snakes in bangalore

from a letter home from bangalore in 2010

Mean people. This story doesn’t actually start with mean people. It starts with the wide variety of people – mostly people from the state of Bihar, I am told – that sell sundry goods on the streets. I am not talking about the people who set up shop somewhere on a blanket or tarp on the sidewalk to sell socks or clothes or bangles or DVDs. Rather, I mean the wandering vendors. First are the ones that wander near traffic lights and come up to cars when stopped, akin to windshield washers in US cities. Some of the things they sell are reasonably practical and you could see yourself possibly buying something – a rag to wash your windshield, or sunglasses, or magazines and books if stuck in unexpected
traffic. Sometimes umbrellas during monsoon season; sometimes electric tennis racquets for swatting at mosquitoes. And then, they sell toy helicopters. They aren’t small, either, these are helicopters are over a foot long, I would guess from trying to look at them without looking interested in the slightest. It is hard to imagine suddenly realizing the usefulness of a helicopter while sitting in traffic. Even if you were on your way to a kid’s birthday party or something, it seems that you wouldn’t opt from the helicopter since everyone would know precisely where you got it and roughly how much you paid. I presume that either the helicopters are actually a big seller or that they have a lot of leftovers, since they always seem to be zooming around between stopped traffic.

Similarly are the people who try to you sell you things while walking down the street – the ones who walk with you for a ways. Again, some of these items are reasonably useful and you could see yourself buying one on the street – an umbrella, sunglasses, a map. Even the idols or “Indian” trinkets probably appeal to enough tourists and such to make it worth it. And then there are the kids who get stuck (?) selling the wooden toys – namely, snakes and small backgammon sets. The snakes are the jointed ones that you hold by the tail and wave and can get to wriggle something like a snake in the air. Who decided that these items would be hot sellers on the street? Have you ever been walking down the street and felt the need for
a snake or a board game? I personally have not (though I do now have some inkling as to one situation in which such a thing could come in handy). Moreover, unlike some chains of sales where the refusal of the first item might lead the vendor to offer something more appealing to the sort of person who would refuse the first item, it seems hard to imagine that people that turn down the snake would be stoked by the backgammon set (they are always offered in that order, snake first). What’s more is that these boys are stationed every 30 feet or so down the sidewalk. I can imagine that there are some items – maybe jewelry or a new pair of sunglasses – where you initially refuse and then you think, “damn, that was silly, it’s a
reasonably good price and I could actually use a spare x.” In such a situation, this sales approach might work. But it seems hard that this scenario would play out with a snake. And yet, one boy will walk with you for 10 to 20 feet, emphatically saying “snake, madam” and as soon as you have made it clear that you have no interest in snakes, the next one is upon you with the exact same offer.

Anyway, all of this is by way of prelude to the next bit, to attempt to convince you that I have had a reasonable amount of interaction with fake – but with such real movements! – snakes of late. Also, I should point out that pedestrian traffic here is usually fairly fluid between the sidewalk and the road, moving from one to the other as the conditions of one get worse or someone is blocking one or the other. But, of course, sometimes the sidewalk is completely blocked and you have to opt for the road. Conversely, sometimes vehicles are parked by the curb, so that you cannot step off the sidewalk to go around the non/sentient obstacle.

Such was my luck the other day, when I was returning to work after a quick errand at lunch time. I can around a corner where a van was parked, blocking the ability to step off into the street, and was approached by two women carrying baskets. They were sort of round and squat baskets, like a slightly puffed up version of the sort of thing from which you would expect to have tortillas served. The actual sequence of events is a bit lost on me now but it seems that one woman asked for money; I tried to move around her and was blocked by the younger one, who grabbed my arm, and then the initial one opened her basket, which contained a snake that I am 99% sure was quite real and quite hissy. And, in one of
these India-type moments where you ask yourself later “did I really just do that to another human being?,” I took the blocking girl by the shoulders and forcibly moved her out of my way. Not very nice, perhaps, but then, neither was the snake.

how is the body doing?

morning ayurveda lessons

dr. b, dr. s, & i

from a letter home from chennai in 2008, when i was there studying diabetes. drs. s & b, i hope it is OK to include this photograph!

To help add context to my research, I have undertaken a series of interviews with doctors and dieticians at the hospital to see how “biomedicine” in India “talks” about diabetes.  I have also interviewed five Ayurvedic practitioners on the same.  While four easily obliged to doing a one-hour interview on the topic, Dr. S, an 85-year-old practitioner declared that we could not begin with the diseased state, but had to begin at the beginning of Ayurveda.  Thus began some two weeks of early morning classes on Ayurveda by Dr. S and his son.  Dr. S is much aggrieved that the world does not know Sanskrit, and therefore cannot read and interpret the Ayurvedic texts for themselves to apply them to all aspects of living and research, which they would surely enhance.

Thus, every class includes at least one promise that I will learn Sanskrit (he swears I can do this quickly, which is how I have ended up buying three old (heavy!) ayurvedic textbooks).  The class also usually includes Dr. B (his son) reading in Sanskrit (Dr. S is nearly blind) from the texts, Dr. S interrupting when he remembers the verse to finish it off, and then usually his chiding his son on the fact that his Sanskrit is not up to snuff.

One discussion centered on the separation of the body, mind, sense and soul, the body primarily being a vehicle for the soul, the essence of the individual.  (After this class, I learned to begin our conversations not with “how are you?” but rather “how is the body?”).  Anyway, during this discussion, presumably to help illustrate the point, he said: You see, the soul is youthful, the soul is bubbling over with Ayurveda…but THE BODY is fatigued and THE BODY is SWEATING.”  By this point, he had risen out of his chair and removing his two shirts to relieve the sweating.  To prove his state, I was asked to both examine the shirts for their wetness and to feel them, in case one sensory experience was inadequate.

Then, addressing an invisible audience, he continued, pointing emphatically at his collarbone: THE COLLARBONE is DISlocated because THE BODY has fallen three times in the bathroom since January.

Since then, I have learned many things about his bodily state that I would have just as soon not know.  For example, he has a catch in the lower back due to an excess of wind cause by eating too many fried foods.  He also, at 75, suffered from weak urine flow, which he corrected through self-manipulation of the prostate…

sunglasses (googles) in bombay

this is from the summer i spent in bombay (2009), when I was living in dharavi and part of a research project on an unregistered slum near reay road station (i’ll call this community RR).

as many of you may know, i am pretty attached to my sunglasses.  not attached in the sense that i have a favorite pair – because a single pair of sunglasses rarely lasts me long enough to form that kind of connection with them.  but, for the most part, they live on my head or in my face and, India being a sunny place, seem a perfectly reasonable part of my attire here. to be honest, i think they are appropriate attire in just about any weather or degree of darkness (along with corey hart, though for different reasons).

imagine my consternation, then, when we arrived in RR and kiran, one of my research partners, suggested that i not wear my sunglasses.  he explained that people would take it as a mark of celebrity and they would be less likely to talk with me.  so, now when kiran and i ride into RR, i obliging take off my sunglasses just before we turn into the community and slip them out of my bag – and put them back on the second we turn out of the community at the end of the work.

indeed, sunglasses do seem to carry a considerable amount of status – for something that i am pretty sure you can buy cheaply on the street here.  they are a major point of ‘conversation’ at breakfast at the home where i am staying.  a good chunk of breakfast time is spent with different people trying on the sunglasses (generally referred to as ‘googles’), me taking pictures of assorted people wearing the sunglasses, then passing around the camera so everyone can see said pictures and have a good laugh over the precise thing that they had just witnessed.  this, at least so far, seems to provide endless amusement.

traveling pants (absolutely nothing to do with a sisterhood)

From a letter home from India in 2008:

The topic of this section is pants.  It requires a small introduction.  For the most part, I wear my own pants and have purchased some of the long tops with slits up the sides (kurta) that most of the girls with whom I work (unmarried, so generally pre-sari) wear.  Most of the girls buy entire outfits, with coordinating pants, top and shawl (salwar kameez).  I do not do this.  First, I think the shawls can a pain to wear all the time.  Second, I am not used to ‘outfits.’  I like trying different pants and tops together.  The outfit concept seemed quite stifling.  Third, I despise the pants.  They come in two basic varieties, neither of which stretches or moves with you the way pants do at home.  The first are mildly balloony at the top and then tight all the way down – basically, jodhpurs (churidar).  These don’t do it for me.  The currently fashionable pants are huge, with a zillion pleats at the top and then ballooning out and coming in tight at the ankle.  To be sure, they look quite elegant on some woman.  However, those will always and forever mean only one thing to me: they are MC Hammer pants, and I cannot wear them.

Anyway, I had been trying to do my own laundry.  Then, I accidentally dyed two pieces of clothing the wrong color.  I guess I wasn’t thinking that the dyes here were quite so strong — or just wasn’t thinking in general.  Frankly, it is probably the best tie-dye work I have ever done, except that since it was unplanned, it is only dyed in some places.  Besides this, I just felt that my clothes were never really clean.  So, I have in and took them to a laundry/dry cleaners.  As far as I can tell, laundromats are not are not an option here.  And, I had been putting off using the laundry for another reason.  They keep your clothes for a week, so I had to go on a shopping trip so I had enough clothes to last for the week while the other half were being washed.  Once that was done, off the first round of clothes went.  About an hour after I left the clothes, I got a panicked call from the man at the laundry.  ‘The green pants you left?  The bottom hem is gone.  I mean, it is entirely gone.’

‘Oh dear,’ I replied.  ‘Well, please wash them anyway.’  That’s what I said.  What I was thinking was: Of course it is gone.  I bought them that way.  They are created to exist without the bottom hem.  It is supposed to be cool.  I had a similar conversation with Aberna about my J Crew-orange pants that, when they were brand new, looked like they had been faded in the sun.  ‘Oooh, these pants are very faded, aren’t they?  That is not good.’  I am never sure in these conversations when to do a bit of cultural teaching and explain precisely how much I paid for the pants to look just they way they do.  This is a similar conversation as to when we talk about the fabric of my clothing.  Aberna will touch my clothes and say, ‘Oooh, do you think this fabric is good?’  What she is asking is, ‘This is not 100% cotton, is it?’  Again, there is no good way to explain that being 100% cotton is not necessarily a status symbol in the US or a weather-dictated necessity and that the only reason I check the cotton content of clothes when I am purchasing them is to see if they will shrink in the wash.

Anyway, back to distressed and faded clothes.  There was an article in Vogue not so long ago about a similar topic.  It discussed the rise of jeans as an appropriate dress-up outfit and how it worked because people knew that you could afford to wear something fancier or nicer, but you had chosen not to do so.  Moreover, I remember John telling me about some similar confusions with antique shopping in China – ‘why would you want to buy something old?’

The lesson applies here as well: the distressed, the vintage and so forth only works when it is clearly an option, not when for most people it is a necessity.  That is, it does not work here.


wax prints (holland cloth)

A recent article came up about ‘African’ or ‘tribal’ prints.

I wrote a bit about this while I was in Ghana: Cloth is a big deal in Ghana – every Friday is traditional cloth Friday and many employers have a special organizational print available for employees to purchase.  For women’s clothing, cloth comes in two main varieties – wax prints and batiks.  I prefer the batiks, as the fabric is generally softer (I was told that batik is the English word; locally, it is known as ‘tye and die’).  I have found a few nice places (and the egg sandwich lady said that she will take me to her favorite place when I have time (“That would be great, when do you close your shop?”  “Oh, that doesn’t matter, we’ll just go!”)) and a great tailor named Pearl.

The wax prints are quite pretty (though sometimes you unfold a piece of fabric all the way and learn that what at first just looked like a nice design includes stranger things, like chalkboards or hands or other unexpected images).  They are, however, often heavier and stiffer, which makes them suitable for many of the two-piece dresses that local women wear (or, more likely, the style developed because the fabric was stiffer) but not necessarily appealing to me.

Fewer and fewer of the wax prints are made in Ghana and are rather being imported from China.  Interestingly, some of the most venerated fabric comes from Holland, also by an initially Eastern route.  How, precisely, a Dutch cloth-house founded in the 1840s (Vlisco, in the Netherlands) has come to be the premier fabric in West Africa is still somewhat unclear to me but I have pieced some things together thanks to the magic of the interwebs.  According to the timeline on the Vlisco website (which also has lots of pretty pictures), initially the company mimicked the prints of Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) and exported their fabrics there.  In the 1870s, they began exporting to West Africa as well, where apparently the “eastern” designs had developed some cache.  The site attributed the West African familiarity with “eastern batik” to “the return of African soldiers from Indonesia between 1837 and 1872.  These soldiers settled primarily in Ghana.”  Who were these soldiers?  Evidently, the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, decreed in 1830, was populated by Dutch volunteers (national conscription was not allowed) and by mercenaries from Europe (Switzerland, Germany, Belgium), from the East Indies and from Gold Coast.  These troops played a large role in the Padri, Java and Aceh Wars.

Despite its growing popularity (and the growing importance of the West African market to Vlisco after competition became steeper in Indonesia), no director bothered to go to West Africa until the 1930s.  The African market became increasingly important to Vlisco after the 1950s and became its only market after the 1980s.