famous for having.
While we ate dinner, the neighbors stopped over to say goodbye. The young boy, Aditya presented me with a handmade card. He probably had taken a liking to me because my American accent reminded him of the place he was born. The gift was completely unexpected and caught me off guard. Days before he woke me up at 7am to play cricket, pounding on my door with his brand new bat. I only woke up to answer out of fear that the Indian officials were after me for somehow violating my visa. I couldn’t refuse to play with him when I saw how excited he was with his new sporting equipment, and went outside to bowl to him.
His gift (below) put to shame the painting I had gifted to my host family *Note that he called me “Jason Uncle” like the kids we had taken to the park for Children’s Day through the AIDS organization….I don’t know if Im ready for that title. (It was nice meeting you we had a great time and lot of fun. Look forward meeting you again and playing cricket with you again. Have a nice trip around the world. See you again buddy bye bye. It’s a Four4 Dude)
2 hours later I was on my way to the airport, after the third round of goodbyes at Bottles and Chimneys. Satya seemed down all day, but got me to the airport as soon as possible. For the first time, Satya was not able to get me to my destination in time however, as the airlines refused to let me leave Hyderabad. I had arrived just 5 minutes after the check in time, and they closed the gate while I was in line.
Obviously I was pretty upset about the situation. People were still going through security check! Moreover, Goair never mentioned to me anything about a final check-in time. I’ve flown over 15 flights in India the past 4 months. Only 3 flights have ever left on time, so I assumed the usual 30 min rule I use for air travel really applied. Lesson learned – Indian Standard Time is not something to depend upon with airports.
Since the airlines mishandled the entire situation, refusing to let me talk to anyone in charge until the flight actually took off, I felt the need to vocalize my frustrations. I created a scene worth writing an episode of curb your enthusiasm on. I spent 45 minutes yelling at the man in charge for how his company acted at the check in, for not printing flight details on etickets, and for just being an obnoxious human being. My most trusted friends in the city witness all of this, as they came to the airport immediately after hearing I missed the flight, and stayed with me until 3 AM.
This man, a complete stranger, had been observing my behavior since I arrived at the airport. He eventually interrupted my monologue damning GoAir to years of soft business. He surprisingly took my side in the argument, telling the GoAir manager that it was completely unreasonable not to put me on the plane saying “come on yaar, this is India.”
After I realized that i succeeded in humiliating the manager, I wrote down all of the employees names. I told them that they “handled the situation like a bunch of monkeys” I drafted up a statement, describing all of the incidents that had happened at the airport, and presented it to the manager, who agreed with everything I had written. I asked him to sign the document, and he refused. I called him a coward, and left it at that. It was an ugly scene, I am not proud of my behavior, but I don’t regret it… I said all that I needed to say.
I needed to get to Bombay, so I booked a 3am flight with Spice Jet (which was supposed to leave at 9pm the previous evening).
That was my exit from the city I was not ready to leave. I was off for a 10 day adventure through Bombay, Pune, Goa, and the Rajisthan cities of Udaipur and Jaipur. The joke of the whole debacle in the airport was that in two weeks I would return to Hyderabad on an unexpected business accidentally book a flight with the same airlines trying to avoid an airline that I had also had problems with in Goa. I was reunited with the crew I had publicly scolded, and yes, everyone remembered me the second time around. They made it very clear of this at check in time. To their detriment, I arrived to the airport not just 30 minutes early, but an hour and thirty minutes early. Not even GoAir could screw me with that kind of timeliness.
I couldn’t bring myself to end this blog on a post by Neil Diamond.
My days here have unfortunately run out, and I haven’t found the right words to conclude this experience just yet.
The past week has been a mixture of ups and downs, new exciting ventures that are tempting me to come back here not before too long, but at the same time we are overcoming challenges with finishing TheWedLink. It is a stressful time, but I don’t wish to share the stress with the badass readership here. While I gather my thoughts in the next few weeks of traveling, I will work on an appropriate final post for this blog. I would not feel right about referring to myself as A Hyderabadass while living in Detroit/Santa Monica, but who knows what will happen.
I am saying goodbye to all my new friends here tomorrow at Bottles and Chimney’s, jumping on a flight to Bombay at midnight, meeting up with my friend coming from the US, traveling to Goa, Rajistan, and then finally returning to the USA Dec 14th. I haven’t even started packing! This is my 8th time moving in 2 years though, so I have become an expert in confining my life into 2 suitcases and a guitar case within 24 hours of preparation.
Its been a wild ride these past 3 months, and I have a feeling we are just getting started.
Happy Thanksgiving to all back home. This morning while walking the streets of India , I spotted a turkey, and chased it. Unlike Lil Bush’s friend in picture above, the turkey made a run for it. I didn’t have the determination to continue chasing it, however I hope that visual adds to the enjoyment of your day. Don’t worry about me, I will be also celebrating my favorite holiday eating turkey at either one of 2 thanksgiving parties. Only regrets are that I will be missing the football, my mom’s sweet potato dish and indo-stuffing, and the company of our closest friends and family. Does anyone have the recipe for Turkey Tikka?
6 days left in Hyderabad, a lot to be thankful for…. so to anyone who still reads this, my most sincere thanks to you all.
Yes. My business is with weddings. I read about weddings, I study them, I pretend to plan them, and some nights I crash them. Today was sort of one of those nights.
Tonight, I didn’t really crash a wedding, as it was a friend of a friend’s neighbors wedding, and for some reason since I was on a distribution list on an email invitation (probably by accident) I was was drawn to a Telugu wedding.
These weddings go on for days. We were told to show up to the family’s house at 8pm for just a small portion of the celebration. We were informed that the wedding party would make their way back there around that time in an outside procession of song and dance, traveling from the venue a few kilometers away to the house. Having waited until nearly midnight, we finally made our way outside when we heard the thumping beats from the drums.
As Hyderabad slept, 60 people gathered around a bridal couple riding in a horse carriage decorated with brilliant flower arrangements. The outfits resembled imagery I have seen in classical paintings of historical India. Ten men were leading the procession, pounding on drums that hung from their shoulders. They played variations of the Bhangra music that my heart beats to. Within minutes of arriving to the scene, our group of foreigners were immediately welcomed and invited to dance next in the middle of the group of young people while the elders and newly weds watched. Only half of our group accepted the generous offer to join the party. I admit that I felt awkward dancing sober with complete strangers at a wedding where I didn’t even know the bride and grooms name. However, it would be poor form to turn down an opportunity to display my gracious Bhangra moves to the present company. Instantly, the shoulders started moving back and forth while the fingers went up in the air rotating the wrist in a motion that has to drive the ladies wild. I admit, I am no ShahidKapur, but this Hyderabadass can hold his own to the Punjabi sounds.
Fireworks were going off, and the drummers played more intensely. I couldn’t believe the police had not locked all of us in jail for the noise. It was hours after midnight. When we reached the house, half our group had dispersed and the rest were fatigued so we called it a night. I spotted Satyam enjoying the parade from a distance. He ran up to us and complimented one of the girls who was dancing with us. Keep in mind that Nafessa is a seasoned dancer, and was even in a music video for an Indian band.
I, on the other hand have no official training. I admit that I am usually a horrible dancer- the thumbs go up and the shoulders move way too fast so I normally avoid dancing in public. Bhangra is my specialty, and I was a bit insecure that Satyam only complimented the girl and did not say anything about me. I asked him how my dancing was….. there was an awkward pause followed by a blatant lie “you were…… ok, sir,” then looking at Nafessa “You were very good!” That damn Satyam…..had to pull that in front of the girls. Needless to say, my self-esteem would suffer for months. It was an outstanding night, even with Satyam’s comment. One of the girls in the group was in euphoria afterwards, having always dreamed to be part of such a wedding that she had grown up watching in movies. It really was a phenomenal way to celebrate a wedding, this a auspicious Wednesday night.
*To my colleagues and friends back home…I may have found a new profession tonight. If I ever suddenly leave the US again, and move to India, you should know that I have left the western world to learn how to master the Dhol drum, and can be found on the streets of India on various other auspicious days playing in these wedding processions. Don’t worry Eddie, I will continue to market TheWedLink in between songs if this happens.
Nov 14th is Children’s day in India. The universal date is actually Nov 20th, but in honor of PanditJawaharial Nehru, India’s first prime minister who was very fond of children, the holiday is celebrated on his birthday.
How does a Hyderabadass celebrate this holiday? How about by spending a Sunday afternoon in a park with 30 kids playing cricket, tag, having 3 legged races, learning how to eat rice with my hands south Indian style, being drenched in water fountains by mischievous little girls, carrying tired kids on my shoulders while letting others play with my mobile phone and finally getting genuine goodbye hugs after 5 hours of solid fun. Today I spent Children’s Day playing in a park with these young suffering victims infected by HIV and AIDS.
It is estimated that there are between 2 million to 3.6 million people infected with HIV in India, ranking it third behind Nigeria and South Africa in the list of most infected countries in the world. Less than 15% of these people receive antiretroviral drugs (AVRs), a treatment proven to significantly delay the progression from HIV to AIDS. Ironically, this treatment has been available to rich countries since 1996.
The UN has stated the following:
India’s adult HIV prevalence will peak at 1.9% in 2019.
The number of AIDS deaths in India (which was estimated at 2.7 million for the period 1980-2000) will rise to 12.3 million during 2000-15, and to 49.5 million during 2015-50.
Economic growth in India will slow by almost a percentage point per year as a result of AIDS by 2019.
Nonetheless this community face tremendous hardships in India. I learned from the folks doing social work with them that victims have faced violent attacks, rejection from families and communities, refusal of medical treatment, and even denial of the last rites before dying. Few are informed how they can prevent other diseases. Volunteers and non-profits are also faced with resistance with their efforts to help the victims. I was disgusted to hear that for every four people infected with HIV, at least one will be refused medical treatment in India.
The children I met today are thankfully unaware of the politics, but many of them have lost their parents because of this epidemic. A few of them were coughing throughout the day. Some cried, others consoled them, but at the end of the day they were all smiling. I have never seen such a caring group of kids get along so well, enjoying the simple games and toys we brought to the park. I can only imagine what their eyes have seen so far in life, and a day in the park spent with 4 big people with funny accents eliminated any need for misbehaving.
I couldn’t talk to most of the kids since they spoke only Telugu, yet we had no problem communicating. One of the kids, named Akhil, was one of the smartest 11 year old kids I have ever met. He spoke 4 languages including English, and offered to translate for us if our other methods of communication failed. obviously leader of the group, he was responsible for much of the success of the activities. At one point of the day he took one of the adult volunteers for a walk to the museum while sharing his passion for history. His father had taken him to that museum many times, but had recently died from AIDS.
Akhil returned from the museum with a ball for the other kids to play with, and began an unorganized game of tag/ dodgeball/ volleyball/ football/ tug-o -war/ monkey-in-the-middle/keep away. I had been nourished earlier by a generous serving of yellow rice. There was no silverware, so I was forced to eat rice for the first time with my hands, and I must declare that eating rice by hand is no easy task for someone raised in the US. The kids exploded in laughter at my pathetic attempts, but after they taught me how to hold my hands I figured out how to properly finish the meal.
During the madness of the next 5 hour recess, the kids found their way to the fountain, and started a massive water fight. 4 young girls conspiring against me tricked me into getting close enough to the oasis so that they could mercilessly drench me. One of the other volunteers had also been trapped and tried to make a run for it, but slipped and fell! Everyone erupted into laughter – it was slapstick humor you’d find in a movie. Later in the afternoon, this same character, my buddy Sanjay, was tied up by the kids and used as a trampoline.
During this comic display of pranks, I secretly sent Satyam, my driver, to pick up a cricket set from the nearby store. When he returned with the sporting goods, the boys were absolutely thrilled, jumping around all over the place waiting to play the beloved national sport. When language does me no good here in India, cricket never has failed in helping me connect with people.
The cricket match went into intermission so that we could all jump into a large tug-o-war contest that started across the park. This was followed by a self-organized 3 legged race. Satyam tried to manage the madness by organizing activities. He was the expert with explaining the rules to the kids and is a surprisingly resourceful, acting like eagle scouts at times. At one point he single handedly challenged a dozen kids in a tug-o-war match, but his raw strength could not prevail over the euphoric kids. I have never seen him so happy. He admitted that he wish he had brought his own son to the park that day.
We ended the day sitting in a circle sharing fruit. Akhil quickly offered his fruit to us, uncertain that there would be enough for everyone. All of the other kids followed his lead, in a very generous gesture. It turned out that there was enough to go around, but the gesture is something that I will not forget. There was something about observing Akhil that hinted that he has a greater purpose in life. He was the only kid I noticed who wasn’t smiling during the playtime. His maturity was that of a much older philosopher and his confidence made it easy to forget that he was also an HIV AIDS patient.
This child taught me a lesson in humility today, on Children’s Day , 2007 in Hyderabad, India. Despite only knowing us for a few hours, he and his friends wanted to share everything they possibly could with us. While saying goodbye my heart sank. Today was a highlight for us all but we will probably never see each other again. I still remember the “fun big people” I looked up to when I was a kid, but also remember the sadness I felt when they left. Today I had the same feeling as those childhood memories despite being on the other end of the goodbye. I nearly broke down when Akhil came to me to say bye and wrote my number on his hand, saying that he wanted to call me and the other volunteers to his summer camp. Unfortunately I don’t have a number to give Akhil to reach me at next summer, as I am leaving Hyderabad in 10 days. The fun I had today I now know will be impossible to ever repeat again. I guess sometimes life gifts us with these opportunities to remind ourselves what is truly important.
At one time if you were to ask me about microfinance, I might have thought you were referring to the lack of money I have saved so far in my life. Today this micro financing concept was redefined to me while discovering the site http://www.kiva.org and I thought it worth mentioning this to all you bad asses out there.
Kiva is a non profit organization that is revolutionizing the concept of true microfinance through utilizing modern technology. The site allows for developing world entrepreneurs to receive funding from anywhere in the world through private donations and negotiable credit terms. So far there has only been a .2% default rate (apparently these entrepreneurs/lenders know something our sub prime friends missed out on) and $14 million from 144,000 lenders have been transferred through their network. It is a damn cool concept, and has been made so convenient through online social networking and mobile technology.
Personally, it breaks my heart to see the poverty everyday here in Hyderabad while riding in my TataIndica to work, especially the same children day in and day out. Although I would like to give every homeless person something to help them out, it is an impossible endeavor for someone like myself who has no income. Further more, if I decided to give 100 rupees to someone, then I would be expected by the other hundreds of poor people to also give them money, and it just gets more depressing.
However, being a young entrepreneur who someone has taken a chance on, I can personally relate to the poor hard working, ambitious people on Kiva.com who are asking for seed capital for businesses. The required loans are usually under $1,000, and can be donated/lended by several people in collaboration. The process Kiva has set up for the loan transaction gives the lender peace of mind that the money they contributed went to specific use, monitored by a local financial institution in the developing-world nation. And for a person like myself who has every intention in returning the favor my investor gave me to another young visionary if and when I have the means to, this site makes it possible for me to start today with just $50.
Unfortunately Kiva does not appear to have a local field partner in Hyderabad, otherwise I would have Satyam on the site, with an avatar like the picture below except with his beaming smile next to the famous little white TataIndica, and his written dream of being able to self support his growing family and bounce back from the hardships live has thrown at him. Perhaps we can start with this blog…. If/when I can get Satyam on Kiva.com, how many of the bad asses would contribute to the cause? (Remember, it is not a donation, it is a loan managed through Kiva and a local field partner)