Tag Archives: India

Kerala!

Kerala was a little bit of an exception to my general experience with expectations.  As per what I said about Bangalore, I was a little worried about Kerala, just because my expectations could not have been any higher.  Every single Indian and foreigner I’d ever spoken with about Kerala could not stop singing its praises.  “Beautiful!” “So clean!”  “Lovely people!”  “The best places in India!”  Indians told me it’s referred to as “God’s own country.”  (I later learned this is because the Kerala Tourism Department has made sure to slap that tagline on every single official sign in the state.  How’s that for marketing?)

So I was literally being promised the Garden of Eden.  How could the state live up to such high expectations?  I feared disappointment was inevitable.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Image00021 houseboat waterwaysErin and I arrived in Kerala via night bus (my least favorite form of transportation ever.  Kerala is very developed in many ways, but its roads are definitely not.  We “slept” the whole night in 10-minute snatches in between bone-jangling potholes).  Waking up at sunrise that morning was magical.  I wasn’t thinking, “This is it?”  Instead, all I could think was, “I made it.  I made it.”

Because all those people were right.  Kerala is everything everyone promised it would be: green, lush, beautiful, clean, friendly.  Brilliant green rice paddies, swaying palm fronds, heaps of coconuts, beaming Keralans waving from behind stacks of idlis and vadas.  It IS much cleaner than the rest of India, and I found the people more relaxed and friendlier as well.  And since the state actually does have a very different language from the north — Malayalam is as different from Hindi as it is from English — it often feels like being in another country entirely.

Not to say the state’s perfect.  As mentioned, the roads are hideous, and a lack of infrastructure development means that roads and bridges wash out frequently during monsoon.  And various social and economic problems do plague the state.  Still, it’s got the highest literacy rate in India — something like 90-95% — and I believe one of the highest life expectancies.  Place is doing pretty well.*

Erin and I wasted no time in hitting the top must-do in Kerala: booking a houseboat for an adventure through the backwaters.

Image00038 our houseboat

Image00004 me houseboat

Image00001 erin houseboat

Image00003 houseboat beds

The area around central and southern Kerala’s coast is laced with hundreds of kilometers of canals and rivers that are essentially the highways for thousands of villagers who live among these waters.

From the houseboat, we saw these Keralans just living their daily lives: washing clothes, taking ferries, coming back from school, going fishing.

Image00023 houseboat children ferry

Image00011 laundry houseboat view

 

Image00002 waterways view

Erin and I went for an afternoon swim — the waters are clean and warm — and had an afternoon snack of fried plantains and tea…

Image00026 snack

…then bought some fresh prawns for dinner.

The word “prawn” brings to mind a little pink thing about an inch or two long, yes?

Not in Kerala, apparently:

Our lovely co-captain Abdul Kareem

Our lovely co-captain Abdul Kareem

It really felt like we were about to eat some aliens

It really felt like we were about to eat some aliens

They were delicious.

We also saw some people practicing for August’s Nehru Snake Boat race.  By “some people,” I mean about 80:

Image00034 snake boat longview

Image00035 snake boat closer

Super cool.  They waved to us and our captain threw them some water bottles:

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We got really lucky on the weather — it was sunny all day and only rained a bit at night, when we weren’t trying to sight-see anyway.  And in the evening, Erin taught me a very important life skill: how to play poker!

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Erin’s Colorado playing cards included this Teddy Roosevelt line, which I thought was pretty fitting for Kerala, too:

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*Place also had the first-ever elected Communist government for a while back in the 50s.  Currently, the party in charge isn’t Communist, but they’ve held power on and off for the last few decades, and Communist flags, signs, and demonstrations were everywhere.  Yet the state is still a democracy and private commerce appears to flourish, or at least function at the same level as in the rest of India.  Very interesting place.  I want to read/learn more about it.

Image00018 communist temple

 

 

 

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Mysore — in photos

A brief photo swing through the rest of me and Erin’s adventures in Mysore:

Buying some vada (fried lentil flour donuts) at the bazaar:

Image00025 vada vendor

Image00026 vada

Me and the beautiful and fascinating Mysore Palace.  An over-the-top mixture of Anglican and Indian styles, the inside halls are richly decorated with everything from murals on the ceiling to guilded gold doors to tilework with inlaid semi-precious stones:
Image00019 me and mysore palace

There were — why not? — elephant rides going on next to the palace, so Erin and I did one.  It was way fun.  At the risk of stating the obvious, elephants are really, really big.  You feel like you’re at a low flight level from up there.Image00011

The next day, we went to the Mysore Zoo.  It was seriously excellent, a definite standout.  We saw lots of animals…Image00032 Image00034 Image00035 Image00028

As well as some pretty funny and entertaining signs:Image00031
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At the top of Chamundi Hill, overlooking Mysore:
Image00025 me view mysore

Mysore at night:
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Us in Mysore at night 🙂  In the background is our new friend Ferdinand.  In the foreground are me and Erin’s beers.  The Haywards 5000 was pretty terrible.  The Kingfisher was, well, Kingfisher.Image00041

And then we went to some gardens outside Mysore, and I decided to take an entirely too pretentious pose, considering that that skirt now has holes and I haven’t worn makeup in 3 months:

Image00043 me mysore garden

Mysore — Colors

India is such a wonderfully colorful place.  It’s actually one of the first things I list when Indians ask me what I like about their country: “The COLORS!”  Everything, from clothing to houses to food to landscapes, comes in a wider and brighter range of colors here than at home.

Mysore, a quintessential city in the southern state of Karnataka, was no exception — especially at the markets, where vendors sold huge piles of brightly colored powders to use as paints.

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Down another row were the fruit vendors, with their massive piles of lemons, pomegranates, apples, bananas, mangoes, grapes, pumpkins, squash, jackfruit, pineapples.  Erin and I loved it:

Image00022 erin fruit vendor

From the top of Chamundi Hill overlooking Mysore, where there is a huge temple patronizing the local favorite goddess, Durga, there is a long set of 300 steps leading down to a huge idol of Nandi, Shiva’s bull.  Some Indians making the trek back up were blessing the stairs by thumbing tikkas, spots of the powder used in religious ceremonies and blessings, on every single one of the 300 steps:


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The statue of Nandi himself was, like all idols and shrines in India, garlanded with flowers and covered in colorful pastes:

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And here’s the delicious thali (full meal) that we had several times at a restaurant in central Mysore, where our only plates were banana leaves.  There are a few types of vegetable curry, two kinds of dahl (lentil soup), a few different curds (yogurts and buttermilk), and rasam, a thin spicy soup.

Image00038 thali banana leafThese were the chutneys and condiments on the side: coconut chutney, Indian pickles, some orange powder whose name I don’t know but which was very tasty, and plain old salt.

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Mumbai — Dharavi

Image00006 Dharavi

“Slum tourism is a polarizing subject,” concludes the Lonely Planet* sidebar on Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai (and, reportedly, Asia).  And this is true: I met many travelers who rattle off Dharavi as just another bullet point on their Mumbai itinerary, while I met others who, on hearing the name, frowned and said, “I don’t like slum tourism.”

I do understand the squeamishness.  “Slum tourism” conjures up the image of a busload of fat white tourists trundling through Third World shantytowns, cameras poised, ready to capture a sighting of the rare and elusive Impoverished Child trundling through the gutter in rags.  Cringe.

On the other hand, what’s the alternative?  Should rich people then avoid seeing where poor people live — avert their eyes and stay away?  No, I don’t really believe in that.  Besides, would I feel weird if a limo pulled up to my old house in the not-so-shiny neighborhood of Petworth and a few well-dressed people started taking pictures?  Not really.  I’d just be curious what the story was.

Besides, my bottom line is that I like to explore and see new things.  I wanted to see Dharavi, so I went there.  I didn’t spend a lot of time fretting about the moral implications of going to say hello to Mumbaikers who live in a slum.

Dharavi is not like any other slum I’ve seen before.  It’s much cleaner and more organized, with central roads, food shops, and fruit stalls just like most other Indian towns.  It’s more like a city within a city, a cluster of ramshackle buildings on unplanned streets that are nonetheless not significantly dirtier than your average street in, say, Old Delhi.  The word “slum” conjures up images of raw sewage plopping into rivers, and we did indeed see that on our way into Dharavi.

But “slum” rarely invokes the image of factories, industry, and massive economic output.  That, however, is what we saw much more of in Dharavi.

Image00009 Dharavi sewing

It turns out Dharavi is packed with mini-factories working on a huge range of industries: recycling old candy wrappers, stitching jean pockets, and baking pastries.  Economic activity in Dharavi is estimated to turn around as much as $650 million a year.

Image00010 Dharavi sewing close

One of my new friends on a street in Dharavi

One of my new friends on a street in Dharavi

And how did Dharavians themselves feel about us?  Well, they were definitely curious about us — lots of staring as we walked by.  But again, not more staring than you’d experience in Old Delhi (or New Delhi, or Agra, or Kolkata, or virtually anywhere in north India).  Faces sometimes broke into smiles when I greeted them with “Namaste”; the smiles turned into laughs of surprise if I went further with, “Aap log kaise hain?” (“How are all of you doing?”)  If no one was exactly rolling out the welcome mat — because they were too busy working — no one was giving us the stink eye and telling us to get lost.

The strangest thing we saw in Dharavi, actually, was on Blue Dog Street.  This name is not a euphemism.  There are two dogs who live on this street who have been at the wrong end of a dye plant somewhere in Dharavi.

Image00016 blue dogs Image00018 blue dog

Super bizarre.

I only saw a tiny corner of Dharavi — over 1 million people live there — so I can’t say what life is like for everyone who lives there.  The people I saw, however, mostly seemed to be your average lower-middle class Indians: hard-working, busy at their jobs, enjoy tea breaks and paan (chewing tobacco), etc.

On the other hand.  I don’t want to glorify or romanticize poverty.  Everyone lives and works in very tiny spaces and the hygiene — hundreds of people reportedly sometimes share a single toilet — is appalling.  I started reading a book written by some rich Indians called Poor Little Rich Slum that I had to put down because it was just endless pablum about how wonderful and hard-working people in Dharavi are, and how their lack of material possessions didn’t prevent them from being rich in spirit, blah blah blah.  I notice the authors didn’t rush to quit their lucrative office jobs to move to a Dharavi shanty.  I’ve met a lot of poor people in India, and while it’s true that a person really doesn’t need about half of what your average American owns, most poor people live about one illness or natural disaster away from total bankruptcy.  I haven’t met anyone yet who enjoys that feeling.

* Fellow backpackers: I am sorry to report that the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet guide to India, which is so popular that travelers of all nationalities jokingly refer to it as “the Bible,” has let me down on multiple occasions.  For example, it cheerfully directed me to a hotel in Kolkata that was so infested with bedbugs that after leaving, I spent an hour picking them out of my luggage.  Shudder.  Use Trip Advisor.

Mumbai: A Photo Tour

Let’s all be honest here: I like cities.  I like nature, too, and there was much I loved about living at JV — the birdsong every morning at sunrise, the flitting butterflies, the delicious fresh mangoes, the clean air, the lush greenery.

But on the requisite “What Did You Learn” list from this summer’s adventure, “I am definitely a city person” is near the top.  I could lie and tell you that when I got to Mumbai, I was bothered by the hustle and bustle and honking and hawking and the one million insane drivers all attempting to kill you every time you crossed the street.

But I’d be lying.

Image00041 mumbai chowpatty

 

I loved Mumbai.  I loved that it was bustling.  I loved the hustle.  I loved that there were restaurants everywhere, from cheap Indian cafeterias to Lebanese eateries to a shiny doughnut bakery.  I loved Colaba, the tourist end of town, packed with vendors selling fruits, jewelry, glasses, key chains, etc. etc. etc.  I loved going to the beach.  I loved that there was a lot to see, do, eat, explore.   I loved that you could walk along Marine Drive for hours buying snacks and watching Indians hold hands, walk dogs, scold children.  I loved how easy it was to meet other foreigners.

And, yes, I loved that it was clean (relatively), that there was electricity (continuously), and that I could go to a cafe and drink a beer and eat chocolate cake.

If this makes a hopeless expat, then sue me.

And besides, I did go to a Bollywood movie while I was there.

An overview in photos:

Image00001 taj

 

 

The enormous Taj Mahal hotel, one of the fanciest (and most expensive) hotels in India.  Ever since the Mumbai bombings a few years ago, security here (and frankly throughout Mumbai) is tight is a drum.

Image00007 Dharavi garbageThe sewers dumping into a river behind Mumbai’s Dharavi slum — the largest slum in Asia, occupied by about 1 million people.  In spite of the fact that Slumdog Millionaire was partly filed here, Dharavi was actually defied a lot of slum stereotypes.  It was filled, for example, with small micro-factories — Dharavi has a GDP of something like $650 million.  It was very interesting.

Image00024 victoria terminal

Mumbai’s Victoria Terminal — its enormous central train station, a frosted Victorian era wedding cake of a building.  Many buildings in central Mumbai look like they were cut and pasted into the subtropical surroundings straight from London.  …mostly because they more or less were.Image00028 tank

 

 

Banganga Tank, an artificial lake/holy bathing pool ringed by temples and filled with koi and ducks.  A beautiful oasis of calm in the middle of Mumbai’s posh Malabar Hill.

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One of my new Swiss friends, Denise, and I outside the movie theater where we saw Bhaag Milkha Bhaag — an experience that proved you don’t have to know the language to follow the plot of most movies.


Image00050 india gate and taj

 

A view of the Taj hotel alongside the overwrought Gateway to India, also built during the British Raj.

Image00060 elephanta guideOur guide at Elephanta Island, about an hour’s boat ride away from Mumbai, where we saw a cave full of Shiva carvings dating from 800 AD.

Image00083 mumbai fruit vendor

A Mumbai fruit vendor at night.  There were some very good selections.  I ate my first custard apple in Mumbai.  Really delicious.  Sweet, soft, melts in your mouth.

Image00078 leopold's

The infamous Leopold’s.  I know you’re supposed to hate Leopold’s, but I loved that place too.  You can order draft beer by the pitcher and have French chocolate cake that could actually be French.  Plus it was a great place to meet other foreigners.  (For those of you who read about Leopold’s in Shantaram, they were actually selling copies of Shantram there.  I heard a rumor the author himself stops in on weekends occasionally, when he’s in the country.)

Image00082 mumbai streetMumbai at night.  Shiny, tropical, humid, busy.  All elements of the spell Mumbai cast over me.

 

Look, Ma! Mangoes!

The center of the JV campus is occupied by a large mango orchard.  Dadu and Rajesh told me that last year, villagers would come at night, knock the mangoes out of the trees into their truck beds, and drive off with their trucks full of rupees in fruit form.

This year, no one could do that, thanks to the illustrious Mango Squad — a family from the surrounding village of Jobhia.

Image00086 mango squad

In exchange for guarding the mango orchard and caring for the trees for several months, when the fruits ripened in June, the Mango Family got to sell the mangoes.

It’s hard to get mangoes out of tall trees.  Sometimes the Mango Squad hired fellow villagers to climb up and shimmy down baskets on ropes.

Other times, they used these:

Image00049 look ma mangoes 1

Not white people.  Bamboo pluckers.  They had a number of long bamboo poles with plastic sacks affixed to the end, like so:Image00051 mango basket

You jab the pole up into the tree, hook the end of the bag around a mango, wedge the stem between the pole and edge of the bag, and yank at the mango furiously until it breaks free and falls into your bag.

I spent one morning helping the Mango Squad with the harvest.  It was way fun!Image00050 look ma mangoes 2

How I Ended Up Giving A Speech To 1000 Indian Boy And Girl Scouts

The events leading up to The Most Absurd Day of My Life started five days earlier, when a palm-reading principal peered into my lifeline and announced that I have one year to get married.

Here’s how this started: I go with Daduji and Vincent, our driver, to Khalari to place an order for cement. Dadu had decided to replace part of the branches-and-wire fence surrounding the JV campus with a real brick wall. I had nothing to do with this mission, but tagged along as I was bored and a ride anywhere sounded like a great adventure.

 

To feel productive, I ask if we could stop and interview some local doctors. Dadu says sure, and we head to one doctor’s office, where we end up interviewing his assistant since the good doctor has left for the day.

In between scribbling notes on how many malaria patients the clinics treats each week, I notice a man across the street watching us from over his fence. He’s talking on his phone and gesturing excitedly. He waves at us a couple of times. I have no idea what this means, but when I finish the interview, Dadu turns to me and says, “Shall we go talk to this curious person who is interested in us?”

Trot into the house of this random strange man? …Sure? (I later learn this man is not a random stranger—Dadu has met him several times before.)

Inside the man and Dadu speak enthusiastically for a few minutes. He introduces me and explains what I’m doing in Jharkhand. Just when I’ve gathered from the fairly large bookshelf behind the man that he’s well-educated—there are two volumes of Greek tragedies in English—the man whips out his computer and asks Dadu for his date, time, and place of birth.

Belief in horoscopes is not uncommon in India—I met a man in India who gave “astrologer” as his profession—but I’m a little surprised when Dadu nods along with the resulting report about his life that the computer churns out, saying in English, “Very accurate.” I’m not surprised at all when the man turns to me and asks for my vitals. My own chart is wildly off-base. “You have no brothers.” “I have two.” “Your father has a digestive problem.” “…I…don’t really discuss these things with him.” “Your mother has a breathing problem.” “…Not that I’m aware of?”

He shakes his head and declares that my time of birth doesn’t exactly match up with the resulting chart, or something, so, that explains it.

I’m struggling to hold back an epic eye roll when Dadu urges me to show the man my palms. “He can read them,” Dadu says. I tentatively sit next to the man, who studies my palms for a few minutes.

For all my eye-rolling, what he tells me next is actually eerily accurate. “You’re doing research work now, just numbers and survey, but you can do much more creative things,” he says. “Writing, telling stories, oration.” I raise an eyebrow. “You have…mind is always changing. Not stable. First you want to do one thing, then other times you are wanting to do other things.” I raise both eyebrows. I don’t know what’s going on here, but if it’s all guesswork, this guy is making some phenomenal guesses.

So I’m a little alarmed when he also announces that “now has started your marriage time. You have one year to get married. That is the lucky time.” This would be nothing short of a miracle, as I don’t even have a boyfriend, but I decide not to volunteer this.

As our visit is ending, the man takes a call on his cellphone. In English, he discusses a class schedule. “He’s a principal, this man,” says Dadu. “Of a very good school.”

And he’s invited Dadu to speak at this very good school a handful of times before, so Dadu is not surprised when Mr. Principal-ji calls him on Friday and asks him to speak at “some event” the next day. “What event?” I ask over our lunchtime rice and dahl.

Dadu looks sheepish. “To be honest, I’m not really sure,” he says. “Something about the scouts, I think. I don’t know.” We both laugh. “I told him I was very busy, but he begged me, so I agreed to come.” I spoon some karela, or bitter gourd, into my rice. “Would you like to come too?” he asks me.

Why not? “Sure,” I say.

 

“You don’t have to come if you have something else on your schedule.”

 

“I have nothing to do.” Sushil has left town for Ranchi already, so I’ve lost my translator and driver for village interviews. “I definitely want to come.”

 

“Okay,” says Dadu. “I will tell them to be ready for a two-hour speech from the great Miss Chelsea-ji!” We both laugh again.

 

This is basically the last time we talk about the event until the next morning, when Dadu eyes my brown salwaar suit over breakfast and asks if I have anything shinier to wear. “Not really,” I say, my alarm growing mildly. I rebraid my hair after breakfast, hoping that’s enough and wondering exactly what this event is.

 

Disney fans: Do you remember the scene in Aladdin when Jasmine is marching Aladdin up some stairs and talking about how he’ll be sultan one day, and the nervous Aladdin, who clearly is unprepared for this turn of events, says, “Sultan?” and then she shoves him out onto a balcony to greet his future subjects and there are literally thousands of people waving at him and cheering?

Image00012 Indian scouts view 1

That’s exactly how I feel when when pull up to the D.A.V. School in Khalari. In a huge field in front of the school, there are literally hundreds of students sitting in neat rows facing a central stage. My later count of the rows and columns puts the estimate at closer to 1000. The principal, along with a cadre of hangers-on, greets us with a jolly grin and a hearty “Namaste!” at the door. He’s wearing a Western suit and has oiled his hair.

“What is going on,” I whisper through my teeth to Dadu. He doesn’t answer. Just inside the school gate, a pair of girls holding plates approaches me. One thumbs a tikka, a spot of holy red powder, onto my forehead while a man in white hum-chants a prayer. The other girl tosses a confetti of flower blossoms over my head. I press my palms together in front of my chest in thanks and try to smite the obvious panic from my features.

Inside the principal’s office, where we’re served snacks and tea by another pair of students, I meet two distinguished social activists, who, like Daduji, are also pushing 85 and also have spent their lifetimes trying to improve the lives of their rural countrymen.

 

“So,” I say, “What’s today’s event all about?”

 

“Yes,” Dadu jumps in, seeing the opening I’ve made. “Chelsea is wondering what today is all about. Please tell her.”

 

“It is the closing ceremony for the Bharat Scout and Guides,” the principal says. “They have just completed a week of training. They are…you can say, they do social works.”

 

“Ah,” I say. A week of what? The who? One of the Indian social activists is eyeing me with a look of suspicion. I smile weakly and chug my chai.

 

Just when I think I can’t feel any more out of place, the five of us—the trio of octogenarian Indian heroes, the principal of one of the best schools in the district, and…me—are escorted back outside and across the field by an honor guard of uniformed boy scouts and girl scouts. One of them shouts orders and his beret-clad compatriots take a set of mismatched marching steps sideways and forward, their white-gloved hands swinging like off-set pendulums.

 

And then we’re…escorted onto the stage. In front of the 1000 students. There are 5 chairs, and one of them is for me. Among the many things I am serenaded with in the next few hours is a personalized program of the morning’s events, stamped with the words, “PROGRAM GUIDE: MISS CHALSEA, SPECIAL GUEST.”

I try to look as serious and nonplussed as possible throughout, but I actually burst out laughing when I’m handed the program guide. And also when I’m given flowers. And a giant ribbon, like one of those prize ribbons handed out in horse races.  ….And a trophy. One of those gold-shellacked, sequin-encrusted plastic things you give to Little League players, only shaped less like a ball player and more like a dinner plate. I’m trying to give everything due respect, but the whole thing is so preposterous and over-the-top—I’m being given a trophy, for crying out loud, for doing pretty much nothing but showing up on a Saturday morning and remembering to brush my teeth—that it’s hard not to find it hilarious.

 

Dadu later explains to me that all of this is done to honor him. He asked to bring a guest, and in India, as I am repeatedly told, the guest is a god, and he is a person to whom one gives much respect, so his guest must be accordingly respected. When he tells me this, I think of how one Indian described the difference between the U.S. and India: “In your country I think it is the system that is more important than the individual, na? Here you can say it is the individual that is more important than the system.”

 

I don’t know this at the time, though, as I’m watching scouts march a color guard around the field, climb into acrobatic pyramids, and perform dances to “Jai Ho!” and another popular Indian top 20 hit. All of this is done facing the five of us on the stage, rather than the 1000 students who are sitting cross-legged in the mud, which strikes me as odd given that this is ostensibly an event honoring the successes of the scouts in the crowd. But, this is India, where hierarchy—as evidenced by Dadu’s blank check to bring me—trumps all, and we’re the guests of honor.

Image00023 pyramid boys Image00027 Chammach Challo
Image00017 Jai Ho 1

Eventually, Dadu makes his speech, and it’s a really good one. He doesn’t feed the students the typical, “You guys sure are great! And so is our country!” patter that both Indian and American pontificators are prone to serving up. He starts by reading a quote in Hindi. I don’t know what it means, but he then says he feels ashamed to read this description of India, “because of the way our country is today.” He spends the next 10 minutes berating India’s politicians for their greed and chastising Indians in general for failing to improve the country’s character, saying too many think only of earning money and not of improving their society. “Our country is not known for its honesty, fairness, and charity towards others.” he says. “It is known for greed and corruption. No one even follows the traffic laws here.” It’s hard to read the students’ faces from the stage, but the older ones are watching him with rapt attention. He ends on more of an up note, however, saying that when he sees these young students, “my heart feels hope again for the future of our country.”

Image00019 Dadu speech

We all applaud. “Great speech,” I whisper to him when he sits down again next to me.

 

He nods vaguely, says something to the principal, then turns to me. “You’re next,” he says.

 

Oh. So our joking around about me making a speech here wasn’t joking around after all. It had occurred to me on the ride here that that might be the case, so I’ve given this some thought, briefly. But mostly I’m going to wing it.

 

The emcee gives me a comically incorrect introduction, announcing that I am “studying education” and will soon be “going for her PhD.” I am then given an “escort” me to the podium, equally comical as it’s about three steps from where I’m sitting.

 

I blink at the crowd. A thousand students are looking at me.

 

“Namaste,” I start. The crowd responds in a mixture of Hindi and English, grinning and waving. I thank everyone around me whose name I can remember, and the students, for having me. Then I give a speech that goes something like this:

 

“You know, I’m not Indian, so it isn’t really my place to say what India should and shouldn’t do. That’s not why I came here. I came here to try and work with Indians who are interested in helping people who need help.

 

“The first time I came to India, three years ago, was honestly just to explore, with a friend of mine from college. We came to teach English, but also to travel and do tourism things, see the Taj Mahal. To be honest with you, the first two weeks I was in India, I thought, ‘This place is crazy.’ I was in Delhi, you know, and I thought, ‘It’s so crowded, so dirty, so overwhelming, and I don’t know how to get anywhere or do anything.’

 

“But I was here for two months, and when it was time to leave, all I could think about was when I would come back. You have a very beautiful country with very beautiful people. And—so many colors, sights, sounds. So many different cultures. It’s really a very exciting place, a very special place. It does have problems, as Upadhyayaji just described. But, you know, my country also has problems. And my heart is very glad to see all of you, here, in this organization dedicated to social work and helping others. Looking out at all of you, I have every faith that you will all go on to do great work that improves your society and your country—if you remember to always keep in mind the goal of leaving this world a better place than you found it. I came here to help my friends at Jagriti Vihara open a hospital for the rural people here—to help people who need help.

“And you can all do great things, as long as you stay committed to to leaving this world a better place than you found it. Thank you all again for having me.”

It’s not a super original message, but let’s keep it simple, I figure.  Dadu likes it — he later says to me, “You know, that was a good speech you made. You did not let me down.”

 

I feel really glad to hear that.

 

Hopefully, sometime in the next year, back in New York, when I’m spouting off about something else, ideally a shade more prepared, my future husband will be just as impressed.