Sunday, December 6, 2009


While I was happy to be away from the east coast monsoon rains over in Karnataka, I came home from Mysore and Bangalore to discover that my room had become Mold Central! The odor poured out as I opened the door, and it didn’t take long to discover that leather was especially susceptible. One pair of sandals and a leather belt were covered in mildew, so I took them out to the guest house porch and started wiping it off. Benjamin sees what I’m up to and rushes over, “Sir! Sir! No!!” He takes the sandal out of my hands along with the 2nd sandal and belt and goes off to take care of it himself. A few hours later he brings them back, thoroughly cleaned off (better than I would have done) and baked in the sun for good measure! I’m not sure if this is a service/hospitality thing or a caste thing. I know the drums made of animal hides in many villages can only be handled, tuned, and played by dalits, the “outcasts” (literally, out of the caste system). Benjamin always seems to be the one to do the “dirty work” around the guest house. Back home my immediate reaction would be to say, “Thanks, but no thanks, I can do this for myself.” But if you maintain that attitude in India, you’re putting someone out of work, and work is really important here. If you’ve got it, you work hard to keep it! In the meantime, I’ve set the A/C in “Dry” mode to keep the humidity down as much as possible, and I’ll throw open the door to let the air through when the weather is warm and sunny! As much as the rain is needed here, I’ll be glad to see it end so things can dry out again.

Due to the rains, 2nd semester got delayed two more days, and my Physics lecture (on the physics of sound—acoustics!) got postponed from Wednesday to Thursday, same day as my Public Administration lecture for MCC’s dean of international studies! Not so easy to do two on the same day. I had finished the Physics lecture a couple of days ahead of time, so there were no worries there, but the Public Admin lecture was the source of some anxiety, especially since I didn’t get the topic request till the day before—first time that’s happened! He asked for a session on “Cross-Cultural Analysis.” In the world of music scholarship, analysis is a detailed, formal scholarly exercise, and since I’m not a social scientist and haven’t been in India so very long (in the grand scheme of things), I had to stew a bit to figure out what to do. Turns out he really just wanted my informal reactions to India and comparisons with the U.S., which, thankfully, is what I decided to do!

And finally it was Thanksgiving! Of course, they don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving here in India, so we decided to have our own celebration. At first there was talk of everybody pitching in and cooking, but while I was away in Karnataka, they decided to ask the cooking staff to prepare a special meal for us … probably a wise move! Since Thursday was a working day for me and for Mike and Anne, and since a group of St. Olaf students doing a semester in India could join us at the guest house on Friday night, we celebrated Thanksgiving at dinner time on Friday. What a crowd! There were something like eight St. Olaf students who came in from Pondichery, Auroville, and the Nilgiris (in the Western Ghats). Add to that Mike and Anne, the 16 students and two faculty from Furman University, their faculty coordinators Suri and Jubi, and myself, and we had quite a crowd! It was a lot of fun. The Oles and the Furman students talked and mingled like long lost cousins while Suri kept the tunes spinning on the stereo system. Pravin had decorated the dining room with towels wrapped up to look like a swan and a couple of elephants! And the meal was wonderful. There weren’t enough mashed potatoes, and the roast chicken wasn’t really roast chicken (they don’t have ovens here, as a rule!), the sweet potatoes were sweetened white potatoes, and they didn’t understand that cranberry sauce isn’t really a sauce, but none of that mattered! It was a wonderful time, and we all had plenty to eat. I must say, though, that I didn’t eat nearly as much as I would have back home. It didn’t seem right, somehow. Growing up, American parents always tell their kids to think of all the starving kids in Asia or Africa and eat everything on their plate. It never works that way, but I think that’s supposed to guilt the kids into feeling grateful they have something to eat (even if it’s a dish they don’t especially like). But when you’re actually here in Asia, it’s hard to avoid thinking about all the people who could eat for days on the food we consumed in one evening. The few times anyone in our group of 30-plus thought to complain about one dish or another, someone else would gently challenge them on it! And without parents to lay it on thick, we were indeed grateful for everything we had to eat, but perhaps most grateful of all to be celebrating Thanksgiving with American friends new and old.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mike and Anne took me into the city to see a textiles exposition featuring organic dyes. And finally … I took the train! I’ve wanted to take the train in for some time now, largely to feel a greater sense of freedom, but I’ve been enough of a chicken that I waited for someone to go with so I could see how it all works. We left early in the morning to go to St. Andrew’s Church (the Kirk). I went there in October, but since Mike and Anne wanted to go, it was worth it to go again so I could see Arul and Anna Siromoney. After church we stayed to chat with the Siromoneys and with Mike and Anne’s friend Moses, who helps coordinate India programs for St. Olaf College. Then it was off to the exposition. Some really lovely and unusual stuff was on display, and there were artisans on hand to sell their work, much of it done using traditional methods and organic materials—sustainability at work! I often walk right by such booths, but this was really lovely stuff, and we all bought things to take home. Then we walked to lunch (north Indian-style tali meals) at a place Mike and Anne knew from previous stays in the neighborhood off Pantheon Rd. From there we walked to Spencer Plaza. Anne got a really beautiful salwar chameez at a clothing place on the ground floor, and one level up at the Landmark we all found books and supplies. About a kilometer up Mount Rd., we made one more stop at Higginbotham’s. Not only did they have some good scholarly books on Indian music, I finally found something I’d been seeking for weeks! I wanted to find some nice Indian children’s books to take home as Christmas presents for my grandkids, but all I could find were generic books—ABCs, Rapunzel, books about fuzzy worms, etc. I searched shelf after shelf, and found nothing that was distinctively Indian in its stories and illustrations … until I got to Higginbotham’s! There I found three beautiful books created by Indian authors and illustrators using handmade paper, no less! Skiaya, Kele-De, and Tannas may be too small to fully appreciate them now, but there is much to appreciate at any age. While they look nothing like Maurice Sendak’s work, they are equally imaginative! I can’t wait to get home and share these with the family!! And after a rickshaw ride that was more of an adventure than we bargained for (it kept stalling out after he took several potholes too fast and jarred a wire loose!), we took the train home. Once I got back I wondered why it had taken so long to use the train, but then it all came back to me. Only a few weeks earlier, it had still been beastly hot! The commuter trains are definitely NOT air-conditioned, and the city was even hotter than the MCC campus. And once the torrential monsoon rains came, a car seemed by far the better option. But now that the weather has cooled down and the rains have slowed, now is a great time to take the train! In fact, I’m all ready to take the train in for some December Season concerts! Bring them on!!!