Sunday, October 15, 2006

street scenes

My existence here takes place indoors, at my desk, surrounded by texts and Sanskrit and Tibetan dictionaries. But community life... life around me goes on outdoors, definitively and consistently outdoors.

Here are some very short clips to share with you a fuller sense of the sights and especially sounds of life, as it takes place on the street outside my apartment. They were all shot from my front balcony. Nothing dramatic, but very much embedded in the texture of life here.

Make sure you have your volume up for the Rickshaw clip. Its distinctive sound is spot on. The music you hear briefly is the sound that all vehicles play when they are backing up. Not all play that same enchanting tune, but they are equally, umm, catchy. The man is milking the water buffalo to bring to the hostel I used to take my meals from, two doors down from where I now stay. Click here to watch "Rickshaw Passes Below Balcony" This link will take you to Press 'back' on your browser to return to this blog.

Another sound that regularly punctuates my studying is that of street vendors calling out their wares. Here is a vegetable seller out looking for customers, door-to-door. His voice is so forceful, he even gets the buffalos' attention. In about the 8th or 9th second of the clip, he passes one of the fabulous designs that housewives draw in chalk daily in front of their homes. Click here to watch "Vegetable Seller Comes Round"

In Recycling, one of the many people who come by looking for garbage that can be recycled stands below the balcony sorting, as various people stroll by. What he leaves behind will be consumed by the dogs at night. Or left to compost slowly by the side of the road. That odd sound you hear towards the end is indeed the bellow of a water buffalo. Click here to watch "Recycling, the Hard Way"

Finally, here is a very quick glimpse of a wandering ascetic on almsround. Most every city or town of any size in India will have a fair number of people who have opted for a spiritual path that involves begging for alms, as Buddhist monastics here traditionally did. Click here to watch "Holy Man on Almsround" The orange clothes, the begging bowl, the gong to announce his presence, are all hallmarks of the wandering ascetic. That house seems to be particularly generous and/or pious, as all the wandering ascetics and flower sellers stop there and wait plenty of time before they give up, as this man does. People come through the neighborhood regularly hawking fresh flowers, which are offered daily at household shrines in many homes.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

monasteries made of stone: the movie

When visiting the Buddhist caves at Bhaja last June, my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Neil Dalal shot some video footage of the caves.

Have a look at the caves in action, as it were. Not much in the way of audio, sorry to say.

And no, this is not just déjà-vu. You did, indeed, read about this before. It's in the June archive, under the 'monasteries built in stone' entry. But I have only now discovered, unbelievable as that may be to some. (Thanks for the schooling, Chris!) So better late than never, I guess. I'll change the date of this blog entry back to June at some point, but for now, it's 'new.'

Friday, October 13, 2006

south indian breakfast: coconut-and-mango-chutney and spicy cream of wheat

Some time back I promised recipes of some of the dishes my Sanskrit teacher has been showing me how to cook. It is an interesting process of teaching. He is an orthodox brahmin and thus will not touch food cooked by anyone except brahmins. So he tells me what to do, and I follow his instructions. So far, so good. But many of the dishes are things I have never tasted myself, and since he never samples anything to give me feedback, I just make it to my own taste and call it a meal. Of course, you'll be doing the same if you try it.. Anyway, here are recipes for two dishes I think are both 1) fabulous and 2) possible to cook with ingredients found in your local Asian market. And they go together. And, they are things I have actually tasted before, so I know it comes out the way it is supposed to.

Coconut and Mango Chutney

You need: a whole coconut; a green mango - not ripe, green; fenugreek seeds; mustards seeds; green chilies; turmeric poweder and salt. Asafoetida if you have it. Oh, and a food processor.

Heat oil a bit but don’t let it get too hot. Throw in a good teaspooon (my teacher here calls it a 'respectable amount' of) fenugreek and mustard seeds. Fry them and when mustard seeds just start to pop, take it off the heat. Let it cool a bit but not all the way. break up red chilies, add a dash of asafoetida (don't worry if you don;t have this.) Chop up a big peeled green mango into small pieces and chopped up meat of one coconut. add turmeric and salt. Eat with rice, with upama, with whatever you like, but eat it soon, it stays good only a couple of days. This is a kind of condiment.

Upama (A Kind of Spicy Cream of Wheat)

For this you need: cream of wheat; a green chili or two; cumin seeds; mustards seeds, urad dal (Indian shops will have it, don't worry); and salt. Asafoetida but only if you have it. This recipe is for one portion, so multiply as needed.

In a generous amount of oil (maybe four teaspoons), fry equal amounts of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and urad dal. When it starts to turn brown, add a green chili or two depending on your tolerance for heat, and a dash of asafoetida. As soon as the green chili is in the pot, add about a cup of water, maybe three or four times the amount of cream of wheat you will be using. Bring to a boil and add two good pinches of salt. When it has hit a rolling boil, take about a quarter cup of cream of wheat and slowly add t in a steady stream, mixing continuously to avoid clumping. Reduce the heat, cover and let simmer for a couple of minutes. Not too long. Then mix once just turning it over, so what was on the bottom comes to the top and vice versa. Let it sit again, covered, for another minute or two. Then you are ready to eat. Be sure to eat it while it's piping hot. Much better that way.

You can also make this with cashews. Use only raw, not roasted. You drop them in after the mustard, cumin and urda dal is brown and right before the green chilies. Then just stir once or twice until the color of the cashews begins to change. Then add chilies, water and continue from there.

Eat this with the coconut and mango chutney, and you will be having a typical Andhra breakfast!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

chinese soldiers fire, tibetans fall

Apparently, my karma to learn about was due to ripen one way or the other. I still thank my friend Christine for first directing me to it, but a few hours after being introduced to this video service, I received an email with a link to this disturbing, though not surprising video footage of Chinese soldiers picking off Tibetan refugees in the Himalayas.

Without warning, and from a safe distance on a nearby ridge, Chinese soldiers take pot shots at Tibetans filing across an exposed stretch of snow. They hit two, the refugees continue trudging forward looking to pass the summit and find cover, perhaps too stunned and exhausted from the altitude and the physical exertion of crossing the Himalayas on foot to even break into a full run. As one utterly terrified Tibetan hides in the toilet of the Western climbers who shot the footage, the Chinese soldiers relax in the camp, smoking cigarettes, as if they have simply completed a little target practice.

In the ongoing disregard for life and truth that is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes everywhere, the Chinese government-controlled news agency later says the soliders had been 'forced to defend themselves' when they were attacked by refugees. Had this footage not emerged, it is highly unlikely the Chinese authorities would have bothered to make public mention of the incident at all. As long as the Chinese marketplace continues to beckon Western corporations, it is unlikely any other authorities will say much of anything at all.

In a clear sign of the desperation of the situation in Tibet, among the 20 prisoners the soldiers captured after killing two were seven children. No one fleeing for reasons of economic opportunity or political conscience exposes their children in this way to the elements - and to Chinese brutality, unless things are even worse at home.

wedding, part one: going to kashi

At both of the south Indian weddings I attended this past summer, the groom symbolically passed through the major stages of life before arriving at the householder stage, when the actual wedding takes place. Both weddings were brahmin families, and among the ideal life stages for brahmin males is the scholar phase, when students graduate their basic Vedic studies and go to Varanasi (known by its ancient name of Kashi) for advanced studies. First the groom ritually concludes his student stage (brahmacarin) during the wedding rituals, even if he never actually upheld any of the practices of that stage. The groom is welcomed 'home' from his studies, and then, symbolically outfitted for the journey to Varanasi, where advanced scholarly studies is best pursued. The groom and his party exit the wedding hall, and are then stopped by the bride's brother, who stops him and convinces him to stay and get married instead.

This ritual was particularly poignant in the case of this groom, because he did in fact wish to pursue advanced Vedic studies, but had to abandon them after a family financial crisis put pressure on him to study engineering instead. In this video, the groom's relatives are escorting him out of the wedding hall. He wears traditional wooden sandals, carries an umbrella, a water pot, a bundle of food and ritual implements. The man in white in front is the priest (purohita) and the one following is the groom's father. Watch the groom "Leave for Kashi."

Once outside, several members of the bride's party accost the groom and beseech him to abandon his plans to travel to Kashi. My friend Neil Dalal tells me he was in a wedding once as a friend of the groom and his job was to 'try to convince' the groom to turn down the invitation to stay and marry. Here, after repairing the sandal that fell apart and came off the groom's foot (view this clip), the bride's family addresses him with great respect, worship him with lights, incense and flowers as if he were a god, and offer him gifts of food and clothing, carried on silver platters by women you can see behind and beside the groom. In this clip, the bride's brother honors him with a great mark of respectful hospitality, by washing his feet. View this clip. You'll note see that many of those involved are laughing, perhaps at their own role-playing, for these are enactments of roles that almost no one manages to actually live anymore.

More coming in this wedding series...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

where is visakhapatnam, anyway?

First, a warm thanks to those of you who even attempt to pronounce the name of the place I'm staying: Visakhapatnam. Especially my mom. She always pauses for a moment before she says it, and then really nails the pronunciation. It's as if she has written it down and is reading it from a paper she keeps nearby when she calls. Actually, as I think about it, I'm sure that's exactly what she's doing. She's very careful about that sort of thing. (If you care to try yourself, it is, more or less: Vi - SHOCK - uh - putt - numb).

But even those who can pronounce it well cannot usually locate it. Visakhapatnam is very much south India culturally (language is Dravidian, etc.) but geographically on the northern end of what qualifies as 'south India.' I usually explain that I am on the east coast, right on the coast, and about halfway down the subcontinent. And then I explain it again a few weeks later. So here is a satellite image marking the spot.

Visakhapatnam, India - private house map - Tagzania

If the map above does not load properly, try going to this link:
Click here to view Vi - SHOCK - uh - putt - numb.

You can zoom in and out with the arrows on the side of the map. You can also drag the map around to see what else is nearby. (The minorly famous 'Kailasagiri' or 'Mount Kailash' of the south is a short mile to the north, more mountains inland Mount Kailash, the beach you see off to the right is about a quarter mile, or a five minute walk, from here.)