Monday, July 14, 2008

The Sunday Paper

I once again can’t blog live because my computer connection isn’t working, so I’m writing this offline and will post it when I can.

This morning I checked out the Life! section of the Sunday Times of India, a very short (4 page) insert on glossy paper. One of these four pages was taken up with a half page, full color ad showing a hot air balloon over a sand dune. “Experience Dubai the Country Club way” said the lettering at the top right. At the lower right was a callout photo of an Arab in the basket of the balloon. He was wearing long white flowing robes and a cloth on his head and giving a huge thumbs up to the camera. Above him it said, “Kool Global Dubai – The Ultimate Membership.” There are also tourism commercials on tv in this same ilk, and I’m pretty sure we passed a billboard with the same man giving the thumbs up and saying Dubai is “Kool” with a “K” as in the obscure cigarette brand, or Kool Aid. I’ll bet you didn’t know Dubai is “Kool” with a “K.”

Above this ad on the cover the Life! Section was an article entitled “It’s Sweeter Solo.” This article discussed the growing phenomenon in Indian cities of people living by themselves. It said that the trend moved from extended family living to nuclear family living, then from nuclear family living to single living. These new “Loners,” the article said, are not unhappy or lonely. “The Loner is also not a stop-gap to living a complete life,” it explained. According to the article, the emerging demographic is full of people to choose to live alone. “I share a beautiful relationship with my family, but I prefer my me-time,” one senior “Loner” commented. A point this article made but didn’t dwell on was the fact that this trend toward solitary living is putting even more severe pressure on an already squeezed housing market. There isn’t enough space as it is, and development isn’t keeping up with demand. The article improbably quotes Oprah Winfrey (who appears in this short Life section twice) as saying, “Nobody’s manufacturing any more space. I’ll take every bit I can get.” The article says that the concept of personal space is an emerging one here in India.

Not only personal space but exercise is a new concept here, and after being here for a week I’m beginning to understand why. Living here is exercise enough. I think I’ve lost about five pounds already just by sweating—and I’m not exaggerating. My jeans are loose on me. Were I to put on my sneakers and go outside to jog, not only would I have to dodge traffic (there are no real sidewalks) and jump around refuse and puddles, I’d have to be on the lookout for surly monkeys and deal with body-shocking heat and humidity—let alone the astonished looks I would prompt.

“I don’t think I can jog here,” I told Julianne over lunch yesterday.

“DON’T JOG,” she replied. “DON’T JOG.”

Still, we drove past a gym the other day, in the Golf Links neighborhood, I think (don’t let the name fool you—no golfing takes place there), and Julianne has a friend, Suzanne, who’s trying to start up an aerobics training class.

The next article I read was a short, quippy one called “Double Takes, Second Helpings.” It began with the precept that observing a waiter was a good way of “finding out the height of local good behavior,” then critiqued the waiters in a global array of cities in which the author had eaten. My favorite paragraph was a critique of Indian eating in London: “An Indian meal in London is one of the funniest experiences. Keeping in tune with easily exploding English tummies, some restaurants even offer boiled rice with softened cashews and oranges as biryani. As a lover of Mughlai cuisine, I protested only to be told by the Vietnamese waiter that I had no idea about authentic Indian cuisine.” This only made me wonder, “What is real biryani?”

Oprah’s second appearance in the Life section was in an article entitled, “Power of Black.” The subtitle for this article read, “That ol’ black magic still has us in its spin – it’s the colour of power and sexiness as much as of evil and discrimination. Here’s romancing black…” Under the title was an eclectic assortment of black people including: Oprah Winfrey, Naomi Campbell, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Priety Zinta. I think this may be part of a regular column on Oprah because the author’s name appeared as a callout under a pink box that read “O-zone.” I’ll have to check for the “O-zone” next week Sunday and let you know.

I have to say my first reaction to this article was, “Oh my God! They’re saying that black is evil.” But as I read and re-read, I cooled my jets. It’s still a fact that blackness is symbolically “bad” or “evil” in a lot of contexts—it’s just not fashionable in America to admit it. At least in the Yankee North, we like to pretend those associations are gone and that black is just another color.

The article talked about discrimination in America, skin tone preference in India, and blackness as a philosophical concept. The lead read, “Isn’t it amazing how black can make the most powerful statement style wise, and yet is the most disempowered colour as skin tones go?” Vinita Dawra Nangia is comfortable writing about the color’s significance in the American political election, fashion, astrology and religion. She ends her article without a conclusion but instead with a Hindi quote from a story about Krisna’s lover, Radha, giving up her fair complexion to be with him.

The openness with which this article addresses racism is initially jarring. It says of Indians, “…we are blatant in our preference for white skin.” And then it’s strange how these deep social problems are mentioned in the same paragraph as fashion tips, “A black tux looks great with a white shirt.” The article happily jumps from topic to topic, at one point wondering philosophically if black is even a color at all. “Is something black because it is actually colorless? Just as darkness is nothing but an absence of light?”

Really, the article reads like the first draft of a final project for Humans and Society 101. So many topics, none of them fully treated or resolved. Of course topics like these can’t be fully treated or resolved in the Life section of the Sunday Times of India—it’s just strange to me that they’re there in the first place.

Neither does the Life section shy away from religion. Next to the article about blackness is a personal testimony from S Sreesanth, a cricket player. “My day starts with the chanting of Gaytri Mantra and Om Namah Shivay… I feel nobody can be against me when God is within me.” The entire article is a first person account of the cricketer’s religious conviction.

Again, this article is presented freely, as most Indians I’ve met address their religion. It leaves me wondering, “What are we Americans so uptight about?” My Punjabi cab driver told me on the second day I met him that he was a Sikh. “Do you like this religion?” he asked me. Everywhere I look there is religious iconography or a temple or an impromptu shrine. The dashboard of every taxi I’ve seen holds a picture of Guru Nanak, the tenth Sikh Guru. The sight of garlands of fresh orange flowers is so ubiquitous, I see it when I close my eyes. These garlands are made and sold outside Hindu temples as offerings for the gods inside, but they are also placed throughout the city in shops and roadside shacks in makeshift shrines.

The fact that religion is so pluralistic in Delhi (with significant populations of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, and Jains just to name a few) creates a totally different public context for religious practice. In America which feels almost monolithically Christian in many places, public and institutional expressions of faith have been a way to bulwark the monolith, thus binding religion and power in uncomfortable ways.

I don’t know enough about Delhi to say how religion and power work here—except to say that the government is a secular democracy with religious parties within it.

I know that occasionally, riots break out between Hindus and Muslims, but for the most part, these groups coexist peacefully.

I know that here religious practice is life and vice versa. Religion isn’t saved for a one hour weekend observance; it is an organic part of every moment, and there are so many ways to God or the Divine or Inner Peace or Moksha or Enlightenment or whatever you want to call it, that offering your beliefs here just makes the fabric more beautiful instead of destroying someone else’s weaving.

And that’s why it’s a joy to hear about cricket player S Sreesanth’s deep beliefs in Sai Baba. It doesn’t mean I have to believe in them myself. It’s just another flourish in the fabric of religious life in India.

I didn’t think I’d find quite so much to think about in the four page Life section. It’s probably not as thought provoking for the locals—at least, I hope it’s not. Imagine how long it would take to read the entire paper.

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