Summer in India: Week 3

The third week of my trip to India was a home-stay segment. We were all assigned to families that were friends with one of my professor while he was still living in India. A few were his relatives and the rest friends. I was a bit worried about this portion of the trip, not because of the prospect of invading someone's home, but because of my being vegan. We arrived from New Delhi after a 3 hour cramped car ride (we had 4 girls in the backseat of a car) and went to our welcome party. At the welcome party my teachers were assigning the families. Again, so great about the program, the teachers knew us pretty well by this point and were able to place us perfeclty with a family. I heard my name, though, being rattled off in the span of 5 minutes more than the comfortable amount while I was sitting and chatting with the other guests. I was feeling extremely guilty due to the fact that veganism is completely unheard of in India. But I was placed with a family. We were told some families would be Muslim, others Hindus, some rich, some with just 1 bedroom for the whole family, and others where you would have your own room. So I was expecting anything and was ready for it while on the ride over to the house. We arrived and my house was literally in the center of the city, it was a small apartment ontop of a men's clothing store. My host dad had just had double bypass heart surgery, so I carried my heavy suitcases up the small stairwell to the apartment. After I had recovered I got to know my family.

I was living with a host father and mother. They were a Hindu vegetarian family with three kids (2 grown and moved out, and one had passed away). My host mom and host dad were very nice and accommodating. They even turned on their A/C unit for me the first day, well until the daily power outages from 4pm-6pm. Every single day the power would be out. Each house would have a generator to allow some fans and some lights to function. Most of India does not have any electricity and when there is electricity it is highly unreliable and overused. The amount they have does not cover the demand, so daily power outages have become the temporary solution. The minute the power outage would be over, my host mom would turn on her soaps... We had had a LONG day and as you can tell in this picture, I was weathered! The photo is of me, my host mom (in the middle), and her friend. The first night we had a little of a celebratory party where the women sat in the bedroom with the A/C drinking small glasses of cola and talking. Then we joined the two men (my host dad and the son of the friend) for dinner. This happened at 9pm-11pm. My host dad told me that he was excited to have me in the house and the food was no issue because of his surgery he was not allowed to have much dairy. It felt like a huge wave of relief knowing that they didn't feel too burdened by my restrictions. He also told me that he already thought of me like his American daughter and that he would treat me just like a daughter. I just had no idea how literally he would be saying that.

I was soooo exhausted and so utterly pleased to find out that they do put the A/C on for the first 30mins of sleeptime. The city that we were in for the host stay was one of the hottest cities and also having a heat wave. At the time it was probably 110-120 degrees from 10AM-11PM. My host turned out to be the only one with an A/C, but most had fans and desert coolers (fans that had water churning inside). Anyways, before the little party, my host mom and I went to the temple which was just around the corner. They were having a celebration of Ram and Sita, where they were decorated beautifully in their vault area. The room was heavily perfumed with incense and jasmine, people were sitting everywhere in the dark singing and chanting along with the main priest, and bells could be heard from every which direction. It was a magical site and I was sad to leave it and realize it only happened once a week, so that would be the last time I saw it. But I did visit the temple three-four times, as my host mom went there every single day and would then walk around the little courtyard that was there with her friends gossiping. There was also always someone giving out free strawberry lassi, a drink made from strawberries and milk, like a thin milkshake. The beggars and the woman at the temple would always be gathered round tight getting second and third cups of the stuff. I also saw a strange scene at the temple where a crow looked as if he was dying to bits, he was laying flat on the ground croaking. A dog saw this as an invitation to eat him, but every time he got near to getting it, the bird would flag violently with its obviously injured body. Finally after watching in horror at the scene a man came and picked the bird up and threw him in the air so he'd go inside the gated garden, he plopped down, and then a few minutes later flew away all fine...it was quite a scene that I will not forget.

It was a bit awkward the first night as my host dad was forced out of the one bedroom of the house to the living room. Which part of the living room is shown in the picture, with the door leading out to the balcony. I shared the bedroom with my host mom. In India, showing your legs is highly provocative. Most women never show their legs in publics, all pant suits, sarees, jeans, all will cover their legs. So I had no idea how my host mom would react to me wearing short shorts and a tiny tank for bed. I DIED the first night as I had decided to wear at least a tshirt over my tank. She never mentioned anything about the shorts, but she might have been highly disturbed. We formed quite the nightly routine, every single night for a week we would have dinner at 9, which my host parents would go to bed right after. I would want to shower at night since I felt so disgusting after the day. Our shower and bathroom were in two different parts of the house. Inside the house near the entrance was the western style bathroom that never flushed properly and outside on the balcony was a little room with a bucket and spout. I got used to bucket showers and was thankful for the cold water being splashed onto me, but the fact that the shower was outside meant that mosquitos were in heaven with my blood. I would rush my showers, as well, as the house to the right had a higher roof than us, so if they went up they could clearly see into our shower, and with being very half-assed in the language at that point had no idea if people walking in the alley were really in the alley or on the roof.

After my shower I would always go to the room and read a bit of Holy Cow! or do some of my homework assignments, then attempt to fall asleep. Some nights I slept great and some nights I thought I'd never sleep from being the most uncomfortable I'd ever been in my life. I felt bad as my host mom had to have woken up while I was trying to cool down (sitting up, getting up, soaking myself in my filtered water).

I was never allowed to go anywhere on my own. My host dad was extremely overprotective of me. He would have one of the male students come to my house to share a rickshaw to school. It was nice money-wise as we shared the cost both ways, but the rickshaws in India are not standard. Each city has a normal size seat, well the seats in Aligarh were made for either two school children or two very, very, very small adults. We all left Aligargh with bruises on our thighs from trying to sit on the seat and absorb the shocks from the roads. Every morning at 9.30 I would be expecting my ride to come. Before then I would take yet another shower and eat breakfast. Breakfast in the house was one of my favorite meals. It was greasy and always fried, but amazing. Some days we would have grilled vegetables sandwiches with green chutney, a few days we had a thick fried rice and vegetable breakfast dish, and some days we had Kulcha a fried bread similar to batura, but it has mashed potatoes, onions, and spices kneaded into the dough. I helped once with breakfast, but my host mom really never wanted any help and when I tried to make a Kulcha, I did everything wrong apparently. So I would ask every day to help, but never was I needed.

My family didn't seem to have to make many changes to make their normal vegetarian cooking vegan, but others around me were always completely astonished that I didn't eat dairy. In India, vegetarian does not mean lacto-ovo, but it implies a lacto vegetarian. This is because most vegetarians in the country are vegetarian for religious purposes. And eggs are not considered clean, nor pure because Indians view them how we vegans see them, revolting. I always thought eggs were gross eating. Why eat another animals eggs? I remember learning about the layers of the egg and the umbilical cord in jr high and having stopped eating eggs for a long time, but it didn't last. I'm glad I had my last egg almost a year and half ago. But in India, dairy is not considered to be impure at all, but to be almost holy in itself. One of the most well-known dieties in Hindu religion is Lord Krishna who is known to be a flirt with all of the milk-maidens. Cows are also holy, so put together the two and other factors within the scripts we have a product that is highly auspicious. Though, much of the milk in India is from water buffalos. The issue is India is a country with OVER-consumption of dairy. I have no doubt that some of my food was contanimated with a dairy product. No matter how many times you asked if the food was clean of all dairy it easily could have not been. In general, you have to be very specific with the questions you ask:

"Does this have milk" no
"Does it have cream" no
"Does it have yogurt" oh yes, of course

hrm. it would go on and on like this. I felt bad as I was never comfortable enough to ask a Hindi speaking server if food was okay for me. After awhile, I would know which dishes to completely avoid and some that would always be clean. But some could have been vegan at one restaurant, but not at the next. I worried the most when we went to non-veg restaurants where chicken stock was being used in the food, who knows about that. I normally would just eat bread and wait til we got home to get a Clif bar. But at the homestay, I was lucky as my family knew everything that shouldn't be in my food and were comfortable with it.

Though, my host mom's friend would constantly sit and tell me how strange it was that I didn't drink milk, but my skin was as white as milk. I would sit and just try and tell her that I wasn't even the whitest of the bunch. And she was even light herself! Indians are obsessed with fairness as we are with having young skin. Every beauty shelf with Fair & Lovely or any of the other 20 different brands. All TV personelle are as white as possible. We had a few people tell us they worship light skin and think we should marry Indian men since they would treat us like gods. And of course, not only is the dream mostly unattainable for the majority of the nation of beautiful brown skin, but these creams are so dangerous!You'd see someone wearing a cream and they'd just look ashy or like they didn't get all the soap off in the shower. Westerners want to be dark and Easterners want to be light...go figure.

One of the highlights while in Aligarh was the university convocation (graduation). The guest list was quite impactful. Not only was A.R. Rahman, the famous composer of thousands of Indian songs, but also
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, one of Gandhi's grandsons. It was a great honor to be present with these brilliant minds. The students were all too excited as well, plus we were an added bonus. I actually had to have the TA near me acting as my publicist pushing people away from having photos. I would say yes to one and then have 30 more photos to take in that one instant. It was fun at first, but then by the end of just that one day I had probably taken over 100 photos and had been in the background of another 200 photos. It was insane. The TA questioned why her people wanted their independence if they are so enamered with pale skin. It was kind of a laughing joke during the trip, but sometimes not wanted.

The night of the graduation my family had a little final get together where we had dinner at the family friend's house. The parties always start with drinking soda, sitting in the nicest bedroom with the best fans or A/C, then moving onto watching TV, and then dinner. We had a really nice dinner and good talk and what not. It had been a really long day, but it was worth it. After dinner we took some family photos (women and men seperate). Sometimes I would complain to the other kids about my family being boring, as it was just the two of them. But, I really did enjoy them. They were such a nice family and such good people. They worked hard in their life to be able to retire and do absolutely nothing, so they are enjoying it. I just had a different pace, but because the person nearest my age was engaged to be married, well I didn't get out much that week. I read a lot, and sat quitely a lot. For awhile, I wished the homestay was less than a week, but it was really a great time getting to know my family.

The last big event with my family was shopping for my saree. After going to 5 stores and turning down a good 50-60 different materials, I finally set eyes on the saree that I loved. And of course, it was the most expensive one I had looked at. At 50 American dollars, it was a 'luxury' saree. I figured if I get one, it should be nice since I wont be wearing it other than at something really formal. But commonly you can get a saree for 5 dollars or less. Sarees are just 6 feet of fabric that are lined with patterns. The saree is extremely hard to wrap as you have 3ft of pleating to deal with before you can move on to wrapping it around your upper body. But if you do it right, the saree is quite comfortable. The tops are specially made and are extremely tight fitting. It took two times for them to get the measurements right, but it fits like a glove. The day that I left, my host family all sat around waiting for me to try my saree on. And with the help of my host mom and beautiful jewelery she bought and gave to me for my saree it was perfect. They had me wear my saree with the sleeve long, which is common for an elegant, regal look. But again, there are so many ways to wrap and wear the saree. Women who work in construction normally wear saree's to work...imagine that.

After all the students packed into a little bus, we were headed to Agra. On our way to see the Taj Mahal...

To view all the photos I took from the time period in this post, please visit my flickr India collection: http://flickr.com/photos/shadowsarah


Ketan said...

Hello Sarah!

This was a most engaging read!

I was surprised to read those with lighter complexion in the West would desire a darker skin. Not sure of the reasons, maybe lesser chances of developing one of the skin cancers.

You've rightly pointed out how vegetarianism in India is deeply rooted in religion. One more possible reason milk is allowed is that it doesn't entail killing of a potential life. So likewise, honey is also not forbidden. But of course, this is purely conjectural.

I'm very impressed by your keen sense of observation and how much could you absorb in your brief period of stay. But maybe, that should be expected when one encounters a very different kind of culture.

Honestly, as I write this, I don't even know the purpose of your trip! But would go through some other posts too in coming days.

Take care.

Sarah said...

My purpose was as study abroad. I took classes and also went on excursions with other Americans in my group.

VeganView said...

Wow! You are a great writer! I have never read your blog before, but this little excerpt from your trip was absolutely fascinating to read. Now I will continue to read your entire blog ;) Thanks for sharing this cool experience.

Sarah said...

Aww thank you so much, that means a lot! I hope I don't let you down :)