Sunday, May 23, 2010


P1030990 Jainism is a minority religion in India and of all the new religions I’ve encountered so far, its ideals appeal to me above others.

The most important principle of Jains—which is a branch of Hinduism—is that violence is prohibited. This means they are vegetarian; in fact they don’t even eat garlic or onions which could damage insects in their removal from the ground. Yes, that verges on the radical, but. Can you IMAGINE if the whole world were Jain? Well, besides being overrun with insects, violence wouldn’t exist. Fantastic idea.

The other principles include

Tell the truth without offense

Do not take that which is not willfully given

Sexual celibacy or chastity

Non hoarding (unattachment to possessions)

They reject the idea of caste and claim all living beings are equal. Jain monks go around absolutely naked to renounce materialism. Of course there’s much more to it than this but that’s the basic fundamentals.

The trouble with this religion is I hear that Jains will get up and leave if you eat meat in their presence. Having strong beliefs is all well and good, but that sounds a bit snobbish to me. Anyway I suppose I can understand… when you have strong moral/ethical convictions it’s always difficult not to try and enforce those on others…something I have a weakness for myself.

I visited a Jain temple complex and literally was laughing in delight. It was like being in Candyland. Check out what I saw:





P1030998 P1040003 P1040004 P1040006 P1040007 P1040010


P1040012 P1040015 P1040017 P1040019






P1040061 P1040059

P1040069 P1040062








Sunday, May 16, 2010

Leaving India

There are some things I won’t miss about leaving India.

These include…

Yellow water coming out of the sink faucet and brown water to wash clothes in

Sudden whiffs of urine or burning trash while walking down the street

No air conditioning or even fans around town in the hottest place I’ve ever lived

The contents of my nose turning black from pollution

Greasy, oily, rich, fried, carbohydrate-laden, albeit yummy food that is making my face get fat

Feeling guilty eating an ice cream cone outside when I see so many people drying up along the side of the road

Feeling guilty going to an amusement park when I see children who no doubt will never have a chance for that sort of thing

Feeling guilty going home to my air conditioned guest house when I see so many people lying on cardboard on the side of the road

Just feeling guilty…

Mounds of trash piled everywhere with people sitting on top picking through itP1030501

Mangy, ugly dogs populating the streets

Having a very strange schedule (it comes from going to bed late and getting up early in order to volunteer)

I know Jacob doesn’t like having to wring his clothes from sweat thanks to having to work out outside in the heat

Sitting in trafficP1040141

Directing taxi drivers who don’t know where they’re going

Always feeling a little dirty

Smoking the equivalent of 2 packs of cigarettes a day from pollution

Basically, I won’t miss the dirt, the sweat, the inefficiency, the poverty, the pollution, the weather.


But as I try to remind myself of those things, the truth is I wish I could stay. This story exemplifies why:


One day last week I’m heading to purchase tickets to Thailand at India Air. Their website doesn’t accept credit cards so I do it in person. (I know, a country’s airline website doesn’t accept credit cards? How do they stay afloat?) It takes a couple hours when it’s all said and done to get them booked, including time to find an ATM to get the cash. Indian bureaucracy is well-known, but Calcuttan inefficiency is legendary. Everyone is very pleasant though! The workers are just in absolutely no hurry at all.

A lady in a dingy pink sari greets me from behind as I’m walking into the airline.

“Are you Indian?” she says.

I’m wearing a pink and gray salwar suit, but no one could ever mistake me for being Indian.

We chat for a long time outside the airline office. She laughs freely and easily and jokes a lot but for some reason covers her mouth when she does so; maybe she is ashamed of her teeth. She asks if Jacob and I’s marriage was arranged or love. We get asked that all the time. Jacob will say, “Arranged. It was arranged by Heavenly Father.” Hers was arranged. “Until I was married, I could not speak to men” she tells me.

We agree to meet at the same place the next day.

I am there on time the next day. She tells me she could not stop thinking about me all night and told all her family about me. She says they all want to meet me. I ask if she has ever talked to an American before. She admits she has not. She does not own a computer. She does not have email. She is very sheltered. I agree to visit her father’s house. She tells me her house is very poor—do I still want to visit? Of course I say yes. “My house is small,” she says, “but my heart is very big!”

We ride the bus together there. Of course, she insists on paying. “When I visit you, you can pay for me,” she tells me. “Now, it is my turn to be hospitable.” She calls a family member on the phone. “Salaam Alaykum” she says—the Muslim greeting. When she gets off the phone, I ask if she is Hindu, which I assumed. I should have known better because she keeps her hair covered. She is Muslim and speaks Urdu. Turns out Urdu is the language of the Muslims here—its writing even looks like Arabic.

We ride a long, miserable bus ride to the outskirts of town. (My friend begs me to try and remember the way so I can visit again the next time I come to India). All of a sudden we are in a Muslim neighborhood. It is as if we are in a different land. There is a large, beautiful mosque. It is calmer, and more rural feeling. Chickens, children, and groups of men all mingle on the streets. After long, winding pathways we arrive at her doorway among the many that we pass. I meet her daughter, her mother, her mother-in-law, and her sister. Their house is dark and the walls and floor are concrete. They invite me to sleep on their only bed, using their only ragged pillow. It is dirty. I don’t care. Their clothes are hung on a clothesline over my head. They get me a Coke as I rest. I take a nap as they go to the mosque.

 P1040103 P1040114

As I sleep, I periodically open my eyes to find her six year old daughter staring at me. She just stands there and stares as I sleep. “Are you my guardian angel?” I ask sleepily. Tabassum—my friend—tells me later that her daughter thinks I am so cute, and my skin is soo fair, and will her skin ever be my color?


Tabassum returns from worshipping at the mosque. She tells me that if I ever want to change religions, Islam is a great one! The fan stops working. Her toothless mother fans me with newspaper. They give me some lunch. I eat it on their bed. It is surprisingly good. I try not to think about the ingredients or the method in which it was cooked, hoping nothing would make me sick (it didn’t).  Tabassum heaps the food on my plate. We are late so she tells me to eat quickly. The leftovers she puts in a random plastic bag and instructs me to take it home to Jacob. It is somehow endearing to be handed a dirty plastic bag full of cold food made in a dank kitchen to carry for hours to take home to my husband.P1040150

We go to pick up her son from school. Another long bus ride. This time her daughter comes with. First I meet her husband. She says he is a very good man—he doesn’t require her to cover her whole face, and he lets her do anything she wants.

We pick up her son. I meet brother after brother-in-law (she has 8 siblings, all married) I meet neighbors and friends who give me cookies and Tang and beg me to always remember them. I am invited to a wedding the next day. Everyone is Muslim. They are their own community.

The next day I bring Jacob. We are taken to another part of town, by Shyambazaar. There we sit and wait to be picked up. Tabassum’s brother arrives. He sits and waits with us. He gets our contact information and formally notes, “Today is the day I met Jacob and Kalli Hiller, from the USA.” We are taken to yet another Muslim neighborhood where crowds amass around us. We are seated and asked what food we like. Jacob jokingly says that he eats nothing but sweets after I tell her I am vegetarian. 30 minutes later several trays of only sweets are brought to us and set on chairs in front of us. Groups of people are gathered, sitting, looking at us, smiling, taking photos. We are taken to Tabassum’s brother’s house for a nap.P1040234 P1040236P1040237 P1040241 P1040238

We lie on his dingy mattress in the middle of the floor. It is sweltering. The imam begins the call to prayer. I am told I must cover my hair. It is SO LOUD. Not possible to sleep through. We meet family member after smiling family member. We sleep.P1040246

When I awake, I am surrounded by children. They want to know my birthday. They want my autograph. They want to watch a movie with me. I am asked if I want tea. I explain about our religion. Tabassum is very impressed. “No alcohol! Great religion!” She tells everyone about this. They bring me hot milk with sugar in it—again, surprisingly good. We watch a very strange film that is typical Indian, with musical numbers like men dancing in suds, popping out of buckets, and sitting on toilets. All the children want to sit next to me.

Jacob sits and plays on his iPhone. He tells everyone that he is Jon Cena’s cousin. He promises them that he will call Jon and they can talk to him, but right now it is nighttime in the US. He also says he has never heard of Micheal Jackson and asks, “Is he Hindu?”P1040263
















They show me the kitchen. Secretly I am amazed these women can cook for so many people using those resources. There is a tiny stove sitting on the ground and a pile of pots and pans and a bowl of soapy water.


The bathroom is a squatting toilet with no sink.

Hour after hour goes by. We are assured it is almost time to go to the wedding. The power goes out. We sit in darkness. People shine lights in our faces the better to stare at us with. Children fan us with books. We are cooking in our own sweat. An hour goes by.

The light finally turns back on. It is time to go to the wedding. First, we take photos. And meet more people who have come to see just us.P1040269

The wedding is held in a lot next to a school. It is lit up with neon lights and flashing signs. Tabassum points proudly at a plastic coconut tree in a pot strung with lights. “Look,” she says, smiling. “It’s artificial.” “Really?” I feign surprise.

We are shown around the premises.


Clowns stand at the door to entertain children during the wedding.


I sat with the bride up on stage as she got ready. I felt slightly ridiculous but everyone was very welcoming and asked me to stay the night. I had never even met the bride before! She was getting an elaborate decoration of henna on her hands. That is Tabassum’s son to the right.

P1040296This is some kind of food called fasili or something. I told Jacob, “Ready to get initiated?” We had just watched a man wash his hands in the juice that we were about to eat inside that roll. It tasted pretty good if you could forget about the sanitation. I could kind of forget.


These men wanted their picture taken.

P1040317 P1040322

So…much…food! Fish patties, different types of rice, fried cheese, vegetable sauce, chips, mango sauce, rasgullah (sweet syrup balls) and potatoes…ice cream for dessert



Here the imam is singing. The man with the elaborate hat is the groom. The bride and groom have never seen each other. They do not see each other the entire wedding. There are two rooms with men and women separated. Five people go from the men’s room and ask the bride if she accepts the marriage. Later in the evening, they remove their masks and the couple will see each other for the first time.






There is a perfume fan that sprays you as you leave.


Driving home in the taxi, I reflect on the experience. I am so, so lucky. I am sad to leave the people of India, but I know I will return again, and when I do, I will have friends to welcome me back.

Powered by Blogger