India Trip 2016 Days 24-30: Here Comes the Bride, All Dressed In a Sari

And we’re off to Indian wedding #2! Unlike the first wedding that I described in one of my earlier blog posts, this wedding will be a much longer – five days, to be precise – and more traditional Telugu affair. And since we’re close family members of the groom, Sandesh, we’ll be participating in all of the wedding activities.

We depart from the Vijayawada airport, which I have to say, looks like less like an airport and more like a snack shack. But at least it’s clean. I still have nightmares from the Indian airports that I remember from the ‘90s.

We land in Tirupati, and I’m surprised to find that the airport here is significantly larger and more modern than the one in Vijayawada. As we’re cruising through the streets of Tirupati, I spot a Papa Johns chain restaurant. I know that Pizza Hut and Dominos have been in much of India for a decade, but it’s a surprise that Papa Johns had come to India. Ahh, the spread of global consumerism. It’s funny to think that India was at one time allied with Russia in the communist bloc during the Cold War. Capitalism is clearly here to stay.

We make it to the hotel and I’m quickly summoned to an impromptu dance practice session for the wedding. Remember: I’ve allowed my cousins to badger me into signing up to participate in the sangeeth, or the song and dance portion that will precede the actual wedding. There’s some competition between the bride and groom’s family over which side can perform better dances. Seeing as how the bride’s (Hima’s) side of the family is supposed to be made up of professional dancers and they’ve had time to extensively practice, whereas our family is…not made up of professional dancers, to say the least, and are relying on a last-minute practice session to memorize numerous dance routines, I think it’s fair to say who’s going to win this competition. Still, for the sake of Sandesh, we put on a good effort.

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The stage where the dances are being performed is cast with a mix of purple and blue lights as the show gets underway. There’s an awkward, funny dance number with the older gentlemen on Hima’s side of the family, with the men decked out in suits and black shades. A group of Hima’s friends perform a lighthearted, girlish routine. Another performs a well-rehearsed solo dance routine of traditional Indian bharatnatyam. And then there are the older couples, who despite their missteps, set a cute stage for the evening. They might be my favorite part of the night. Finally, we get to OUR routines. We amble onto the stage and fumble into our positions on stage for the family group dance number “Om Shanti Om.” There are some technical difficulties as the DJ starts playing the wrong song. As much as we’re sucking this dance right now, it’s fun because everyone – from my younger cousins to my middle-aged uncle to myself – is on the dance floor. All generations are represented. Sandesh even breaks into center stage for the dance. We hop off and then just the girls and young ladies reconvene on the dance floor for our female-only numbers. Midway through I start doing the moves out of turn and forgetting what step follows the next one. I think we’re all in the same boat, but we somehow pull it together for a strong finish. We all whisper each other words of congratulations, while we’re all simultaneously thinking “Oh well…at least we tried, right?”

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We wake up at 6 am sharp the following morning, get ready, and head off to the temple. Once again, we benefit from having the benefit of VIP connections, and we’re allowed to bypass the line for the general public. This time, unlike at the Atari border, I don’t feel so bad about accepting this VIP connection. I visited this same temple as a kid, and I remember the normal lines being enormous.

We enter the main temple complex, and find that the crowd isn’t nearly as bad as I remember it being when I was a kid. The last time I came here, the crowd was pushing you in from all sides, slowly suffocating you into a slow death. I was so eager to escape from that crowd that I actually missed the statue of the actual deity – the main event – that we were standing in line to look at. Not this time. My uncle kindly saw to that, making sure that my short self could see the deity beyond the crowd. Even after we passed the deity and were walking away, the guards had to continuously usher the worshippers along, as they kept stopping to turn around, crane their necks and get one last look at the deity. I almost have to admire that sort of religious devotion that you would do anything to glance upon a statue of a god that you worship. On the other hand, I know that that’s the sort of religious fervor can also lead to zealotry and hate. I suppose it’s a fine line.

I wish goodbye to the cool mountain breeze as we descend down the mountainside back to the main city of Tirupati. There, we change into our elegant wedding attire; I wear something called a half sari, which isn’t quite as bothersome or big as a full sari. I’m a bit flabbergasted, as the last time I wore this outfit, I had just graduated high school, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t even fit me then. I don’t know how I manage to squeeze into the blouse that’s two sizes two small, but I do, complaining all the while to my dear old mom. She ignores my complaints and we proceed on to the next function: the bridegroom reception, hosted by the groom’s side of the family. Due to our mountaintop temple excursion, we’ve missed many of the actual activities, but we arrive in time for lunch and for my mother to greet every single person on-site. I greet my cousins and plop myself down in one of the many red lawn chairs, and I make small chat with a few relatives and my brother. I go up to get ice cream at the end of the meal, and am utterly dismayed to find that they don’t have vanilla, or at least mango. Mango ice cream is the least offensive, and usually the most tasty, of traditional Indian ice cream flavors. Pistachio, pineapple or butterscotch? Gah, I gag. We chat with the groom, Sandesh, who

We return to the hotel for nice sojourn before we return for the main wedding reception in the evening. However, we’re made about a half hour late for the reception because it takes my mother 1.5 hours to tie my sari. No kidding. We even had to call for backup in the form of one of my aunts to help put the damn thing together. The sari that my grandmother purchased for me is a beautiful piece of work, and I have to admire it. I’d just like to admire it on anyone besides me. The reception takes place in the same wedding hall as the sangeeth, and it’s basically just an excuse to eat free food and take copious amounts of posed, professional pictures with the bride and groom and selfies with the other party-goers. So in that respect, Indian receptions aren’t all that different from American wedding receptions. However, in Indian weddings, guests line up on sides of the stage – where the bride and groom stand – to take photos with the bridal party. Both the bride and groom look gorgeous in their traditional Indian wedding attire. The bride’s hair is plaited in a long, traditional Indian braid down her back and adorned with flowers. I admire Hima’s sari, and can sympathize with the hassle it must have been for her to stand while aunties puttered over her, readjusting her sari numerous times until it fit perfectly.

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And of course, throughout this process, there are the infinite number of aunties and uncles who ask me when I plan on getting married. I plaster a smile on my face, repeat the safe, well-memorized response “I’m focusing on my career right now” and wait to be excused so I can drown my sorrows in food and non-alcoholic beverages (no alcohol or meat is being served at the wedding activities in Tirupati, per the wishes of the bride’s side of the family). I’m summoned to take a group family photo with the happily married couple. My heels are killing me at this point, as does the annoying hem of my sari that drags on the floor, even with my heels. It’s a painstaking effort to either not trip over my sari the entire night or slip in my wobbly heels on the marble floor.

The reception ends, but the festivities aren’t over. The actual wedding is taking place at midnight. Yes, you read that correctly. Midnight. The astrology reading, horoscope, or whatever you call it, what they do before the bride and groom get engaged, not only determines whether they’ll be a suitable match but also the date and time they should get married. And so midnight it is. We head back to the hotel, and I change into a slightly less uncomfortable set of heels and another outfit. And then we’re back for the wedding. I wonder how the bride and groom must be holding up. They’ve been on their feet for hours, and now have to sit through hours of ritual upon ritual. I confess that at this point, I’m pretty sleepy and more than a bit disgruntled after the chaos of changing into and out of saris. I don’t pay as much attention to the nuances of the wedding as I should. The Hindu priest sits in the middle of the stage with the bride and trays of coconuts, yellow rice, flowers and other items for the religious ceremony. Volunteers pass out yellow rice to the audience attendees for us to bless the bride and groom later. The most significant part of the wedding ceremony that I remember is the parting of the veil – the moment when the bride and the groom glance eyes upon each other once the veil separating them is lowered.

We get up on the stage and are about to take another group photo with the married couple, but it seems we’ve arrived too early. There are some more rituals that the bride and groom must complete first. I can’t make out exactly what’s going on, but I hear chanting by the priests. Lots of chanting. I see a couple of raised eyebrows on the part of some of my family members. Apparently, this isn’t part of the usual Telugu wedding traditions that they know. It seems to have been requested on the part of the bride’s family, since adhering to many of the traditional Hindu rituals important for them. I’m none too pleased, but then again, it’s not my wedding. And I might appreciate watching these rituals better, since they’re an interesting aspect of Hindu culture. If only I weren’t so tired….

And that’s the last of the wedding activities…in Tirupati. Round 2: we move this shindig over to Hyderabad. There are another three functions, including a puja for the bride, a reception, and another puja for the newly married couple. Both of the pujas take place at the house of Sandesh’s family. The pujas are mostly without incident, and most of our time is spent chatting with other relatives and catching up. However, during one of the pujas, while my brother and I are sitting at a table in the backyward chatting, we hear a sickening crash somewhere behind us, and the party takes a slightly gruesome turn. I look down and see a crumpled body underneath a broken wall of cement. We quickly find out that a decorative cement wall that was bearing flowers had suddenly broken free of it support and collapsed on some of the partygoers. Everyone starts gathering in a crowd, then a few doctors, my brother included, come to assess the situation. The young man manages to come shakily to his foot. Someone brings a tray of ice to create a cold pack for a young woman, who was hit in the head with some stray pieces of the cement wall. We’re relieved to find out a few hours later that both of them are fine, but they were incredibly lucky. Heck, I was lucky that I was sitting a few feet away and not in that spot. Crossing streets. Monkeys. Stomach bugs. This was the list of things I had to be worried about in India. I suppose I’ll have to add falling walls to that list.

We also have a second wedding reception to go to, which is intended mainly for friends of the family who could not attend the reception in Tirupati. We drive nearly an hour through the streets of Hyderabad – yes, traffic really is that bad in this city – and we make it to the wedding hall. It’s a lovely grand, white complex, and the entrance to the hall is decked in a beautiful floral arrangement. The stage is also set in a backdrop of hundreds of pink, white and yellow flowers, and I have to blink before I realize that they’re all real. It’s a pretty setup, and a reception that many could only dream of. We take a seat and indulge in the savory appetizers, from mughlai chicken to chili paneer skewers. Alcohol is being served at this reception, so we grab a few drinks as well. The food is on point, and the drinks are nice, if a little watered down. There’s a buffet with platters upon platters of food. It’s all very good, but it’s so different from American weddings, where you usually have 150 guests at most, and each person is served an individual meal that they’ve selected in advance. Indian weddings prize quantity over quality – both in terms of number of guests and number of food options. I can’t help but think of all the food that gets wasted every day in Indian weddings. Not to mention the money. But then again, who am I to judge? Some people spend money on cars, on houses. In India, more often than not, that money gets spent on weddings. And then, with that, we’re finally, finally done with all the wedding activities. It’s been one hell of a wedding. We bid adieu to Sandesh and Hima, and head home.

Following the wedding activities, we have a fairly lazy day in Hyderabad, and then it’s off to the airport. My brother’s flight departs first, and we drop him off at the airport. It’s a bittersweet farewell, but I know we’ll see each other soon enough. Then it’s my turn. I fly out from Hyderabad to Abu Dhabi. When I land in Abu Dhabi, the clock on my phone still is set to India time, which is an hour ahead. Panicked that I’m about to miss my flight, I rush through the airport of Abu Dhabi like a madwoman, frantically descending escalators and rushing up stairs and through the new U.S customs and security checkpoint, which they installed as an experiment in Abu Dhabi to expedite customs processing for U.S-bound passengers. After being yelled at by an irritable woman at the security checkpoint and laughed at by agents at the gate, only to find that I’m a half hour early for boarding. Oops.

The flight from Abu Dhabi to LAX is nearly seventeen hours of intermittent, uncomfortable sleep with an awkward neck posture and avoiding looking at the rude passenger sitting next to me who doesn’t say a single word the entire flight. Having blown through all of my summer reading books, I have nothing to read, so I watch a few Hindi and American films. Man, Indian cinema sure is more risqué than when I was a kid! I feel that I’ve gained five pounds between the constant sitting and airplane meals. But the fun isn’t over. As we’re descending into LAX, not one, but TWO overhead compartments open up. I leap up to close the second one about a minute before we land, but I’m too short to close it shut while a piece of awkwardly lodged luggage is blocking the top. An elderly grandfather gets up to help me, and the stewardesses – not even bothering to help the situation – yell at us to sit down. The man extricates the suitcase from the overhead compartment and just sets it down in the middle of the aisle, overhead compartment still open. We can only hope that no more luggage falls out during the rocky descent. Somehow, we land with no more wayward falling suitcases or bruised heads. Then there’s the two hour wait in LAX, where I peruse the bookshelves of the airport shops, wishing I could buy every single one.

And then it’s only a short, uneventful ride home from LAX ‘till I’m strolling through the wide corridors of SFO Airport. As I’m waiting for the SuperShuttle to arrive and take me home, I make small chat with another passenger of the shared ride service. He’s an older man, African-American, whose home is the backcountry of Baton Rouge Louisiana, but he’s here on a short-term basis to work on the construction of the new Apple office building in the San Francisco Bay Area. He regales me with stories of the new Apple building, which is shaped like a donut and has everything an employee could ever want – restaurants, beauty parlors, you name it. You’d never have to go home – which is probably Apple’s aim. He tells me about the shock that he suffered after growing up and living in the countryside, and witnessing urban poverty and different cultural behavior in San Francisco compared to Baton Rouge. He attributes this difference in values and norms between urban and country living, and being raised right by his grandmother, who worked and lived on soil owned by white men and had the foresight to set aside all of her savings to purchase a large plot of land that her children and grandchildren could own and farm for generations to come. It’s a conversation that sticks with me for a few hours afterward, and makes me remember why I wanted to leap face-first into journalism. It’s to meet people – everyday people who you wouldn’t think have a compelling story to share, but they do. It’s to listen to and share stories like these.

As I’m riding in the SuperShuttle home, I take in the sun setting over the Coit Tower and the skyscrapers of San Francisco’s financial district. It’s a breathtaking sight.

It’s good to be home.

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Postscript: I started out this India blog with the intention of blogging about my trip every day – or almost every day – as a way to get back into the habit of writing before I go back to school. I start graduate school in NYU’s Literary Reportage (Journalism) program in two weeks. I’m thrilled to embark on this new journey, and I hope to share it with you too.

 

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India 2016 Trip Days 20-23: We’re All One Big Happy Family

After we conclude our North India trip, it’s back to Hyderabad for the family. There, we’re joined by my brother, Jay, who flew into Hyderabad only a few hours before us. Although my brother annoys me to no end sometimes, he’s still one of the few people in the world who gets me, the only person with whom I can have two hour long heated debates about politics, despite oftentimes being on the other side of the fence. Plus, he gets where I’m coming from as an American of Indian descent, as I observe various Indian rituals and customs with a mixture of fascination and dread, he takes it in alongside me. I’m glad to have him here with me so we can exchange witty barbs and comments together.

There’s noting too grand to speak of our one day in Hyderabad, but we have some fun in between the tasks that must get done. My brother and I indulge in some politicking and shake our heads at the DNC email scandal (the one nice thing about being in India is that I get a reprieve from the non-stop horrors of the U.S. presidential election). I go to the tailor where I painstakingly try on my dresses for the upcoming wedding. I make my way to my cousin Pooja’s family home – Pooja is the sister of the groom in the upcoming wedding in Tirupati that we’ll be attending – and she and I head to the mall to pick up some shoes for the wedding. For those who don’t know, Indian malls they require you to go through airport-style screening (minus the removal of shoes and TSA body scanners) with a metal detector. These large, multiplex buildings can rival some of the larger malls in the U.S. We depart a half hour later with glittering heels in hand.

In the evening, we convene at my cousin’s place, where we practice some of the choreographed dance moves that we’ll be performing – me most begrudgingly, dancing not being my forte – during the upcoming wedding. But I learn about just enough to think that I won’t embarrass myself or the groom’s family – at least not much. After we freshen up, the guests arrive in flocks for a blow out party. Servers swing by bearing platters of hot appetizers like chili chicken, lamb kebab, tofu skewers and even Greek spanakopita served up Indian style. I down so many appetizers in the first few minutes that I hardly have any room for the main course and dessert. There are alcoholic drinks and ‘mocktails, ’ the virgin margarita of cocktails. It’s a lovely gathering and the recently constructed home is grander than perhaps any other house I’ve seen in India, with three floors and an elevator to boot. Beyond that, like any Indian party, this gathering serves as a fascinating insight into cultural norms of a society that is on one hand moving progressively forward but in many ways remaining ever stagnant.

My brother points out something that I’ve taken for granted: the de facto sex segregation that persists in most Indian functions, with women and children being relegated to one corner and men to another. It’s not like it’s an enforced division, and there are a few men and women wandering back and forth between these two spaces. But it’s still jarring. Going back to the drinks, it’s patently obvious that none of the women are drinking alcohol. Or if they are, they must be secretly stashing a hip flask somewhere and secretly spiking their drinks. I chat with another relative, and we talk about the need for Indian women in particular to guard their reputation, which can includes abstaining from openly drinking. so it’s with somewhat of a rebellious air that I pick up a cocktail drink from the bar, and the bartender tells me it contains alcohol, plainly expecting me to put the glass back down. But I don’t. The bartender gives me what I believe to be a judging look, but I brush it off. I find this need to keep up false appearances all the more appalling, particularly since I know from speaking to college friends that many a young twenty something, cosmopolitan Indian woman can go out and have a few drinks with a friend at a lounge or club, but they can’t have a sip in front of family. Certainly, we’re not immune to this habit in the U.S., but maybe because I’m a foreigner in this land, I’m seeing it afresh. But I put that aside, and for the most part, I enjoy meeting and chatting with relatives old and new throughout the night.

The next day is mostly filled with packing, preparations and travel as we depart once more for Vijayawada. I feel like I’ve been living out of a carry-on suitcase for the past month, and it’s almost true, as I swap clothes out of my larger check-in bag for my smaller bag. We finally hit the road, and reach Vijayawada just as dusk is settling in. We order in biryani from one of our childhood haunts, Eagle Bar, our go-to place for biryani in the summers that we spent in Vijayawada as kids. I think that the quality has diminished somewhat, but maybe I’m remembering the taste of the food with rose-tinted goggles. Jay chows down with relish though, and gives it a solid thumbs-up.

The next two days are a blur of visiting relatives upon relatives, as is the custom when you come to Vijayawada. We first visit my dad’s home and village in Kavuluru, where my brother and I spent the majority of our summers as a kid. On the way to the village, we stop by a fort in a nearby town called Kondepalli, which has a history of being exchanged and conquered by various rulers, both Hindu and Muslim, over the centuries. It certainly boasts an impressive history, and it took one ruler years to be able to conquer the fort, given its isolated location on a mountaintop perch. Sadly, the maintenance of the place has not kept pace with its impressive history. Walls are crumbling before our eyes, graffiti and trash are strewn everywhere, and the interior of the museum entrance to the fort is filled with broken wooden beams and scores of bats. Still, it’s fun to act like a kid and bounce around the fort, imagining who might have lived here and what sort of political and military meetings between important generals and officials might have taken place here.

I lose track of the names and faces of the countless people we meet . All relatives on our Dad’s extended side of the family. We stop by home after home, shaking elders’ hands, and being force fed so much food that we’re all likely to pass out from overconsumption. We pass by old childhood friends and their parents while walking through the village, and its’ surreal to see how much has changed – and how much hasn’t – in the village. Where there once were only dirt roads lining the village, there are now many cement paved roads. And there’s a new temple to boot, too, in the city. My dad generously donated a significant amount of money to the temple during its construction, so we visit the temple with fond feelings and participate in a puja conducted in our honor. While in Kavuluru, we also stop by our old family home, and it’s a blast down memory lane. The modest, three-room home with the attached kitchen seems even smaller than I remember it to be. I walk outside the house, remembering how I used to hop around on the scorching hot stones on the front yard, and how I first learned to ride a bike here.

 

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On our last day in the area, we visit relatives in the nearby town of Budavaram. One tata (grandpa) we visit on my mom’s side has Parkinson’s, and he’s so frail and fragile, he seems liable to collapse at any moment. I can only imagine what it must be like for every intake of breath, every step you take, to bring on a fresh stab of pain. After making the rounds and visiting a few other relatives in the area, we return to Vijayawada and rest.

Then it’s off to Tirupati for us! Vija ammama (who you’ll remember accompanied us on our North India trip) kindly hosts us lunch before we depart for the aiport. I’ll miss Vija ammama dearly. Her witticisms made our North India trip lively, and she was all things considered, the best roommate one could have.

Next up: Indian weddings, take two, from Tirupati!

India 2016 Trip Days 17-19: On Patriots and Prayers

Charmunda – Jawarla Muki – Kangra

It’s Day 17, and we’re nearing the end of our North India trip. We depart from the lush, mountaintop resort where we’re staying, and head out to a few more temples in Himachal Pradesh. Personally, I think I could go the rest of the trip without seeing any more temples and be just fine, but I begrudgingly accept the itinerary and trudge along. Charmunda, Jawarla Muki and Kangra: these three sites make up a trinity that forms three of the most holy sites in Himachal Pradesh, and these temples all serve as places of prayer to different avatars (forms) of Matha Di or Parvati.

Charmunda is part circus, part temple. On the side of the temple complex is an artificial river and fountain area, on which sit garish boats and brightly colored statues of different gods and goddesses. While I appreciate the attempt to turn what is an often a humdrum experience of visiting the temple –buying offerings, standing in line, presenting the offerings to the god, pray, rinse and repeat – I’m not sure that turning a temple complex into a mini religious fairground works that well either.
The statue representing Parvati in the temple is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Unlike most other temples, which contain perfectly carved sculptures representing deities with human bodies and appendages, Mata Di is a small mound like stone sculpture, painted with an auspicious orange tint and marked two rudimentary black eyes, almost as if a child painted them on. The legend behind this temple is that Parvati killed two demons that were threatening the world, and the combination of those demons’ names merged into Charmunda.

 

We head to Kangra next, which contains two main tourist attractions: a fort, and of course, a temple. I haven’t really seen any Indian forts since I went to Jaipur in 2012. While this is nowhere near as spectacular as the Rajput forts in Jaipur, ambling around the fort steps makes me feel like a kid again. According to the sign posted at the outset of the fort, ownership of this fort changed hands between so many rajas and invading conquerors that I lost count. It’d be a nice place to spend a few hours trolling around with friends taking fort selfies, but alas, we don’t have time, and it’s way too damn hot as it is to stand out here baking in the open sun. Onward to the temple in Kangra! The temple in Kangra, known as Mata Brajeshwari Devi is one of the Shakti peeth that I mentioned in an earlier blog post. The Shakti peeth derive their significance from Shakti (aka Parvati), who set herself on fire after her father insulted her husband, the almighty god Shiva. Devastated, Shiva went into a celestial rage, which could only be stopped by Vishnu slicing Parvati’s body into pieces. I couldn’t even make this stuff up if I wanted to – the stories are really this violently imaginative. The left breast of Parvati supposedly fell here, and it became one of the many Shakti peet temples.

 

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Image: The many shops selling prayer items near the temple at Kangra.

Last but certainly not least is Jawarla Muki. Of all the temples that we’ve visited so far, this might be my favorite, not because there’s anything special about the temple complex itself, but because of the almost otherworldly phenomenon that takes place here. Within the main temple is a flame that has seemingly burned for years without end. Skeptical, I ask Vijaya Grandma if someone doesn’t surreptitiously come at nightfall when all the temple visitors have gone to bed and add some type of powder to keep the flame alive. But she insists that that’s not the case. Apparently, researchers have studied the geological formations in the area to come up with a logical explanation for this occurrence, but to no avail. Whether divinely caused or naturally formed, it’s impressive to behold. A truly ‘eternal flame.’

Amritsar – Atari Border

We hit the road again and arrive to our hotel in our last city on this North India trip: Amritsar. Amritsar, known worldwide as a holy city for Sikhs in particular, has always been on my to-see list. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the values of honor, strength, equality (lack of the Hindu caste system) and benevolence to the poor that Sikhism prides itself on.

We’re off to a sobering start to our day. Our first stop here is the Jalianwala Bagh, a site of tragic, needless and bloody massacre of countless Indian people during the early 20th century under British colonial rule. Indians were protesting a British-imposed law, which I believe violated free speech and press. They led General Dwyer, in an attempt to send a firm message to people who were involved in these protests to stop, gave the order to his men to fire upon innocent civilians peacefully attending an open lecture regarding the law taking place in the Jalinwala Bagh. The soldiers stormed the only entrance/exit to the Bagh, effectively trapping people inside the walls with no means of escape from the gunfire. Except by death. Many jumped into a well inside the Bagh, choosing to take their own lives rather than be slaughtered by the British. It’s a haunting reminder of what happens when we subjugate one people to another – dehumanization and cruelty is only a tragic and inevitable result. We silently pay our respects to those who lost their lives and move on to the Golden Temple.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Golden Temple ever since I first learned about it in college. It doesn’t disappoint. The temple is located within a dazzling, large white complex with towering minarets. True to its name, the top part of the temple and the minarets at the top are rimmed in gold. As part of the Sikh’s rigorous adherence to cleanliness, after stripping off our sandals and handing them to a Sikh man, we step into a small pool of water at the entrance before heading inside. Many Hindus would turn up their noses in disgust at touching someone else’s worn sandals, so it’s with surprise and pleasure that I see that this a routine procedure here. As part of the Sikh values of modesty, everyone, both men and women, are required to cover their head, usually with small bandanas in the case of the men, and dupattas for the women. But as I’m a novice in the art of headscarf wearing, my dupatta keeps slipping down off my head, and one man even scolds me for my immodesty.

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The Golden Temple is a most holy site for Sikhs all across the nation, and millions flock here every year to worship. The main temple here, which was constructed some centuries ago by one of the first Sikh gurus, contains the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The line to enter the temple and see the book is enormous, so we skip it and instead walk around the temple complex. It’s also the site where Operation Blue Star took place, in which forces commanded by Indira Gandhi raided the Golden Temple. Many believe that the operation was justified by the need to root out alleged Sikh terrorists who were hiding behind the walls of the temple. Others view it as unjustified raid on a sacred holy place. In the fallout from Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. Afterward, many Sikhs were slaughtered in riots in retaliation. It was a turbulent time in India to say the least. But on a day as a peaceful as this, it’s hard to imagine such violence taking place here.

However, our enjoyment of the temple is tempered by the scorching heat. It’s definitely hotter here than anywhere else we’ve visited in India, and I wonder how some of the elderly visitors haven’t yet collapsed of heat stroke. In the temple, a high-school boy starts following us around, asking us questions about where we’re from and whether we want to enter the temple. It’s clear that he’s trying to exact money from us in order to perhaps help us bypass the long line and enter the temple, but we’re not interested, despite his pleas that the money will help go toward his school fees. I wonder if we’re being cruel, but when I remember that scores of children outside the temple were hawking their wares under the same line. We unsuccessfully try to lose him as we make our way to the langar hall.

The langar is an important part of Sikh culture. In many Sikh temples – also known as gurdwaras – you’ll find what’s called a langar, or a communal hall where you can receive a delicious, hot meal free of charge. You sit on the floor in front of long vertical place mats, and Sikh volunteers come by with large vats of steaming rice, roti, curry and dal, placing it efficiently on each person’s plate. It’s a sort of communal dining experience that you’d be hard pressed to find in any other community. It’s also an example of the Sikh’s beneficence towards the poor. Anyone, regardless of religious, classe or caste, can come here to find a hot meal, served up volunteers free of charge. The clean-up process is efficient and orderly too, with volunteers quickly rolling up the place mats and a clear delineation for where to put our plates. As we exit, we spot the enormous pots in which the food is cooked in outside the langar.

We head back to the hotel for a quick respite before heading over in the afternoon to the Atari border – the border dividing India and Pakistan. Thanks to some friends’ connections, we’re able to secure passage for our car into the entrance to the border area, thereby bypassing the line stretching for blocks and blocks. If we didn’t have our friend’s connections, we’d have to stand for at least an hour in the burning sun, and when they finally open the gates to the border area, the queue would quickly bust open, with people running in a massive stampede to the public seating area and fighting over the best seats in the shade. While I do appreciate not having to engage in that spectacle, I can’t say I’m not deeply perturbed by the Indian VIP culture. It’s another example of the deep class divisions that pervade this society, and the ‘pay to play’ mentality. If you shell out any amount of money, people will roll out red carpets for you. Rod Blagoevich would approve.

We pass through security and take our seats in the VIP seating area, which is basically just closer to the gates of the border than the public seating area. I look over to the border and see two gates, one a reddish color on the Indian side, one a blackish gate opening onto the Pakistan side. The Pakistani side of the border has an arch that soldiers stand on with Jinnah’s (the founder of Pakistan) portrait. The Indian side is not so elegant, nor overstated, in its décor. We wait for a little over an hour, sweat a ton, fan ourselves, munch on butterscotch ice cream, and then the world’s biggest pissing contest commences. Soldiers flank both gates. Indian soldiers in tan military style outfits on one side, Pakistani soldiers in more ornamental black outfits on the other side. As attendees from the Pakistani side of the border start flooding the Pakistani side of the border, people on the Indian side start yelling greetings, waving, and in some cases, outright booing and jeering. Folks on the Pakistani border do the same. The Pakistani side is somewhat less packed than the Indian side, but there’s a still a sizeable crowd. The only difference there is that women and children/families are separated on side of the seating area from the bachelors and young men.

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Once everyone takes their seat, a boisterous Indian emcee emerges on our side, rousing the crowd and encouraging them to shout phrases like ‘Jai Hindustan!’ (long live India!) while corny Indian music plays in the background. Many in the crowd eagerly follow along, wearing “I ❤ India” hats, both to ward off the hot gaze of the sun and to display their beaming national pride in the most garish manner possible. Another emcee does the same on the Pakistani side. I can’t make out the exact words of the music on the other side, but it just seems like they’re chanting ‘Pa-ki-stan, Pa-ki-stan’ over, and over and over again. The repetition and overwhelming, ‘beat-you-over-the-head-patriotism’—from both sides – is an intriguing and embarrassing display of the trumped-up rivalry between India and Pakistan, made all the more apparent in the recent clashes between the two countries via the heightened tension in Kashmir.

While the music is playing, a crowd of individuals – largely either females or children – lines up on the Indian side of the border. One by one, they run down with an Indian flag in hand, and halfway to the gate, they wave the flag with both hands, in what is a not-so-subtle F*** yeah India moment. On the Pakistani side, due to cultural norms, I don’t think women – or any civilians, really – are allowed to participate in the flag waving. Instead, the Pakistani emcee waves the flag around. In between the music, soldiers on both sides perform some of the most outlandish and ridiculous looking moves at the gate, lifting their boots to knees in some type of military strut as they walk around the open pavilion in front of the gate, formally saluting the other soldiers and even opening the gates briefly to mock the Pakistani soldiers on the other side before quickly closing them shut. One Indian soldier even comes out with a fake, drawn-on mustache, for what purpose I cannot imagine, but it just highlights the sheer, comic and almost pathetic absurdity of the situation. I was hoping the soldiers on both sides might as least do the courtesy of saluting one another, but nope, no way in hell that’s going to happen. By the time the elaborate and boorish ‘dance’ between the two countries is over, the heat is gone, but my incredulity at the humiliating, if mildly entertaining, spectacle we’ve been witnessing, is at an all-time high.

For some context: imagine if something similar were staged at the U.S-Mexico border. Imagine how outrageous and ridiculous that would be. Still, it’s an illuminating insight into the way both countries perceive patriotism, one as a Muslim nation and the other as an (avowedly) secular nation, and the bitterness that still persists between the two. We head home and a particularly rickety auto-rickshaw experience through the main market in Amritsar in search of handmade scarves, dine at a local Punjabi restaurant and turn in for the night.

Day 19: And so the North India safar (trip) comes to an end. This last day, we take it easy, and make only stop on our way to the airport: a prominent Sikh museum and gardens in Amritsar dedicated to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This Sikh ruler exemplified some of the best aspects of Sikhism: valor, strength, and benevolence He was ferocious when confronted by his enemies – chief among his military accomplishments is keeping the invading Afghan warriors at bay numerous times – and undeniably generous to the poor. There are small replicas of various important moments from the ruler’s life, as well as life-sized panorama depicting epic battles and scenes at court during Ranjit Singh’s time. By the time we exit the museum, I’m left with a greater appreciation for the important contributions that Sikh culture and rulers have made to this region. And it’s also pouring cats and dogs. We rush into the car to escape the rain, and head to the airport to head back to our second home in India – my grandparents’ home in Hyderabad.