Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Week 8 (Monday 27th November – Sunday 3rd December, 2006): Back in Kolkata

PICTURES: First is me with P. Sainath, a photojournalist at his exhibition "Visible work, Invisible women". Next is a picture of me with Rahul Bose, an Indian actor. when he came to participate in Swayam's 16-day campaign. I took a picture with Anindita, one of the Swayam staff, at Oxford bookstore, where an artist put up a painting exhibition "SHE", to raise and donate funds to Swayam. The next picture is of the Swayam staff with visitors from Bangladesh, who also participated in the 16-day campaign. The picture was taken at another exhibition "Women Struggle, Women Resist". The last picture is of Anu and Anindita putting up campaign banners at an outreach program in Metiabruz, a place in Kolkata.

After leaving the train on my arrival in Kolkata, I was heckled by a lot of taxi drivers, but a quick look at my stern face dissuaded most of them from pursuing me. I took a deep breath to calm myself down. One particular driver refused to be shaken off, and finally persuaded me to go with him. When I got to his car, I said I wanted a car with a meter. He tried to convince me that a meter would be three times more expensive than the Rs. 300 he wanted to charge me. I told him I wanted a car with a meter, he and his friend were trying to persuade me to go in his taxi. I told him I wouldn’t pay Rs. 300, because I had taken a taxi to the airport, which was more than 30mins away, and I hadn’t paid Rs. 300 for that, using the meter. He finally relented, and I bargained down to Rs. 200. I was actually quite angry that he had tried to rip me off by so much, so I called Chandrana, one of the ladies at the Swayam office, to ask how much I should pay. She suggested around Rs. 150. I don’t know why I was taking my anger out on that poor driver, but I was quite mad. On the way home he stopped at a petrol station, and wanted me to give him the whole fare to buy petrol. I gave him half and said I would give him the other half when we got to the house. He tried to reassure me that I had nothing to fear. I was not to be moved. I had this irrational anger towards most Indian men, after my experience at Jaipur, <, and with the travel agent, that I was ready to commit murder. Poor taxi driver! He got me safely to Saptaparni, and I gave him his remaining Rs. 100. I went upstairs where Naran met me, and then I had lunch and took a nap. I didn’t unpack, except to remove the most essential things out and to remove the dirty clothes to be washed. Later that evening I called Anu to let her know I had arrived.I went into the office the next day. The 16 days of awareness campaign had started, so that afternoon I went with the staff to Metiabruz, a locale in Kolkata with a predominantly Moslem population. It was an outreach program, with a film show and a poster exhibition. It was quite nice. On our way back I entertained Anindita and Kakali with my renditions of some Hindi movie songs and with the few phrases I had learnt.

On Wednesday the 29th there was a picture exhibition opened at Gorky Sadan, titled “Women Struggle, Women Resist”, also part of the awareness campaign going on. I didn’t go in to the office because I wanted to work on my AAUW application, which was due on Friday 1 December. On Thursday the 30th of November I went into the office and sent in my AAUW application. In the afternoon I went to Gorky Sadan with the staff to view the picture exhibition and to watch a play mounted by a Bangladeshi team that had arrived to work with Swayam on the 16 days of activism activities. Later that evening we went to Oxford Bookstore for a painting exhibition titled “SHE”, held by Anita Gurbaxani, a painter who wanted to donate the proceeds of the painting show to Swayam.

On Friday I came into the office late, to find the office locked. On the elevator ride down from the apartment, the operator had told me that there was a bandh (strike) in effect. The roads were eerily silent for Kolkata, but that was because most buses and taxis were parked as part of the strike, against the land at Singur being given to Tata motors to use for one of their plants. I was able to get into the office as the security guy and Ganesh were present. I called Jagati and she explained to me that people couldn’t make it to the office because they couldn’t get transportation. Taking advantage of the quiet, I did a few things on the internet. Later on Saswati, Anu and Gargee also came into the office. From there we left for the Seagull Media house, where there was another picture exhibition titled “Visible Work, Invisible Women.” It was a pretty moving exhibition, and I would like to own some of those pictures. The stories they tell are quite depressing. I met this French lady called Charlotte, who is working with the French Association here in Kolkata. She gave me her card and phone number, and asked me to call her if I wanted to hang out. I had met Anindita’s fiancé the day before at Gorky Sadan, and he gave me a lift home as he lived near Saptaparni. Today I watched “Dil Chahta Hai” which was a bit different from most of the Hindi movies I had seen. I wasn’t too sure what to make of it, though it was still pretty nice.

The office was open from morning on Saturday morning, but I woke up in an absolutely foul mood, and when I got to the office they could tell. I don’t know why I was so mad at the world. Anyway, there was a panel discussion at Gorky Sadan on “Women and State Violence”. It was an okay presentation, except for the man who was a historian and therefore spoke for too long. I left with Anamitra to go see a seamstress about a few things. When I got back home I watched “Rang De Basanti” a very moving, and well done film. I decided not to watch it again the next day because it was way too emotionally draining. It was nothing like most of the movies I had already seen, but it had a pretty huge impact on me, so much so that Twum asked me what was wrong with me when he called me that evening. He said I sounded sad.

The next day, Sunday, we had a panel presentation on “Time Men Act to Stop violence” at Gorky Sadan, featuring Bharat (from Vishakha in Jaipur), Ruchira (a lecturer at the law school) and Rahul Bose, a Bollywood actor. Later that evening, Rahul Bose had an interactive discussions with students at Oxford Bookstore and I took a few pictures.

Week 7 (Monday 20th November – Sunday 26th November, 2006): Jaipur-Delhi-Agra and the Radjani Express Train to Kolkata

Pictures: The first one is of me and Karen, with some girls we met at the Shiva Temple in Jaipur. Next is the palace in Jaipur where one of the Maharajas kept his 365 wives. This is followed by a picture of the whole city of Jaipur from Amber Palace, then, me at the Shiva Temple, and me at Qutb Minar in Delhi.

On Monday I went to Anju’s house to do laundry. I sat there and waited for the laundry to be washed and dried. I actually thought I had to do it by hand, so I had bought some soap, but it turned out that she had a washing machine, so her overseer, Hemlal, did the washing for me. He hung them out on the drying line for me, and I worked on the report for Aasra while waiting. I also had lunch with them. I went into town and booked a room in Jaipur Inn, and also attended to some business with Bank of America (they had put a hold on my credit card).

The next day I went back to Mrs. Mathur’s place to give her the report. I had it on my USB drive, so I transferred it to her computer, along with some pictures I had taken while performing the survey. She had made some type of biryani for me, since I had told her that I liked that very much. It was very nice of her. I took some pictures with her and her family, and then Mr. Ahmed took me Kishangarh to catch a bus to Jaipur. It was a local bus, so I paid half the price I would have paid if I had taken an air-conditioned bus.

At the Jaipur bus station, I bought a ticket to go for the Jaipur by night tour organized by the RTDC, and got myself a rickshaw to take me to Jaipur Inn (where I was staying) and then to the RTDC hotel where I would join the tour. I met three French tourists, one girl from Hong Kong, and another guy from Germany on this tour. The funny thing was that apart from the Hong Kong girl, Bess, who was leaving by train that night, all the others were also staying at Jaipur Inn. The tour was nothing spectacular, though the view of Jaipur from Nahargarh Fort was amazing. After the tour we walked home together, and that was fun. I was hoping Twum could call me in my hotel room, but it turned out that the hotel phones were all internal (just like at Hotel Chitvan), so I didn’t get to chat with Twum. :(

The French tourists left the next morning, and Matthias and I went for the day long tour of Jaipur, also organized by the RTDC. On the tour bus, we met Karen, a lovely lady from Australia, and two cousins, Nikhil and Sid, from Karnataka and Hyderabad, respectively. We spent most of the tour together, taking pictures and having lunch together. It was a lot of fun. Matthias left by train for Bikaner that evening, and I went back to the hotel exhausted.

The next day I checked out of the hotel, and decided to do a bit of shopping before leaving for Delhi. I had asked Twum to send me some money via Moneygram, and I also went to visit a DV organization called Vishaka, based in Jaipur. After doing all this, I wanted to check email, so I asked the auto driver to take me to an internet café. Next to the café was a clothing and jewelry store, so I went in there to see what they had. I got some scarves and a sari as gifts for the ladies I work with, and made an outfit (skirt and top) for myself. If that was all, I would have been happy. While I was there, one of the workers had telephoned the owner of the store to tell them that a black woman had come to his store, so after I had been there for almost an hour, the owner arrived. I have to give it to him, he was pretty smooth. He came in and chatted with me, and then he started saying some things that just baffled me. He said I had honest eyes, and I thought that was a nice compliment, so I said thank you. He then said I gave him a good feeling. I thought that just like my honest eyes, he meant he felt I could be trusted or something like that. That was NOT the good feelings he was talking about. It turned out that he wanted to know me biblically, and when I told him I was married and in no way interested in his offer, he said “who knows why we have met today. You give me good feelings, so maybe we just have tonight.” Ha!! Sounds like a line from a cheesy movie, no? LOL! He said he would give me a hotel to stay in, give me a milk bath and oil massage, and take me out to dinner. Sounds pretty tempting huh? Yeah, if that was the only thing he was offering. Initially I thought he was kidding, but the man sure wasn’t. I left quite disappointed and feeling a little grimy from all the stuff he had said. I went back to the Jaipur Inn, got a bus ticket to Delhi at the station, and then went off to Hotel Pearl Palace to visit Karen, the lady from Australia. We went to the rooftop restaurant there and had dinner. We also met a lovely Irish lady who was traveling around India for two months, and we joined her for dinner. As the night wore on, one of the waiters came to me and said I had a phone call. Now THAT was weird, seeing that A) Pearl Palace wasn’t my hotel and B) no one knew I had come to Pearl Palace. If anything, I thought it was the people at Jaipur Inn telling me to come for my bags. It wasn’t. It was Mr. Khan, the grimy store owner. Everything took on a dreamlike quality right there. How the hell did he know where to find me? Simple answer: The auto rickshaw driver had reported my whereabouts to him. I don’t know if he was meant to keep tabs on me or something, but there had been another driver in the auto I was in, who had also been present at the store. I think he was the one who did the reporting. What did Mr. Khan want? To reiterate his intentions and let me know that his offer still stood, and would stand for a year, two years, ten years if need be. Oh my, what a TEMPTING offer!! (please read with in a sarcastic voice). I was shaken, and a little fearful. I went back to the table with Karen and the other lady and asked them to guess who had just called me. Karen was on point. She said that she wasn’t surprised, as the man could have paid the auto driver who tagged along, to give him the information. I stayed at Karen’s till around 11pm, then I got the hotel owner Mr. Singh (really nice man) to get me a reliable auto rickshaw, as it was pretty late. I got back to my hotel around 11:15pm, checked email, then got my bags. My bus was at 12:15am.

When I got to the bus station I drew a lot of stares (what else is new?), but I was too tired to care. I met a lively lady from Mizuram, in the northeastern part of India. I initially thought she as a foreigner, but it turns out that people from that part of India have the Mongolian look common to China< and Tibet, than the Aryan look that most Indians have. She was working at a Christian mission in Jaipur, and was off to meet her husband and mother-in-law in Delhi. We ended up on the same seats also (everytime I’ve done the Delhi-Jaipur trip, I end up on the front row, on seat number 1 or 2. It’s quite odd). I kept her up with my chattering, then finally apologized and left her to sleep. I called my parents to let them know what I was up to, then finally fell asleep. It was nice traveling at night by bus. We got to Delhi around 6am, and I got an auto rickshaw to take me to my hotel, H.K. Choudary guest house. I had to bang on the door a few times before the people woke up to let me in. I basically just made it into the room, changed my clothes and then fell asleep.

I woke up around noon, ordered breakfast, then got ready to go tour Delhi. When I got downstairs the owner of the hotel was there, and he said they had a travel agency I could go to. Big mistake! When I got there, the person in charge whipped out a calculator, asked me what kind of thing I was looking for, punched in a few numbers, and then told me he could organize a tour of Delhi, a personalized trip to Agra and back, and a trip to the train station for Rs. 7000. LOL! I told him I didn’t have that kind of money. He did a few deductions and brought up Rs. 5500. I told him that honestly, that wasn’t what I was looking for. I was just looking for the organized bus tours to Agra and back. He finally saw that I wasn’t some rich tourist out to gallivant about India,and gave me the package for Rs. 1900. I thought it sounded good and agreed to it. My own stupidity sometimes amazes me.

I got a car with my own driver to take me around Delhi. What they failed to mention was that it wasn’t by any means a guided tour. The driver basically took me to the place, dropped me there and waited for me to take as many pictures as I wanted, then took me to the next place. No history, no explanation, no nothing. I was sorely disappointed and a little put out. To piss me off even more, we only went to four places: The president’s house/parliament house, India Gate, Humayun Tomb and Qutb Minar. When I asked why, the driver said that there was a Sikh protest going on, so most roads were blocked, and I couldn’t go anyway. Right! When I got back to the Connaught PI area where my hotel was located, I wanted to buy a shirt to wear on my Agra trip as everything I had was a little dirty. I found a Kashmiri store that sold some nice shirts. As I was about to leave, the man who was helping me took me upstairs to look at their shawls. There I found that they had a lot of lovely bangles, and I spent a large amount of time looking through them. I purchased a few, and the shirt I wanted, and went back to the hotel. I ordered dinner of mixed vegetables, half Tandoori chicken, and some roti. It was lovely! AND, to top it off, the hotel had cable, and one of the channels had Mr. and Mrs. Smith on. So I ate my lovely dinner and watched Brangelina do their thing on TV. Then Twum called and we chatted for a loooooooong time, so I didn’t get to bed till 1am.

My trip to Agra was starting at 6am Saturday morning. I was up at 5:30am to get myself ready. I was quite tired, but I did my best. The top I had bought didn’t fit….seems to happen to me a bit here in India…I’m a little “broad in the chest” compared to most Indian women. I had to wear the same green shirt I had worn the day before, as it was the cleanest of my tops. A guy from the travel agency had arrived to take me to the bus, on a MOTORBIKE!! They are the rage in India, but I never thought I’d have to ride one. As it was still pretty early in the day, there wasn’t that much traffic on the road and it wasn’t too scary. It was pretty cool actually. We made it to the bus stand safely (thank God!!), and we had to wait for about forty five minutes before the bus itself arrived. I think out of the almost 30 people on the bus, only five of us were women. Before the bus took off, the conductor tried to move me from my seat to the back, and I protested pretty vehemently. What the….! Anyway, we set off for Agra and made a pit stop at this wayside restaurant around 9am. I had never seen so many flies in one place!! Ewww! I ordered a cup of coffee with butter toast. It should have been called butter with toast. The toast was mad oily, as if the bread had been added as an afterthought. LOL! Hey, it was safer than ordering an unknown Indian dish. I’m as adventurous as the next person, but not when I’m traveling to a tourist destination and I don’t know anything about the toilet facilities available.

We got to Agra around 1pm. A guide materialized from somewhere and told us we were going to Agra Fort first. When we got down, I told him that I knew that the ticket for the Taj Mahal could be used at Agra Fort and a few other places. He said that was not true. I quietly paid the Rs. 300 and went to see the fort, took a few pictures and got asked to take pictures with other people. You could see the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort. It was pretty cool. I hung out with this couple, a Kashmiri man and his Finnish wife. When we left Agra Fort, the guide said we would go visit the Baby Taj and then break for lunch. We didn’t make it to Baby Taj. He took us to a restaurant where we had lunch, then told us we were going to stop at a government emporium. We wasted time at this so-called government emporium, where people tried to force us to buy miniature versions of the Taj Mahal, and shoes made from camel and buffalo leather. Too much!! When we finally left for the Taj Mahal, it was almost 4:30pm. He told us we had seventy minutes at the Taj. Hahahahah…I scoff at him in retrospect. The line was long, and we had to wait a long time in order to get in, because they conducted security searches of people going in. And…I was right about the tickets. The Taj ticket cost Rs. 750, but it included access to Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and two other places. Mr. Guide had supposedly pocketed our money. Whether he had or not, I wanted my money back. I didn’t enjoy being at the Taj Mahal very much, but I got some good pictures.

By the time everyone got back to the bus, it was past 7pm, going on 8pm. I fell asleep almost as soon as I sat down, because I was pretty tired. The guide had disappeared (predictably!). I was quite mad at this point. When I woke up, we had turned into another town, Mathura, where Krishna is supposed to have lived. We first stopped to go see the main temple. I didn’t want to go so I stayed behind. I decided to find some food around the area, so I got down from the bus. One of the guys on the bus who had stayed behind offered to walk with me, and we found a food seller who sold idli and dosa. I eaten either idli or dos, but I was encouraged to try them, and they were okay. As I was eating, this man started talking to me about sex, about what I did when my husband wasn’t around….I mean, it was hard to see why he was asking those questions or talking about that subject in particular. I’ve found that I’m too polite and too respectful. I should have shut him up plain and simple, without beating about the bush. I tried to steer the conversation on to safer things, to his wife and children and what they did, but he kept coming back to sex. It was quite disgusting. Then, he asked me where I was staying in Delhi. I told him that I was staying in one of the hotels in Delhi. He then asked if I wanted to sit by him for the remainder of the trip. I quickly said that I wanted to sleep, so it was unnecessary for me to move, and that I was having a good conversation with the guy who was sitting by me. He then offered me some rum. What!!?? Once we got near the bus, I quickly detoured into another store so I didn’t have to be in his company any longer, wondering how I seemed to attract such weird people. After buying an apple drink, I went back to the bus, which was ready to depart.

I thought we would head for Delhi then. Wrong. We went to another place that had a Krishna temple, supposedly in Krishna’s house. This time I went and joined the couple I had met earlier, quickly explaining to them what had happened. When I pointed out who the man was, they told me that he and his buddies had been drinking rum and smoking on the bus. When we got to this Krishna temple, they tried to get us to donate money. I was fed up by then, it was past 10pm, and even the people in that area had gone to bed already! Once we got to the bus I realized I needed to pee, but there were no toilet facilities available. Tulli’s husband went with me to the back of a house, and there I squatted in the dark and did my thing. I felt tired and dirty, and couldn’t wait to get back to Delhi. On our way back we stopped at a wayside restaurant again, and didn’t make it to Delhi till after 2am. Then, the driver dropped me somewhere in Connaught place, nowhere near my hotel. Some auto drivers milling around came to my aid, but I ignored them. One of them was however persistent, and said he would take me to my hotel at no cost, because it wasn’t safe for me to be walking around alone. I made him swear to God that he was being honest, and he took me straight to the hotel. Anything could have happened, I know, but my options were pretty limited at that time. I paid him though, Rs. 20 for his help. I again had to wake the hotel staff up as they were already closed.

I made it to my room and fell asleep, waking up around noon again. I ordered breakfast, and got ready to check out. Since I was checking out after noon, I had to pay for half a day in addition to the two days that I had already paid for. They asked me how I was getting to the train station, and I said the guy at the travel agency was sending someone for me. They called him up to check, and he said it wasn’t part of the deal. Imagine my surprise and annoyance! I told him that he had said it was part of the package. He spoke to the hotel staff and asked them to arrange a rickshaw for me, which is how I got to the train station. On my way there, I got the auto driver to stop at an Airtel store so I could top up my phone. I found my way to the station, asked for directions about my train, and went to wait on the platform for a while. The train arrived on time, and we left on time also.

I met this lovely girl called Lina and we chatted for a while, and watched Kal Ho Naa Ho. I was in 3AC (AC car with three beds per side). It was at the train station that I realized how much Mr. Khan (grimy Jaipur store owner) had ripped me off. He also had a travel agency, and I had bought my train ticket from there as I wasn’t sure how the train system worked. They had booked the train ticket online, which I could have done myself, and then charged me Rs. 615 in commission charges. That could have paid for one night in a hotel and for dinner!! I sent him an angry SMS message as I had his business card, expressing my disappointment and anger. I would have felt better calling him and insulting him, but I didn’t want to give him that pleasure. Anyway, the train ride was nice, we got good tasty food, and we made it to Kolkata about an hour later than scheduled on Monday morning, but I was just happy to be in Kolkata!

Week 6 (Monday 13th November – Sunday 19th November, 2006): In Rajasthan

The next day (Monday) I went for lunch at Mrs. Mathur’s place, where I met her parents, her maternal uncle, and Akshay. It was a lovely lunch. From there Mrs. Mathur (Anju) took me to the MDS University in Ajmer, where she works as a guest lecturer from time to time. Some of the students there had volunteered for Aasra, so she wanted me to meet them, and to ask some of them to accompany me to the villages I would be visiting.

The next day I had to be ready to be picked up around 8:30am, by my own auto rickshaw, with Mr. Junma Ahmed as my driver. LOL! We picked up two students Bhim Singh and Devendra, who went with us to the first village, Chachiyawas. We met up with Hemraj, who lives in that particular village and attends MDS. I met some lovely people there, such as Kamala, the kindergarten teacher. We were able to interview 12 people before we had to leave, as the boys had classes starting at 1pm. I also took a few pictures. I made Mr. Ahmed take me to town, where I checked email, and made extra copies of the questionnaire I needed. We went to Chachiyawas the next day also, and this time we had two more students join us, Gopal and Lavesh. Lavesh loved to sing, so he sung the songs from Kal Ho Naa Ho and other popular songs for me. At the village a group of women were so enchanted by me and they asked me to dance. They wanted me to stay overnight. All of them also kept offering me a lot of food. One of the young ones asked me why I didn’t use makeup, and actually brought out lipstick and eyeshadow to put on me. I had to show her my makeup case and explain to her that I wasn’t big on makeup. One of the ladies actually commented that they were poor but they had big hearts, which was clearly apparent from how they were all making me feel welcome and offering me food and inviting me into their homes.

I was a big hit at the hotel. For one, I was the only permanent guest, as most people only stopped there for a night to rest from driving. I made friends with most of the staff, particularly the manager, Manjeet Singh, and the head waiter, Morsingh. We had fun chatting every night at dinner, and they kept teasing me, because for the first three days I had the same thing, Mixed Vegetable Korma with roti or nan. Morsingh suggested that I try Navratan Korma, which is a sweeter version of Mixed Veg, so I kept alternating those two. I also asked them to teach me a few Hindi phrases, so that’s where I picked up most of my Hindi lingo.

The students couldn’t make it on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, so I was left to my own devices. I made Mr. Junma take me out sightseeing in Ajmer on Thursday. After the sightseeing, where a few people had asked to take pictures with me (seeing that I’m the new attraction in town..LOL!), I went back to the hotel to find the place being decorated for a party. I was having dinner when the party started. Some of the children at the party noticed me sitting in the other room and came to sit there and stare. I started chatting with them, asking their names and how they were in Hindi, and we became fast friends. I asked them if they wanted to dance with me and they said yes, so I went to bring down my laptop and we dance to the songs on “Kal Ho Naa Ho.” Their older sisters came to join us some time later, and we talked about Shah Rukh Khan and other good movies they had watched. We also talked about school, and what I was doing here in India>. They wrote down their names for me, with their phone numbers and email addresses. Piyasha’s mother actually asked me to join the party, but I declined, because I felt odd bursting in on a family gathering. She also brought me some food, but I told her that I had just eaten. I felt bad because I thought it was a bit rude to be refusing everything they were giving. When they were leaving, one of them, Piyasha, told me not to forget her. How sweet is that?!!

I stayed in the hotel on Friday and Saturday and was bored out of my wits. I had watched and rewatched the movies I had with me, and since the hotel was so far from town, I couldn’t check email or walk around at my own leisure. By Saturday night I was ready to commit a crime…hehehe. Thankfully Sunday came quickly and I went to the village with four other guys. Lavesh and Hemraj were the only ones I had worked with before. I had three new guys, PunyaVardhan, Salim and Praveen. We interviewed 100 people in total, and left the village. I decided then and there that I would leave for Jaipur on Tuesday. My original plan was to stay in Ajmer and do the same survey in antoher village, Chatri, but I was tired of being alone in the hotel. Mrs. Mathur had invited me to dinner that evening, so I was looking forward to that, and to also tell her that I was leaving.

It turned out that the dinner was actually a wedding dinner in honor of Zulficar and his new bride, hosted by Mr. Khan, who is Zulficar’s uncle (I think). I met so many nice people there, including a man who had lived with Amitabh Bachchan in Kolkata when they were younger. One of the men gave me lemonade with gin and bitters. Very soon I found myself singing “Kal Ho Naa Ho” to a rapt audience. LOL! When I was done, they asked me for a song from Ghana, so I sung Kojo Antwi’s “Dadi Anoma” and translated it for them. They enjoyed it. The food was also lovely, tasty, and very peppery! Hahaha! It was a lovely night all in all. I told Anju that I would be leaving on Tuesday, and asked if I could come do laundry in her house the next day.

Week 5 (Monday 6th November – Sunday 12th November, 2006) : India-trotting

I had planned to leave Kolkata for good this week. I went to purchase a few Hindi movies and some gifts for my family. I met this odd guy in front of Music World (the DVD store). At first he appeared as lost as I was, but then he claimed he had his own software company in Washington DC, and that he had been visiting his grandfather’s house here, and was a little lonely. He got my phone number, and sent me an SMS message ten minutes after I had left him. He sent me another one a few minutes later. Then he called me also. I was a little worried by then. Then he sent me a text saying I shouldn’t worry because he wasn’t weird. Hahahha!!!

As I had already bought so much stuff for my family and friends, I wanted to mail them before I left. The next day (Wednesday) I went to the DHL office to send the things to my family. After I had left the office, I got a phone call from this same guy from the day before (I think his name is Rony) and he asked me where I was. I asked him why, and he said he could see me, that he was behind me. It was one of the creepiest moments of my life. He said he just happened to be doing something in a building near the DHL office, and that I shouldn’t think he was following me or anything of the sort. HA!!!

I also had to resolve the matter of my ticket to Jaipur. What was I going to do in Jaipur, you may ask? And what the hell is Jaipur? LOL! Jaipur is a lovely city in the Indian state of Rajasthan, and I was flying there so I could get to Ajmer a smaller town also in that same area. I was going to visit an organization called Aasra, that worked with rural women and girls, and led the drive for increase in female literacy. One of the founders works with my dad, and he suggested that I go up there since I was in India. I was also getting a little tired of being in the same place so I wanted to move. However, all those plans were modified a few days before I left for Jaipur. I was informed of a conference, the India Social Forum (ISF) in New Delhi.Delhi is about six hours by bus from Jaipur. Everyone I spoke to said it would be a good experience, and a nice way to meet other organizations working against domestic violence across the country. I changed my flight date from Saturday to Thursday, booked a hotel in Delhi (which was pretty expensive), and got ready to leave.

The flight, on Kingfisher Airlines, to Jaipur was wonderful. As always, the food on the various Indian airlines is to die for. I got to Jaipur around 2pm and decided to take the bus to Delhi immediately, especially since I hadn’t booked a hotel in Jaipur. I called the manager at my Delhi hotel and asked if I could come in a day earlier. She agreed, so I got a taxi to Jaipur bus station. The city is quite lovely. It’s called the pink city because sometime in the 1800s ( I think) the Maharaja at the time painted it pink to welcome a member of the British Royal family, because pink is the color of hospitality in that culture. Anyway, on my way to the bus station I saw my first camel. I was beyond myself!! Even though Jaipur is such a lovely city with a lot of modern accoutrements, camels, cattles and horses vie for space on the main streets along with cars, motorcycles and rickshaws.

I got to Delhi around 10pm, and haggled with an autorickshaw driver, who agreed to take me to my hotel (City Center Hotel) for half the original price. I checked in, ate some crackers and went to bed. I got up the next day and found my way to the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium where the ISF was taking place. I walked around pretty aimlessly for a while, then made my way to the place where the event on the new Protection against Domestic Violence Bill was being held. I saw Anu (Swayam’s director) there, but she didn’t stay too long. The event was pretty disappointing. Let me explain. It started out with the organizers leading the group in a song. I couldn’t sing it, but I enjoyed it. I was also happy that there were men as well as women at the event. There were also other foreigners in addition to me. After that, the main speaker asked how many people understood only English, and there were only two of us. Thus, she suggested that people sitting next to us translate from Hindu to English. That worked out for a little while, but as always, you know that a lot is being left out when something is being translated. We finally moved to another tent as more people had come for the event. There other people came whose first language was not Hindi. As such, each speaker had to speak first in Hindi and then in English. I quickly realized that it might be a bit of a problem for me to attend programs if they were all going to be conducted in Hindi.

When I left the ISF, I felt a little despondent, but I resolved to shake that feeling off and enjoy myself. I stood at the stadium gates for a while but couldn’t stop an auto-rickshaw because there were so many people also hoping to catch one. I decided to cross over to the other side to see if my luck would be better there. It wasn’t. Then a random man stopped near me in his white private car and asked me to get in. Okay, he said it in Hindi, but I could tell from his gestures that he wanted me in the car. I declined politely and walked off. To my surprise he followed me in the car. I ignored him and kept walking. He stopped the car, got out to pee on the side of the road, and then kept pressuring me to get in the car. I kept walking, he drove slowly behind me. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I crossed the street to the other side. Luckily, a kind Sikh auto-rickshaw wallah saw me and stopped for me. His name was Titu. He was such a blessing in disguise. He could speak good English (not that speaking Hindi or Bengali is bad, but it made it easier for me to communicate with him), and he took me to a fruit stand and a good place to get mughlai food to go. The food was very good and the price was also quite reasonable, for Delhi. I stayed up late watching movies on TV (the hotel had cable…I watched this movie called “Bunty & Babli. I think it was some kind of Bonnie and Clyde story.) and on my computer.

The next day I got to the campgrounds around 3pm, in time for the program I wanted to participate in, but it was all in Hindi. My disappointment was so heavy I felt I was being crushed under it. I bought some gifts from the stands at the forum and left for my hotel. I decided then and there that I would leave for Ajmer the next day (Sunday).

I took the 9:30am bus from Delhi to Jaipur. Our bus broke down fifteen minutes away from Jaipur, and we had to flag another bus down. At the Jaipur station I met an Indian guy, Rahul, who had been living in Nigeria for the past 12 years. It was quite cool, especially because his English definitely had the Nigerian intonation. LOL! He wanted my number but I got his instead, and left on the bus for Ajmer.

I got to Ajmer 6:30pm. I didn’t know what hotel I was in and where it was located, so I had to call Mrs. Mathur to ask. It was Hotel Chitvan, and it was about 10km from the town center. The rickshaw wallahs I asked didn’t know where it was and kept insisting on other hotels. I finally found one who knew where it was, and we set off after haggling over the price. I couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief yet though. The hotel WAS quite far from town, and as we went farther and father from town I got a little scared. I think the rickshaw driver was also a little worried, because he kept stopping to ask for directions. Finally we saw the hotel sign, and I breathed a little easier. At the hotel I met Zulficar, a friend of Akshay Mathur (the guy who works with my dad.). He had actually just gotten married, which is why Akshay had come to India.He helped me settle into my room. And that was my first night in Ajmer.

PS: The camel picture was taken in Jaipur, and the other two were at the ISF program in New Delhi.