Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Death strikes twice

I knew I would experience death in India. In a country so gripped by poverty, disease, illness and heartbreak I knew the experience of death would be inevitable. I just didn’t realise my experience would be so close to home and I certainly didn’t think it would strike twice in one day.
As soon as I heard the message come through on my phone, I knew it was mum. No Indian would be up that early sending text messages! My heart was racing before I’d even rolled out of bed and by the time I had read the message asking what time would be a good time to call I was covered in sweat. The moments between texting my mother back and her ringing felt like an eternity. Was it Grandma? Was it my niece or one of my brothers?
I soon learned that it was my grandmother. She had passed away during the night. I am not one of those ‘strong’ people when it comes to death and despite her being old and having led an amazing life, I sobbed like a child and desperately wanted to be beamed back to Australia to be with my family. I felt and still do feel tremendous guilt at not being able to say a proper goodbye to my much loved grandmother and be with my family in this time of grieving.
Nevertheless, I decided it would be pointless skipping class and went to the morning’s first lecture in hope of a distraction. Whilst waiting for the teacher to arrive I noticed an unusual amount of gossip and whispering taking place within the class. “Ssshhh don’t tell Kristen” someone whispered too loudly.
“Don’t tell me what?” I questioned.
A group of girls spun around and stared at me blankly. In the background someone mumbled the words “suicide” and the name of my friend, the ‘popular girl’ who I have often blogged about.
“What?” I demanded, going into an almost instant shock. Somewhere along the lines someone confirmed for me that yes my friend had indeed killed herself the night before.
The next few moments were a blur. I literally felt like I had stepped into a cartoon. My reaction to the news of my friend’s suicide was as foreign to me as the Punjabi language that was buzzing around the room. My head started to spin and all the noise around me went dull. I gasped for air, as though I was being choked. I was in complete and utter shock. Then the inconsolable tears came. I cried for a long time.
As anyone does when they lose someone to suicide, I have gone over and over in my head why such a talented, seemingly happy, popular girl would take her own life. I went over our last few conversations looking for hints but I could only come up with guilt. Guilt at not having been a better friend, guilt for not knowing that she was in trouble and guilt at rejecting her last dinner invitation by telling her I was too busy.
I have since found out that my friend poisoned herself after a supposed fight with her mother. I refuse to believe this to be the single cause. A single fight does not cause someone to take their own life and her own mother simply adored and worshipped her. I am not holding my breath waiting for the truth as it rarely emerges in places like India.
My friend’s death magnified the pain and grief I felt for my grandmothers death, I hope they both rest in peace or in my own belief be blessed with a good reincarnation. Goodbye and much love, Grandma and Tanu.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Wagah Border

Brent and I visited the Pakistan and Indian Wagah Boarder earlier this week. It is one of two tourist attractions in our state and with a day off and little else to do we took a short 2 hour bus ride, a very bumpy rickshaw drive and a very hot and squishy 1 hour car trip to the Pakistan border.
The border is known as the ‘Berlin Wall’ of Asia and each evening there is a retreat ceremony called the lowering of the flags. During the ceremony there is a parade by the Border Security force of India and the Pakistan Rangers Soldiers where the two sides literally take turns out-calling each other. The Indian soldiers line up on their side of the border and the Pakistanis do the same and one by one they take turns trying to shout the longest. This is then followed by an aggressive looking march towards the gate and eventually the lowering of the flags which all takes place while an unusually tall Indian man hypes up the crowd. As expected the crowd is segregated into men and women with a middle section reserved for foreigners.
After the ceremony we headed back to Amritsar to find something for dinner. Being close to the other main tourist attraction, the golden temple, there are only vegetarian food stalls and shops available but with Brent’s new ‘weight gain’ eating regime (due to losing 8kg from constant sickness) he was determined to find some chicken. Eventually we found a little old man who knew of a back street chicken shop and we negotiated with him 20 rupees (about 45c) to take us there on his rickshaw bicycle (basically a push bike with a seat for two attached to the back).
When we arrived we were surprised to find the tiny tucked away little shop buzzing and so we took a seat inside. After ordering we were equally surprised when the driver of the rickshaw bike came and joined us at our table. As our food arrived he leaned his scrawny body close to ours and ogled our food. “Mmm looks good, does it taste good?” he repeated several times. There was no way Brent was giving up his prized chicken but I looked at my humdrum vegetarian dhal and asked if he would like some. As I did he shrugged his shoulder and snatched the plate from me “Ok, if you’re not hungry” he replied and proceeded to eat the entire contents of dinner before leaving without a word.
Assuming the man was gone we paid the bill and set off to leave but our little friend was waiting outside keen to know where we wanted to go. After several attempts of trying to get rid of him we eventually gave in and reluctantly agreed to let him drive us to the bus stand. I say reluctantly because when we tried to negotiate the amount, he used the all too common phrase of “If you’re happy, I am happy” which is basically code for “I am going to rip you off severely once you get off my bike.” Sure enough when we got off the bike and gave him a very generous 55 rupees for a very short ride (but also for his persistence), he put on his best starvation face and said “only 55, I thought you were happy”. Getting a little more street smart or should I say ‘India smart’ we simply replied “yeah mate 55” and walked off ignoring his calls after us. The funny thing about many Indians is that when you give an inch they will at least try to take a mile.

As close as we will ever get to Pakistan

Indian Boarder Security Man

3rd from front - A very keen marcher

The Indian side - spot the female

The Pakistani side- again spot the female 

Lowering of the Indian and Pakitan flags

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A proposal!

One of my closest Indian girlfriends was looking a little sheepish at uni today. I knew she was hiding something so I prodded her to tell me what was going on.
“I got engaged yesterday” she whispered in my ear.
“WHAT?” I screamed back a little too loudly, drawing attention to our private conversation. My friend and I had often discussed the possibility of her marriage. She is 26 years old, fair skinned, tall and gorgeous – perfect Indian marriage material but as far as we were both aware her parents had not seriously started looking and had no plans until after her graduation. I should point out here that a very large majority of Indian marriages are arranged and it is the parents’ duty to find a suitable candidate.
It all began the morning before. My friend had returned home for two days as we were having time off after our exams. She was woken on the second morning and told to get ready as a potential husband was coming to meet her. Nervous and excited she protested, insisting it was not enough time to get ready and scolded her mother for not telling her earlier but nevertheless dressed in her best Indian suit and awaited her potential husband.
Apparently the connection was instant. It would have had to have been as the entire meeting took 15 or 20 minutes. My friend informed me that under the watchful eyes of both sets of parents the handsome Hindu who works in the Navy asked her about her expectations. She informed him that he would need to respect her parents. I knew this would be her one and only answer as we had discussed and rehearsed this very conversation only weeks before whilst snuggled up in her bed one night.  She then asked him of his expectations and he replied that his wife must stand by him but have her own personality. He also informed her that he occasionally “takes alcohol” and is a ‘non-veg’ and she slyly and quietly informed that despite her Hindu religion, she occasionally did the same. I challenged her as to why she didn’t ask him further questions like his perspective on raising children or what he would do if they had a girl, but I knew as well as she did that these kinds of questions were inappropriate to ask a future husband and regardless of her opinion on the matters his and his families opinions will forever trump hers should they get married.
And that was that! It was a match made in heaven, they are of the same religion and caste and they liked the look of each other so their engagement will be announced shortly after our lectures finish on April 12th. They are planning to marry in June which is brilliant for me as I will still be around to watch the nuptials.
It is in situations like this that I remember how different our two worlds are. Although I have known for a long time about arranged marriages in India and have even attended one, the reality of it is really magnified when it is a close friend doing the marrying.

A day in the life

Once again I have been purposefully slack in my blogging as my days at uni are pretty monotonous and I am in the thick of mid-term examinations, however I realised this morning that my days here are vastly different from how I would ever spend them in Australia and I thought I’d share with you a bit of a ‘day in the life of…’ story.
Every morning I am woken before dawn to the distance sounds of a mixture of Sikh and Muslim chanting and prayers at their respective Gurdwaras and mosques. Then the morning ritual of throat clearing begins! I initially thought this noise to be stray dogs fighting or choking every morning until I regretfully asked a friend who happily informed me that Indians have a throat clearing ritual of coughing up phlegm. He informed me it was a necessity due to the pollution and dust and unfortunately went on to demonstrate how to perform this task whilst urging me to take up the practice. Thankfully, the noise is soon drowned out by the university construction workers who seem to have no time constraints on when they can start and finish work.
When the sun finally shows its face I go and buy two cups of milk from the ‘mess man’. Every morning I practice my Hindi on him asking for milk. Yesterday however, I was rather embarrassingly informed by a mortified girlfriend that I have actually been asking for ‘a pair of breasts’ as I have been leaving out the all important word of ‘cup’. No wonder the ‘mess man’ is so happy to see me every morning!
Then comes a full day of lectures from nine to three, Monday to Saturday. I find this system quite torturous as the lectures are usually in Hindi and are very strict. On several occasions I have tried to use this time to study the small amount of English notes from a previous lecture only to be told to pay attention. Skipping class is also not an option due to the strict attendance rules. This also leaves very little time for any actual study or in my case working out what the lecture was about. I initially found it quite difficult going from being a top student to one that is just passing but it is probably a very good lesson for me and I am ever so slowly learning to appreciate the experience and ignore my pride and ego.
After class I meet up with a girlfriend at the gym for an hour and a half. India has to be the only country in the world where your gym trainer offers you tea and chocolate biscuits… whilst you are peddling away on the broken exercise bike.
After a few hours study and a shower out of a bucket I go and try to convince my ‘hostel buddies’ that 730pm is not too early to be eating dinner. I do this every night! Indians eat late, usually between 9 and 11pm and whilst I get the ‘when in Rome’ saying, I am just too hungry come 730pm. Every evening I am ushered into my friend’s tiny room and sit with her four roommates on her tiny bed that is squished between the wall and another tiny bed. Often she will very sneakily text her friends to “come and see the white girl” in her room and on one such occasion I found myself being introduced to 30 odd different friends before actually getting out the door to dinner. I should mention here that Brent and I eat separately because there are separate mess facilities for girls and boys. While we do have the option of eating out of the mess, we are the only people on campus with this luxury and I find eating in the mess to be a good chance to meet people.
Once I finally convince my friend to leave her room, we make the inevitable stop offs at several other hostel rooms to collect other friends to have dinner with us. Dinner is always the same, a vegetarian mixture of rice, chapatti, dhal and one other vegetable dish. There is often a ‘salad’ which is always simply sliced radish and carrot. Dinner is eaten with the fingers of your right hand and I love eating like this!
The process after dinner is much the same as before. We make several rounds of the hostel visiting different people and like a toy doll I am urged to try on their clothes, jewellery or make-up or told to repeat the limited Hindi I actually know while girls watch on and clap and cheer or take my photo. They love to see me in traditional Indian clothes and on one such occasion one of the lecturers took much delight in dressing me in one of her saris and positioning me in literally hundreds of positions whilst she took my photo. Usually getting back to my room is no mean feat and I usually have to lie and say my husband wants me back as this seems to be the only excuse that they will give in to due to being subordinate to their men. If Brent is away or out the girls will continue to text or knock at more door at all hours of the night. I really have no idea when Indians sleep.