Monday, June 29, 2009

More Storm, More Drink, More Rajput Revelry


I try to refrain from day by day recounting. I find such writing style to be boring and that writing about every day diminishes those that are truly extraordinary. Occasionally, however, events unfold in a way that justifies sequential retelling.


The day after the sandstorm was surreal. The city, shrouded in a dusty patina, seemed calmer than usual. Cows and wild hogs munched on green branches felled by the raging winds of the previous night. People roamed the streets searching for possessions that, untethered, had been blown away forever. My previously nameless coworker, Keth Singh (pronounced kett-sing) told me that a number of unfortunate people, caught on the road when the storm hit, had been killed in traffic accidents or by falling power lines. The third pre-wedding party was planned for that evening. Everyone hoped that it would be a little less eventful than the previous night had been.

Ten minutes after the power failed, as Jodhpur settled into twilight, the city was hit by an aftershock sandstorm. Far less in intensity than the first, the wind raged for no more than five minutes before subsiding. Although the power remained off, as it had the night before, the party went on. Illuminated in darkness, a ten-man marching band played surprisingly somber tunes in the foyer of the guesthouse next door. I was the first, and last, person to clap at the end of the opening tune. The crowd stared at me awkwardly as I nervously retreated into the shadows.

Having by the third night proven my worthiness as an honorary Rajput drunk, one of the guesthouse family members, Jitendra (Jitu for short), asked me if I would like to come to his room for a drink.
“When in Rajputana…” I replied.
His mustache twitched uncontrollably; clearly confused by the lame pun he shouldn’t have understood.
“Um…never mind. What are we drinking?”
“Special Rajasthani spiced liquor,” he beamed, flashing me a self-assured, yet unsettlingly sleazy grin.”

I entered the bedroom and was introduced to a discernibly clean-cut man perched on the edge of a wooden folding chair. He wore a cream colored Nehru suit – the other guests wore slacks and button down shirts. After answering the standard battery of questions – Where from? How much money do you make? Are you married? Why no girlfriend? – I asked Mr. GQ what he did for a living.
“I’m a police officer,” he replied, too quickly.
“No he’s not,” Jitendra quipped. “He’s CID,” (The Indian equivalent of the CIA).
After shooting Jitu a look of threatening contempt, the man excused himself to use the toilet in the hallway. He didn’t return.

Over glasses of watered down spiced liquor Jitu and I began to discuss the merits of arranged versus love marriages.
“Arranged marriages,” he explained, “far better is than love marriage. The man worships the woman and works to pleases. Look at your culture…too much divorces. In my culture we enters marriage with high expectation – In yours we enter with very low expectation, isn’t it?”
I disagreed with him and, as diplomatically as I could, explained my thoughts on the matter. Eager to paddle out of the treacherous waters our conversation had entered, I asked him about his family.
“I marries in 1999,” he began. I has it three children; my oldest son is fourteen.”
I stared at him quizzically, affording him the opportunity to correct either his marriage date or the age of his first-born. Spurred by my look, Jitu finally realized his error.
“Ah, Benjamin, you are very good with math,” he exclaimed without a hint of embarrassment.
“Umm…I play a lot of darts," I sarcastically replied.
“I call my wife’s and ask,” he said as he retrieved the cell phone that hung beneath his shirt from a lanyard around his corpulent neck. He seemed to be as amused as I was as the phone began to ring. “Hello sexy,” he crooned before diverging into Marwari for the remainder of the short conversation.
“I marries in 1995,” he giggled as he put down the phone and reached for his rapidly diminishing bottle.
“Jitu,” I said, “I may not know much about arranged marriage, but I do know that in my culture misjudging your anniversary by four years is grounds for divorce.”
He put down his glass. His mustache quivered again as he carefully considered his words. Locking eyes with me, he solemnly replied, “and that, I think, are the problems with love marriage.”

We ventured outside when a female arm, ornamentally adorned in fractal henna patterns, cracked the door to tell us that the groom’s procession was about to begin.


The downpour that had followed the lesser sandstorm had finally ended and, now, reflections of string lights danced in rippling puddles on the street in front of the guesthouse. A Marwari horse, bred for battle and distinguished by curved ears that touched at the tips, stood snorting, awaiting its soon to be betrothed rider. Silver tassels shimmered at its haunches – brilliantly colored pom-poms, woven into its chestnut hair, bounced with flicks of its mane. Banu Pratap, the lumbering Rajput groom adorned in the full regalia of a maharaja, tenderly approached and mounted his stallion. Silent lightning, too high up to be heard, exploded deep within the clouds overhead. The procession of one hundred people set off, shuffling in time with the too-fast tribal drumbeat that resonated between buildings on either side of the waterlogged cul-de-sac.


Left of the mob walked ten chandelier-bearing children, strung together by the frayed power cord, dragging through puddles, which linked each luminescent pewter lamp. Every twenty or so meters we would come to a halt behind Banu’s warhorse. One of the Nepalese boys from the guesthouse would run ahead and light a firework in the middle of the road. He made a show of sprinting away as quickly and frantically as possibly before the charge rocketed out its cardboard mortar tube, detonating and momentarily eclipsing the brilliantly electrified sky.


We reached our destination, a hotel one kilometer away, and said goodnight to the groom. He and his closest friends would spend the night there drinking and regaling in the final night of his bachelorhood. The women would be staying in Jodhpur, uninvited to the actual wedding ceremony. The rest of them, Banu’s entourage of one hundred Rajput men, would be traveling 500 kilometers to Mandawa the next morning – and with them would be me, the comically conspicuous foreigner.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It Must Have Been the Karma


The hung-over morning after the first night of wedding festivities was spent in my office working on the annual report for the Veerni Project’s European donors. Over the methodical drone of click-clacking sewing machines I suddenly heard the approaching chiming of bells. I went to the window to investigate and was surprised to see a full-grown elephant walking down the middle of the street. The animal’s face and flapping ears were painted white with creeping vines and lotus blossoms. The bells that hung from either tusk announced the presence of the holy pachyderm. Representative of the elephant god of prosperity, Ganesha, people streamed out of their homes with offerings for the creature and the master who perched on its back. They freely gave fruits, cakes, and roti, which were all promptly noshed. The elephant used its trunk to collect rupee notes off the ground that it then handed back to its master. It gingerly stepped on a coconut, breaking it into two pieces. As with the other edible offerings, half was inhaled by the animal while the remaining bit was trunked back to the master for safekeeping.

I went back to the guesthouse after finishing my work early. While I was eating a late lunch in the courtyard, a deliveryman showed up bearing a package for me. With no documentation and nothing to sign, he made a demand of, “1,700 rupeeye deliveries for.” I laughed aloud at the ludicrously high baksheesh I assumed he was trying to squeeze out of me. In India, many people’s monthly salaries top out well below 1,700 IR; I wasn’t about to give in to this con artist. With Govind providing basic translation we proceeded to yell at each other. I told the man that if indeed the money was for something legitimate, such as, say, customs duty, I would be more than happy to pay the full amount. I was unwilling, however, to pay him even one paisa without documentation indicating such legitimacy. The man told me that if I didn’t pay he would not give me the package. Now mind you, the box was not in the back of his truck; it was on the ground directly in front of me. Snarling through clenched teeth I told him that he was missing the point. There was a third option that he had failed to consider. I would keep the package, keep my money, and he would turn around and leave.

With an affirmative nod from Govind I picked up my box and started walking with it back to my room. Suddenly he was on top of me. One arm held me in a pathetic half headlock while the other clamped down on my wrist, trying to pry the package from my grip. Equally surprised and infuriated I gouged his sternum with my elbow and shook myself free. Now, there are only a few facial expressions, which in any situation truly transcend all linguistic and cultural barriers. One of those is the look used by a man to inform another man that he is about to have his teeth knocked out. Thankfully Govind threw the guy out of the guesthouse before I could do something that I would have regretted. “Nobody treats my guests like that,” he said as he returned, trying to compose himself.

An hour after the incident with the deliveryman, Govind knocked and entered my room. “We have to go to the police station. That bastard is trying to charge you with assault.”
Oh shit, I thought…
…This could be interesting.
Before leaving I stuffed my pockets with cliff-bars just in case I was otherwise about to spend the next three months chewing the leather straps of my Birkenstocks for sustenance. Riding to the station in Govind’s classic 1970’s Ambassador, he turned to me and asked, “You’re a law student, right?”
“Um…political science undergrad…. but, sure.”
“Ok, I tell them that you are a law student…you let me do the talking.”
At this point that wasn’t too reassuring seeing as Govind was still in his flaming Johnny Cash getup from the previous night.

The chief inspector sat at his desk, flanked by two truncheon wielding officers. Directly behind the inspector was an open door leading into a storage room in which dozens of WWII era carbine rifles were propped up on display. Nearly as many medieval looking rusted iron handcuffs were hung on hooks above the firearms. Peering down the hallway to my left I could see numerous barred jail cells dissolving into darkness…a darkness that I wanted nothing to do with. As I was told to have a seat I glared at the deliveryman who stood in the corner of the room.

Govind began to explain, in Hindi, the situation as it had unfolded. Every so often the deliveryman’s boss, seated next to me, would interject with a defensive comment. Govind repeatedly snapped around and, with the mercilessness of an 8th grade math teacher, would yell, “you shut up, I am talking.” My defense seemed to be going pretty well. For the first time confident that I was probably not going to spend the night in prison, I sank into my grimy plastic chair, tried to appear attentive, and continued to struggle to understand the foreign judicial proceeding in which I had somehow become entangled. I’m not sure if it was comforting or alarming that the inspector seemed to possess the powers of judge, jury, and executioner... probably a little of both.

It was finally determined that the 1,700 rupee demand had in fact been a legitimate customs excise. I paid the money. “Shit,” I thought, “I’m going to jail.” However, as it turned out, the inspector was on my side. He rebuked both the deliveryman and his boss for the ham-handed way they had mismanaged the whole thing. When I asked about the status of the assault complaint against me, he told me to, “don’t worries about it.” Govind turned to me and muttered, “let’s get the fuck outa here before he changes his mind,” and with that we turned and made a swift getaway back to the Ambassador.

“Thanks for that man. I really owe you one,” I told him as we bounced down Jodhpur’s absurdly potholed roads, the newest Shakira hit blasting from the vintage ride’s custom sound system. “No you don’t,” he said, shooting me a mischievous smile before quickly returning his gaze to the road ahead… “Nobody treats my guests like that.”


The pre-pre-wedding party was to be held at my guesthouse later that night. Chann Singh and the two other Nepalese servant boys ran around all afternoon, sweeping, moping, dusting, and generally preparing the place for the hundred or so expected guests. String lights were hung from the exterior balconies. Cobwebs were cleared away and the fountain in the center of the tiled courtyard was filled with water for the first time since I arrived. Women laughed and gossiped as they stirred bubbling cauldrons of fragrant white stew and spiced saffron mutton. The heat emanating from the bustling kitchen amplified the skin-sizzling intensity of the afternoon’s desert sun. The air was still. Everything seemed to be perfect, and then, without warning, it hit.

I was in the downstairs office room working on my laptop when it happened. The lights flickered before they went out. In the darkness of the windowless, motionless room, I listened as the overhead fan struggled to make one last powerless rotation before creaking still. Power cuts in Jodhpur are a daily occurrence. Most mornings, for at least a few hours, the government shuts off the city’s electricity in an annoyingly effective conservation effort. This, however, was different. I hadn’t heard of power cuts at six o’clock in the evening, a time when most people would have been returning from work to prepare dinner. I couldn’t hear them from inside my close-doored chamber, the air raid sirens that wailed a song of approaching doom.

I sat in the stillness of the office for two, three, four minutes, waiting for the fluorescent bulbs to crackle on, the fan to groan back to life. Something was wrong. I could sense it, and not just because the power hadn’t returned. A primal shiver crept up my spine. It was the same feeling that drives dogs mad before an electrical storm. The same sense that makes birds crazy prior to a solar eclipse. I fumbled for my sandals and prepared myself for the blinding light that would turn my pupils to pinholes the second I opened the doors. Throwing back the latch I stepped into the void in front of me... complete, terrifying, ego-crushing darkness.

Confused, trying to find the time on my wristwatch, I stumbled further into the courtyard. The wind whipped around me, howling angrily, coming at once from all directions. Something was in the air, tearing at my skin, filling my useless eyes and choking my lungs with every breath I took. I knew it was ash. I knew that the unthinkable had happened. Pakistan had finally attacked. I knew that this was nuclear holocaust. Time stood still. I had to get back inside. I had to escape the radiation that was poisoning me as I stood there unable to move, unable to think. Blinded as much by my terror as by the black vortex that enveloped me I scrambled up a flight of stairs, desperate to make it to my room before my face melted off. I must have been unconsciously yelling something to the effect of, “what the fuck is going on,” because I heard someone, somewhere, scream, “SANDSTORM!”

I collapsed into my room, drenched in sweat, but relieved that I was not, in fact, witnessing the apocalypse. I quickly located my headlamp, tied a bandana around my face, and ran back out into the torrent. In the span of one minute the storm had gone from being one of the scariest things I had ever seen, to pretty much the coolest thing I had ever seen.

Since first stepping out of the office the temperature had dropped more than forty degrees. With my light I could see about ten feet through the swirling fog of biting dust. I managed to find a few of my friends and after confirming that, no, none of us had never seen anything like it, we decided to go up to the rooftop. As we climbed the stairs leading to the roof, the wind began to ease; the blackness faded into an eerie amber twilight. The storm was finally passing…
…and then in began to rain mud. Water droplets mixed with the dust that lingered in the air and fell to the earth as gritty globules of auburn mud. We all stayed up on the roof and let the dirty deluge cover us. It was cold but, after three weeks of weather that had failed to sink below 100 degrees, it felt great to shiver. After the rain subsided the lightning show began; sky-spanning lightning that would have made Zeus tremble. The static electricity that had been generated by airborne sand particles transformed the sky into a giant strobing canvas.




After a while I decided that the rooftop was not the smartest place to watch a lightning storm, so I ventured downstairs to offer a hand with the daunting cleanup that lay ahead. The food had been saved, the cauldrons covered when the sirens had warned of the approaching storm. The pre-pre party went on as planned with partygoers dancing in the dripping candlelit courtyard until the early hours of the next morning. Many of the lifelong Jodhpurians I talked to agreed that they had never before seen a sandstorm of that magnitude.


I went to sleep with a smile on my face, a notion that karma had favored me on this tempestuous day. Somehow I had managed to not only avoid jail time, but had also lived to talk about what I have heard a few people refer to as ‘the storm of the century.’

Video (not mine) of the sandstorm from Mehrangarh Fort

Video (not mine either) of day turning to night in twenty seconds

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Aint No Party Like a Three-Pre-Party


I was sitting in the courtyard of the guesthouse trying to do some writing when, suddenly, my peace was shattered by what can only be described as Bollywood trance. The music seemed to be coming from the roof of the guesthouse next door, Durag Villas, not to be confused with my temporary home, Durag Niwas. Seemingly cued by the racket, Govind, the manager of my guesthouse, burst out of his room looking like burlesque Johnny Cash. He was dressed in black skinny jeans, a gunmetal black dress shirt, and an even blacker tuxedo vest which appeared to be a few sizes too small. “Ben, you absolutely must come to the party,” he said in his slightly effeminate style of speak. “Govind, I thought the wedding wasn’t until Wednesday,” I replied, a little confused. With a look of amusement that suggested I should have known better, he told me, “tonight is the three-pre-party. Tomorrow we pre-pre-party, then we have the pre-party. Wednesday is the wedding party in Mandawa, which by the way, you are coming to. After, the wedding we have the post-party brunch, and two days after the wedding we have the reception back in Jodhpur, the post-post-party.” Still confused, but intrigued, and also a little intimidated, I quickly changed into nicer cloths and followed him to the roof of the neighboring building.

Seated in a circle of couches and armchairs were fifteen men dutifully drinking chilled kingfishers and munching on Gujarati bar snacks. Making my way around the circle I was introduced to each guy. “This is the groom,” Govind said, motioning towards the most massive man in the group. Banu Pratap, an oaf of a man, stood and devoured my hand in a rumbling handshake. Eyeing the half-empty bottle of whiskey that he held in his free hand, I told him what a pleasure it was to be there and that I would have whatever he was drinking. He let loose a trembling laugh that originated in the depths of his substantial gut before exploding from beneath his fluttering mustache. Handing me an untapped bottle and indicating that it was meant as my personal stash he proclaimed, “tonight, my friend, we see if you can drink like a Rajput.”

Everyone talked, laughed, joked, drank, and watched as the women danced to their favorite Bollywood love songs. In a culture of such pervasive sexual repression, I was surprised by how sensual their movements were. However, it began to make more sense when I realized the ladies were as plastered, if not more so, than the men. I couldn’t contain my amusement as I watched an elderly woman stealthily snatch a bottle of gin and retreat to her group of friends for round after round of straight bottle pulls.


On the fringe of the dance floor sat three people who looked very out of place and exceedingly unhappy. A round faced, dark skinned man sat barefoot and cross-legged next to a purdah-keeping woman clad in a drab lower-caste sari. Next to the motionless woman sat an unveiled young lady who, despite her matted hair and exasperated facial expression, was the most beautiful woman on the rooftop. Her eyes flittered nervously around the room, too unsure to linger for long on any one person. I resolved to stop looking at her when I realized that my gaze was causing considerable emotional anguish on her part. In front of the trio was a metal collection plate that quickly brimmed with five, ten, and twenty rupee notes. Partygoers would wave bills in circular motions over the heads of everyone on the dance floor before depositing them in the collection plate. I watched this ritual persist for an hour before asking Govind to explain it. I hid my disgust as best I could when I learned that the money was believed to extract the evil from within the dancers. The bills were then given to the three, seated untouchables thereby transmitting that evil into their impure, insignificant bodies.


One of the most interesting aspects of that night on the rooftop, at the three-pre-party, was the initial separation of men and women in contrast with the eventual mingling that occurred. When I first had arrived, the men sat by themselves in fraternal drinking groups while the women sat on floored cushions and pillows on the opposite side of the room. By the end of the evening it was hard to keep track of the numerous coed dance pairs spinning, twirling, and stomping their way around the dance floor.

Monday, June 22, 2009



I realized that I haven't really spoken much about the organization that I am working for here in Jodhpur. This is the first page of a proposal that I have been writing for continued funding of our sewing program by the Global Foundation for Humanity. It's a little out of context, but explains what it is we do here at the Veerni Project.



Beginning in 1993, the Veerni Project has worked tirelessly in its efforts to combat gender discrimination in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan. Veerni’s success has come through the implementation of medical, social, and income-generating programs. One of the organization’s most important income-generation projects has been its sewing program.

Due to patriarchal social structures, women are not often given the opportunity to earn an income. Many women who could otherwise be generating additional money for themselves and their families are instead relegated to housework or childcare. The Veerni Project sees the employment and financial independence of women as a key factor for real social change. A woman who is not bound by the financial constraints of her spouse is able to independently provide for her family and take a more active role in their well-being. In the rural villages in which Veerni has implemented the sewing programs, participating women have benefited not only from increased financial efficacy but also from the resulting elevated social status. This “lifting up” of women is proving to be pivotal in ending the destructive cycle of discrimination and subjugation as these newly empowered women engage in the struggle themselves.

For all that Veerni does, it would not be possible without the support of international organizations and foundations. The success of the sewing program relies on Veerni’s capacity to provide girls and women with a qualified teaching staff and the necessary training materials. With your help, the Veerni Project’s sewing program will continue to provide this vulnerable demographic with the financial and social opportunities they so desperately need and deserve.

The Veerni team thanks you for your consideration of this proposal and looks forward to a continued relationship with the Global Foundation for Humanity by which we will further our shared goal of addressing injustice and ensuring human rights.


What is the Veerni Project?

The Veerni Project was founded in 1993 by Ms. Jacqueline de Chollet, in collaboration with the Global Foundation for Humanity. The Veerni Project’s mission is the empowerment of girls and women in rural Western Rajasthan through development of medical, educational, and social programs. Unlike many NGO’s, however, the Veerni Project is not built upon an unsustainable model of simple aid provision. Instead, Veerni generates a comprehensive and long-lasting impact on these communities by mobilizing women in grassroots campaigns. In Hindi, veerni means “heroine” – a word which symbolizes Veerni’s mission of encouraging women to fight to reclaim their rightful place in society and to demand the benefits of their inalienable human rights.

The Veerni Project, currently active in six rural villages, is composed of four general programs: a health outreach program, a malnutrition program, an educational program, and a social program.

Health Outreach
The health outreach program is comprised of a number of projects: primary healthcare, maternal and reproductive healthcare, child immunization, HIV/AIDS education and treatment, general healthcare workshops, and traditional midwife training. Veerni’s innovative clinics, workshops, and rallies facilitate honest dialogues within communities regarding the health of women and children.

Veerni has employed innovative approaches in its work to alleviate malnutrition among women and children in rural communities. Veerni, in 2007, launched its own brand of mineral-rich spirulina powder and soybean-based biscuits, both of which are proven as effective treatment for childhood malnutrition. In the drought affected areas that Veerni operates, the malnutrition programs have been effective at ensuring proper nutrition even during times of food scarcity.


Schools in Rajasthan are categorically substandard. This, combined with gender bias, results in parents who often deprive their daughters of educational opportunities by keeping them at home. To address the needs of these girls, and to ensure that they have the opportunity to benefit from the associated advantages of a comprehensive education, Veerni has organized a number of educational programs. Additionally, Veerni has established a successful Jodhpur-based boarding school (hostel) which currently provides eighty-five rural girls a complete and uninterrupted education.

Veerni’s social program is comprised of various projects that aim to improve the quality of life in Veerni’s villages, while providing women with the skills and confidence needed to employ their independence. Veerni's efforts have been vital in the acquisition of basic infrastructure in the villages such as potable water, electricity, improved roads, and other necessities for social development. Veerni, however, is most proud of its highly successful sewing schools. The Veerni Project’s sewing program empowers women and girls by training them in a trade that will allow them to establish and exercise their financial independence. It is this program for which the Veerni team requests your continued support.


So, there you have it. I go on and on after this about the sewing program and how awesome it is, how expensive it is, how vital its continuation is...but, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think that most of you would be interested in all of the boring data and such.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Sun City


Jodhpur, the Blue City, the Sun City, sits in the geographic center of Rajasthan. Jodhpur peaked in prosperity and wealth during the middle ages, serving as a hub for trade in spices, textiles, and opium. Being here, it isn’t hard to imagine caravans of weary merchants riding into the city’s bazaars on numerous parched dromedaries.

Jodhpur’s main point of orientation is its massive citadel, Meherangarh Fort. Claimed to be one of the largest forts in the world, it seems not to have been built but rather carved, from the top down, out of the mountain that serves as its foundation. In fact, I have yet to take a single picture of its entirety…it is one of those things whose enormity cannot be captured on film. A single snaking road leads up to the fort’s towering outer bastions. As it nears the gate the path tapers at sharp angles in an effort to deter the rampaging charges of attacking Jaipurian elephant regiments. Evidence of those epic battles can be found in the fort’s ramparts that are scarred and pockmarked with dozens of cannonball explosions.


Inside are countless linked courtyards, surrounded by ornate pathways walled by exquisite marble latticework. Golden rooms spill into pearled hallways which lead to ruby-studded atriums. Quiet and uninhabited now, it is nevertheless easy to imagine the commotion of Rajput warriors and royal women who once existed here. Concealed in its beauty, the fort is not without its share of tragedy. On one of the interior walls are thirty-one small handprints, carved into the red stone; the last testament of Maharajah Rau Jodhah’s surviving wives before they were immolated on his funeral pyre in ritualistic “sati,” the ultimate act of devotion, or as I see it, the ultimate act of compulsion.

Sati handprints at Meherangarh Fort

Under the western shadow of the fort lies Sardar Market, a sprawling bazaar centered around a beautiful pre-Mughal clock tower. Vendors sell everything from exotic fruits and vegetables to incense and hand-rolled bidis. One can buy a stereo for four dollars, or a kurda for half that. Teetering pyramids of clay water vessels sit in front of textile shops that trade in block printed fabrics and tie-dyed tapestries. Shirtless men feed long staffs of sugarcane into mechanical grinding contraptions. Wiped “clean” with oily rags, they sell grimy glasses of pure sugarcane juice, flavored as much by the sweat of their labor as the raw cane sugar.

If you venture from the market, you become delightfully, hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of medieval alleyways. Soon you are in Brahmapuri, where everything but the family dog is painted sky-blue to signify the presence of spiritually superior Brahman caste members. There doesn’t seem to be any method to the random layout of tentacle backstreets. Perhaps, though, I have seen too many six lane highways I my life to ever be able to understand this madness.

Brahmapuri seen from Meherangarh Fort

A few nights ago I was wandering the alleys of Brahmapuri, searching for a rickshaw after having eaten at an underground, lower-caste tandoori pit. Head down, trying in vain to avoid the stares of toothless, sari clad women, I rounded a corner and was suddenly face to face with one of the city’s innumerable 2,000-pound bovine. In other neighborhoods such an encounter would not present much of a problem, however, due to Brahmapuri’s four-foot wide passages this was an entirely different story. Hindus believe that cows are the reincarnations of passed loved ones. With this in mind and, invoking at once the blessings of Shiva, Hanuman, Prita, Sita, Kali, and Vishnu, I squeezed by, protecting with my hands my most valued organs. Not to let me off too easy the beast whipped around and stuck me in the flesh of my thigh with its blunted horn. “Screw you, buddy,” I thought aloud. “I should’ve known you were a bastard in a past life!”


Leaving the area immediately surrounding Meherangarh Fort, the streets become wider. Cascades of raw sewage no longer flow in cut channels along soot covered plaster homes. People don’t stare as intently, or as accusingly for that matter. Occasionally, in these more suburban regions within the city, a dark haired, fire-eyed beauty can be spotted defiantly strutting in tight fitting blue jeans. Such sightings, however, are unfortunately few and far between.


I have found it difficult to walk very far without being stopped by someone on the street. Young, curious, semi-fluent young men seem to see me as an opportunity to improve their English conversational skills. All of them offer their cell phone numbers; many extend dinner invitations in heart-warming exhibitions of Indian hospitality. Rickshaw drivers, as well, pull to the left side of the road, creeping along to match my stride. “Where going,” they ask, or simply, “get in, boss.” Usually dismissing them with a flick of my wrist, most look bewildered that a rich foreigner would prefer to walk. It is interesting and, I suppose, one of the many manifestations of post-colonial stereotyping in India, that no matter my appearance (think bearded dude wearing ratty tie-dyed shirt) I am almost always perceived as immensely wealthy. Now, I’m not saying that this is always a bad thing; for instance, I’ve never had such good bar service in my life. As any twenty-two year old, bar frequenting, stingy-tipping guy knows, bartenders in America can be a little aloof, if not downright callous. Here, it is completely different. “Would you like more peanuts of papad sir?”
“What television you like to see?”
“Would you prefer me to put on your cricket game?”
I try to leave generous tips; fifty rupees at the end of the night, the equivalent of one US dollar, leave everyone smiling.


In a land of immense faith, simple actions like crossing a busy street are enough to make one question their purpose in life. In situations such as these, I have found that faith is a necessity. You cannot wait for a break in traffic – there are none. Jaywalking in India is not unlike climbing. You visualize your route, give yourself a little pep talk, and in fluid yet dynamic movements you make your move. Don’t look back until you’ve accomplished your goal, and never second-guess yourself. Unflinching commitment is the only way to not get run over. The only difference is if you fall when climbing you usually don’t end up pancaked under an unforgiving five-ton bus. Ignore the trucks, cars, and motorcycles that head straight towards you as you confidently stay your course; they’ll swerve away at the last moment…have faith.

Jodhpurians cannot be bothered with using side or rear view mirrors. In fact, such luxuries are conspicuously missing on many vehicles. To be a good driver here in India one is required to never take their eyes off the road directly in front of them…ever. Vehicles ahead of you always have the right of way, no matter how many intoxicated, swerving turns and variations they wish to make without any indication. When overtaking you first have to blast your horn obnoxiously for at least five seconds. Then, when the forward vehicle (without looking behind) senses your intentions and eases left, you gun it…always glaring at the annoyingly complacent other driver as you smother him with toxic petrol fumes.
It is exceedingly fascinating, if not surprising, that such a system of unwritten traffic law works as well as it does; I think that it warrants the attention of sociologists, or whoever it is who studies this sort of behavioral phenomenon.


One of the many reasons why I have so quickly fallen for this city is that its residents seem to love food nearly as much as I do. Food is everywhere: in limitless restaurants and guesthouses, on street corners, in markets, on portable push-carts, and in the military style, stainless steel lunchboxes that everyone carries with them. The cuisine of Rajasthan is unlike most of the normative Indian food found in America. Molded adaptively by the limitations of a desert environment, everything is cooked with minimal use of water. The food is oily, buttery, greasy, creamy, and deep fried to delicious perfection. In fact, I can feel myself getting fatter as I write these words.

Last week I ventured to a restaurant called “Gypsy,” my guidebook’s most highly recommended eatery. They served only one thing: an all you can eat, seven-course veg. thali platter. I had four waiters assigned to my table. Now, when I say that they were assigned to my table, I mean it. These four bow-tied young men stood at attention, not two feet from my table, awaiting indication that I was ready to gluttonize myself with more aloo gobi, dhal bati, or steaming hot roti. After two hours of performance eating, my stomach satisfied that it had received its money’s worth, I paid the bill and left. Including the hundred percent tip, the extravagant meal had cost me nearly three dollars.

Have I forgot to mention that I love this town?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sweet Honeycomb Daze


Upon returning to Meghwalon ki Dhani the next day, Dinesh did not appear to have moved an inch since I had seen him last. “Benjamin, you come to my home,” he said in his shy yet endearingly assertive manner. We walked slowly down the village’s lone strip of road. On either side of the street lay mountainous piles of roughly cut sandstone, waiting to be further chiseled and shipped off to Jodhpur in tractor-drawn trailers. Faces peaked around doorways and through open air window sills, glaring with suspicious concern at the curious looking duo led by an entourage of fresh faced children. A man busy repairing a thatched roof stopped and stared as we passed by. I tipped the brim of my straw hat in his direction causing him to wiggle his head in unrestrained excitement.


We entered Dinesh’s home through the low front doorway. As I stooped to squeeze my way in, he turned, saying unapologetically, “we are very poor.” “It is very lovely,” I told him, hoping that his grasp of English was not good enough to detect my lie. In the dim light of the hut I could make out the silhouette of a woman tending a twig fire on the dusty floor. “Sit,” Dinesh motioned to me as the woman sprung to fetch a tattered, woven cot. One of the children presented me with a platter of red vermilion powder and golden chunks of dried honeycomb. She dipped her bony index finger into the vermilion and pressed it firmly between my eyebrows. She then pointed at the honey and instructively brought her hand to her mouth. I ate the smallest piece possible, wary of the countless hours of work that would have been required to purchase what was to me just a small delicacy.

Dinesh and I sat there talking for two hours, all the while surrounded by mesmerized children. We talked about my country, and his. He spoke of his aspiration to become a tour guide at the Taj Mahal. He was fascinated by what he called “love marriages,” and pressed me to tell him about the “friendships” I had experienced with American women. I declined; “friendships with women aren’t what they’re cracked up to be,” I said, lying to him for the second time. Before walking back to the Veerni field team he gave me a handmade card that he had decorated with colorful paisley patterns and drawings of flowers. I patiently watched as he laboriously wrote a personalized note on the card’s centerfold:

"My dear friend Benjamin,
I am glad to meet you. I wish to you that you are again time come to my village.

Before making it more than twenty meters from Dinesh’s house, I was called over by an old man who was sitting on the single step in front of his hut. He cleared a place for me to sit, hurriedly brushing away grain seeds and bidi ash with the back of his hand. He was about sixty years old and everything he wore, including his turban, was a sweaty yellow-white. His cracked face appeared to have endured hundreds of whipping sandstorms, and he sported a huge bristly mustache that exaggerated his comical facial expressions. He prattled away in Marwari, occasionally pausing for affirmation that I understood what he had just said. “Yes,” I would say, or, “uh-huh,” at which point he would nod at me sternly and begin jabbering again.


As the conversation inevitably began to lull he reached into the folds of his robe and produced a small wicker container. He removed the lid and placed a small ruddy-brown chunk of unidentifiable substance in the palm of my hand. Repeating the same gesture as the little girl with the honeycomb, he urged me to eat it. Unlike the intensely sweet honey, his mysterious food tasted of spiced earth. I swallowed it chewing as little as possible and, when I was finished, put my hands together in prayer to thank him. As we continued on our way down the dirt road, Dinesh turned to me with the content smile of a tour guide who had satisfied his client. “The old man very likes you,” he said. “He usually not give opium to anybody.”

Needless to say, the ride didn’t seem as bumpy, nor the lorries quite as terrifying, on the drive back to Jodhpur.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Meghwalon ki Dhani


"I take to work?" the rickshaw driver asked. "I'm going to the Veerni project, just up the road, same place as yesterday," I told him. After a few violent pulls of the starter cord, the three-wheeler burped to life and we were off.

The Veerni headquarters sits in an alley surrounded mostly by shops selling reproductions of Mughal antiques. Outside the front gate a Brahman cow sat drooling, lazily chewing its cud. I could hear, and smell, a few pigs foraging for edible trash in the empty lot across the street. The field team, whom I had met the previous day, was already loading supplies into the jeep when I arrived.

After a quick stop at a mango stall on our way out of town we continued towards the village of Meghwalon ki Dhani. There was Rashmi, the nutritionist, the driver, and three others whose names I immediately forget each time I am told. Two of my nameless coworkers are nurses while the third is more of an office guy (I'm not yet exactly sure what he does). Rashmi speaks perfect English. Office guy speaks broken English. The others speak Marwari Hindi, the language of Rajasthan.

As we progressed further from the city center it wasn't just the road that became more primitive. Pants were replaced by lengths of white fabric gently wrapped around the slender waists of turban wearing men. Rickshaws became fewer and in their place, camel-drawn bullock carts. The drive itself was very nerve wracking. The broken road was barely the width of our car. Our driver, as well as the other passengers, seemed unphased by the repeated games of "chicken" that our jeep played with huge, gas-guzzling lorries. I would watch in horror/fascination as these trucks bore down on us head on, until at the last moment, when I could see the squished bugs in the radiators of these monstrosities, both drivers would veer off onto the dirt shoulders, invariably jolting us out of sweat soaked seats. I very quickly came to appreciate the unwavering Hindu belief of instant reincarnation.

The landscape grew increasingly arid. Lush banyan trees shriveled into drab stand-alone bushes. Rock and dirt turned to sand and dust. The only trace of color seemed to be an occasional flash of opal as a peacock darted across the road ahead. As we curved around blind corners and twisted through small villages, did our driver flinch or slow down? Hell no! He rolled up his sleeves, wiped his brow, and parked his elbows on the car horn, confident that any man, woman, or bovine would have enough sense to get out of our way. I concluded that if we spoke the same language we would be very good friends, the driver and I.

An hour into the journey we suddenly took a sharp left and were no longer on a road. Ten minutes later, horn blaring and trailed by a cloud of dust, we rolled into Meghwalon ki Dhani. The purpose of our visit was to draw blood from participants in the anemia eradication program which was implemented six months ago. We set up a medical station in a small stone and mortar hut and soon, about forty women and children had congregated in and around the building. Awe-struck and wide eyed, some children curiously approached me while others hid between their mothers' legs, burying their innocent faces in colorful saris. Many of the women, in traditional Hindu fashion, hid their faces behind veils of silky, translucent fabric. It was not until the following day that I would learn that many of the villagers had never before seen a "foreignee."


Initially I sensed that some of the people there were wary of my presence, however, any tensions that existed seemed to be dissolved when I brought out my digital camera. The ability to take a photo and then instantly show the person the result made them giddy with excitement and soon they were elbowing each other for the chance to have their picture taken. More than a few people rushed back to their homes only to return wearing their best trousers or saris. There was one girl in particular who I could not stop taking pictures of. She appeared to be about ten years old, however, I am sure that she was older. It is startling how effectively malnourishment can disguise a child's age. She was breathtakingly beautiful, yet there was a sadness about her. She didn't smile like the rest of the children...I loved her for that. I resented myself for not being able to talk to her; for not being able to gain some of the relative wisdom that undoubtedly results from having lived a life 1,000 times harder than my own.


Amid the smiling faces, groping hands, and indecipherable chirpings of Marwari that enveloped me, a soft voice suddenly rose above the rest: "What is your good name, sir?" Before me stood a good looking young man who I presumed to be about eighteen years old. Not even five feet tall, his knees were bowed awkwardly to shoulder width. I would later learn that he was an unfortunate victim of polio, an archaic disease which has been eradicated in nearly every country in the world except for India. He told me his name was Dinesh and that, because he attend a school for the handicapped in Jodhpur, he was the only person in his village who spoke English. He asked me if I would like to see his home..."of course," I said, and we set off shuffling slowly down the village's only dirt street. "You see that man?" he asked, pointing towards an eighty-something year old man sitting cross legged under the shade of a thorny desert tree. "He is afraid of you. He remember British white saheb come loot village long time past." Cringing at this revelation, I smiled generously at the man, and said "Namaskar saheb (hello sir)" as I passed by. Before we reached Dinesh's hut, a young boy trotted up to us and said something in Marwari. "Your Veerni is time to be leaving," said Dinesh. "You see to my home tomorrow," he stated in a matter of fact tone, as I turned and began to walk back towards the jeep.

On the way back to Jodhpur our car blew a tire. I immediately jumped out and, ignoring the nurses' anguished pleas to remain in the car, helped the driver change the tire. I could have rid the entire country of polio and not gained the respect that I did with that small gesture. From that moment on the women of the field team, Rashmi says, have referred to me as "their son."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Generally Speaking


I was awoken this morning by the soft pitter-patter of shuffling feet just outside my door. A Rajput woman wearing a red sari with golden trim was shuttling water to the kitchen in a five-gallon, pewter drum expertly balanced on her head. Her neck remained perfectly still even as she kicked the annoying little dog that nipped at her ankles with every graceful step.
Mukta, the house mother brought me a fresh chai as I sat sweating bullets in the scorching 7:00 am heat. The warm, frothy drink was delicious despite the congealed chunks of fresh butter that bobbed up and down throughout it.

I left the guest house on foot but was quickly apprehended by one of the many rickshaw wallahs who seem to scour the city for westerners whom they can overcharge. I had been told to go meet with Brigadier General Singh upon my arrival as he also happened to be the administrative director of the Veerni Project, the NGO that I am working for. As the rickshaw snaked its way up the winding road to Umaid Bahwan Palace we sped past a group of Dalit (untouchable outcaste) ragpicker children. Their radiant, pearly smiles sharply contrasted their dirt covered faces and matted, dready hair. Passing by, I turned around to watch them return to the gutter in search of recyclable plastic scraps.

The rickshaw driver pulled up to the palace gate and expressed to me with gestures that he would wait there for me to return. After explaining to five mustached guards that I was not there for the audio tour, I was eventually led to the General's wing. He had not yet arrived but his secretary insisted that I wait for him in his office. After initially resisting incessant attempts to serve me tea, coffee, water, or cola, I finally succumbed and settled into a chair opposite the general's empty desk.

Now, I know that Indians are very trusting...but I decided then that it was exceedingly unwise to leave a curious, mischievous young man alone in the office of such an important man. What state secrets lay unprotected in the file cabinet to my right? Was the nuclear football sitting in the drawer to my left? A large framed photo of the Maharajah of Jodhpur hung unassumingly on the papered wall in front of me, above the general's chair. His highness looked down on me with a Mona Lisa smirk that seemed to say, "don't even think about it, man."
The general's desk was mostly bare. There were no papers waiting to be signed; no dossiers to be considered. Two blown glass paperweights sat on each corner opposite from me. I picked one up to examine its fiery colors but quickly put it down, fearful that at any moment the general would arrive and arrest me for snooping. The only other item on the desk was a rhinestone encrusted fingernail-care kit. Through the glass top I could see clippers, brushes, lotions, balms, and salves; I began to suspect that Brigadier Singh was a well groomed man.

Fifteen minutes general.

Half an hour...nothing.

A full hour passed before the general burst through the door like John Wayne busting into a saloon in an old spaghetti western flick. I awkwardly rose to meet him, embarrassed that I had dared to sit down before his arrival. "Namaste Brigadier Saheb," I stuttered as we shook hands. His nails were long but well manicured; just as I had suspected.

He invited me to sit down and we began to talk. He told me about the Veerni Project and other programs that he was involved with. He asked me if my hotel was satisfactory; I wonder what he might have done had I said that it wasn't. Who knows...maybe I missed out on a stay at the palace! Nearing the end of our conversation, the general asked if I had any questions. I suddenly remembered the advice that Govind, the hotel manager, had given me earlier: "Ben saheb, do not ask any questions...Brigadier hates questions." With that in mind, I politely said, "no saheb," stood, shook his hand a second time, and made my exit. The five mustached guards stared at me as I passed through the palace gate. The rickshaw wallah, who had not moved an inch for nearly two hours, drove me back to the hotel, seemingly content with the forty rupees (less than one dollar) I had promised.


I find it a little strange that Brigadier Singh is the director of the Veerni Project. It is the older generation of Rajput men afterall, who have instigated and perpetuated the patriarchal aspects of society that result in the extreme subjugation of women in Rajasthan. I suppose that his position as director is indicative of the interplay between social organizations and the political mechanism here in Jodhpur. Could it be that Veerni is only able to do what it does because there are watchful eyes keeping it in check?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009



Sitting in Indira Gandhi International Airport, waiting to board my flight to Jodhpur, I cannot help but feel as though I am going through a major life transition. Only two days ago I was enjoying air-condition, HDTV, and potable water. A mantra is supposed to inspire and support one through life's tougher moments; but all that keeps running through my head is, "BM, what the hell have you got yourself into?!"

I sat next to a Sikh from Amritsar on the flight from Newark to Delhi. He was young; only a few years older than I. He was tall, and strong, and very handsome, with chiseled features that hinted at his warrior lineage. His jet-black beard rippled as he giggled at the absurdity of me spending the summer in Jodhpur. "Life is too hot my friend," he said, chuckling once more. Indeed, I thought. How ironic it is, then, that I have chosen to avoid the heat of life in one of the hottest places on earth!


A private taxi brought me from the hotel to the airport this morning. As I got out of the car, a man no bigger than my duffel bag materialized by my side offering to carry my luggage. As I put on my straw cowboy hat he asked me with a look of wonderment, "sir, are you the rock star?" With a look of bewilderment that I am sure surpassed his own I replied, "no, I am the tourist!"


I am now sitting in an air conditioned hotel-bar drinking the most delicious, thirst quenching, soul-satisfying, ice-cold beer. I do not know how to even begin to describe the last few hours (that doesn't bode well for the rest of this trip).
The flight from Delhi was...confusing. My ticket said that there were scheduled stops in Jaipur, then Udaipur, before arriving in Jodhpur. The pilots, however, decided not to stop in Jaipur after all. No problem though; we got to Jodhpur an hour ahead of schedule!

As the plane broke through the low-lying clouds, descending into Jodhpur, I was struck by the bleakness of the landscape below me. The only greenery to be seen were the pathetic shrubs demarcating what once may have been fields but are now dusty sand dunes. The even, patchwork squares of land looked like a quilt whose color had been washed out. As the rickety age-old prop plane continued its descent we buzzed over countless dry riverbeds. Shriveled trees grasped at their banks desperate for even a drop of water that won't be seen until the monsoon next month. Before even stepping foot in Rajasthan I began to understand why the Rajputs call it Marwar, "the land of death."

I took an autorickshaw to my hotel, the Durag Niwas Guest House. More an apartment complex that a hotel (think no AC, sheets, or towels), Durag Niwas sits at the end of a dead end road about one mile from the old city. My room is simple and unremarkable; 10x7 feet with a bed, a nightstand, and a private bathroom. My shower consists of a cup and bucket that can be filled with hot water using an electric heater that must be plugged in long before use. The rooms surround a common courtyard and are about ten in number.
In the courtyard I met a British man who has been staying here for a few weeks. About forty years old, he looked as though he had been traveling for the majority of that time. He wore dirty, loose fitting, saffron pants and a tattered tank top with a tie-dyed "ohm" patch in the middle of his weathered chest. I smoked a few bidis with him as he imparted some of his hard-earned knowledge of India. Originally intending to spend only a few days in Jodhpur, his departure was inevitably postponed by his discovery of "some of India's finest opium."

After a homemade lunch of green beans, dhal, rice, and chipati, I left to explore the old city. After walking in the wrong direction for half an hour I finally got my bearings. As I passed by a young boy I made the mistake of smiling at him. "Hallo," he said. "Hello," I responded. "Wasyar nam," he gleefully chirped. I told him. "Banjeemoon," he repeated as he contorted his face in disapproval. "Ben" was a little easier for him. After this short exchange I was stuck with him for the next half hour as he incessantly badgered me for money or food, or both. Eventually I began to respond to his querries with a firm "chello," a word that the Brit had told me meant "go away." Either the message was lost in my butchered pronunciation or the Brit had been putting me on. For all I know, "chello" might mean "walking free ATM." After every one of my "chello's" the boy would smile and repeat his request for five dollars.

By the time I reached Sardar Market I was dripping with sweat; my fingers were so swollen from the heat that I could barely clench my hand into a fist. I walked between fruit stalls overflowing with rotten papaya and watermelon. Flies and hornets swarmed the displays for a free drink of putrid fruit nectar. The sweet smell of inscence and charras began to mix with the decaying aroma of raw sewage as I ventured deeper into the narrow medieval alleyways of Brahmaputra. I don't yet know what to make of the stares that I draw from people on the street. I know that virtually all come from kindhearted, well-intentioned people, but it is still a bit unnerving. Maybe I should cut myself a little slack; it is after all only my first day in India.

Something that I find very amusing: More than once I would be walking past a shopkeeper who seemed to be sound asleep under the shade of an umbrella. Almost as if they could sense my presence, they would pop up as I passed by, imploring me to enter their store. One whom I particularly remember shouted to me "Sir, come to my spices stores. I make your noses very happy, isn't it?" At the moment my noses wanted a cold bottle of water rather than a bag of cardamom. I grinned widely and respectfully at the spice man, shaking my head "no" as I plodded away.

A little later on I was clipped by a motorcycle in an alleyway. I now realize that I need to be conscious about moving in a straight line while walking. A zigzagging tourist is an unpredictable target for maniacal Indian drivers. Matters are not helped by the fact that "one way road" seems to be merely a suggestion here.

After three hours on foot I ended up at the Maple Abhay bar. For about four dollars I have since enjoyed two bombers and a mountainous plate of chana chat; garbanzo beans with onion, tomato, parsley, and turmeric. As my first day fades into my first night I can already feel this place taking hold of me. I am physically and emotionally exhausted, yet I want more! Is this masochism or healthy curiosity? I do not know...but so far, I like it.

First Time Blogger

First of all I want to let everyone know my contact information. I'm using the paid version of Skype which means that I have a US phone number and voicemail. That number is (503)342-2921. When you call the number it rings on my computer. Also, I can call any US land line or cell phone from my computer (so don't be too surprised when I call you). For the next three months I will be living in Jodhpur, Rajasthan working for a development organization called the Veerni Project ( Following my time here, I will be meeting up with the college overseas program in Delhi. I plan to return to Portland on January 15. I am twelve and a half hours ahead of Portland time; ten and a half ahead of Houston time; and nine and a half hours ahead of New York time.

I have never blogged before, so expect this to be a work in progress. I'll try to update as frequently as possible. As of now, I am planning to copy my journal entries onto the blog (the ones that I'm comfortable sharing, that is). As we progress, I'd love to hear suggestions from you guys on how to make the blog better. If anyone wants me to write about anything they are particularly interested in or curious about, just ask -- you can enter comments below each of my posts.