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On Saturday I’m headed to Rajasthan for an 8 day vacation. I’ll be visiting Jodpur, Jaisalmer, and Jaipur during my trip through the state and taking trains to get between those cities. I’m excited about being in the desert, hopefully riding some camels, and using the Indian Railway system for the first time.

If anyone has any recommendations for those cities please let me know. I’m keeping a pretty loose itinerary with nothing much set in stone accept my hotels.

View Rajasthan in a larger map

Holy Cow, Misconception

Today, during a conversation with co-workers, I had a longstanding assumption of mine broken. I always knew that India had cows roaming freely, and so when I moved to Mumbai I was more delighted than surprised to find cows walking around the streets, lounging on the sidewalks, and blocking traffic in the streets. The cows always seem to be in the way, but I thought their wanderings were allowed and even encouraged because cows are a sacred animal for Hindus.

As it turns out, while cows are sacred, the ones floating around the city are all owned by someone for purposes of milking or even to slaughter for beef. They are not “special” cows in any way and their owners are simply taking advantage of the fact that Hindus won’t harm a cow. They let their cows wander around and eat other people’s food, illegally grazing on the metropolis “pasture”. According to the locals I was talking to, most people would prefer if there weren’t any cows in the city.

This was a great lesson in how assuming things about other cultures can be distorting. In a moment I went from thinking that the cows were a spiritual force, roving the city streets and beloved by all — to being annoyed that people are allowed to take advantage, inconvenience, and endanger others. I have to say though, I personally still love seeing them around.

On a related note, I recently learned that there is a cow infirmary in Mumbai with over 400 sick and dying cows. These are rounded up after people let their unproductive or sickly cows wander off for good. It’s sort of a no-kill shelter for cattle. Also, yesterday I saw a cow roaming through the Khar Railway area on a bit of a rampage. He knocked over a bicycle and was stealing food from some street venders. I caught a tiny bit of it in a video you can see on Flickr.

Finding India in Deadwood

I’m a big fan of serial TV dramas, like The Wire, where the overall narrative feels more like one long movie than a bunch of disconnected stories. A couple of months ago I started watching Deadwood, which was highly recommended but I never got into it before the series was cancelled. It’s set in the eponymous gold mining camp in 1870’s South Dakota, which I thought was a nice balance to the Indian-focused books I was reading at the time. After watching two of the three seasons though I’m surprised to find that there’s actually a lot of parallels between India today and life in the American west 140 years ago.

  • Lack of infrastructure: Deadwood lacks well-maintained streets, plumbing, and most other basic infrastructure. India has a problem with outdated and broken infrastructure in general, but the really direct parallel is between the infrastructure in Deadwood and the informal housing areas in cities like Mumbai. These areas cover large swatches of the city and lack basic services such as indoor plumbing, garbage collection, or policing.
  • British inflected formal English: India and American share a common master in the British, and 140 years ago we were a lot closer to our time of British rule. The speech in the TV show is often extremely formal in it’s tone and full of British phrases that  have since fallen out of use in America but are common in India. I often run into very formal speech here in Mumbai, along with the use of words that seem outdated to my ear such as stores advertising that they sell “provisions.”
  • Corruption: The saloon owners in Deadwood run the city through corruption, kickbacks, and control. Modern India is legend for it’s level of corruption, coming to a head most recently through the protest fasting of Anna Hazare.
  • Informal business: Commerce is everywhere and everyone is an entrepreneur/hustler to survive. It’s all happening on streets and sidewalks, with only more established businesses getting a building.
  • Manual processes: I can infer that in Deadwood the lack of automated or electrical tools such as washing machines or vacuum cleaners is primarily because they weren’t invented yet. In today’s India however you find many people doing things the older, manual way for reasons of economics. Labor is cheap and tools are expensive, so clothes are washed by hand, floors are wiped clean with rags, and everything from buildings to ships to railways are built primarily by hand using only the most primitive of tools.
  • Use of animals for work/transportation: In Deadwood the horse is the primarily means of transport, with the stage coach being the long-distance luxury vehicle. In India you still find plenty of people using horses, ox, camels, or even elephants as a way to move around and get work done.
  • Threat of disease: During the 1st season a smallpox outbreak causes serious alarm and requires the sick to be cordoned off into a separate zone of the camp. Smallpox has been contained worldwide, but in general Indians are exposed to many more diseases than Americans due to lower penetration of vaccinations, environmental differences, and sanitation conditions. I was recently in a government hospital in south India that had a sign listing their top diseases: malaria, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, measles, acute flaccid paralysis, meningo encephalitis, plague, leprosy, and leptospirosis.
  • National sovereignty / autonomous regions: Deadwood is set in an unclaimed territory in the American west, situated where South Dakota is today. A key plot point of season 2 is potential annexation by the Dakota Territory. The inhabitants of Deadwood consider themselves free spirits who came to the camp for it’s lawlessness and remove from government intrusion. Though not entirely parallel, it reminds me of the extreme regional differences in India, where loyalty is often first to a local area or state before the country. The far northern and eastern regions of India are geographically remote and separated. Some areas, such as Kashmir are contested by other countries and there are numerous regions of India that are recognized as autonomous, operating independently to various degrees.

There are of course many things in Deadwood that are not common day-to-day in India such as persistent murder and a fondness of constantly drinking whisky. I don’t mention these connections to say that India is similar to Deadwood in any kind of holistic or meaningful way, but only to point out the patterns that I couldn’t help but notice while living here and watching the show.

It makes somewhat obvious and intuitive sense that there are connections between the past state of a “developed” country and the current state of a “developing” or “emerging” one. I am absolutely not intending to say that India is “behind” or “backwards” in this account. In fact, one of the most interesting parts about noticing these connections is acknowledging that India is both past and present at the same time. Many of the items I mention above apply only to a portion of the population, while other people live in relatively modern luxury.

India is a fascinating conflation of old and new, like an episode of Deadwood only if out of nowhere Seth Bullock pulled out a cellphone and called his driver to pick him up in a BMW. This mixture of moderinty and traditional ways, spanning literally centuries of customs and practices, gives modern India a kind of science fiction-like quality. Sometimes it reminds me of the “high tech and low life” of cyberpunk or when Shakespearian plays are reinterpreted to be set in a modern time but keep the plot and language. This mix of new and old is the most fascinating aspect of living here and I imagine I’ll miss it when I return to a much more uniform modernity back in Chicago.

Street Music

Today is Dasara, the tenth and final day of the Vijayadashami festival, and the neighborhood is full of celebrations. Every car and building has a string of marigolds hanging from it and fireworks are going off everywhere.

There’s also lots of music, and after writing about my search for music here I realize now that I know where to find it: in the street, like everything else. I ran across this band today on my walk home from work. The giant multi-headed peacock on wheels was a keyboard and amplifier, blasting loudly over the drums and horns.

More photos and video on Flickr.

Update: The New York Times just posted a video about bands in India that’s worth watching. Apparently they aren’t treated with much respect and it’s not considered a good job to have. The band they profile lives in one room and shares a single shower.

Too Fancy

Hearing live music is one of my favorite things, and in Chicago I go to a show at least once a week. I discover a lot of new music this way since it’s so easy to stroll over to the Empty Bottle or ride my bike to The Hideout. I knew I’d be missing out on a lot of great shows by coming to India, including the end of summer festival season, but I had hoped to get into the music scene in Mumbai to make up for it. Unfortunately it’s proven a little harder to engage with than I expected.

One of the reasons is just geographical, the few venues in the city are pretty far from my apartment and would take about 45 minutes to get there. The other is that shows here have a very different feel that’s kind of off-putting. All the shows I’ve been to have super high production values with things like live-mixed video backdrops. Up by the stage you can expect a few people with 5D Mark IIs and Zoom 4HNs recording the show for posterity. Basically, it’s just a bit too fancy for me, not at all like the casual bars or DIY shows I’m used to. I’m still on the look out for something more my style.

Below is an example of what I’m talking about. The first photo is Blue Frog, a very nice venue that gets a diverse range of acts. It’s the best venue in Mumbai, and I’m sure I’ll go back, but the interior design with pod-like seating and color changing spotlights is over the top. The second photo is from a show at a movie studio in my neighborhood. I had high hopes for it, but cheesy visuals (and frankly, the music itself) drove me out after one set.

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