Saturday, April 16, 2011

Screaming over suckling

I’m the only white person I’ve seen in over a week. I actually didn’t even notice until today when I went to the foreigner’s registration office to extend my visa, which is the most complicated process I’ve ever been through and I’m only just starting. There was an Irish man reading Dharma Bums in the office who told me I could cut him in line because he was just getting to the good part (he was on page 17). I eagerly accepted and then I realized it was the first time I could speak normal English with someone.
All the people who I work with everyday are really nice and love when I act Indian. I wore my salwar kameez suit and bindi (the red dot that women stick between their eyes) to the office today and got a thousand compliments on how Indian wear suits me. They are ecstatic when I speak Hindi and constantly ask me to read random signs in Devanagri script just to laugh as I sound out the Hindi words like a first grader. They do make some wonderful green tea though, so I embrace their teasing. The organization has also assigned two guys to be my entertainers of sorts while I’m here. They work at Gunjan doing AIDS and Alcoholism prevention work, but they’re around my age and know Dharamshala well. They walk me to the different offices and Gunjan locations since the organization is terrified that I’ll get lost and have an anxiety attack, thus prompting me to call the US Embassy and demand immediate removal by helicopter. That’s what the one told me anyway. My second night here, they offered to cook me dinner when I confessed that I hate cooking and don’t know how to do it. Then they ran the dinner over to me at 9:30 at night (normal dinner time actually) and called later just to make sure it tasted okay. The next day they showed me the highest cricket stadium in the world, which is in Dharamshala, and then showed me their “spot,” aka this neat roof top from where you can see the whole Dharamshala mountainside and then down into the valley. They’re the typical Indian male best friends, so they hold hands or have their arms around each other at all times. They also love making me speak Hindi, which is downright embarrassing around them since they speak so fast and always wonder how I can say I speak a little Hindi when I never understand them. Thing is, I can understand non-native Hindi speakers better. Hindi speakers speak soooo fast and they mumble their words. When I don’t enunciate while speaking, the guys (Rishi and Sahel) will tell me that my accent is better. Seriously? My “accent” is better when I slur my words and barely differentiate between syllables? Oh Hindi.
I tried to do some serious practice the other day at one of my field visits. It was a festival day, so after my interviews, the village invited Jyoti and me to the temple for lunch and the small ceremony. Lunch consisted of the entire village sitting in these neatly arranged double lines that would in a spiral around the temple. People sit on either side of this pathway which the food servers walk down with HUGE baskets of rice and food that they dish out. So Jyoti explains the whole ceremony to me and tells me how the lunch and eating will be conducted. We’re each given these massive plates made out of local leaves. The leaves are soaked and then set out until almost dry at which point they are sewn together into a plate with the super thin sheets of branch. On these plates, you get a mound, massive mound, of rice on which every other dish is poured. You then mix the rice and dish served and go at it with your hands. I still haven’t quite mastered the hands only eating (I’m great with a chapatti though!), and the two year old next to me definitely took notice. She would laugh at me every time I spilled or dropped food and get the attention of whoever was within earshot by pointing and jabbering in Hindi. She had slightly more food spilt down her shirt by the end of it, but comparing my neatness to a two year old is not saying much. By the end, I am more full than I think I’ve ever been from the heaps of rice and I still have a bit of the mound on my plate. I was pretty close to upchucking the whole bus and jeep rides home.
By now I’ve met with 9 women’s self-help groups who have all been pretty neat and shown me a different side of India. The most memorable however was one that met in what was equivalent to the pre-school of their village. For some reason, most of the women brought their pre-school aged children. Jyoti told me it was a holiday in some villages that day, so they wanted to be around their families. I was just happy that people actually showed up on a holiday since in India almost everything shuts down for the simplest of holidays (people miss work for up to four days after Holi on the grounds that they are celebrating in the remnants of the victory of good over evil). The kids were pretty quiet, so I didn’t think they’d be a problem. The conversation went seamlessly until one baby started whining until she was breastfed. This spurred about six other babies to whine until they were also fed. At first I wasn’t bothered because well, womanhood comes with such things and I had to expect it at one time or another. What I did not expect, however, was the noise. Until you’re in a small pre-school trying to conduct “meaningful” interviews with 20 women, you’ll never know how loud the sound of eight babies breastfeeding can be. That was the first time I’ve ever had to raise my voice over the sound of suckling. I’m sure it’s not the last since I will be meeting with women’s groups everyday for the next month. Gross.

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