The Ganpati festival lasts ten days and honors the elephant god, Ganesh, who is especially celebrated in the state where I am living. Yesterday was the last day, and a group of us went out to see the festivities in the center of the city. Drum groups proceed through the crowds with parade floats in between. Half the residents of Pune were out of their houses, on the crowded streets that were entirely closed off to vehicles today. Every vendor that could be out selling something was out selling it: corn, ice cream, jewelry, balloons and all kinds of festival decorations. Fighting to stay with the group (that stood out quite obviously from the crowd), we pushed through throngs of hundreds of people jumping and dancing to the drums and the loud EDM music blasting. Yells of “Ganpati bappa! Morya!” broke out every few minutes and the hundreds of people dancing through 90 degree heat left a strong scent in the air. Members of our group got tapped on the shoulder every few seconds, “M’am, one selfie please” and had phones constantly on us. I must have been in at least a hundred strangers’ selfies today.
Enjoying the festival crowds and parties is for those with male privilege- boys and men with bright colored powder on their faces who yell "hi!" and "one selfie please!" and take my photo as I pass by. I am not my own here and I generally oblige, but can't help but wonder if those photos will appear online with claims that I am their girlfriend. Privacy and individual space are not Indian priorities and the city has too many people for that to work anyway.
The city is the most trashed and fragrant it's been since I arrived, with litter and confetti lining every street. I crossed several barricades to get to school on the morning and got lost on the familiar route- all the city streets look different than normal. They have donned festival attire, dressed overnight by the handiwork of men on wooden poles.
We were told festival celebrations would go through the night and until 7am the next morning. I woke this morning to loud speakers still blasting, continual firecrackers and streets blocked off for parades. It's currently 2pm and they still are out with their music and dances.
Indians, expats and foreigners alike describe India as an experience of sensory overload- many glaring sounds and smells and bright colors and difficult sights. This festival was the epitome of all things you think when you think India. It is loud and wild and chaotic, but it is not exclusive. It is a party for everyone who chooses to join, it is a beautiful array of unified culture and society, dancing and playing through the night until their ears are deaf and they can dance no more.
Sunday night, September 6
This weekend has felt the most like home in this city since I arrived. Friday night I got to set up camp in The Chocolate Room and talk to Avery and my mom, which was awesome. Before talking to Avery, I met Pratiksha, a friend of one of our interpreters. She’s my age and studying photography in Nottingham. We got to talking and she asked me what was on my before-leaving-India bucket list. I’ve always wanted to go to an Indian wedding, and she mentioned that one of her father’s friends was getting engaged on Sunday and invited me. Of course, I thought, okay, this guy is proposing and I get to watch, awesome. But I was happy to take her up on the opportunity to see how that kind of thing is done over here.
Saturday, we went for a group hike up to the top of Parvati Hill. There were lots of goats and dogs just lounging around the whole (short but very steep) way up, and at the top was a temple and stunning 360 degree views of the city. I had been itching to get up high and see how the city looked from up above since I arrived, and it didn’t disappoint. Pune is HUGE and as far as we could see in every direction lay the sprawling city. We walked around the temples and museum on the hill and took pictures for a while, soaking it in. I definitely want to come back up there for sunrise or sunset, to write or read or do yoga.
After coming down, we all went to two of the guys’ home and had tea and samosas with their lovely host parents, and then all went out as a group. We met two Americans and met up with one of our interpreter friends. It was such a fun time to be independent and have fun together in a new city.
Sunday morning, I got ready and met Pratiksha at her house. She has a beautiful home and very hospitable family. She gave me a festive kurta outfit to wear to the engagement and told me about the ceremony. Engagements are like mini-weddings in India, with many guests and many traditions celebrated with the exchanging of rings between the couple and gifts between the family.
We arrived and saw beautiful flowers decorating a large hall and about 300 people dressed in gorgeous and elaborate traditional clothing of every color. I was the only non-Indian and felt a bit like Rancho crashing a wedding in 3 Idiots, but Pratiksha explained every part of the ceremony for me and showed me what to do. We gave the bride and groom-to-be gifts and took pictures with them on stage when it was our turn, then ate the delicious engagement party lunch.
Sunday night, she had me over again for celebration of another puja. We have celebrated 3 festivals since arriving here. First was Raksha Bandhan last Saturday, a festival to celebrate brothers and sisters. Sisters tie a bracelet around their brothers’ hand and their brothers promise to protect them for life. Last Tuesday, my roommate Laura and I went to our Auntie’s relative’s house to celebrate a puja (festival) for women recently married. They play traditional Indian games (lots of spinning around, singing and dancing) and eat a meal together. It was really fun and cool to see and be included in. This festival is for the birth of Krishna and it is a huge celebration all over India. The streets were covered in new statues, ribbons and displays and loud celebratory music was played just for the day.
At her home, we watched a housewarming puja ceremony with lots of offerings and rituals presented by priests to bless their home. We met lots of family and friends and they took us out for a large meal afterwards.
Meeting local students my age has been the best experience so far here and led to many great adventures as well as so much learning about the culture. I hope to continue these friendships during the whole semester.
Home is such a weird, elusive idea to me these days.
I recently listened to the podcast sermon from Mosaic's series "A Place Called Home", talking about the idea of homelessness, yearning to leave home but at the same time yearning to come back, and the prodigal son. I haven’t lived in the same place for more than a few months since college started, and when I get back to school, I’ll move into another four month home.
I’ve thought a lot the past two years about American individualism. The glorified ideal of leaving our comfy nests for school, going somewhere else to do something great and then going somewhere else when you’re done. It made perfect sense to me, and as my dad would call it, was the “moving walkway” for my life based on what was expected of me.
Here, things aren’t so transient. I am so used to the icebreaker question, “so where are you from?” back home (in every home I’ve had) that it’s hard to shake not saying it here. But it’s a silly question, because almost everyone who lives in Pune is from Pune. They go to school in Pune. They get a job and settle down and start a family in Pune. You stay where you’re comfortable.
I’m not saying one path is good and the other is bad, it just has made me think about all these things we assume are normal. Especially since studying abroad a cultured SIS student is completely assumed and expected, I really wanted to make sure I knew why I was choosing to do so, if I did. I didn’t want to just do what was expected of me, like when I decided to apply to be a Chi Alpha small group leader.
And I really did that. I’m here for the opportunity to take such awesome classes and interact closely with people whose culture I claim to love, and really live in this place I claim to see in my future. But as I settle in, I realize there’s so many things I didn’t take into account. People think about safety, language, class options when studying abroad. Sure. I thought about weather and timing and travel opportunities- but I didn’t realize what it would change for my mental, emotional and spiritual health. Not having the support I am used to forces me to grow and lean on what’s really true, but it sure isn’t comfortable. I didn’t think about what it would cost me to not have the community or mentorship surrounding me that I’ve been so used to and taken for granted the past, well, 20 years. I did think about what it would do to my relationship with Avery, but didn’t really think it would be as hard as it’s been to connect well.
I keep feeling like my heart is presently homeless. I’m yearning for the past or some future time when I’ll have a place called home- whether it’s being back in my childhood home, or building a space of my own. Somewhere safe. Somewhere I can cry and be understood and eat what I choose and take care of myself. Things that I’ve always had, and really not realized that they could be taken away.
Pune is wonderful in a lot of ways. It’s hard in a lot of ways. There are many slums that I pass by around the city that are difficult to see and grapple with in the contrast to many wealthy Indians that we interact with. Crossing the road is like real-life frogger, in absence of care for pedestrians or crosswalks. I don’t fit in here. In Kathmandu, they are used to foreigners of all kinds and shades. In Pune it is not quite so. I have seen three or four non-Indians besides our group the week that I’ve been here, so we are definitely a spectacle in the city, constantly eliciting stares from those who see us passing by. There have been so many times where I feel like I keep breaking cultural rules and can’t do anything right. I miss a lot of people, and places. Home.
There’s a James Bay (bae) song I keep listening to and thinking about in relation to this trip. He sings, the world will turn and we’ll grow, we’ll learn how to be… to be incomplete. I feel that. I’m hopefully growing, without those I’m used to leaning on, and learning here how to be incomplete.
September 1, 2015
Now that I've been here for a week, here's a little insight into what life is like here for me.
Last week, we had orientation on culture and went to various important sites in the city with local Indian students our age, which was so fun. Over the weekend, we watched a Bollywood film together and hung out as a group.There are 17 students in my program, 7 girls and 10 guys. All of the girls as well as four of the guys go to school in DC, which is fun.
I live with host parents who have two married daughters, both of whom live outside of India. Uncle runs a photo studio that's been in Pune for 100 years and in his family for four generations, and Auntie manages the home and helps maintain the studio. She's a very good cook and constantly offers us more food than we can handle- definitely learning to politely say no and above all, don't waste food. Auntie and Uncle call themselves “foodies” and enjoy all kinds of dishes. We live on a street corner on a busy intersection. Since honking is basically the rule of traffic law here, there is constant noise- all day and night, not more than ten seconds go by without hearing the clamor. They have a small shrine in their kitchen to Ganesh and a few other gods where Uncle prays in the mornings, burns incense, and leaves flowers every week.
It’s weird switching from living alone (no roommate this summer) and independently in DC to having attentive parents waiting up for us on weekends and providing dinner every night again in college, especially since in collectivist India, the family is a unit. Uttaraa said in her whole life, she has never thought to ask for "alone time" when she's with their family, because that isn't an important or necessary thing for them. Coming for an individualist culture very aware of introverts and extroverts and different people's needs, it's a real adjustment.
My classes are awesome, definitely my favorite thing here and the reason I came. I am taking Contemporary India, Public Health, Gender and Indian Media, and Social Justice. Contemporary India has been fascinating, learning about the political and social history of how India as we know it today was formed and studying issues in the current news. Public Health is a subject I've been interested in for the past few years but haven't gotten the chance to study, and my professor has a background in health in tribal communities as well as women's sexual health, so it's awesome to understand the state of those issues in India, as well as learning about traditional medicine (yoga, ayurveda, homeopathy). G&M so far has been a background on the state of affairs for women in India, so that's been awesome as well. And my social justice professor is amazing, we've had great discussions on the philosophy of equality and caste and religion and rule of law. They're really exciting.
I have class every day from 8:30-1:30, and then I'm done. It's definitely strange being a junior in her first semester and not having many responsibilities. I get fed three times a day, I go to two classes every morning Monday-Friday, and other than that, there's not much required of me. I don't have many friends I can meet up and do things with other than my classmates like I do in DC, and I don't know this city well enough to just explore freely on my own. But with the help of offline map apps and local friends that I'm starting to make, hopefully that will change soon. Much love to all the pieces of my heart that are far away, I miss you lots.
Tuesday, August 25
I've been in India almost two days now, and am re-adjusting to several things that are familiar from my time in Nepal, as well as adjusting to many things that are new to me. I arrived late Monday night into the hot but beautiful Mumbai airport. After getting in to the airport and collecting my bag, I sat with Abhishek, the assistant director of the program and chatted while waiting for some other students. While waiting, a herd of photographers started running to take pictures of someone leaving the airport. Abhishek let me know that he was a Bollywood star, just back from his honeymoon.
We made it to our hotel and met Uttaraa, the Pune program director, and most of the other students. The group seems great and Uttaraa is one of the warmest and most dignified women I've ever met. From what I've heard and her first impression, I know she'll make me feel at home here.
One of the reverse culture shock re-entry moments that hit me coming home from Nepal was in a grocery store with Avery. He asked me to pick out a juice for us and I freaked out, seeing a huge aisle of dozens of options. In Nepal, we had one option and drank one brand: Real™ Fruit Juice. There's Real™ Apple Juice, Real™ Mango Juice, pretty much any kind of fruit. This morning before leaving Mumbai, I had Real™ Orange Juice and it made me so happy. I've noticed so many similarities in the culture to Kathmandu/Nepal, but this is a very different city. I'm readjusting to seeing cows, goats, pigs, and dogs roam free on the streets everywhere, to swastikas being a normal building decoration all over the city, to Hindu practices being built into the cultural and political life of the nation.
Nepal was easier in many ways; there was a smaller team with whom I had a lot in common so we got to know each other deeply very quickly, the area I was staying in was a very international area of a capital city, things were cheaper and closer together around town. This new city brings some familiarity; my senses recognize I am in South Asia. But it also brings a whole set of new challenges. Living with hosts instead of several fellow Americans in a tourist hotel with everything we needed at stores down the road is a huge learning opportunity. Uttaraa mentioned the other day that we cannot learn anything in our comfort zones, and each step brings me out and into new lessons.
When I was in middle school, I read Mitali Perkins’ novel Monsoon Summer, about half-Indian American teen Jasmine who travels to India for the summer to volunteer at an orphanage and wears salwar kameezes, rides rickshaws, and learns to dance Kathak with girls her age. This semester, I’m living my middle school dreams (including the end of the book where she returns to her boy love in America) and experiencing what India is really like.
This week, we have orientation to the culture and exploration of the city! Can't wait to see Pune with the group.
Christian, feminist, idealist, wife, poet, abolitionist, dreamer, adventurer.