Fasting and Fretting

Indeed, this week did hold surprises I could not have possibly foreseen. Most of Monday was humdrum, with a day of writing and a trip to Big Bazaar.


As we walked back, the sun was setting, the temperature dropping, and I was thinking about how my daily journal entry was going to be a bit bland. However, on arriving back at Sector A, Pocket A, Surinder’s face popped up overtop of the walking park fence.


She showed me the gorgeous henna she’d just had done and told me that there was a woman further down the driveway painting for 150 rupees per hand (200 rupees for me with my ‘amazing’ bartering skills). She explained that tomorrow was Karva Chauth,  a special day for married women in Northern India. It would be a day to fast for your husband’s long life and to get dressed up – including getting henna – for a ceremony with other fasting women. 

At first I just wanted to get henna for the aesthetic of it, but quickly found that, as a cultural outsider, I was not comfortable participating in only the enjoyable part of the festival. Henna painting was creating somewhat of a neighbourhood gathering and, as I got into conversation with some of the women, I soon was asked if I would be keeping the fast. “Yes! I am!” Although I had already reconciled the festival practice of fasting with my Christian faith, my affirmative answer still surprised both me and them as it slipped out of my mouth. Once it was out, I had to do it. It was only after I agreed that I timidly asked the woman beside me what the fast actually involves. A married woman wakes up at 4am on the morning of Karva Chauth to eat. Then, from sunrise to moonrise, she does not eat or drink a thing. At 4pm, dressed up beautifully, she meets the other neighbourhood women for puja, an offering ceremony, where fruits and prayers are offered to Lord Karva. When the moon rises around 9pm, she performs a short ceremony and her fast is over. So after some 4am Nutella, I fell asleep praying to Jesus that Kyle would live a long and healthy life. 



The next day I dressed up in a yellow, flowy, Indian dress, accented with bright pink bangles, did my hair and makeup, spent my time expending as little energy as possible, and prayed every time my growling stomach and parched mouth insisted I should. Time ticked away slowly until 4pm when I followed a woman in a sparkling sari to an outdoor area where a red carpet had been laid down and women were sitting cross-legged, forming a circle. I sat with a friend I had met while having henna done, and we intently watched the ceremony take place. On arrival , women placed an offering of fruit in the middle of the circle. Then the officiant told the story of Karva Chauth, in Hindi, in four parts. Between each part, participants passed thalis (metal plates) containing food and a candle around the circle and sang a beautiful song all the while. This lasted about 45 minutes or so, and ended with an abundance of love and hugs among friends.


I felt so fortunate to be counted as a friend. I met many delightful women after puja that day and the women of one family warmly invited me into their home where we shared banana-cashew-almond smoothies (our little secret) and a couple hours of friendly conversation. The last few hours without water were exceedingly difficult but not without reward. I took Surinder up on her offer to perform the ceremony at moonrise together, thanking God for Kyle and for an amazing cultural opportunity, and since then our relationship with her and Thapa has been even more relaxed and friendly. 


The next day was about business. In the morning, after ravenously consuming three or four parathas, we took an auto to the Foreign Residents Registration Office and got our necessary paperwork done so that we can stay and so that we can leave.


In the afternoon I tried out the ‘women’s only’ Metro carriage and met two women, Eunice and Sarah, from the New Generation Trust, a Christian NGO. New Generation Trust does humanitarian work in South Delhi.

There is one project of particular interest to both Sarah and I. Sarah has been in the process of creating an employment project called Dignity Preserves, where women who are currently in prostitution would be given alternative employment, producing pickles and chutneys to be sold in stores. However, the project has been running into barriers involving questions of quality requirements and the need for a bit of R&D. New Generation has been praying that a food technologist would come along. How surprised they must have been, then, to receive my CV, which outlines my experience working with food quality programs! I was amazed, as well, that my employment background, which I did not think could be an asset to my volunteer work, couldpotentially be put to good use. 

Eunice called the next morning as I was pouring over the Indian Food Act, asking if I could work the day in one of the schools. Feeling nervous about not having teacher training, I pushed through the hopeful hoard of auto drivers at the Saket Metro Station and met Eunice, who led me through a rabbit warren of bustling dirt alleyways, lined with shops and pock marked with water-filled holes, through a set of wrought iron doors and into the crowded, little school. A wall of noise hit me as I entered the school and the air was filled with the children’s energy, creativity and a whole lot of dust.

While I had forced myself to meet the day with a facade of confidence in the role of a teacher with hopes that the facade would transition into real confidence, the facade quickly crumbled to reveal my teary-eyed insecurity. While I recognize and appreciate the uncompromisable importance of education, teaching has never been a strength or an interest of mine and I was being thrown into the full swing of it, entirely unprepared and out of my element. Furthermore, I had not realized that I wouldbe expected to spend the majority of my weeks in the school. Learning of this change of plans – or possibly my misunderstanding of plans – left me completely overwhelmed. 

Even so, I found the children adorable and sweet. They call their female teachers ‘Didi’ (big sister), which I find delightful as ‘Dee Dee’ has been a fond nickname of mine. At one point I entered the classroom for the youngest children and I was met with a chorus of high pitched voices singing, “Hi, Didi! Hi Didi!” and as I left, “Bye, Didi! Bye Didi!”

After lunch I was whisked away to a home placement for four girls, two of whom are HIV positive. I was happy to watch the girls in order to give their home-mother, Soni, a break so she could paint candles for Diwali and do housework. I enjoyed having a chai party with two of the girls, holding and hugging a six-year-old who cannot speak or walk, and helping the newest little recruit get comfortable in her new environment. By showing her how to high-five, she warmed up from somber curiosity to smiling and giggling until, later on, she was maybe too comfortable as she wouldn’t stop climbing the outside bannister and screaming her own name repeatedly. 

That night after making freezer-burnt hash-browns, I called Eunice to explain that teaching really is not my strong-suit and I would rather focus on the Dignity Preserves project, if I could. 

The next day I spent an enjoyable morning working with Sarah in the Dignity Preserves kitchen determiningwhat needs to be done to get their product on the shelves. All my lofty plans of sanitation logs, certificates of analysis, and vendor approval were quickly dashed as I learned that to sell product in India, all you need is a food license. Dignity Preserves has a food license, so it seems now to be a matter of amending their product labels and determining what customers would want. Beyond that, we will be working on improving the products. 

My chest tightened to learn that while afternoons would be spent with Dignity Preserves, mornings would be spent teaching in the school from 9am-2pm, and the requisite lesson planning would fill the evenings. I discussed with the head teacher that afternoon her wide-ranging ideas for my lessons and was overwhelmed with frustration at how naturally teaching ideas and methods come to her and not at all to me. My evening with Kyle was thus filled with tears and takeout. 

That night I got sick. At this time of year, the mixture of farmers burning paddy straw in neighbouring states, the temperature dropping, no wind, and car pollution creates a thick blanket of smog in Delhi. It is so thick that the buildings across the street look hazy. A lot of people get sick from it. 

Kyle and I went out on Saturday night despite my cold. It was the annual Sector A, Pocket A Diwali mela (fair). We were struck by the beauty of our whole walking park covered in beautiful, twinkling Christmas lights with huge, clear lightbulbs strung between stalls of vendors selling silk saris, jewellery, and dishes. We purchased three hand-painted candle holders for Diwali, one decorated with a woman’s face, another with a man’s face (to keep her company), and one with little, green autos. 


ImageWe enjoyed tikka paneer on toothpicks, watched cute kids perform poetry and dance, and played a round of Tambola (Bingo). The colony had hired a professional Tambola caller who calmly and clearly called the numbers: “nice legs, one and one, eleven”, or “independence, four and seven, forty-seven”. 


Most enjoyable was the chance to reunite with friends from Tuesday’s puja and to introduce them to Kyle. One friend, Nisha, assured Kyle that his life would be extended an extra ten years due to my effort. She seemed shocked that I kept the strict fast and said that only the older generations do that nowadays; she always has water and fruit during the day. I was reminded by my neighbours that I should come spend time with them in their homes, where they would teach me Hindi and how to cook Indian food.

After the weekend of wondering what to do about the school situation (if you want to volunteer in Delhi, does it have to be in a school?), the mela helped solidify my decision to cut back my hours with New Generation Trust, to focus primarily on the Dignity Preserves project, tutoring a girl in social sciences, and helping in Soni’s home when needed. The rest of the time I can dedicate to my neighbours, building meaningful relationships right here in our own colony. 



Welcome in India, Madame!

October 21, 2013

Goodbyes are never easy, even when you are on the brink of a great adventure. Our journey to India started with a lot of tears and I have the charming fish living in the Vancouver Airport Aquarium to thank for those tears drying.

Kyle and I both slept nearly all the way through our first ten-hour flight, landing groggily in London. We were thrilled by the mixture of coincidence and the grit that inspires a person to brave London traffic that allowed us to meet up with dear Coventry friends, Matt and Laura, on our layover. This put us in good spirits to brave the eight-hour flightthat followed far too soon thereafter. Although we had to sit separately and endure terrible turbulence, I did have the good fortune of being able to help an old woman manage her claustrophobic fear of being locked in an airplane washroom.

We were met at the Indira Gandhi Airport with a wave of sweet, hot tropical air, honey lassis in red clay cups, and a security guard with a machine gun. ImageMy first glimpses of New Delhi were through a painstakingly rolled-down window of a rickety, seatbelt-less taxi with hot, dusty air blowing through my hair. When I managed to peel my glued eyes away from the apparent madness of the traffic I saw streets that were dusty, smog-filled, and run down butthat were humming with activity by people covered in colour from head to toe. I saw vendors selling everything from aromatic delicacies to gigantic teddy bears wrapped in plastic to motorcycles helmets, presented in a neat pile. I saw dogs sacked out all over the sidewalks and streets due to the heat. I also saw a glimpse of a slum.

We were greeted at our guesthouse, Chhoti Haveli, by a man who keenly hoisted my suitcase up the five flights of stairs from the street to our room and then promptly made us a cup of tea. I practiced my not-even-rudimentary Hindi to learn that he is named Tapa and is from Nepal. From the moment we arrived, I was thankful for the comfortable, quiet oasis that is Chhoti Haveli. It is decorated in a simple but ornate Rajasthani style and is complete with air conditioned rooms and the warmest hospitality.Image

That afternoon I had my first taste of Indian food in India. We ordered takeout which cost us 325 rupees (just over $5/£3) and it blew Canadian and British Indian food out of the water. I had never tasted paneer so creamy or curry  so full in flavour. I have since learned that this quality is typical . I send my sympathy to the Indian Visa Officer in Vancouver who misses nothing of India but the food.

Despite the unceasing din of Delhi, Kyle and I slept from 3pm that first afternoon until the next morning. We were greeted to the new day and to our new routine by Tapa’s questions, “Madame, breakfast-a-start? Coffeetea?”, the latter question posed in one speedy, smooshed-together word, followed by his scurrying over to the kitchen to fry up parathas (Indian pancakes). We met the guesthouse owner, our gracious hostess, Surinder Maini, who has proven to be a great delight and an exceptional help.

Qutub Minar, the great tower built during the reign of the Qutub Empire, was our target for our first venture out. Our route there allowed me to experience, for the first time, an auto-rickshaw and the Delhi Metro. I was taken aback by the pair so starkly juxtaposed in modernity and style; the auto felt like it might crumble into pieces as it dodged in and out of traffic at a bargained-for price, while the Metro was cleaner, cooler, quieter, and less crowded than the London Tube.


Our experiences at Qutub Minar and, the following day, at India Gate were similar. Both monuments were truly awe-inspiring and Qutub Minar was exactly as I imagined the Tower of Babel to look. They were situated in gorgeous, green parks, perfumed by  plumeria trees. People crowded the parks to admire the wonders.



Unfortunately, oftentimes we, in our light skin, seemed to serve as wonders ourselves and  so were observed intently and constantly.  I was confused when at Qutub Minar we found three Indian men asking to take photos with us; before I knew it I was smiling and posing for the camera of total strangers. I did not know that this is a completely normal phenomenon and by the end of our trip to India Gate, we were able to recognise the body language that pre-empted such questions and made haste to escape.

We also found – quite expectedly, this time – that tourist spots make us prime targets for hawkers.  I was somewhat shaken by an experience at India Gate where a woman holding a henna pen approached me to kindly ask if I would like henna. I politely declined, but she insisted with increasing aggression, until she grabbed tight hold of my arm and poised herself, without my permission, to paint. I had to firmly yank my arm away and dart through traffic to escape her. Minutes later, Kyle was approached by a woman claiming to be a teacher who wanted to put an Indian flag sticker on him. We suspect it was an attempted pickpocketing distraction.

After our two days of sightseeing, we accomplished Kyle’s registration at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where he is a research affiliate. This took two days, which, according to Kyle’s colleagues, was record-breaking in speed and efficiency. After our painstaking visa application process, this was my next good taste of Indian bureaucracy. Our days were filled with waiting, waiting, waiting, a moment of action which involved walking back and forth between two buildings multiple times as interlocutors for JNU employees, waiting, and waiting. One particularly entertaining scene involved an administrator whose computer drop-down list was not working. Instead of refreshing or trying a new plan, he literally clicked the defective drop-down list about 15 times, let out a huge breathy sigh, and then resumed carefully pouring over individual pages of Kyle’s registration package. The package was comprised of four perfectly identical photocopies. The administrator would look at one page, carefully read it, flip to the next page, carefully read it, flip again for a careful read, look at his computer and the drop-down list, and then go back to re-reading the four identical pages. Meanwhile, his assistant sat at her desk, incessantly tapping the case of her ink pad in complete boredom.

Most of the JNU campus is a lush and beautiful, with paths that lead you from building to building, through gorgeous, humid jungly gardens. The standards of the administrative buildings are not nearly as high as the grounds and I was reminded, when I saw a gigantic pile of Western toilets piled up outside of the Science building, of wise words from Aunty Zo Ann: piles of garbage in India don’t mean it’s a dirty place but rather one where someone took the time to clean the area by putting all the garbage in one place.


At a JNU canteen I had my inaugural run at eating with my hands. Once I got over feeling terribly self-conscious I found that it is a wonderful way to eat; it adds a tactile element to eating and it leaves your hand smelling like delicious curry for the rest of the day. I also had my first go at using a squat toilet. JNU washrooms are a little on the rough side, never mind toilet types, so I cannot say that it was as pleasant an experience. I did learn from it, however, and will now be carrying my purse with me at all times, equipped with a roll of toilet paper.

We experienced modern shopping in Delhi this week as well. On a mission to stock up on Indian clothes, we visited Ambiance Mall in Vasant Kunj, our neighbourhood. It felt like we had stepped into the TARDIS in the dusty, noisy streets of India and landed in Park Royal or the Bull Ring. It was cool and clean and unsettlingly almost entirely Western. We were pleased, however, to find Shopper’s Stop, which sells Indian-style clothing at affordable, fixed price-points. We also found Indian trousers for Kyle, which are sold long and un-hemmed, with the feature of free and fast post-purchase hemming – a perfect system for the long-legged. The food court was filled with all sorts of tasty delights, but we chose to eat stir fry at Kylin Express because the restaurant name suited us really quite nicely.


(New clothes on the stairway up to Chhoti Haveli.)

Although we covered a lot of ground and a lot of ‘firsts’ for me during the week, the weekend was still full of excitement. I ventured out on my own for the first time on Saturday to grocery shop down the road at Big Bazaar. Aside from unwanted attention from one questionable character, my experience was good and I wound up with some interesting food, including a green, lumpy fruit which I later learned is called a ‘custard apple’. I am pleased that they are in season and plentiful right now as they are sweet, delicious, and extremely good for you.

Later that day, we were relaxing in our room when I heard a sound outside and joked that it sounded like an elephant. Then I remembered that we are in India and it probably was an elephant! So we scrambled down the stairs almost dangerously quickly and, sure enough, there were two enormous elephants, painted beautifully, standing in the park next door, surrounded by a crowd of people. Next to them were two huge camels snacking on tree leaves. We experienced, again, the phenomenon where we were garnering more attention  than the magnificent beasts. Thankfully this did not last and everyone’s attention was re-focused on the elephants dextrously peeling bark of tree limbs with their trunks and eating the bark with supreme enjoyment.


The crowds gathered increasingly throughout the day as a covered stage and chairs appeared and two days of wrestling matches began, serenaded by fireworks so loud they nearly stopped my heart. We watched a few matches during the lamp-lit evening but found that it had a similar effect on us as on my dad when he would watch wrestling on TV – it didn’t take long before we were being put to sleep.


After a relaxing day of reading yesterday, the fireworks kicked off again so we decided to head out for the evening, this time to explore the city-centre ring road, Connaught Place. The British influence there is abundantly evident as the area looks uncannily like a more crowded, dirty, and sociable Leamington Spa Parade or Regent Street. The street was lined with high-end shops, but our plan was to turn down a side street to find the wondrous Central Cottage Industries Emporium. Perhaps tied only with Fortnum and Mason’s, the Emporium is the most fabulous shop I’ve ever been in. It is full of delightful decor, dishes, art, and jewellery, all in South Asian styles, and, best yet, its products are affordable. We purchased  a stunning, Indian-style gold ring to temporarily replace my wedding rings which are at home for safekeeping. We finished our evening with a trip to Hotel Saravana Bhavat, an amazing, vegetarian South Indian restaurant featuring dosais two feet long. Surinder, our hostess, had it right when she described the food as “to die for”.



We greet the new week with the hope of finding a volunteer position for me  while Kyle works hard on a paper on historical photography in Mizoram, which he will present next week at JNU. With a week like the last one, I’m sure it’s not even in the realm of my imagination what this week will have in store for us.