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Thursday, February 19, 2015

No Public Displays of Affection

When we were dating, I was surprised to hear my future husband say, "In my country (India), only old people hold hands in public." At the time I thought that was rather odd, if not absolutely sad. Over the years I came to see that it is generally true. While friends commonly hold hands with friends of the same gender, the palms-together 'namasthe' (both 'hello' and 'goodbye,' also known as 'namaskaram' in Telugu) eliminates the need for men and women even to shake hands. Of course, riding as a passenger on a motorcycle, a common whole-family mode of transportation, necessitates holding on. But, as a rule, there should be no public display of affection between genders:  That's right, it's the rule in India; in fact, that's the law.

So what happens to February 14th, that annual invitation to be romantic? Valentine's Day in recent years has brought out demonstrators pro and con. For more on the frenzy brought on by Valentine's Day in India, check out articles and readers' comments on the subject in the Los Angeles times <>
and several related articles printed in the <Hindustan Times> earlier this week.

(Hats off to Arvind Kejriwal, the new Chief Minister of New Delhi (recently trouncing his opposition with a stunning win of fifty seven of the sixty seats available, versus three  for the runner up and a humiliating zero for the rest, including the long-reigning Congress party).  Kejriwal not only promises reform with the support of Aam Admi,' his 'common man's party" ("your average Joe's party," as Wikipedia puts it), but (gasp, and publish it in the headlines) has hugged his wife publicly as he celebrated his victory.)

This, in a country where such 'shows of affection' are taboo. And, unfortunately (a too-understated word), un-punished and often heinous rapes are daily occurrences.  A country, many of whose majority-religion's stories, art and icons are decidedly sensual, even sexual.

A confusing and conflicting milieu indeed.

Meanwhile, for us, decades have passed. Nowadays we find ourselves a pair of tentative older adults, frequently having to make our way over rough ground, uneven sidewalks and thresholds, or through busy crowds, instinctively reaching for each other's hands.  A passerby or two may glance, or offer a helping hand up steps, but (so far) nobody has reported us to the police. For holding hands.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

May I take leave?

We think we have a corner on prolonged-leave-taking, with what we call "a Minnesota Farewell", but some of the departures I've experienced in India take it to a new level.  Our Christian friends there often send us off with a blessing, reading the scripture starting with "Unto the hills I life up mine eyes, from whence cometh my help...," (Psalm 121), before a prayer for traveling mercies..

Hosts insist we stay,when we say we are about to leave.  More food, chai (!), more conversation, more time, maybe even more people, if any have not come home yet, are proffered.  People delight in giving (presenting is the preferable word, here) gifts, either to the host (at the beginning) or to the guest, in which case it may not be proffered until a move to depart has been made.  Then, of course, one must stand (or sit) and talk some more, to be polite.

Another reason departure may be delayed, even though we are done-done and heading out the door, is an unexpected delay for virtually any reason.  Though I've never asked, (should I?  would you?) there seems to be a taboo related to interrupting a departure, exceptions being things  mentioned in the last paragraph.  But, having forgotten something, having to go back into the house for any reason,  and we find ourselves talking and waiting some more time...I don't know, maybe it's just taking the precaution of stopping to think whether we have everything and are really ready to go?  It might not make the situation appear very different from the "Minnesota Farewell," but, for some reason, this particular 'phase' of farewelling is more pronounced, here in India.

Until we beg off with a traditional, "May I take leave now?" which is used in both casual and polite conversations.  I personally think it's a polite version of "Okay, enough now, I really have to go."       The polite host will wind up the conversation and move with the visitor to the door, enquiring (if they haven't done so before),what means we have for a ride home: bicycle, auto rickshaw, taxi, car.  If they have the time and means, they may insist on seeing us home, or if we are  taking an auto rickshaw or taxi, on calling the vehicle themselves.

It is still traditional for hosts to accompany us to the railway station, even purchasing a 'platform ticket,' and waiting with us until ( or to ensure that) the train arrives, and seeing us and our luggage settled into our assigned compartment.  Although passengers' names, ages and seat assignments are posted on the side of the train car, there are might be last minute riders or those hopeful of an upgrade, sitting in our seats or occupying our berths.  The conductor, of course, has the list and the last word.

In any case, the traditional Telugu word for good bye is "vellirandi, or vellandi," a compound word meaning, literally, "go and come back"  (akin to the Minnesota 'come again'). It is distinct from "po," another word for "go" which could be understood as dismissive, insulting, or 'talking down,' depending on the situation. To :"vellirandi," the response is, "Vell'asthanu,"  "I'll return," accompanied by that typical waggle of the head that indicates agreement.

Or, to say it even more politely, graciously, with the aformentioned ending that indicates respect and politeness: 'andi,' which can handily be added to any sentence.  Until we finally just have to go.

May I take leave now?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New Year Modulations

The familiar morning street sounds of Brodipet (our neighborhood in Guntur) are changing with the times.  While I am still reminded of that sweet street reprise "Who will buy this beautiful morning?" from the movie "Oliver," there are fewer itinerant sellers in the morning, and their cries seem farther away from our fourth floor apartment.

After electrified water pumps grind out each dwelling's daily store of city water between the hours of three and four or five (a wake up call for early risers), there is a bustle of activity as early hour workers set out for their jobs or school children for their tutors, people or their cooks hurry to shops or the vegetable bazaar for the day's provisions, and bicycles, scooters, motorcycles and cars, each with their individualistic bells, buzzers, and back-up-signal tunes knit their ways through the relatively silent steps of walkers.

The former salt vender's strangled cry of "Oopoooo! Oopoooo! is missing this year. But there's the seasonal fruit seller's cry "Aww-ren-ges! Aww-ren-ges,  naa-rin-ji, kamalaa-looooo..." And another cry is made new: instead of calling live from his hand cart, an independent recycler broadcasts his  recorded cry. with a list appended, through a loudspeaker mounted on his mini-truck: "Everybody come, bring your old stuff, useless pots and pans, old papers and books, notebooks and prayer books, lamps, broken furniture, everything you don't need, bring me your old stuff."

The call to prayer is still there at its appointed intervals, but this year there seem to be more of them than before.  I can hear at least four calls, starting in overlapping turns as night turns into day.  During the Christmas holidays, the call seemed different than usual, or perhaps it was from another source But I listened carefully: the tune was so sweet (and why wouldn't it be, considering the text of  "Sweet Hour of Prayer."), I wanted to memorize it:  mi so - fa - mi- re - do - , repeated, followed by a sort of 'arabesque' winding around those notes. After awhile it began to sound like a very calm version of one of the tunes for "The King of Love My Shepherd Is."  Indeed.  A call to prayer.  It's a beautiful new morning, the world is alive, toss out what is worn and weary, pause for prayer.  And be thankful.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Brushing up on the Telugu language

Given our uniqueness as individual human beings, it's a wonder that any two persons understand each other, even when they think they are using the same language.  Still, I love language and words, new words, old words, written, spoken, flashed on a screen, loudspoken (well, maybe not so much) and quiet words.  So

I have, over the years since I had a few month's tutoring during a teaching stint in India, tried to advance my knowledge of the Telugu language, the third largest native language (spoken by about eight percent) of the Indian population, a language which is commonly spoken in Andhra Pradesh, and by about sixty nine million people, worldwide.

Every year I would learn a few more Telugu words, but, unable to follow the speed, vocabulary, and nuances, I would, just as often as not, tune out of extended conversations among family or in friendly gatherings. If I interrupted to ask for help, conversations got bogged down.  If I didn't, I lost my way in the conversation. I never got to the point of thinking in Telugu, and tuning out left me ill prepared to re-join the conversation even when it intermingled more English with the Telugu, and/or veered to topics of keen interest.  Early on, I especially appreciated my friends Rani, Lakshmi and Sundari for their alertness and kindness toward my need for survival in conversational situations, and later Sri Devi gave me a season of dedicated practice.  My husband abstained, though he somehow expected me to remember the content of Telugu language conversations at which I was physically present but, unfortunately, mentally 'absent.'  Not a good practice.

When a correspondence course began at a Potti Sriramulu Telugu University in India, I signed up with great eagerness, and not a little effort, gallantly assisted by my husband's cousin Vijay, but to no avail.  The lessons were slapped together any old which way, and I couldn't make heads or tails of anything beyond memory lists: my waterloo.  The unfinished pages languish on a shelf to this day.

Meanwhile, family conversations, friends in U.S. and India, a Telugu Christian Fellowship, hymns, and sub-titled movies continued to give me sounds and words with greater and greater clarity.  After several years of interacting with the household staff, auto-rickshaw drivers, relatives and friends, on our annual post-retirement treks to the home country, my puny efforts became more purposeful, my sentences more complete.  I read and listened and practiced with every opportunity.  Though movies aren't supposed to be that helpful in learning a new language, I watched Telugu movies until I could write the typical ill-fated-love, graphic-violence, class-clashfamily drama (in English) myself. Children's book publishing came of age in India, and I devoured elementary stories that I could understand. What would this year's travel to India reveal about my progress?

Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

My God, You Speak Telugu?!

With only intermittent opportunities to learn and practice Telugu over the years since my first lessons with a tutor in the 1960's, I am pleasantly surprised to find myself able to speak solely in Telugu, going with the flow in  my clumsy best, within the first few weeks of this year's trip to India. It's a relief, after years of straining to keep up in a conversation, only to find myself taking a 'concentration break' and missing something addressed directly to me.

Telugu is the language of the people of Andhra Pradesh as well as of Telangana, a new state sliced away from Andhra after years of protests and demonstrations. Even though foreigners visit these regions, few if any have mastered the language beyond the traveler's minimum essential vocabulary, not to mention the nuances of Telugu pronunciation. So there are often gazes and/or comments of amazement, not only that this white lady speaks the language, but that she can make herself understood.

Whiling away the time in a large Hyderabad store while my family finished their business, I came to the attention of a supervisor who sent a very young clerk to wait on me,  The young man seemed hesitant at the prospect of communicating with me. When I assured him, in Telugu, that I was only looking, he moved closer, and we struck up an easy conversation, beginning with the by now familiar, "How is it that you know how to speak Telugu?"

His slightly older colleagues a few counters away jibed, in Telugu, "Array (hey), 'you having a nice time talking with the American lady?" to which he replied with cautious alarm, "Hush, she speaks Telugu!"  "

"Yeah, right," they shot back.

"No, really, she is speaking Telugu!" and in sotto voce to me, "Don't mind them, Madam, they don't know anything..."

Our short conversation ended there; only the young clerk and I knew why we were grinning as we parted, saying,  "Namasthe."

My speaking advantage is having been brought up in the company of speakers of Finnish; the language of my mother's immigrant parents. Regrettably, I never learned to speak Finnish, but its sounds are familiar as nursery rhymes, its rhythms written on my heart. From time to time a memory surfaces of my grandmother's voice, calling me for 'supper,' or 'buttermilk' (still a favorite!)  In any case, linguists have pointed out the amazing and still unaccounted-for fact of distinct similarities in the pronunciation and organization of the Finnish and Telugu languages.

Though my Telugu vocabulary is still pretty slender, years as a teacher of first graders gave me good practice in conveying more meaning with fewer and simpler words. It is also helpful that everyday Telugu is like a vocal version of texting, the verb 'to be' omitted from its proper place at the end of the word at the end of the sentence,  multiple words combined into one in a sort of elision, and sentences collapsed when one word, or even a slight nod of the head will do. Less is more.

Another comment I frequently encounter, however, is that I tend to use the full, correct form, unlike everyday casual parlance.

(Last year in a Minneapolis Indian grocery store, I overheard a young, evidently Telugu, couple discussing the pros and cons of purchasing a certain Western vegetable.  Eager to be the hospitable American, I made what I hoped was a helpful comment in what I thought was pretty clear Telugu. This young man replied with a not uncommon Indian male dismissiveness, "You can't understand us, we're speaking in our language." I didn't correct him, but thought better of it, and shopped on.
Touche' for him, or for me?)

After relishing Telugu conversation more freely on this year's trip, I revisited some of the Telugu lessons abandoned several years ago.  PTL, now they make sense! 

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Ride to Rajupalem

It's the day before New Year's Eve when we drive out for a visit to the PUSHPA center in Rajupalem. Morning rush hour has passed, but streets are still busy as we make our way through town and nearby suburbs that were separate towns when I came here back in the sixties.  There are small shops and homes of every description, and as urban areas give way to rural. We pass several multi-story cold storage buildings near Reddygudem, and, periodically, graduate schools on rural campuses, set back from the road. Perhaps these places shelter produce from this area, the chilly capital of the world, or the next Nobel prize winner in pharmacy or engineering. 

Bordering the road between the towns through which we pass, are dishevelled borders of large thorn bushes punctuated by trees, among which old "Flame of the Forest" trees are the most graceful, flinging branches out on either side to form an umbrella of leaves over field and road.  (This is a file photo of a younger tree in summer. Now, in winter, there is only a thick green canopy of leaves.DSCF2942.jpg - Flamboyan Tree 
(AKA:Fire Tree, Flame of the Forest, Fountain Tree, African Tulip Tree)

Raghava tells us that little boys use the tree's showy flowers for pretend cock fights, which are a popular (males) spectator and betting sport of this, the harvest season.  Although its practice has been banned, we see pictures and articles of cock fights, even some with knives attached to the birds' legs, in the newspaper.
Cock fighting in India
Here and there we slow for 'brake inspectors,' (small groups of water buffalo) or for larger groups of slender, dark brown sheep and goats, tassels of fur jiggling under their chins in counter-rhythm  to their bouncing gait. Their shepherd succeeds somewhat in keeping them moving in a forward direction.  But now and then their numbers flow across the road and we slow in amiable counterpoint to their bobbly rhythm.

The ragpickers' tiny roadside community in Porrapadu shows progress:  Their makeshift huts of  discarded plastic sheeting are neater, stitched together more securely, and arranged in a semblance of rows.  One of the last huts we pass has a shaded "porch," where two woman feed a treadle
sewing machine a diet of the huge blue sheets with a purposefulness worthy of a LWR  quilting group.. A few women sit right on the roadside, sorting what one of them has brought home for consideration. This little community definitely shows a unity of purpose!

Impatient cars and even trucks ("lorries")  weave in and out of the traffic, often driving with impunity into the face of oncoming traffic, with nary a doubt that each bus, car, or auto-rickshaw will return to its own lane in good time. They usually do, although later today, on the wrong side of the road, we will find a broken down truck leaking its bounty of overstuffed gunny bags of freshly picked cotton, goods intended for one of the area's huge cotton ginning mills.  Cotton is the second biggest agro-product of this area.

After an hour and a half, and past our former, rented quarters with another ngo in Rajupalem, we turn off on a tiny dirt road, little more than a path, into the neighborhood of PUSHPA's 'own' rented quarters, a modest house housing our Rajupalem office and sewing center.  A staff member living in the house and the sewing teacher hurry, smiling, down the narrow stairway nestled against the compound wall.  We reciprocate their warm greetings, and grasp hands helping us over uneven ground and up the precarious steps, and enter to a welcoming committee of sewing students about to graduate from their six month course. They are bashful until tea, the conversational prerequisite of  a few matter-of-course questions, and a look at their sample work, after which one of the group initiates a banter among them that broadens to include me (husband and a few men set to work with a discussion group on the front patio) until, one-by-one, they slip away to lunch.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Moving Forward

Guntur is definitely a city on the move.  Everywhere, everywhere, construction, remodeling, and road widening advance......Narrow lanes are narrowed further by tiny patches of broken earth between compound (courtyard) walls and, in some lanes, archaic open drainage ditches await the street widening. Indeed, streets are paved or concretized in most of the town, and the drainage ditches are being replaced by underground pipes, as they already have been, in our neighborhood. A plethora of tiny shops old and new are interspersed with large, shiny new shops, some of whose names you would recognize (United Colors of Benetton, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dominoes), others of local and regional Telugu and English creation. A multi storied multi-specialty hospital is overshadows the sleepy compound where, in contrast, Drs. Patricia and Samson are painstakingly growing a simple grass roots inner city hospital.

Our street resounds with the sound of pounding on concrete, iron, stone and wood.  Buildings are of concrete, stone, and tile, in a country where trees are few and precious.  Despite advanced techniques and materials, much of the local work is painstakingly done by hand, with rudimentary tools.  Rods are beent by hand and/or pounded into shape with simple hammers..

Near our apartment, concrete finishers sit and walk along bamboo scaffolding of a four story building project, somewhat shaded from the noonday sun by huge, tattered plastic bags that puff and blow about in the wind. Here and there a team of men and women relay open-pan head-loads of cement, sand, or stones from curbside piles into building sites. Small cement mixers turn out the stuff in small doses.  Miniature (Piaggio) to medium sized trucks ply the roads, delivering everything from take-out food to onions, from paper products to boxes of a variety of world class and/or made in China goods. Once in awhile a larger truck rumbles an ocean-going container along.The sounds of trucks and the unloading of materials might be heard until midnight or even later. Then night is very quiet until the usual daily sounds announce the early morning.

Our apartment building's generator has been commandeered for post-storm-damage recovery at Vishakhapatnam, an important university, port and ship/submarine building center several hours away, on the Bay of Bengal. So, when we lose city power (mercifully, only twice this month, for short periods), my husband braves the stairs. But I stay put in our fourth floor apartment, musing and hoping for a return of computer access to record my observations here.

In the relative quiet of a holiday morning (even the door-to-door vendors are silent) when, like people everywhere, those who can are sleeping in, I take my camera to the laundry veranda...a common feature in Indian apartments, new and capture how the neighborhood looks from four floors up.  In this part of our block, only three single family homes , now surrounded by four and five floor apartments, remain.  Once charming middle class homes, freshly whitewashed every year, and surrounded by dusty palm and fruit trees, they languish dingily until their owners decide how and when to modernize, demolish, and/or build.  The trees are few, that remain to freshen the dwindling air supply.

But building goes on all around, all around, construction goes on all around.