My my if I don’t feel a tad important right now, I just got an invitation to the independence day celebration at the ambassadors’ residence in Delhi!
Nah, but seriously, I probably got this only because I let the embassy know of my presence during the six month period. You know, if something would happen where they needed to reach all Finnish citizens. Tip: it’s a good idea to do this if you plan on staying for a long while in a foreign country – let your embassy know!
Anyways, thanks but no thanks, I have a trip to Nepal at the same time which I’m already committed to.
Remember Laxmi, the flower girl I met in Mumbai? She had invited me to her community and join the Diwali festivities. This Monday was the fourth day of Diwali, I believe – but really hard to say since fireworks have been going off for the last week. The day of the big party varies by religious subgroup, but today it was the Gujaratis turn.
We had agreed to meet at the German Bakery in Koreagon Park at 18:00. From there we would take an auto rickshaw all the way to Hadapsar, on the other side of town. And that’s about all I knew about the plans for the evening. There will be food and music, dress nice, Laxmi had said.
I’d told my coworkers the general area I was heading to and what the plan was, and said that if I didn’t send a message every few hours I was probably somewhere being relieved of one kidney and two retinas. It was a joke, but regardless, letting others know you’re ok is the sensible thing to do in a situation like this. It was also good to remind myself that I knew very little about this person who would guide me. Perhaps somewhere in the back of my head a doubt was echoing. It was a risk I had to take, an opportunity I couldn’t pass up because of apprehension. I had made that judgement call in Mumbai, and still stood by it.
I got to the bakery and sat down on a bench. A moment later Laxmi turned up, together with her friend, Rajesh. He looked friendly enough. Didn’t speak a word of English so we went with smiles and handshakes. They had an auto rickshaw ready, so without further ado we departed.
Twenty or so minutes later, we turned off the Hadapsar main road and onto the narrower streets of the community. We got out and walked down the hill to the place where the festivities would be held: a shrine by a small town square, lined with houses and improvised shacks.
As a white man here I get a few stares every now and then, but it’s not as frequent nor as apparent as I thought it would be. But walking down that hill, behind Laxmi and Rajesh, with the locals parting to the sides to make room, I got some very inquiring looks. I didn’t feel unwelcome, but it was obvious that they don’t see people like me that often around there.
By the shrine, they were setting up for the celebration. Laxmi led me further, to one of the shacks by the square. Outside it sat a slightly yodalike sweet old lady, overseeing the chai cooking by her feet; a pan of tea being heated on a camping stove. She was introduced as aunt Nanda. The shack behind her was her home, and had been so for the last 30 or so years.
I was invited in, took off my shoes and stepped inside. The interior was quite spartan, but cozy. A rudimentary wooden framework was holding up the steel sheets that formed the walls and the ceiling. The floor was solid concrete, the slab the shack was built upon, a few rugs here and there. Some shelves were lining the walls. In one corner there was a small shrine. A mouse was scurrying about in the shadows.
I freshened up a bit and changed to my Kurta. Clad in traditional clothing, I was now ready to be properly introduced to the community. We walked around, in narrow alleys dodging clothes lines and lightbulbs, looking in and saying hello in all the homes on the way. Laxmi had dozens of friends she wanted me to meet. They were all super nice and happy to meet me, for a moment there I felt like a real celebrity.
Back at the shrine, the kids were being served dinner. They sat in rows on the square. A man was walking through the files and serving food. While we waited for the grown-ups turn, we decided to have a few beers. Rajesh headed out to the wine shop while we took a seat inside Nanda’s home.
I knew the day was going to be weird, but to find myself sitting on the concrete floor of a shack, drinking beer with old aunt Nanda still came as a surprise. A pleasant one, I might add. We talked a lot, she told me about her life, about some ups and downs. Outside the village festivities were proceeding, fireworks were going off and the children had almost finished eating. Now it was our turn.
Like the kids before us, we also sat in rows. One area had a spotlight shining down on it, and that’s where I was seated. In the limelight. We were served thali with some rice, roti and dessert. Very good!
After dinner the square needed to be cleared and prepared for the dancing part of the festivities. At this point I thought it would be a good idea to let my friends know I’m ok. Well, as luck would have it the entire village seemed to be a Tata Docomo dead zone – both carrier and mobile data showed nil, so I had no way of reaching the outside world. Nice.
While waiting some kids came up and wanted to talk about this and that. One wanted to tell me about his pet chicken, another wanted to know if I knew Hannah Montana. All of them wanted to pose in pictures. Happy kids.
Eventually the music started, and since I seemed to be something of a peculiarity there, I had to go first. I tried telling them that there really is a reason why white men don’t dance, but they weren’t having it. So me and Rajesh’s brother headed out for a boogie. Shortly after many others joined and before I knew it a particularly feisty lady was teaching me the Lungi dance.
And to answer your question: no, I’m not going to perform it by request.
Good times, but it was getting late and I was still on the other side of town, so I thanked and said my goodbyes to Nanda and the rest. As we were heading to the main road via the back alleys we passed another party: tens of teenagers dancing in the street to the same Bollywood music we had heard earlier. When they saw me many of them lunged toward me like a troop of feral monkeys. Somewhat intoxicated, they wanted me to join in on their party, and were dragging me towards into it. Meanwhile Laxmi and Rajesh were pulling me the other way. I smiled and said thanks but no thanks, it was time for me to leave. After some more convincing they gave up and I wished them a good party as we continued towards the road.
I thanked Laxmi for the invitation and for a fun evening, and hopped in the auto rickshaw. Let’s stay in touch! I said before zooming off. During the long ride over to Baner I thought about the evening that had passed. I truly appreciate that I got the opportunity to participate in something so genuine and local, one community’s celebration of Diwali.
In preparation for the Diwali festival the building our office is located in decided to have a “traditional day”, which means everyone should wear traditional Indian clothing. Everyone.
Before leaving Finland someone said to me: Don’t buy local ethnic clothing, it’ll be just plain wrong and you’ll end up looking ridiculous.
But hey, it’s a festival so I’m ignoring this advice this time, and even though this might go down as “white guy tries to blend in”-day, I went and did some shopping. And since anything that is worth doing, is worth doing right, I got the whole outfit.
So here you go: a long Kurta with pants* and a Dupatta scarf. Now where’s the party?
* – The pants have an exotic design that is not seen when the Kurta is on; when going up towards the waist they widen considerably. And I mean “this could fit two adults”-considerably. When worn they look like harem pants, not unlike the ones MC Hammer used. I tried doing the hammertime but unfortunately there is no documentation to show of that, nor will there be.
Celebrating my birthday started on a very introspective note, and continued from there with some yoga and a dip in the rooftop pool. It was all done in contemplative silence, that sense of inner reflection still hanging there. But then it was time to let it go, time to get back out in the world. After all, I had stuff to do and a festival to attend.
My older brother had contacted me earlier, we had agreed on a time when I’d be at the office and available for a Skype call. He’d be visiting our grandmother and would be calling from there, and got the idea to let her experience what modern technology can offer by displaying me on a screen while I’m on the other side of the globe. Which I thought was a lovely idea.
So, eager to get everything set up so there wouldn’t be any hickups, I headed down to the tech park well in advance and set up the connection. At the same time Sajjad came by, carrying a small parcel. A present, for me? Cake! He had bought us cake, super nice!
As we’ve established earlier, we can have quite an appetite. Despite the delicious cake we still had to get some lunch before heading out. So we head down to Amrita, one of the places that we have become regulars at by now.
A while later, with a hunger satisfied, I made the call to Helsinki. I decided to take it outside and on my phone, so I could show some of the surroundings on the cam. Office interiors always look the same anyway, nothing interesting with that. It went quite smoothly, especially considering how bad the connection had been a couple of days earlier. It was heartwarming to see some familiar faces, my brother’s whole family was there as well as my uncle. And of course grandmother, her ever-sharp wits having no difficulty in comprehending what our modern gadgets are capable of. They even sung a birthday song for me.
The clock was getting close to five so it was high time to get going to the festival. We checked the map, the distance was over 20 km, and with over 50 minutes travel time no wonder the auto rickshaw driver asked for 450 rupees. Not a problem – go go go, I said. An endless stream of traffic, city blocks and chaotic intersections later we arrive at Laxmi Lawns, scene of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender festival, the steady thump of music beckoning us closer. Hundreds of meters before the box office the bass from the dubstep stage on the other side of the wall was deafening. Well inside, we planted ourselves on one of the central grassy areas and took in a somewhat more relaxed, jazzy atmosphere.
Those who have been to the Flow Festival in Helsinki can relate; this festival was much like it, many artists across different genres coming together for a warmhearted weekend happening. The offering ranged from jazz to heavy, dubstep to indian music, folk to electronica. Mostly Indian bands but some international ones as well.
It was invigorating to get out of Baner for a while and be in a setting which reminded more of what I experienced back home. Just hanging around, having a few drinks, enjoying good music and good food. It was also good to see that the locals can get really sloshed too if they want to. The bars had something called “Cuba Libre buckets”. You know why they called them that? Because they’re buckets filled with Cuba Libre. I’m talking at least one liter of mixed coke and rum in a sandbox variety red plastic bucket. It was crazy. They were so popular the bartenders had a hard time keeping up with even getting the buckets out of the wrappers they were packaged in.
As the second day of the festival reached its end we hopped on one of the arranged small buses, to Koreagon Park. It wasn’t close to home, but it was closer. From there we managed to get one of the smoothest rickshaw drivers I’ve seen so far; swift and dodging through traffic like nobody’s business. Well back in Baner we tipped the guy a bit, picked up our bikes and headed back to the towers for some well-deserved rest.