Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Chunky Photojournalist Barbie in India: Part One

Note: We're on a two-to-three day delay here. I have Wi-Fi at the moment because I'm in a hotel in Agra, which is where the Taj Mahal is. Here's an entry I wrote back on October 29th/30th, depending on if we're referring to the hemisphere I'm in or the one that most of the rest of you are in.

Hi! Guess what? I'm in India. I know I mentioned this on Facebook, but I never got around to talking about it here and I kept having conversations with people who were like, "You're going to INDIA?!?" Yes.

I'm staying at the moment in New Dehli with my friend's Hema's family. Hema and I worked together at the Nournal Jews. Her cousin is getting married, and the bride wasn't thrilled** with the photographer her mom hired, but he was, in fact, hired already... So they asked me to come and take pictures, said that I can use them however I wanted and in exchange, offered me accommodation and help with transport around Dehli.

**Now that the engagement ceremony/party/ritual has happened... "Not thrilled" is the understatement of the year when it comes to the bride's opinion of the "official" photographer. His camera is held together with tape. I'm glad I'm here.

Hema and I flew together so I could help out with Aristu, her adorable and precocious 3-year-old whom I happen to adore. I sometimes joke that I am a "freelance aunt" to my friends' children, and Aristu is definitely on my roster of kids for whom I would happily buy a pony wrapped in a bow. Just sayin.'

He did so well on the flight, too, rarely even crying, except for when we were landing in Dehli and his ears wouldn't pop. He would also occasionally hiccup and say in the clearest, most heartbreaking, tiny voice you've ever heard, "I want to go home!" melting the hearts of even the grumpiest travelers on ground transport during a short layover in Heathrow, during which I also managed to fry my laptop cord.

Self- reminder: don't let other people plug into your power strip when it's attached to a converter and adapter and working perfectly fine, thankyouverymuch, even if they're Mets fans and they call you a "lifesaver."

Otherwise, we arrived without incident, got whisked through customs with a uniformed police escort, which- as I am the girl who once got arrested in an airport prior to 9/11 over a keychain- I found disconcerting. As it turns out, its fairly common for anyone who has any sort of connection in India to work 'em for all its worth to cut through some bureaucracy, and as a retired police officer, Hema's dad made that happen for us.

Hema's family lives in a typical multi-generational home in a suburb of New Dehli. I'm staying in a very nice guest room off the rooftop terrace and will be moving to a guest house later in the trip when other wedding guests arrive. As I understand it, I'll be bunking with the bride's younger sister's law school friends. I am so lucky. There is no other way I would be having the experience I'm having here without them. India is everything you've ever heard it is: colorful, dusty, crowded, a land of contrasts.

Hema's family is well-to-do, somewhere between middle class and upper middle class.Their home is spacious and beautiful, filled with marble floors and indigenous artwork. As is incredibly common here, they have domestic help and a lot of it. "The help" is kind, omnipresent, range in age from about 13 to 55, and seem to cook three full course meals a day, clean pretty much constantly, answer the door, baby-sit Aristu, provide elder care for a sweet 93-year-old man who is somebody's father and a great-aunt I've not yet seen, and drive anyone anywhere they need to go through the labyrinthian streets full of luxury cars, scooters like Joel's transporting families of five, guys on bikes hauling a shocking amount of cargo and the occasional cart pulled by a bull, water buffalo, horse, donkey or camel. Remember: this is the 'burbs, about as far from the heart of New Dehli as Fort Lee, NJ is from Manhattan.

My hosts have arranged for me to have a driver at my disposal which is something her cousins- who are my age, college-educated, and live at home- find completely ordinary and not the jaw-dropping, "accepted with guilt" luxury I consider it. Once cousin is a working attorney; the other, the bride whose wedding I'm here to photograph, has been fully occupied with wedding preparations since her engagement six months ago.

We're in a suburb, one with an Apple store where I could replace my laptop cord the first day we were here and pick up Soy milk for the otherwise allergic Aristu. Hema's sister, a video photojournalist for a large news outlet here, took me to the mall with the dual goal of finding a new dress for Diwali for her 3-year-old. As we sat at a red light, small girls approached the car begging for money, then reached through the window to pet my white skin, their curiosity momentarily distracting them from aggressive pitch for alms. I am not only a minority, I am an outright oddity with my freaky pale skin.

The caste system- which in my experience was something I learned about in tenth grade World Cultures class and never heard discussed by any of my Indian friends in any kind of real life way, except with Hema once, who told me the reasons Indians in America never discuss it is with outsiders is because "it's embarrassing"- is indeed alive and well. Caste and class, however, are not the same thing. Their next door neighbors have three fluffy, immaculately groomed and pampered Pomerians, but the neighbors across the street live in a lean-to, spend their days and nights ironing expensive, intricate fabrics in squalor and seem to have a herd of emaciated street dogs who bark semi-regularly at a wandering fly-covered, worshipped cow who eats trash.

Again: suburb. I venture into Dehli itself later today.


gwen said...

Duuuude. What an awesome experience. It is so cool and I am jealous. If J and I take our delayed honeymoon to India, do you think Hema's family would consider putting up two even more random freaky Americans? And we're Jews - extra freaky, maybe?

Also, as soon as I read that thing about the dogs, it made me wonder how many dogs you'd wind up adopting if you lived there. A dozen? A hundred?

Judy said...

Amazing, Angie! What an experience you are having!

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