Archive for January, 2011

Something to make you smile

January 29, 2011

Thanks to a team of doctors from England, 100 small children are now able to do something they couldn’t before.


With the assistance of a Nagpur Rotary club, a group of English doctors flew to Nagpur for the week to repair cleft-lips and -palates of infants and small children. For upwards of 12 hours a day, the team rarely left the hospital, working around the clock to improve as many lives as possible. For free.

And we got to watch.

After Hindi class on Monday, Michelle and I went to Memorial Hospital with Franziska, eager to see this act of charity firsthand. Michelle and Franzi had already been inside, but this was my maiden visit. In fact, it was my first visit to any hospital in India, and it was unlike any I’d seen in the U.S.

I grew up accompanying my M.D. mom to work, so I know what hospitals are supposed to look like. Large, modern, sterile structures impenetrable except through a pair of automatic glass sliding doors. Patients sitting two or three in each well-ventilated room, guests only allowed with a prominently-placed visitors pass. An anthill of activity: bustling with white coats and blue scrubs, teeming with clipboards, stethoscopes and blood-pressure cuffs.

This hospital was nothing like any of those I’d visited before, although given the relative wealth of its patients, it could have been worse. It was like a well-polished black-and-white TV – carefully maintained, but outdated and limited in scope. The three-story main building looked like it was constructed sometime between the first and second World Wars. The recovery room wasn’t quite overcrowded – especially by India’s standards – but it was still just one room all the same. Without ventilators available for the patients, an assistant had to do the breathing quite literally by hand.

That said, I never would have been allowed to see such an operation in America, so for me this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I put on some of those pale blue scrubs and – careful not to touch anything – joined the others in the operating room.

The Englishmen actually referred to the operating room as the “theatre”, which seems appropriate given the spectacle we saw. We had to be careful not to trip over any trailing wires, but other than that the room was an oasis of modernity in an otherwise aging hospital. Four or five doctors were crowded around the patient, as was most of the high-tech equipment you’d expect in such a situation. One of the off-duty doctors was kind enough to give us an overview of the operations, talking to us about the room’s cords, clamps and clefts. The atmosphere was much more relaxed than I’d expected, but the aura of concentration remained a constant ubiquity.

But the most remarkable thing about these operations was why they were performed. Comparable surgeons were available throughout India, but at a price the families of the patients couldn’t afford. Three of England’s 25 doctors specializing in this field were in Nagpur for the project, and they stood in three neighboring rooms, implanting smiles surgically into their patients, and indirectly on the faces of the parents waiting outside.

This time, the smiley face at the end of my post has an added meaning. Because thanks to this program, that’s what 100 children will now be able to do.




Holiday update: New Years, Makar Sankranti & Republic Day

January 27, 2011

31 Dec – 1 Jan: New Years

After a Christmas that left hardly a moment to catch our breaths, my celebration of New Years was comparatively tame. With Prajyot, Saket, their parents, and my host parents, I went to another outdoor club to celebrate the end of 2010. We sat with some friends of my host dad and their families, including a 13-year-old boy named Akhilesh.

On our tickets were lists of 15 random numbers between 0 and 99, written in three rows. In the third to last hour of 2010, the 200 or so people in attendance played bingo while the emcees called out number after number. As my card filled up, I gathered from their Hinglish that there would be cash prizes for those with a completed row, and soon I needed only a “50” to win. Akhilesh, too, was waiting for a specific number. Two or three people had already won prizes, but numbers were still being called, which was a good sign.

Then I heard it. The number of Test centuries Sachin Tendulkar had recorded: 50.

(Tendulkar, an Indian cricket legend, has since recorded his 51st Test century. I’ll have much more to say about cricket in February.)

Egged on by several people at the table, I went up to the stage and handed over my card. What followed was probably the most embarrassing conversation of my life:

Emcee: “What’s your name?”

Me: “Mera naam Chris hai.” (My name is Chris.)

“Aap kya karte hain?” (What are you doing?)

[Pause] “I don’t understand, but my New Years resolution is to learn more Hindi!”

“Ok, we’ll stick to English. Chris…can you tell me what you’re doing here?”

“I’m a student. On Rotary Youth Exchange.”

“No, I mean why did you come up here?”

I pointed at my card and the completed row of numbers.

“Ah, I’m sorry Chris, but we’re done with the prizes for completed lines. You’ll need to fill out the rest of the card if you want to come up here again.”

I went back to the table disappointed but not distraught. After all, it was New Years Eve! How could I be sad? As fireworks went off around midnight, I stood on the stage which had become a dance floor, and shook hands with Saket-dada, Prajyot and Akhilesh.

I would have sung Auld Lang Syne, but I couldn’t remember the words.

14-15 Jan: Makar Sankranti

It didn’t have the pomp of Independence Day, the lights of Diwali, the exploding idols of Dussehra or the personal touch of Maha Laxshmi at our house.

But if only for the view of the sky one afternoon, Makar Sankranti was the most beautiful holiday I’ve been a part of in India.

Makar Sankranti, a festival of kites, celebrates the beginning of the sun’s northward passage in the sky. Although the winter solstice is about three weeks earlier, Sankranti always occurs on the same day each year. And what a day it is.

I made my way to the top of a six-story apartment building two Saturdays ago with Vedant and Akhilesh, among others. Awaiting us there were about two-dozen kites and probably enough string to circumnavigate the city of Nagpur. Soon enough, several of those kites were in the air, although most were eventually lost to the January sky.

But while the kites were still attached, they provided quite a show. A gibbous moon shone high in the Western sky, and several of the kites we flew appeared a fraction the size of Earth’s largest satellite. Once, our kite topped every other in our area, the taut string our only proof of its existence as it flew out of sight. Looking around the city, about 80 percent of the rooftops were occupied, with at least one kite flying from each.

The sky was so crowded, I had to remind myself several times what I was looking at: Not birds. Not planes.


26 Jan: Republic Day

Wednesday was Republic Day in India, the 61st anniversary of the Indian constitution being signed into law. Like Independence Day, Republic Day is also a federal holiday, and flags and patriotism were again visible throughout Nagpur. In Delhi – the capital city of India – a parade was held that morning, and I watched some of the celebrations on TV.

But for the most part, the day was uneventful. I didn’t even hear that many firecrackers.


My favorite -ollywood starts with a “B”

January 25, 2011

About a week ago, I went online and looked at a list of popular American songs for the first time since coming to India in July. Before leaving, my musical taste was undoubtedly pop-centric, with about 25 songs from July’s Top 40 among my favorites. So it was with mild shock that I realized I hadn’t heard a single song on January’s list. I know it’s in the nature of such lists to change often, but seriously, not one song?

I guess Bollywood has filled the void for me pretty well.

Since the New Year, I’ve dedicated myself to finding the Bollywood songs that I’d been hearing on the radio and humming to myself for months. Whereas in December just three Bollywood songs had a home in my iTunes library, over ten times as many have now joined them. And I haven’t even tapped into my host brother’s vast collection (yet).

Note that I refer to the music that populates the airwaves here as Bollywood music rather than Hindi music. The reason for this is twofold. “Bollywood” normally refers to the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, but its movies are known worldwide for their heavily choreographed song and dance numbers. Unlike in America, the music and film industries of Bollywood are very closely intertwined. The majority of songs you’ll hear in India come from its movies – in fact, I don’t think I’ve heard a song that hasn’t.

And after listening to songs like I Hate Love Storys (sic), is it really fair to call these Hindi songs? Like their accompanying Bollywood scripts, an increasing number of songs have at least some English. In most cases, use of English is sparse – with only repeated phrases like “People on the floor” or “Oh girl, you’re mine” – but some songs are nearly half English. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to label these Hinglish songs. Then again, that wouldn’t be fair to the many songs still written in pure Hindi.

But for me, even the pure Hindi songs are no longer the garbled strings of sounds they once were.

Since the end of December, I’ve been taking private Hindi classes five times a week, and my rate of learning has skyrocketed. I can now read almost every character in the alphabet, and I’m able to write a one-paragraph self-introduction in Devanagari script. Speaking Hindi makes bargaining with rickshaw drivers a lot easier, and I keep shocking my Indian friends by tossing new Hindi words into our conversations.

But the real rewards of learning Hindi come in understanding the words that are spoken. Bollywood songs have truly been instrumental in my language learning process. Frequent are the instances when I’ll recognize a word, pull out my pocket dictionary, and see if I’ve guessed its meaning correctly. I guess you could say I read the dictionary for fun.

In full disclosure, I’ve since added eight of those Top 40 American songs.

But I have to admit, Bollywood music is the far more educational form of fun.


P.S. Here’s a sampling of Bollywood music for your enjoyment.

A. Pee Loon
B. Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani
C. Aal Izz Well
D. Udd Udd Dabangg
E. Sheila Ki Jawani

Bonus question: To which of the above songs did I perform a Bollywood dance in front of 100 people at a RYLA camp in November? The first person to answer correctly gets a prize(!) and a detailed explanation of the performance in context.

Christmas in India: Part eight

January 22, 2011

With Boxing Day just an hour away, I had one last thing to do before my Christmas would be complete.

But that last thing was the most important of them all.

Minutes after arriving home, I called my mom just as I’d promised. I was disappointed to hear the familiar greeting and beep of the answering machine, but far from dismayed. She was likely en route to my grandma’s place, picking her up for the traditional Christmas family dinner at my aunt’s house. I’d be calling my aunt’s house that afternoon, so I could talk to her then. I left a one-minute message anyway.

I’d coordinated things with my aunt via email beforehand. If everything went according to plan, Christmas dinner would follow the usual schedule, and everyone’s plates would be cleared by two in the afternoon. I planned to call as the gifts were being opened, just as everyone was settling into their post-meal routine. That way, I’d be able to talk to everyone at the dinner table without hanging up the phone.

But I still faced a two and a half hour gap between my last phone call and my next one. So I spent that time talking to some other people I cared about. I had a good conversation with my host parents before they went to bed, and I wished some of my friends Merry Christmas through Facebook Chat. But mostly I was just waiting for the clock to strike 1:30 local time. Thanks to the 11.5-hour time difference, sleep once again fell low on my priority list.

Nearly two hours after midnight, I punched in the thirteen digits that would create a direct link between Nagpur, Maharashtra, India, and Champaign, Illinois, USA.

My aunt told me beforehand to prepare to be homesick, and I know why she said that. I missed my family. I missed my younger cousins Claire, Henry and John, and I missed their parents, my older cousins Dawn, Cyrus, Chris and Lisa. I missed my Aunt Julie, who always does such a good job hosting Christmas dinner each year, and I missed my Uncle Larry, who always cooks up a scrumptious meal. I missed my grandma, with whom I hadn’t yet talked from India, and I missed my mom, with whom I’d talked several times from India, but was still anxious to speak with all the same.

Was I homesick? No. But before calling, the gap between my family and me was larger than it had ever been.

I picked up the phone, and it was as if I was entering another world.

My aunt’s “Hello” was the first thing I heard. In the background I could hear wrapping paper being torn and exhilarated voices shouting out. Familiar voices. Voices I hadn’t heard in months…

As the phone made its way around my aunt’s house, I exchanged Christmas greetings with almost everybody there. Everyone had something nice to say, and almost everyone had questions about my life in India. People seemed particularly interested in the balmy weather here, and given the climate they described to me there, I can understand why.

Champaign is the kind of city that gets more than its fair share of winter weather. Several deposits of snow fall each winter without fail, sometimes of the knee-deep variety. In spite of this, I hadn’t experienced a white Christmas in Champaign in years – either the snow would melt in time for the holiday or it would wait until January to fall. So as person after person recounted the scene out the window – six inches of fresh powdery snow covering everything in sight – I wasn’t shocked, but I understood the significance of the moment. It was certainly nothing like Nagpur.

All of us were getting used to temperatures in the 20s. I just happened to be the only one using Celsius.

For over 90 minutes, I painted a picture of Indian life to the eight people I talked with. Our conversations bounced from topic to topic, from how I was enjoying cricket to how I was living without meat. Time slows down when you’re enjoying yourself, and when my uncle asked me what time it was in India, I looked down at my watch and told him: 3:30 a.m.

What is it about absence, they say, that makes the heart grow stronger? Of the eight people I talked to, I hadn’t heard the voices of seven in five months, and I hadn’t seen any of them since leaving for India.

It’s precisely because of that absence that the phone call I made that night was life-changing.

I’d always taken my family for granted. That’s not a rude statement, or an offensive one. It’s just a fact. Christmas dinner with my family was always a given, as predictable as the fireworks that shoot off each New Years at midnight. They were always with me in the same area code, or at least usually within driving distance. I grew up incredibly fortunate to live so close to the people I love, and I grew content with them being there, whether I needed them or not.

Now I was in India for Christmas, and I could no longer take my family for granted. Sure, they were all still there at the table, quite solid in their seats. But for the first time in nearly two decades, I wasn’t. There’s just something about being halfway around the world that makes Christmas different. Quirks and petty disagreements don’t matter when you’re 8,000 miles away.

It’s still my family, no matter what.

And that’s all that matters.


Christmas in India: Part seven

January 20, 2011

I have no idea what parades in India are supposed to be like, but I have a feeling they’re nothing like the one we were a part of Christmas night.

We’d just finished dinner, having eaten whilst someone else was putting on a mega-performance, this also a dance in front of hundreds of people. It was nice to watch casually, the pressure of performing having been transferred from our shoulders to theirs. We ambled away towards the bus after dessert, ready to ride back to Modern School and call it a night.

That’s when we were interrupted by the parade.

Actually its resemblance to a parade was minimal, but I can’t think of any other pithy word to describe the scene. A single flatbed truck was being led by a car with a power generator, its escort required so several large amps could blare Jingle Bells into the night on a continuous loop. A couple dozen Indians were standing on the back, dancing and handing out sweets quite generously to passerby. The truck itself was covered in Christmas-colored streamers, and decorated so that it no longer resembled something you’d find on a highway.

We got on board.

I hadn’t planned to see a parade this Christmas, let alone to be in one. But little about this Christmas had gone according to plan. Why plan when the enjoyable things always come on short notice? Despite the challenges of staying balanced on a moving vehicle (albeit a very slow one), we joined the spontaneous dance party, huddled together to keep each other from falling off. My mouth full of candy, my ears full of music, and my limbs doing everything possible to stay afloat the float, India had once again successfully overwhelmed my senses.

Music has been inseparable from and invaluable to our memories from this holiday. The songs from our performance set the tune for our Christmas Eve practice. The songs on Jakob’s laptop set the tune for our party at his house. Christmas carols set the tune for our ride to CP Club, and Christmas karaoke set the tune once we were there. Slow, nostalgic organ music set the tune for Midnight Mass, and fast, familiar music set the tune en route to Surabardi. Whenever, wherever, music was always with us to set the mood.

And now our mood was being set by an ear-assaulting, heart-pumping rendition of Jingle Bells. On a parade float. In India.

That ten-minute ride wasn’t the last we’d take that night, as the bus that would take us back to Modern School still awaited us. But it’s the one I’ll remember the most.