coming home is an odd thing. you sit in the airport in bagdogra (peoples exempt from the security search: the President of India, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. substances prohibited on the plane: explosives, firearms, and chilly [sic] powder) and see white people for the first time in 3 months, college backpackers leaving darjeeling, retired couples back from tours of sikkim. people are speaking english and it sounds like a foreign language. people are wearing jeans and lipstick and their hair, unlike yours, is clean. everyone is going home. everyone is in their own world.

you arrive in delhi after a major snafu regarding your luggage which, because you have brought back approximately 2000 glass bangles to sell as fundraising, was nearly double the allowed weight. you sit in the departures lounge; the same one you tried to sleep in a season earlier, when you were scared and alone. now you are exhausted and filthy, but you have a glow of homecoming – security officials tell you how happy you look, the guard tells you you are beautiful even though you know you aren’t. in your salwar and jewelry you look as local as you can, and when the janitor asks you if you know the name for your dupatta (you do) you feel, for the first time, indian. even the misery of your post-wedding indigestion cannot dampen your excitement at boarding a plane to paris in a few hours. the irony of feeling at home only while leaving is not lost on you, and because you radiate compentence at Being In India, you are asked by many travelers about hows and whys and wherefores. you speak with enthusiasm that you do not really feel, for you think it is unfair to burden those just arrived with stories of babies dying in their mothers’ arms and girls with acid burns on their faces, and policemen taking bribes in the red light district. their india may be diffierent. it may have the Taj Mahal and the houseboats of kerala. it may have clean linens and tiger sightings. it may not bleed on your feet and stain them.

but this is your india~ my india. this is the country i have left. the girls cried when i said goodbye, and i felt like a traitor, for coming into their lives only to leave. i told them i would be back. but many people have told them that, and i know they no longer believe it.

i was sick all the way home; too sick to enjoy my layover in paris, city of my heart. i was too sick to mind the 5 crying children all under the age of 7 who were sitting in my row for 15 hours. i was too sick to appreciate my coveted window seat, wishing instead that i had an aisle seat with better bathroom proximity. ‘delhi belly’ and ‘turbulence’ don’t mix well…

i landed in san francisco and felt as overwhelmed by my home state as i had by india 3 months prior. people looked down and not at each other. there was expensive luggage everywhere, and unhappy travelers complaining about something, loudly. people wore coats that cost as much as my life. no one was singing, anywhere.

and now i am home. i miss ‘my girls’ desperately and wish there were some way of telling them that i have not forgotten their smiles. but they have no internet or phone, and a letter may or may not ever reach them. i can’t wait to dance with them again. but for now i am here, dancing in a different way. i am determined not to return to them next month empty handed. i am creating an educational fund so that they need not return to prostitution when they leave school at 17, as their life-path currently dictates. i am collecting clothes so that they can add a layer in the cold of winter, in rooms that have open holes in the wall for windows; the better to let in the bitterness of northern india. i am collecting stories to tell them, as i tell theirs to my hometown.

dear readers, i thank you for your love and support over these months. i will continue to write these letters while i am home for the holidays. best celebratory wishes to you all, and, lastly, i would ask that, as you count your many blessings, you remember the girls in bihar who have so few in comparison.

love and blessings and holiday light,

manish marries sushmita

or, How To Survive a Bihari Wedding.

The Party From Hell began like this: the train to sahersa leaves at 6:10 pm. it is two hours late. when it finally arrives, and you board, it remains sitting at the forbesganj station for another hour. and this is a narrow-gauge train; the old fashioned ones which the british mostly did away with. this means that it has no cushioning; the benches are steel slats, and if you’re vip you get to sit up on the similarly constructed luggage rack above the bench, with spiders the size of watermelons. this train is the slowest train on the planet, and it takes 8 hours to travel 120 kilometers. sleeping on such a train is laughable. luckily delirium makes everything hilarious; for example, the ‘chai lemonade’ which is dark tea with lemon juice, sugar, AND salt and tastes utterly foul. soon your body is bruised from the metal and your soul doesn’t know what’s going on. you try to sleep and soon find this laughable. so you stay awake until the train arrives in sahersa, at 4 in the morning.
you take a rickshaw down a bumpy, dirty road to the home of the groom’s aunt, where you are ushered in, given tea, and told to sleep. you lie down in the full-size bed, which has a mattress the thickness of your thumb and is stuffed with straw, and are soon joined by 4 women. you huddle there trying to sleep but give up at 6 when the roosters are crowing and the house has begun to bustle about making tea and so forth.

you walk through the city like a sleepwalker, to the groom’s parents’ house. there you find a roomful of toothless aunts, singing and swaying from their circle on the bed, feet folded under their sarees, backs hunched and shrunken. their chins have absorbed their gums and they peer at you curiously, wizened and crinkled.

you are shown to a room where you might be expected to sleep, but the acrid smell of dead rats (an assumption… given the amount of rat poop carpeting the floor) forbids this. so you read, and watch the town waking up, and go eat the massive breakfast that is laid before you (puri, pappar, aloo gobi, brinjal, dal, curd, rasgullah, rasmallay, barfee,) and then you brush your teeth without water because the tap runs brown.

after many, many hours it is finally time to get dressed. you are relieved because, having slept a total of one hour in the last 24, you are exhausted and want to be distracted by the spectacle of an indian wedding so you can then go home and go to bed. so you are wrapped into your saree, maroon and forest green, and though outwardly you appear to be an indian princess, draped in silk and sparkle, inwardly you have become aware that to eat that particular breakfast and to wear a saree is to develop instant indigestion. the non-elastic tightness of the waistband, upon which the whole ensemble is structurally dependent, soon cuts off all blood flow to your entire lower body. quite quickly the combination of sleeplessness, new food, and too tight a belt begins to cause discomfort that borders on pain. but you look so pretty, for the first time in months with your hair down and your lips painted… so you grin and bear it. you find the idea of getting food poisoning at the social event of the year hysterically hilarious.

an old woman stoops and paints the soles of your feet – and the feet of all the household’s women – red, in a ritual as old as india.

it is now 4 o’ clock in the afternoon. the groom’s family and guests are beginning to arrive to his parents’ house. the old women are still singing. the men greet each other with bows, and the younger generation touches the feet of their elders. you have been awake for 34 hours. the music throbs from the dj who has parked his speaker-laden truck in the street. the oldest and most withered of the aunties, having heard that you are a dancer, approaches you, and, with a few hindi words, asks if you will be, and here she pauses and then performs what can only be described as the non-verbal way to say ‘shaking your booty.’ she clenches her fists and bends over slightly and shakes her tail-feathers in a vague approximation of the twist. she is barely 4 feet tall.

when it begins to get dark everyone disperses into the waiting cars, to drive to the bride’s village 90 kilometers away. you find yourself in the back of a land-rover type vehicle (a tata scorpio…), piled on top of suitcases and backpacks. the car has 7 seats. it is carrying 10 people. the driver is a lunatic, and for the first time during your stay in india, you think you might die. the car narrowly avoids oncoming traffic, weaving between busses and buffalo and barreling over speed bumps so your head crashes into the ceiling of the vehicle. your indigestion is worsening and you fear for your saree, the car, and your life. not necessarily in that order. your friend’s husband tells you only need two things to drive in india: the horn and the accelerator.

3 hours of bumps and contortions in the car later, and you arrive at the bride’s village. it is now 9 pm. you haven’t had food or water in 12 hours, and it has been 39 since you last slept. you feel that you would rather lie in the car then witness a wedding, but you know this is not an option. in your thin saree you are cold and shivering, and despite your promise to yourself not to, you remove your jeweled, $3 sandals and put on your heavy, scuffed cowboy boots. you hope no one will notice but you don’t care if they do. fireworks are being set off and with every explosion you jump. you feel weak and feverish; dehydrated and exhausted.

but now, you think, the wedding will begin, and then it will be over, and then you can go home. someone is firing a shotgun into the sky and wants you to take a turn. you refuse, repeatedly. someone else is drunk and keeps saying, in hindi, come with me, come with me, leave your friends. like cattle, you are ushered into a tent, made of red and white fabric and with a set of thrones at the far end, draped with old towels. incense smoke fills the room. because you are the only white person, you are considered a guest of honour, and you and your friends are led to the front, to the seats closest the throne where the groom now sits. you look around and realize that you and your housemate are the only two women in the tent. you wish you were far in the back, so that you could lean over and retch without being seen. but you can’t. so you sit very still and try not to breath or digest. you are a celebrity here, and so everyone takes your picture, unceasingly. the videographer is in your face. the guests point their mobile phones at you. you try and arrange your face so it doesn’t look like you are on the verge of vomiting. but you are not sure you are successful, despite your thickly applied makeup.

but at least now you are sitting, NOW it will begin, and then it will be over.


you sit here for an hour. the shotgun is passed around and someone shoots through the tent’s roof. again they gather around you, pressing, urging, yelling at you to have a go. they want a picture of the white girl in a saree holding a rifle. you get tired of declining politely and your voice develops an edge. there is no possible way to sit that does not cause you massive gastrointestinal pain. so you shift in your seat as subtly as possible, wishing that the marriage would begin so that you would no longer be the center of attention.

but then a man comes; a relative of the bride’s. he summons you and your friend – the only two women- to come with him. you are squeezed into a tiny room in the tiny house in the tiny village. the bride sits on the bed, exactly as you would imagine her to. she is regal; beautiful, dripping in red and gold and fake jewels, her eyes downcast, her breathing steady. she has never met her husband-to-be. she has never even seen a photograph of him. and yet here she sits, as her sisters and aunties and cousins mill around her, her hands painted, every surface of her body adorned. her mother hugs you because you are a foreigner and her daughter’s wedding has just become More Important by your presence. you sit next to the bride and ask her if she’s scared. ‘no,’ she says, and, oddly, you believe her.

at midnight you are brought back to the tent. the thrones have disappeared and now the hall is lined with tables and chairs. you sit and are again the only two women in the room. and now is when your stomach pains are at their worst – sitting upright is torturous – but similarly, this is when you most wish to feel well, and above all to have appetite. the food begins to come, served unceremoniously out of tin buckets. puri… dal makhani… veg manchurian… aloo gobi… stewed paneer… pappar…salad…tomato chutney…palau… and handfuls (literally. and not clean hands…) of fresh rasgullah. village boys scamper back and forth with water. you refuse repeated offers of food, because you are sure you could not keep it down. you say you are fasting, and at this at last they understand. you writhe in discomfort and plan to be sick under the table and hope no one notices, though you know this to be impossible. people are taking far more picture of you than of the bride or groom. you feel badly about this, and about the fact that you surely look pained in all of these photos. but you decide it serves them right for not taking pictures of the happy couple instead of the unhappy guest.

at two in the morning you leave, finally. the party rages on but your friends have taken pity on you and your misery. you have managed to avoid having your picture taken with a shotgun. the bride has been led around the tree in the courtyard, singing, trailing thread and flowers. the groom has taken off his beaded headdress. every one chews pan and spits on the ground.

you pile into a car the size of a rickshaw; six of you where there ought to be three. you try and sleep with your head out the window, though you are shivering, so that you can vomit without having to stop the car. the pot holes and speed bumps never felt so deadly. but, at 5 in the morning, you arrive at your home. you collapse into bed and spend the next 5 days there, alternating between fever and chills, diarrhea and nausea. you feel that you are in a special kind of hell reserved for wedding guests, and you resolve to send ‘congratulations!’ cards in the future and avoid all indian nuptials. you are at once comforted by the fact that you will be going home for the holidays soon, and disturbed by the thought of being ill on an around-the-world flight. you pack up your life and bid the happy couple adieu, and you head home…

one of the toothless aunties… she who shook her booty at me…

sushmita, the bride.

men from sushimita’s village, come to escort the groom.

manish, the groom.

the tallest man at the wedding… which is why they wanted him to take a picture with me. sigh…

thanksgiving meditations.

i am thankful to live in a part of the world where, despite its many issues, people live in religious harmony, in a town that provides a beautiful example of interfaith co-existence. hindus and muslims live in peace here, far from the pakistani border. the men of islam can be identified by their caps and white koltas, but the women are just as colourful as their hindu neighbours; bright swaths of colour and sparkle and nothing to mark them as muslim or hide them from the world: no burkas, no abayas. the imams vie for the quiet night air time as they call their followers to prayer from the two mosques in town. the muslims light sparklers with the hindus on diwali; the hindus wait for prayer to pass before offering tea to the muslims. the children run barefoot together and laugh. meanwhile my coworker kalam, a lawyer with 12 years working for women’s rights, was denied a visa to america to attend an anti-trafficking conference in san francisco, because his first name is mohammed.

i am thankful that i was not born in a bamboo shack on a dirt lane, the latest daughter threaded on a string of prostitutes running back for generations.

i am thankful to have a hand pump outside my home which, thus far, brings relatively potable water to the surface. so few people, in this country or in others, can say that. i see children swimming in pools of filth where water buffalo lounge and men shit and women wash clothes, and then they bring the water home to their mothers for tea. holy rivers filled with trash and the ash of burning bodies.

i am thankful that i am literate.

i am thankful that i am living somewhere where i do not have to be ashamed to be american. it is too rural here for anyone to hear anything other than the golden platitudes of America the Beautiful, and for the vast majority, my country is still the ultimate dream and goal; a land of plenty and of happiness and freedom. i do not correct them; in many ways they are right. but it is a relief not to apologize for my country’s sins, as i do elsewhere.

i am thankful that my feet face forward and aren’t twisted under themselves so that every step is pain.

and, lastly, i am thankful that i am among the very, very few in bihar who can leave.

happy thanksgiving, dear friends. i hope it is full of family and joy and laughter. pause a moment in the celebrations and be thankful that you, too, were not born in bihar.

dance class in forbesganj.

let me tell you about my classes here. words cannot do them justice; their smiles, their squabbling, their colours… but i’ll give it a go:

on the days that i teach here in forbesganj, i walk to the rampol center where kishori mandal takes place. it takes about half an hour, down one of the two main drags and then off onto the side road that leads to the red light area. i pass market stalls and sugar cane juicers, water buffalo pulling carts laden with children and rice, women walking with 5-foot long bundles of reeds balanced on their heads… dogs and goats eating from the trash on the roadside, women selling apples and men selling medications. the filth of the street seeps up through my non-water-proof sandals and stains my toes. people stare, but not as much as they once did. there is a chai wallah who always says good morning to me… even when it is evening. the rickshaw drivers who congregate at the intersection recognize me and no longer try to offer me a ride. the beggar who sits on the bridge has a beautiful smile. i give him coins when i have them, and even when i don’t he always says namaste and waves, with true kindness in his withered face. the house at the fork where i bear right has a man in uniform with a machine gun, and two black and white pet (?) rabbits. all three of them area always outside, and the fear and joy (at ‘guns and buns’) balance each other out. by the time i get to the narrow lane that goes down to the center i am damp with sweat and smell like the city, no matter how clean i was before i started out.

but here is where my cheeks begin to ache. the girls see me coming and run, barefoot and skinny, to meet me. they clamour to hold my hand and look up at me, beaming. didi, didi! they cry. ke se ho? i say, asking them how they are. ti khai, ti khai, they answer. ‘okay.’ they pull me down the lane and into the center, gathering around me as i put away my sunglasses and, if there’s power, set up the ipod. ‘dance, dance!’ they cry, and more girls join us every minute, until there is a group of us, usually about 12, sitting on the concrete with our dirty feet extended into the middle of the circle. their dupattas [the scarfs that go with salwar kameezes] are wrapped and tied intricately around their torsos so that they are free to dance without tangles. most of them are too poor to afford jewelry, so they wear tiny splinters of wood in the holes in their ears and left nostrils, to keep their piercings in place for when they can afford something shiny.

we start by taking deep, slow breaths. in and out, with our arms rising and falling in time with our breathing. then we start to make noise; a relatively foreign concept for most children here, who are ridiculously ‘well-behaved’ and silent. we put our hands on our chests and hum…. feeling the vibrations and hearing our voices blend. eventually we yell at the top of our lungs… something that thrills them no end. then we begin to move – wiggling our toes, feet, legs… all the way through our bodies. we affirm with each motion: ‘these are MY toes… this is MY head…’ and ultimately, ‘this is MY body.’ even though they are just mimicking me, they know what they are saying. occasionally we say it in hindi, and the laugh at my pronunciation.

eventually we stand up and begin to move our bodies through the dark room. we leap and twirl, and we memorize movement patterns that are emotionally neutral canvases: exercises which invite emotion but do not dictate it. in this way, when we pass the movements around the circle, each in our turn, some girls express joy, some sorrow, some anger, and some emotions that i do not recognize or know the name for. the dancing allows them to express the inexpressible. when we take turns making up our own dances in the middle of the circle (using the Wandering Beach Ball as our prop) each girl now dances for several phrases… whereas two months ago they were loath to even step into the center of the circle alone. they used to look to me for approval as they danced; now they dance for themselves. i cannot stop grinning.

the class will soon devolve, as they fight and tussle to claim one of my hands as we stand in circle stretching our upper bodies or balancing on one foot or swaying like pare, a tree. at the end i put on some happy music, vivaldi or mozart or something irish or zimbabwean, and toss the beach ball into their midst, and they dance carefree and crazily while i pack up my things. they help me press the air from the beach ball. they sit next to me and chatter. they walk with me all the way down the lane, but when i turn onto the road they stay behind. i taught them to blow kisses and now when i walk away i turn every few steps because they have called out, didi! and are standing there blowing me kisses and shouting, namaste, didi! this goes on until i am out of sight around the curve – a hundred yards or so. step step, turn, blow a kiss, shout namaste, mai kalaungi!, turn, step step, etc.

i walk home elated, high, floating. the muck i walked through earlier becomes invisible and when people stare at me i just smile.

and that is why i am still here. it’s true that you get more than you give. and, as i wrote to a brave friend of mine who is teaching inner-city kids in chicago, the act of showing up is half the process. the girls here don’t care that i come to dance with them; they care that i come at all. i validate them, though that sounds horribly condescending. but i don’t mean it to; in their eyes i am Important and Special, and thus my showing up day after day for them proves that they, too, are important and special and worthy. sometimes we sit and play clapping games for hours, or catch, and this too is therapy, this is time for THEM and only them, with no ulterior motives. and they blossom with it, these lotus children, slowly and beautifully, petal by petal in the mucky, muddy water in which they were born.

dance when you’re broken open, dance when you’ve torn the bandage off. dance in the middle of the fighting. dance in your blood. dance when you’re perfectly free. ~rumi

saying yes: the postscript.

‘haa’ = ‘yes’ in bihar. despite what i wrote previously, this is a dangerous word, in both directions. on the one hand, the indian people are generally so obliging that they don’t want to disappoint you… which means they will inevitably answer ‘yes’ to most any question if they don’t completely understand it. what this means is that you MUST phrase questions specifically, i.e. ‘WHICH way to simraha?’ rather than ‘IS this the way to simraha?’ because if you ask the latter, they will must likely respond with a ‘haa,’ even if it ISN’T.

this realization occurred to me some time ago, and got me briefly lost.

but the danger of ‘haa’ works both ways, as i now know. i tend to say ‘haa’ a lot… or ‘ti ke’ which is like ‘okay.’ they are pleasant, generally affirmative things to say… but beware if you don’t know exactly what you are responding to… in this manner i was forced to consume 3 bananas in quick succession the other day while sitting on the train tracks (i ate the one, enjoyed it, and then answered ‘haa’ to what was apparently ‘will you eat two more right now?’). and today i became engaged, when i answered ‘haa’ to, so i gather, a proposal of marriage. it was in the street… on the way back from kishori mandal… a man pulled over on a motorbike and said something to me (which is usually along the lines of ‘visiting?’ or ‘having a nice walk?’ or what have you, to which ‘haa’ is most often an appropriate knee-jerk response). but after i said it, he leaned into the street and yelled, ‘i husband, she indian wife!’ and looked very pleased with himself. a child clapped. the nearby goat didn’t bat an eye.

our engagement was, needless to say, a short one. i broke it off by walking into a shop to buy 8 eggs. the wallah gave me 9 instead. i considered it an engagement gift and i’m not returning it.

saying yes.

i make new choices, every day. it’s interesting to observe the workings behind my mind as my choices evolve. i have come to no longer doubt certain choices that seem trivial but really aren’t. my sub-conscience has evolved along with my surroundings, weighing options and consequences and helping me to choose wisely.
here are some of the choices i have made recently. they may not be yours, and they may not even be mine if i were elsewhere, but here, now, doing this work, these were the ‘right’ choices in my mind; i have no doubt of that at all. and being so sure is a beautiful thing.

i choose to drink the water… it is ‘better’ to drink what someone offers me so kindly, in a dirty metal cup, when i am in their home, than to refuse it, even though i may have an intimate relationship with the toilet later on. i choose to eat and drink everything i am offered out of hospitality, because that experience of someone finding joy in sharing their meagre pantry with me is worth any negative side effects. some may say i am, by default, choosing to be sick. but that’s okay. it’s worth it. it’s my choice.

i choose to let nisha, a sad and shy 14 year old who was prostituted by her father and sister, brush and braid my hair for hours. all the girls at kasturba have lice, and not sharing a hairbrush is cardinal rule number one, but it is worth it to risk discomfort and annoyance to bond with a girl who has few allies in the world, letting her be skilled and admired for her work.

i choose to wake up at 1, 3, and 5 in the morning to feed a baby chuchundra (a rat-esque rodent) that appeared in my room. i could have put him (ram chu chu) outside and left him to the elements… but the fear of disease and the hassle of syringes of milk and late night squeaks pales in comparison to the joy of a blind creature curled in my palm seeking warmth.

i choose to travel alone at night, by train and on foot. the beauty of a flat indian savannah with candles dotting the terrain, the quietude, the lowing of cows and buffalo, the fireflies and wisps of song… all these things outweigh the risk tenfold.

i feel that these little choices were, in a way, inherent in the larger choice i made, so long ago, to come here in the first place, to climb this tree. as though choosing this place, this work, carried with it many branches and leaves, and my YES to india, to bihar, to these girls, was also a yes to these other experiences. in my life at home in the states i practiced saying ‘no,’ being firm and not over-committing myself. but here… here ‘yes’ is a beautiful, joyful word that, at first, i had trouble saying. fear crept in and i was hesitant in word and action. now i accept everything i am offered – be it food or assistance, a ride or a word. i trust everyone and everything. is it naivete? yes, surely. but it feels so wonderful, to not worry, to not fret, to just relax and believe in my fellow humans, and in the universe, and in my experiences. this is not to say i don’t listen closely to my gut (literally and metaphorically!), it’s just that my inner-voice and intuition have expanded, and now they allow me to expand as well.

this is a rambling and incoherent jumble… and i apologize. blame ram chu chu and his late night feedings… but i was so touched last night, as nisha brushed my hair. my ancient and deep-set fear of lice had, now that it was faced with the actuality, completely disappeared, and i wanted to try to share that sense of well-being and inner peace that came with saying ‘yes.’

thank you for letting me tiptoe into your inboxes with my little stories. thank you for saying ‘yes’ to sharing these experiences with me. i am truly honoured and humbled by it.

diwali snapshots

here are a few word pictures from the diwali holy days…

the black goat with curled horns and 3 teats, lounging on the steps of a temple painted watermelon. she chews her cud as a pile of trash burns nearby and a man with a sugarcane press squeezes juice for passersby.

the boy who wears sandals on his hands and pvc pipe on his shins as he drags himself through the street on all fours, his legs warped and useless, his shirt red and torn.

the bus, colourless and monstrous, made of metal with nothing to soften it, from whose window one of my students leans, waving, crying ‘didi! didi!’ as it takes her to her family, her smile lighting up her beautiful face.

the toddler across the street, eyes blackened, with string for an anklet, crying as he pees into the gutter and his mother stands behind him in a sari the colour of grass and blood.

eleven girls, sitting in circle with me, hands on their chests, feeling the vibration of their own voices as they hum a chord into a concrete room and feel it build and wrap them up. their colours are bright despite the lack of light, their dupattas wrapped tightly around their chests to allow for dancing, and when asmeena breaks the chord by giggling they all dissolve into peals of laughter; beautiful, youthful laughter.

the cow who sticks her head in the office door, looking for who knows what, her rump filthy, her udder full.

a woman wrapped in cotton, with a huge basket of bananas balanced on her head, and her son at her side. his left foot faces backwards, giving him a sad, twisted gait. but when he stands next to his mother on the overpass to the train station, he is tall and proud.

the table and stall of goods and wares for sale for diwali ~ so many sweets, piled up in pyramids of white and orange, with wasps and flies filling the glass display cases and the wallah slowly sipping chai and smiling. next to him a potter sells little terra cotta diyas for filling with mustard oil and cotton wick and lighting.

and the tall pale girl from california, her hair in a permanent bun, her nose sunburnt, her clothes filthy, walking down the main road in forbesganj, the street full of rickshaws, cows, and buses, the sun setting behind her in an orange haze. her toes are black with grime, her shirt wet with sweat, but her smile, though tired, is genuine and happy.

happy diwali, dear ones, and bless├Ęd samhain and all soul’s day.


live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.

saving face.

‘saving face’ is a curious mix; it is shame, righteousness, and pride, with some indefinable need to be seen in a particular and continued manner. in bihar ‘saving face’ leads to honour killings and beatings, and to families turning their daughters out of the house because they are ‘soiled’ after having been prostituted.

but i learned about saving face in a slightly lighter context: chaat. it’s true~ everything i need to know about india i learned from the snacks. or something like that…
it went like this: i was sitting on the train on my way to kasturba, wedged tightly between a disgruntled holy man with a bell on his crooked walking stick that jingled incessantly with the motion of the train, and a woman wrapping her toddler in the folds of her sari as they both slept. the wallahs made their way through the crowded car, calling out their goods in their particular sing-songy jingles. lunch had been a long time ago and i was a bit peckish, as well as annoyed that the ticket master had refused to sell me the proper ticket and thus over-charged me by 6 rupees. so when the behl poori wallah pressed his way through the crowd and passed, i decided a snack would be just the thing to raise my spirits and my blood sugar. my brother brannon had been pestering me for weeks to try behl poori, (‘indian rice krispies,’ as he put it…) and i figured if the stanford behl poori was *that* good, the indian version must be killer. little did i know how right i was…

the behl poori vendor looks like a medicine man and a steel drummer. a cloth around his neck holds his box of tricks in place in front of him, like a drum, and there 7 little steel cylinders of magic surround the main bowl of puffed rice. for 4 rupees (about 8 cents) he deftly tosses the rice with a scoop from each cylinder (green chili, onion, salt, masala, mustard oil, sprouted garbanzos, sprouted lentils) and then in a show of prestidigitation, he whips two squares of yesterday’s newspaper into a little cone, into which he dumps the resulting orangish medley. all of this takes about 10 seconds, and he moves on to the next car and the next victims.

by and large, watching me breathe seems to be an afternoon’s entertainment for many people, especially when i am captive on the train. people stare unabashedly and unblinking, as though expecting me to spontaneously combust at any moment. when i am actually *doing* something then it’s REALLY a show. and when i’m doing something INDIAN, such as eating behl poori, then i might as well be ‘gone with the wind’ and ‘citizen kane’ wrapped up in one double feature.
all of which is to say that when i ate my behl poori yesterday, there were many idle eyes upon me.

oh. my. goddess.

i have, if i do say so myself, a very high heat tolerance (or very numb taste buds, take your pick), and it’s not uncommon for me to eat tabasco by the spoonful or order my thai food ‘extra spicy.’ but nothing could have prepared my poor mouth for the Attack of Fire and Brimstone that followed. my eyes watered and threatened to spill over into tears but by sheer willpower i kept from crying, grateful to be hiding, as ever, behind my trusty ray bans. my lips burnt ’til i thought they were bleeding. my mouth was filled with fire ants, running down my throat and searing my esophagus. and all the while my traveling companions stared at me… waiting, i imagined, for me to break.

and i learned what it is to save face. i kept eating, in giant mouthfuls (feeling, perhaps erroneously, that a lesser number of huge mouthfuls would be ultimately less painful than a greater number of small bites…), feeling my respiratory and heart rates skyrocket and beads of sweat roll down my spine. i even breathed occasionally, between swallows. the water bottle in my bag taunted me with its nearness… but i didn’t reach for it, and i finished my chaat and neatly folded the paper cone and smiled pleasantly, trying to mentally put out the wildfire in my mouth.

i disembarked at simraha, and got about two steps from the train before chugging the contents of my beloved pink water bottle and gasping with relief.

and that is how i learned to save face.

morals of the story: watch out for behl poori. and, your brother might be trying to kill you.