“Independent” Research

Yesterday, I was sitting on a curb in Frankfurt and surrounded by silence for the first time in three months. There were no people, no cars, no movement. I walked by one architectural firm, all sleek glass, with the door wide open. No one sat inside. Even the weather was perfect. A slight breeze rippled through balmy air, conjuring the “once upon a time” of German fairy tales. The overall effect was eerie, jarring even. It made me think of how little I have been alone, and in silence, in the last ten weeks.

For the past few months, I have been travelling “solo” for my research. One of my biggest concerns about the project was the solitude—though I love travelling and writing and learning from people, it is lonely work. At times unhappy with my experiences, I felt like I was betraying my passions and myself.

But even while catching flights or wandering the streets, I never really was alone. Invariably, locally, random people took care of me. In Kathmandu, if someone saw me looking around confusedly, he would immediately try to help. We would often attract a crowd that, in some combination of Hindi and English, pieced together haphazard directions to the theaters.

It was pretty hard to find a person to take this photo.

It was pretty hard to find a person to take this photo.

The theaters, too, welcomed me into their hallowed halls. I got lucky—theatre people are generally outgoing by nature but these actors were hospitable. They toured me around their cities, chatted for hours over tea, reserved seats for me at their performances, dropped me home at the end of long rehearsals, and, most importantly, gave me their time and respect whenever I requested it.

In every city, my comfort was thanks to the hosts who settled me into the area. Most of the people I met or stayed with were distant, distant relations (my relative’s friend, or my relative’s friend’s friend) but that distance was never palpable nor important. Their warmth and generosity left me feeling, quite literally, like I was part of the family.

Of course, if I were ever feeling down, my “home base” in Mumbai, relatives around the country, and the incredible support structure (whether from home, Georgetown, or wherever my friends are scattered) was the best I could have imagined. I am inspired by your unbelievable kindness, shifting schedules to spend time counseling or touring or shopping with me, and hope to pay it forward.

In the end, this is certainly not a solo project. For one thing, everything I will report is what I have learned from experts and practitioners all over the region so I cannot claim ownership to the information. But mostly, I am indebted to the people who have kept me afloat and guided me through my rouge aspirations.

PS—in the spirit of the non-solo project, does anyone want to help with writing the paper? Crunch time begins now! I’ll be on a blog hiatus for the next ten days while I write and submit. Hopefully more once abroad again…

Fusion

East Indian Sausage Fry at Villa Vandre.

East Indian Sausage Fry at Villa Vandre.

One of my favorite things about Bombay is the incredible restaurant culture– both the ambiance and the culinary creativity are fascinating. Last night, for dinner, we went to a boutique-style restaurant that barely sat fifteen people. In fact, the little cafe has only been open for three months and they will be moving to a larger location within the next few weeks. Why so popular? The combination of tiny hipster joint, vintage decor, and absolutely incredible food. The restaurant’s chef is a self-proclaimed “Bandra Boy” and specializes in hipster Bombay cuisine. The highlight of the meal was an East Indian Sausage Fry. Bandra is the home of many “East Indians,” or Christians whose ancestors were the first clerical employees of the Dutch East India Company. They typically eat their meals with bread and a very specific array of spices, which were served in Villa Vandre in a smoking-hot skillet. The spicy sausage was padded with a layer of mashed potatoes and on top of it, a beautiful sunny-side up egg.

And then there was tonight’s dinner. Pali Bhavan Cafe also plays off the “rustic chic” motif– the walls are covered in (someone’s) ancestral photos and chandeliers hang from the corrugated tin roof. It is eclectic in the warmest way. Comprised mostly of appetizers, our meal again capitalized on native Bombay street foods: vadra pav, pani puri, chaat,

At Pali Bhavan. Notice the huge kachori in the foreground and the photographs in the background.

At Pali Bhavan. Notice the huge kachori in the foreground and the photographs in the background.

and seekh kebabs in their most hygienic avatars. And then there was the fried Bombay duck. Deceptively, Bombay duck, or bombil, is a type of tiny fish. It is captured and dried by coastal fishermen who survive off of it during the monsoon season when they cannot go out to sea. This restaurant, however, has made it a delicacy. Each piece of fish was so delicately spiced and melted in its own softness. I was fascinated by the unique hair-like bones, so thin and unnoticeable. But the best part of the meal was the end, certainly. Instead of the usual finger-bowl and lime to clean our hands, a Pali Bhavan waiter poured hot water over a tiny white pill which expanded (very much like a foam dinosaur) into a hand towel.

After dinner, we took a drive into town to see the first Indian Starbucks. Though I have been hearing about this enterprise for the past two years, I was not expecting the grandeur of a two-story, Indo-Western Starbucks. Every wall showcased a

Nani sips coffee in front of a traditional jali wood carving at Starbucks.

Nani sips coffee in front of a traditional jali wood carving at Starbucks.

different aspect of Indian culture; old metal trunks, elephant footrests, and elaborate carved woodwork punctuated the sleek Starbucks exterior. It is easy to see why this cafe is the Starbucks CEO’s favorite of his franchise– it is hard to imagine a restaurant, let alone a coffeeshop, more beautiful and more ethnic than the Fort Starbucks.

Now it’s clear, I love the food but truly cherish the stories that accompany it. I often discount ambiance as a reason for high DC food prices and am often irritated by pretentious low lighting, but these restaurants feature walls that talk. There is a cultural appeal that I miss out on in most US restaurants; here, we have the opportunity to explore fusion designs in cuisine and construction.

Pressure

I have been last-minute shopping for the past few days, loading up on gifts for those who are not satisfied by theatre ticket stubs. Nani and I have wandered around countless boutiques in search of clothing for both myself and the rest of the people in my life (by the way, speak now or forever hold your peace)– but as we wander, we are constantly accompanied by a shop attendant just one or two steps behind us. Oh my God. I now understand why my mom didn’t like when I trailed behind her when we went shopping, and why people feel uneasy when followed around. Being followed is the worst. There is a constant sense of expectation that, I suppose, is good for pressurized shopping but is also terrifying. I am consumed with the desire to evacuate the store immediately. Fairly counterintuitive to any purchase.

I also found this overwhelming hospitality in restaurants throughout the country. In North Indian restaurants, especially in Banaras and Patna, we ate many meals family-style. When a waiter noticed that I had not eaten enough, he grabbed one of the dishes and served me more naan or paneer without asking. Now I have eaten some incredible food on this trip, but there is only so much that I can consume before I burst. My family pushes me to eat out of love; this I understand. While I know that this is a sign of invitation, the abruptness felt more like an invasion– especially when pushed by a stranger.

While I value the warmth and intention, I am exhausted by this over-zealous hostmanship; if I want something, I can take it myself. The indirectness of our culture, though polite at face-value, can get frustrating in endless loops of evasion and cumulate in forced pushiness. It builds the cultural foundation for a lot of miscommunication and lack of proper consent. If we need a third party to interpret our too-long gazes at a shirt, we will forever be stifled in a department store hell. Perhaps I have grown up in a very Western mindset, but I am very ready to serve and shop and eat on my own right.

Golden Temple

So clean and so peaceful, even with thousands of people.

So clean and so peaceful, even with thousands of people.

In the days leading up to the trip, I met several family members who assured me that I would find the Golden Temple to be the best religious site of my trip. At this point, I was skeptical—after the hassle of Vaishno Devi, the shoving at Kashi Vishwanath, and the dirtiness everywhere else, I had been pilgrimaging all over the country and was exhausted of cramped, commercial religious spaces. They assured me that the Golden Temple would be pleasantly different.

Of course, they were right. The Golden Temple’s entrance is a field of marble that is immaculately clean. Every minute of every day, volunteers run water and squeegees over the stone floors. A stark contrast from the grimy temple grounds of the last few months, I was immediately enthralled. Barefoot on clean surfaces! It felt novel.

These elaborate decorations were throughout the temple.

These elaborate decorations were throughout the temple.

The Temple itself is strikingly beautiful. I now understand why it is so often photographed (other than it being more attractive than, say, a few rocks). Against the soft grey sky, the Sanctum Sanctorium glows gold in the middle of the Holy Tank. All around it, worshippers dip in the holy water and bow before various copies of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Book.

The Golden Temple is a huge complex. We make one round of the marble structure and it feels as if we are in a museum. The ivory walls are inscribed with folk tales and Sikh legends: those who were cured in the holy water, the headless horseman of Amritsar, the history of the gurus. As I read, verses of the Guru Granth Sahib are sung out and broadcasted over speakers. Its translation into Hindi and English is projected onto huge television screens that are suspended from notched marble balconies.

In the last 24 hours, we visited the Golden Temple twice. The first time, we did what I have dubbed “VIP Dharshan” and allowed to skip the hour-long line in order to enter the main antechamber where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept. The second time, we stood in the women’s line and were directed to the side of the chamber instead of the front. On principle, I feel like the VIP Dharshan concept is problematic and exacerbates the hierarchies and divides of religion. Especially in Hinduism, with the

Crowds of colorful worshippers.

Crowds of colorful worshippers.

caste system still unfathomably raging on, skipping the line seems morally questionable at best. It’s worth noting that when we got to VIP the Kashi Vishwanath line in Banaras, I was with my grandmother who would have had difficulties standing for long periods of time. I believe the VIP Dharshan at Golden Temple is a lot more accommodating for those who need assistance; they allowed a mother to cut through with her newborn baby. Still torn on this subject—though I have certainly benefited from it.

The main chamber of the Golden Temple is mind-blowingly elaborate. True to its name, the walls are entirely golden and ornately carved with colorful designs that are

reminiscent of Russian palaces. A huge, bejeweled canopy is suspended from the ceiling and a similarly lavish fabric covers the Guru Granth Sahib. A man fans the Book while two others brush offerings from the floor into a designated golden box. Three musicians whose voices are broadcasted through the loudspeaker face the Holy Book; they sing and play their verses in commendable unison. On all sides, worshippers gather in amazing displays of color and piety. Several bend into (child’s pose/sajdah/matha tek, as you wish) around the Book. We spend a few minutes in the Sanctum Sanctorium at leisure. Though there are crowds and with crowds,

The cute water-on-wheels.

The cute water-on-wheels.

comes shoving, people are generally calm and understanding of devotion. The only scolding I received was when my scarf slipped down from my head—but I was hardly the only one.

After prayer, we went to langar, the community kitchen of the gurudwara. Famed to feed an average of 100,000 people a day, the langar is the epitome of Sikh philosophy. Everyone is treated equally and volunteerism is essential to the operation. Volunteers distribute steel plates, spoons, and bowls and we sat on the ground, in a line with hundreds of other people. Other volunteers walked by with buckets of lentils, chickpeas, and rotis. My favorite was the little boy who poured water—he had a tank on wheels and could simply pull a trigger to release a stream of water into our bowls. Afterwards, we handed our dirty plates to yet another assembly line of volunteers to wash and prepare for the next crowd.

Rotis, after cooking, drop out of the oven.

Rotis, after cooking, drop out of the oven.

My aunt, who had often volunteered to make rotis with her cousins as a child, showed me the upgraded roti machines. Instead of kneading, cutting, flattening, and cooking the dough by hand, the entire process is now mechanized in a grand scale. The only remaining human task is to spread ghee on the finished roti. It may take 15 seconds to make a single roti from beginning to end; and with three fully functional machines, there is often a pile-up for the ghee-spreaders.

Between the TV translations, water dispenser, and roti machine, I was most struck by the intersection of modernity in tradition. The adaptation of contemporary technology allows the Golden Temple to serve a greater number and diversity of people without losing the cultural heritage.

In front of the Golden Temple.

In front of the Golden Temple.