On my first actual day in India, I drove past a man riding an elephant, ten to fifteen cows, and dozens of stray dogs. It was awesome.
Okay, now that I’ve got that thought out, I’ll backtrack for a second. This was the morning after we arrived at IITGN, so I guess I might have been a little overexcited when I woke up. I didn’t realize that my phone is apparently an hour behind in India, so when I decided to wake up my roommate Eli a little early according to my clock, we ended up showing up at the mess hall about an hour too soon. We sat around awkwardly for a while and I contemplated how out of place we looked in this country. As we got up to leave, though, a kid ran out to stop us and assured us that breakfast would be ready very soon and then he and some others took seats next to us, mercifully validating our presence. Eli still hasn’t let me live this down.
Most of the guys (I do mean guys: there was only one girl that day) that we met from IITGN that day were mechanical engineers, which seems to be a pretty standard major at IIT’s. Oh, and I’mma go crazy if I ever hear someone complain about the ratio at Caltech, cause these bros have it pretty bad: 10-to-1. There are some departments that don’t even get any girls in a given year. Oh, and girls can visit the boys hostel, but boys aren’t allowed in the girls hostel. All that means that a pretty decent proportion of a male IIT student’s time may be spent thinking about girls, talking about girls, and maybe even trying to find a girl with which to talk. I feel for these guys.
Then again, it’s not like they really have an abundance of time to worry about all that stuff.
In any case, that first day (December 12th) we only had a brief introduction scheduled into the program, so, with a little nudging from the female portion of the Caltech group, our new Indian pals suggested that we go shopping. The males of the group were not as enthused with the idea, which turned out to be a pretty good bonding point, a first bridge between the American and Indian cultures.
It was at this point that I realized that I probably wouldn’t survive for very long in India. Driving is ridiclous. It’s all chaos: motorized scooters weave in and out of cars, non-parallel lines of traffic form without reference to actual lanes, there is a constant drone of car horns, and pretty much everyone crosses intersections whenever they feel like.
When driving in India, rules are for fools.
After we arrived at a small clothing/souvenir/carpet/everything else store, I made sure to try on a vest and have Margaret take of picture of it so that my friend Sam (a fellow New Yorker from Caltech) could see. Sam hates vests.
Eat your heart out Sam.
I also learned from Anchit, a senior at IITGN, that I shouldn’t go around starting fights in India.
Thanks for the advice, buddy.
We basically just hung out for the rest of the day, getting to know our Indian counterparts and eating obscene amounts of delicious Indian food. For the rest of the program we would be listening to a wide range of lectures, visiting sacred and profane sites in Ahmedabad, and eating obscene amounts of delicious Indian food.
The second day was when things really got into gear. We began by not waking up one hour too early and showing up to breakfast late.
The name of our program is India-Ki-Khoj, which means "In Search of India." What was called the "inaugural session" began with a talk by Dr. Mallika Sarabhai, a well-known activist, feminist, and dancer.
Seriously, this presentation blew my mind.
First of all, Mallika’s an incredibly impressive woman, from her accomplishments down to the way she presents herself and interacts with others. I’ll give a brief little overview of a few little things that I learned from her:
The sari isn’t actually an originally Indian creation, but was brought over when Alexander the Great invaded and Helen was wearing this spiffy garment that errybody liked.
The nose ring isn’t Indian either: the Persians brought that one over.
The skinny jeans that I was wearing were a symbol of negative Western influence on India.
"Indira Gandhi was everything that wasn’t Kosher"
Obviously, these little gems don’t really sum up her message (that India is an unfathomably diverse country that maintains connections to its roots while rising to modernity), but I still think they’re pretty interesting.
What followed was a wirlwhind duo of lectures, one on the development of the state of Gujarat by a woman named Suchitra and the other on the shaping of Ahmedabad itself, by Temple professor Howard Spodek. Again, the point that stuck with me most from these two lectures was not the important things like the fact that the state of Gujarat had majors issues with Gandhi’s dismissal of the caste system or the phenomenon of increasing ghettoization as socioeconomically and religiously divided groups choose not to live near one another. No, I internalized this fact: there is a Jewish community in Ahmedabad.
I won’t dwell too much on this except to say that it was unexpected and that when Prof. Spodek came over to show me pictures of a recent (Jewish) wedding he’d gone to it took me a while to realize that all the participants were Indian.
Anywho, at this point we were all beginning to get a bit restless and, since we had a bit of time to kill, our Indian pals offered to show us how to play cricket.
It’s similar to baseball in that you have a bat and swing at a ball, but the bat is flat on the striking side and the ball is bounced of the ground when its "bowled" (not pitched). Two players from the batting team cooperate to score points by running across the field to switch places around two sets of wickets (one of them hits and then runs to the other side of the field while the other one runs to the batting position). If the ball hits a wicket before you pass it, you’re out and the next player from your team replaces you. There are other rules, but that’s a highly simplified version of the basics.
We played for a bit (my team won, of course) and then someone broke out a basketball to mess around with.
I should mention that at this point there were four or five girls in the Indian portion of our group (just to note that it wasn’t all dudes), so I thought to myself that it would be a good idea to demonstrate my athletic prowess.
I should also mention that at this point I forgot that I sucked at basketball. I was sorely disappointed to realize how much better at it a couple of the girls were, to the point at which they felt the need to start giving me tips and words of encouragement. Lesson learned: just because I suck at an American sport in America, it doesn’t mean I’ll stop sucking at it when I go to a different country.
Our final bit for the day was a classical Indian music performance. It was very interesting, but I was very tired and soon stumbled back to my room where I again got a chance to marvel at the comfortability of my new bed.
Viraj Amar begins to sing a soulful raga. This guy on the right had that same expression for the entire concert.