Monday, August 31, 2009

One Week Down

So where did I leave off? I’ve been so busy finishing the paper for the Trichy conference I’ve hardly thought about blogging. So what’s new? Drove over to West Tambaram middle of the week. We picked up some very nice cotton fabric so I could have some shirts made. It’s always been a rush job with too little time, but with months available…we asked the tailor to make just one at first, a kind of audition. If we like his work, he can make the others, too. How luxurious this feels! Grabbed tea and a snack, and then back in the car for a driving tour of West Tambaram. I saw lots of neighborhoods, rich and poor. This is a suburb that’s growing by leaps and bounds. A number of shops in the city have now opened outlets in Tambaram, so it’s becoming a more diverse and interesting place. Still a lot of hustle and bustle, noise, and smells of all kinds.

Virginia tells me my step-daughters were thinking TMI concerning the bowel stuff. They don’t know that this subject is usually one of the first conversation topics to come up when Western tourists meet in India. It’s gradually been going better, by the way, but it takes time. Good friend Joseph reminded me that neither of us is as young as we once were—I told him I didn’t want to hear about it. Sleep is getting better, too. Last night I actually slept for 6 hours straight without looking up to check the clock! It will be good to feel normal again.

Planning is moving forward for the travel I get to do while I’m here. We’re looking at trips to Madurai, Bangalore, Mysore, Thanjavur, Pondicherry, and, when Virginia arrives, to Ooty and Kerala. Everybody is very helpful. They come from many parts of south India, and they want to make sure I have a good experiences when I travel to their home turf, As of Friday, students and faculty are back on campus, and I’m gradually getting to know more of the faculty. There’s a mid-morning break in the class day, and a lot of the faculty gather in the faculty lounge for tea. It’s a really good time to show up for conversation and to meet new colleagues. I’ll have to make a habit of going!

Had a lovely day Saturday. Got to go into Chennai with Dr. Mathivan, Carnatic classical music fan par excellence. First we went to see what little is left of the old MCC campus. Outside of a few remnants of the old hostels (student residence halls), Anderson Church is the only significant college structure still standing. Tantalizing to think what it was like when MCC was very much an urban campus, right across the street from the High Court complex, a huge red brick relic left by the British in the monumental Indo-Saracenic style they favored. By a delightful chance, we ran into Anne Dayanandan, who I hadn’t seen since my first trip to India in 2005 (her husband is a distinguished MCC professor emeritus in botany). Then it was off to Andrews Kirk, built by the Brits along the lines of St. Martin’s in the Field—which we saw in London in March! It has what must be the only pipe organ in south India. Not large, only about 33 ranks, but it would be fun to hear anyway. The organist, as it turns out, is the son of a highly-respected but long-deceased MCC faculty member. I finally got to see the Music Academy, but as it was Saturday, their digital listening archive closed early. So…we’ll have to go back! Then off to see when our concert would start, only to discover it was just beginning. So we sat down and enjoyed the program. Afterward was a special ceremony to honor three of the young artists who had just performed and a senior violin vidwan as well. This is a fascinating and elaborate ritual. Several older respected artists come in for the occasion and each of them spoke at some length about the honorees, their remarks greeted by much laughter and joviality. Then they presented the honorees with their medals and checks with pomp and ceremony and colorful shawls around the neck. And then…one after another a series of well-respected senior artists came up from the audicnce, often made speeches of their own, and also draped the honorees in shawls. And then…the honorees got a chance to talk. Since 90% of what was said was in Tamil, I had to ask Mathivan what they said after the fact. Still, it was fascinating to watch, and well worth seeing how they do it in Chennai. We left after an hour and a half, and they were still going strong! A shame though…I would like to have said hello to Sanjay Subrahmanian. Then we had dinner at the Murugan Idli Shop. They’ve now opened another 3 locations, but we went to the original one. The BEST idly, dosai, and uttapam you’ll ever have! My J-Term students have to experience this. Mmm, mmm, mmm!

That will have to do for now. Thankfully I finally finished my Trichy paper tonight (phew!). And Tuesday is my first lecture, to a group of philosophy students, this time. Wish me well. Sounds like it’s raining outside tonight!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Principal Alex and more

Mon. 24 August 2009

Had a formal, official meeting with Principal Alex today, along with the bursar and good friends Joseph and Gabriel. It nearly turned into a love-fest. Each of them in turn offered words of welcome, and it turns out no good deed goes unpunished. There were frequent references to the hospitality I had shown Joseph, Gabriel, former Principal Philip, and others on their visits to Elmhurst. I had always imagined that I was in a deficit situation, responding however inadequately to the extraordinary hospitality they had shown me on my visits to MCC (and I still think so!), but they would hear none of it! Still, good to have a more formal sense of expectations for my time here, and to know they want to support me in any way possible. I am blessed to be in the midst of such extraordinary people.

A nice quiet afternoon (except for first signs of bowel troubles) with prep time for my paper in Trichy next month. A welcome dinner was hosted (in my honor!) at the principal’s house, with several friends of Elmhurst invited to join us. There was the formal welcome with the long garland around the neck and the gold-edged white shawl around my shoulders, and some very nice informal conversation. After dinner was a lovely extended chat with Joseph on the guest house porch. After that… did I mention the bowels? I was up sitting on the toilet every 2 or 3 hours. Things finally subsided by morning, but I’ve been eating only simple foods in small amounts today (Tuesday). At least I have my Ives paper to keep me busy, and no big agenda to follow.

And what made it all worthwhile? Got to talk to Virginia this morning via Skype! This is no big whoop for many of my students or my ATMI colleagues, but this is the first time I’ve really used it. It was amazing to me to hear her voice and watch her talking to me, from Lombard all the way to Tambaram. Unbelievable! It made me doubly glad to finally have internet access in my room.

Chapel, Tambaram, and a Storm

Sun. 23 August 2009

The morning started early with the college chapel service. Gabriel took me over. Not lots of people there, and no students because the college is closed till Friday (H1N1 scare), but good to see Chaplain Spurgeon again, and I got to meet the new principal, Dr. Alexander Jesudasan. He reminded me that we had met in 2007, and I remembered how his friendly welcome had impressed my students as our campus walking tour passed through his department. Two Filipino guests were there from Silliman University, and also staying at the guest house. So we had a very nice breakfast together after chapel, talking about their short study tour of south India and their work in the marine biology department back home.

Sunday was a harder day than Saturday. The temptation to nap was ever greater, and when the power went out mid-afternoon, I finally succumbed. Gabriel and I took a late-afternoon walk over the tracks into downtown Tambaram to get some supplies. It was the eve of Ganesha’s birthday; the speakers blared nearly deafening songs on the walk toward the train station. Good to experience the hustle-and-bustle of the business district once again, as we dodged through traffic, pedestrian, motorized, and otherwise. There were the usual fruit stalls, vegetable stalls, fabric stalls, and so on, and some street vendors were selling variously-sized figurines of Ganesha’s elephant head in bright, bright colors. Being Sunday, Christian shops were closed, but Hindu and Muslim store-owners were open for business. Weaving from one shop to another (Gabriel knew exactly where to go), we picked up some soap, a heater coil, a plastic container, a teapot and some tea. We could see the sky getting darker and darker, with the setting sun turning the cloud-edges a golden yellow on the horizon. After sitting down to sip a cup of tea ourselves, we walked back over the tracks to the college. About 200 yards from the guest house, the rain started falling—felt awfully good after our hot walk! But the power was still out, with no A/C to unwind in!! Sweating profusely, I sat in a chair on the porch, rubbing my forehead with handfuls of water to cool off… and watched the thunderstorm unfold. After five years of visits, my first REAL rain in Chennai. And the sounds of loudspeakers from holiday celebrations continued to pour in from all directions, blending with the sounds of thunder, wind and rain, evoking a symphony Ives might have been proud of. The blue notes emerging from the mix of scales tonal centers gave it all a jazzy flavor, and various Indian drums competing with the thunder gave it an irrepressible rhythmic verve.

When Gabriel picked me up for dinner and found my power STILL out, he made some inquiries. The college electricians weren’t available, so after dinner he supplied me with an emergency lantern, we found a room upstairs where the A/C was working, and I managed to get through the night in relative comfort. At 7:30 Monday morning I woke to a knock at the door. Power was restored to my room, so I moved back in, glad to be back to “normal.”

Monday, August 24, 2009

Finally here!

Sat. 22 August 2009

Finally here. It was a long flight—O’Hare to Brussels, and 3 hours later (with delayed departure) Brussels to Chennai. After what seemed an interminable flight (with two-ad-a-half Bollywood movies and a couple of naps to pass the time), it was good to touch down safely in Chennai. With H1N1 coming to India, there was a new checkpoint at customs. I had to present the form I filled out on the plane while they pointed a gun-like thermometer at my bindi-spot! I cleared customs no problem, but of course, my bags were among the last offloaded from the plane (did they get lost? did the last minute change in flight numbers mean they were delayed? will my friends outside think I didn’t arrive after all?). But they finally arrived, and for this suddenly lonely, uprooted foreigner, it was a really good feeling to see Joseph and Gabriel waiting outside with big smiles and a warm greeting. They shipped me back to the college and moved me into my room at the International Guest House. Everything was ready for me—sandwiches and a warm drink, bottled water, and the room neat as a pin with beds invitingly made. I unpacked my things, including the speakers and flashlight I had tucked away so carefully I could not find them at first (and was ready to accuse Transportation Safety Administration of confiscating them after inspecting my bags…again!). Finally off to bed, safe and sound in my home away from home.

Saturday morning, my first full day in India! I can’t believe I slept till 10, especially since I miscalculated when setting the clock and thought it was only 9. Due to the H1N1 scare, the college is closed for the next week. That gives me more time to get a paper ready for a September conference in Trichy, but it means the college mess is closed. Good friend Gabriel made sure I got breakfast, boiled egg and iddly with chutney. Good chance to catch up with him and renew acquaintance with his wife and children. We also talked about what my life will be like here, especially MCC’s expectations for my teaching and travel (exciting stuff!). Back at my room I started my blog entry and Joseph knocked to check on me with a home-made breakfast (he heard I woke up late, but not that I had eaten!). After a few more minutes composing this entry, old friend Kingsley knocks to welcome me to MCC. He’s glad to hear all the news from Elmhurst (where he spent a year as visiting professor), and I get to hear about his new position at University of Madras. Lunch was waiting for me when he left, and after snapping a few pix around the guest house, I’m unwinding for the afternoon. I’ll have regular access to the internet starting Monday, and I hope to get a new SIM card for my phone sooner than that. I’m feeling very out-of-touch with Virginia right now, but we’ll get that all fixed soon.

Not all entries will get this specific, but hey, I’ve got some unexpected time on my hands! More later.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Getting Ready

16 more days till I climb on the plane for India. So many things to do yet! And what will I need for four months? Clothing is easy—figuring out what I'll need for teaching is the hard part. I'll be a "floating resource" at MCC. Professors who want to take advantage of my expertise will ask me to give a lecture to their students. I won't know what lectures I need to give until the requests come in. I need to be ready for anything...including the stuff I can't even imagine yet. What to bring?!