Saturday, July 28, 2007

Navaratri and NRIs ("non-resident Indians")

"A Home for the Indians": Each fall, Hindus all over the world celebrate Navaratri, a Goddess Festival that, on its culminating night, includes special forms of music, dance, worship, and the wearing by both males and females of their finest, most colorful traditional Indian clothing. Diaspora communities tend to have significant numbers of people whose homeland ties are to Gujarat, thus the folk "ring-dances" of garba, raas and dandiya from that Indian state are what people do mostly, in rented high-school gymnasiums all over North America. Nowadays, to the horror of their more conservative elders, a bit of Punjabi bhangra closes the evening for the benefit of the younger, American-born desis who want some cool music and dancing that is not strictly religious, to go along with a bit of flirting and lots of checking each other out. I attended my first Navaratri shortly after returning from India in the summer of '06. In the photograph, you will see a number of people in the foreground, getting ready to start another round of dancing. In the background, next to the oversized American flag but not visible in the photo, is the large Native American "Indian" emblem / mascot of the high school. To the right, you can see the sign that designates this particular high school as the "Home of the Indians." Hmm. A former student of mine told me that she has attended Navaratri celebrations in this very gymnasium for her entire life, and never noticed the signs and how ironic they are until I pointed them out to her. More intrigue and coinkidink, for your contemplation, from "the world wide web of stuff."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bollywood and Ratatouille

Rats (and their cousins) have a lot to do with big history. Bubonic plague, for example. Everyone knows that. For millenia, the holds of ships have carried furry rodents as well as trade goods to the world's bazaar. Less well discussed is the fate of southern New England's 17th century beaver population, but their pelts and felts adorned many in the Netherlands and England at the time. Look (closely) at the paintings. Not the ones of drunks and peasants, but the ones of the power holders, accumulators of wealth, decision makers, and their women! Think (hard) about the hats worn by those risk-taking New World-making Pilgrim forefathers. Or the global icon Mickey Mouse. But I digress. Today's New York Times brings us news of a one-time Bollywood male dancer whose real job, for decades, has been that of Mumbai's (Bombay) champion rat exterminator. Gruesome and disgusting details are not withheld from the reader. And this news comes to me just days after seeing, in air-conditioned comfort, Pixar's latest, perfectly wonderful film about a rat who becomes the leading chef of a gourmet Parisian restaurant. In a local multiplex, of course (but not the one that also regularly shows a Bollywood film on one of its umpteen screens). A year ago, in Mumbai, I discovered what it meant really to perspire, and got glimpses of life among the poorest of the world's poor. They tend to inhabit lower-lying parts of the city where, when the monsoon rains come, they find themselves waist-high in water. Bombs exploded on the commuter trains. We heard testimony from people who lived in Dharavi, "the world's largest slum." These asymmetries must be considered, and taken into account. Lear's madness brought him naked, flailing, into the rain, where he saw truth and wished "to show the heavens more just." Are we mad enough?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mumbai / Bombay Dabbawallahs

Popeye's Pekinese Palak: Documenting the "world wide web" of stuff is fun, but it takes long years of research, filled with intervals of serious contemplation! As evidence, I present two photos. The first is of "Popeye's Fried Chicken" in Beijing, taken by me in 2001 (you know the place, it's right next door to "Kenny Rogers' Roasters"). The man in the Popeye suit is Chinese, of course, but that doesn't matter. The second photo, from 2006, is of one of Mumbai's (Bombay) famous dabbawallahs, the guys who deliver thousands of hot lunches in "tiffens" throughout the city to people who wouldn't be caught dead eating American fast food. Notice, however, the detail of the red lunchbag --- it's Popeye! Big deal, you say? Well, if you ask me, these two pictures suggest that at the very least, there are important nuances to globalization. As I marveled at China's new wealth and the replacement of Chairman Mao's images with those of Colonel Sanders, I asked myself: "Who am I to tell Chinese my age (or anyone for that matter) that they 'shouldn't' be eating American fast food?" While my family was happily/unhappily gobbling up the benefits of life in post-war suburban America, these people were getting rotten teeth and stunted growth from three years of national mass starvation! As for the lunchbag --- probably made in China? What's inside is more important. And people in India knew the virtues of spinach millenia before the muscle-bound sailor made his appearance in our comics and cartoons. I think. Now I have to do some research to find out where spinach was first cultivated and consumed...

A 9/11 artifact for the Smithsonian?

I might as well share one of my prized artifacts from my collection of global flotsam and jetsam. I hope this one may earn me some retirement income someday, when I sell it as a "collectible" on eBay. That is, unless the salt leaches out of the soy sauce through the cellophane and it self-destructs through some chemical process of which I am ignorant. I shall not divulge just how many of these fine perishables I have in my artifact warehouse, so as to not adversely affect their ultimate market value! Anyhoo, as my Viennese shviggermutter says, it's one of those "who'dda thunk it" sorts of things that help me to make my point. About intersections between the local and the global, that is. It came from a fine local Fujianese takeout, one of gazillions, but this is the one that made local headlines a few years back: "Chef Charged With Spitting in Food."