Sunday, February 21, 2010

Adventures In India

I'm back from India! Most of these pictures are from an area of rural West Bengal where my extended family lives. It's roughly a hundred miles west of Kolkata (also called Calcutta).
These are the rice fields. Rice basically needs to be in a shallow pond to grow, so the farmers have a clever way of using gates made of thick clay-like mud in the boundaries between the fields to raise and lower water levels. They pull out a bunch of mud to make the water flow from one place to another, and when they have enough water, they put the mud back. This rice is pretty recently planted. West Bengal is so fertile that you can have three or four harvests in a year, with some crops.

One day three large monkeys appeared! They're not an everyday sight and children started running after them in excitement, so the monkeys ran away up into the trees. When standing erect, they're about the size of a small person. I don't know what kind of monkey they are. Apparently they don't bother anybody, though they might steal food you leave around. Villagers regard them with the kind of amused interest that you'd expect nice people to have for large monkeys.

These are my cousins Somnath (flexing) and Bikramjit in a mustard field. When the mustard flowers are in full bloom, it becomes a solid field of bright yellow. When you look down at the crazy quilt of Indian farmland from an airplane during the right season, you see these little patches of solid yellow and you know what they're growing right there.

As I wandered around the fields with Somnath and Bikramjit, I came upon a group of villagers preparing to have a series of cockfights. About a dozen roosters were tethered like this on the already-harvested rice fields. For the fight, they untether them and the roosters start fighting (apparently this is a thing that roosters naturally do, and the rooster on the left seemed eager to get it on even while he was tied up). I didn't really want to watch the fighting, so I left before that happened. Even the losers are probably living happier total lives than their debeaked and caged kin on factory farms, so I didn't get too agitated about this.

I didn't realize that people cultivated sunflowers in the area until I saw this. It's for the oil from their seeds.

Cousin Koushik stands in front of the little temple beside his house. I think it's a temple to Vishnu, and I really don't know how old it is. The carvings are wonderfully intricate but damaged -- little statues have lost their heads and stuff. It was closed so we couldn't go inside.

Here's my photogenic cousin Priyanka with herds of cows and goats behind her. The cuteness of goats is underrated.

Lunch is served! For the most part, the women prepare the food and serve the men, and have their meals when the men are done. This can create serious inequalities, especially in situations where there's less food to go around. Fortunately, my dad's family is doing well foodwise and that particular thing isn't an issue. Priyanka is freed up to eat with the boys because she's in school and doesn't cook. Daughters of her generation in the family are getting good educations and teaching in schools or taking your outsourced IT job rather than cooking and cleaning for a living, which is a very positive development.

Here I'm sitting with the ladies who do the cooking -- two of my cousins-in-law and two aunts. They've all had arranged marriages (as my mom did) but their views on relationships were quite open-minded. They were eager to see pictures of a girl I'm hoping to spend some time with when I come to the States this summer, so I got my laptop and showed them. I tried to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, because these ladies were especially fun to talk to.

The object on the lower left is a cooking implement that I haven't seen elsewhere -- a flat board with a curved blade going upwards. It's called a "boteen" and it takes advantage of the fact that people are going to be sitting on the ground so they can put a foot on the board to hold it in place while they slice vegetables by pulling them through the blade.

Here's a relatively prosperous section of Bikrampur, where my mother grew up. That big hay thing in the front is a haystack, not a house, though there is a thatched roof a bit further out. Indians are really good at building these big house-shaped haystacks, as you might expect from people who farm lots of long-stalk plants and need to feed their animals.

My aunt in Bikrampur was able to quickly assemble these plates out of leaves and long thin bits of wiry wood. I was astonished. She needed them to cook gorgora pita, small cakes with a sweet filling that will stick to metal surfaces if they're cooked there. It's a favorite food in the region.

The mustard fields were blown sideways by a big storm. I think these are after their flowering period. Anyway, it allowed for a nice picture of me and Priyanka.

Cousin Shantinath, who is an accountant for a construction company, told me that he once saw a German tourist in Calcutta who had smoked a cigarette and was looking in vain for a wastebasket to through the butt in. Shantinath went up to the guy and explained that in Calcutta, you just throw your trash in the street. I probably should've taken some pictures of the place, as I flew though there coming and going, but it was so drably unpleasant that I really didn't feel like it. There's the poverty and the dirtiness and griminess of everything, and on top of that the fact that about a third of the city smelled like shit. Literal shit. It's the worst city I've ever been to. This site explains, "Calcutta's sewage system was created under the British around the turn of the century to serve a city of 600,000. The system has had little added to it and the original structure has significantly deteriorated yet it is supposed to serve a city of now about 14 millions and growing. " So instead of stinking Calcutta with its horrible smells and constant noisy traffic, I give you cousin Shantinath in this idyllic setting.

Mom and I are drinking from green (unripe) coconuts on the train back to Calcutta. It's a tasty and nutritious source of clean water. They cost ten rupees (25 cents) each.

So, that's the best of the pictures. Some other odds and ends:

Americans honk at somebody to send a message that they're doing something wrong. Indians honk to give other drivers (and cyclists and pedestrians and people driving ox-carts) auditory awareness of their location. It's as if they're trying to keep you aware of where they are with sound as well as sight. In other words, they're honking constantly. This is one of the reasons why traffic in Kolkata is absolute cacophonous hell.

India is what mathematicians call "mosquito-dense" -- between any two mosquitos there's a third mosquito. Okay, that's a joke, but it's to the point where slapping mosquitoes in the air just doesn't help. There's so many of them that one less isn't going to make a difference. Even the Kolkata airport was full of mosquitos. My feet just got eaten like crazy.

The toilets on the West Bengal trains look like toilets at the top, but as you look into them you see that they're really just holes going down to the train tracks. In other words, if somebody shits, the shit spatters all over the tracks. A sign says that you shouldn't use the toilets while the train is in the station, I think so that people waiting at the station won't have to be around your shit. But anyway, this is just disgusting.

On the upside, my relatives all have electricity now. 15 years ago when I last visited, only a few of them did and it was very shaky. This time it sometimes went down, often during storms, but it returned before long.

There was a horrible terrorist attack while I was in West Bengal, in which Maoist rebels called Naxals rode in on bikes and killed 24 policemen who were sitting down to eat. True to the usual ways that groups on the communist left relate to each other, the Maoists' most intense hatred is for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which governs West Bengal. The CPI(M) accuses its rivals in the more centrist Congress Party, which rules India as a whole, of being soft on the Naxals.

One of the things you have to deal with if you're traveling in West Bengal is the possibility of a bandh -- a general strike in which nobody does any business and transportation stops. The word comes from bondho, meaning 'closed'. These are forms of political civil disobedience, and there are 40-50 of them a year in West Bengal, ranging from a few hours to two days.

February is exam month in West Bengal, and a bunch of my younger cousins were studying or had already done their exams. I took a look at what they were studying. Cousin Koushik from the temple picture above is in the 12th grade and he was doing what looked like second-semester calculus. The little kids knew math ahead of what I recall from good US school districts at their age. Really, I'm impressed with these kids.

My ability to speak Bengali progressed freakishly well over the course of one week. I hadn't spoken it that much for 15 years, since it had been that long since my last visit. Shantinath told me that he was totally astonished.

I didn't get sick! This is because I was absolutely sure not to drink any local tap/well/pump/river water, only bottled water, and Mom made my relatives aware that local water would make me sick, so they were very careful. I even brushed my teeth with bottled water. Also, I didn't eat any unpeeled fresh fruit. The last few times I came, I experienced painful stomach problems, but not this time.

The food was wonderful. Thanks to all my aunts and cousin-in-laws who lovingly cooked so many yummy things (in ways that didn't make me sick)! I would've had some photos, but like a lot of Indian food, you can't really tell how good it tastes from how it looks. You just put it in your mouth and if you hadn't had Indian food before, you'd feel like you were experiencing flavor three-dimensionally for the first time.


Mary said...

Beautiful photos and informative narrative! Thanks for sharing, Neil.

big bad wolf said...

me too. thanks for this, neil, it was very informative and very nicely done

corvus said...

Welcome back, Neil. Thanks for the photo essay. It was neat!

Amod said...

Thanks for the pics, Neil. My Indian family all live in cities, so I've never really seen the village life.

I actually liked Calcutta a lot when I went there - but then I'd gone there after travelling around a lot of other big Indian cities. It's less touristy, less hassle-prone, more cosmopolitan, more civilized. But like Bombay and all the others, it sure does stink.

Anonymous said...

Neil.....for years your mother wanted me to come and travel with her to India....sadly it never happened due to finances at first and then busy lives. I SO appreciate the careful and thoughtful manner in which you spoke of and took photos of this part of her life. What a treasure....really hope to see you at Supriyas grad in June.

Anonymous said...

the last comment was from Elly

Benjamin Rider said...

Thanks for the great pictures, Neil!

Andy said...

Thanks for posting this, very interesting!

beckya57 said...

Believe it or not, I remember toilets flushing onto the tracks when I traveled in Italy in the 1970's. I also remember the rules forbidding use while in the station. That last point about brushing your teeth with bottled water is important. I've traveled to Mexico and Central America many times, and have never gotten sick; I'm sure my care about often-forgotten aspects like tooth brushing is part of the reason. Also, never eat food from street vendors in the 3rd world.

Malati dasi - Australia said...

Nice pics and a very honest account -- not defensive.

Upon reading your narrations, I thought I was reading my own travel journal!

Been to India 3 times because my guru lives there. My recent was in Jan-Feb this year for 3 weeks in W. B. & U.P.

Let see if the fast economic growth in India will bring much good to the environment and lives of people there.

Anonymous said...

I think those monkeys are called langurs, but it's hard to tell from the photo (and most of the langurs I saw in India were grey).

Also, pace beckya, I'd advise anyone traveling in India to buy fresh samosas from street vendors for breakfast. Delicious!