Greetings from Indore!
It is very difficult for me to think that my time here is almost two-thirds through and that I have already been in India for a whole month now. Seems just like yesterday when I boarded the late-night haul to Delhi and passed through Indian customs for the first time. The reason that time has passed so quickly is definitely because I’ve been having such an engaging, fun, and memorable stay.
Especially these last ten days, though. Now that all of us American students are fully settled in at Shishukunj and truly at home with our host families, we are doing more special events and field trips. Therefore, in contrast to last week’s general life/routine-based update, I will be concentrating on just a few experiences that have been astonishingly eye-opening.
A self-professed history buff, I especially enjoyed recent field trips to the sites of Maheshwar and Mandu. The abridged historical summary is that, basically, Maheshwar was typical of Central India’s strong indigenous Indic, Hindu foundation while its counterpart in Mandu represents centuries of Persian and Muslim influence.
Maheshwar is a large historic complex located south of Indore on the banks of the Narmada River, which is (along with the Ganges et al.) one of India’s most sacred rivers. After a long, bumpy, yet fun two-hour ride, we hopped off the bus to find ourselves in the midst of one of the only sunny days we have seen in India so far but this, however, meant scorching hot heat. This sort of weather only added to the trip’s ambiance as I felt like an Indiana Jones-type explorer on route to discover hidden temples in steamy jungles. The first thing we saw was the royal Palace, which featured interesting construction quite different from the many rococo buildings I have encountered during my European travels—I may have heard the guide incorrectly, but apparently the palace was built without a single nail! Next came an even more astonishing structure: the fort complex. Located so close to the Narmada that its lower steps were flooded with riverwater, these stone buildings pose a formidable sight for all travelers arriving by boat. Inside the ramparts were a few temples which captivated me with their symmetries, interestingly shaped spires, and excellent preservation. After touring this area, we sat at the foot of the fort’s steps, feet dipped in the river, for about fifteen minutes—followed by an excellent lunch of the usual Indian fare: various breads (including, of course, the omnipresent roti as well as my favorite, rarer, naan), minced vegetable curries, paneer, and daal. Then, we played a traditional Indian version of duck-duck-goose with our host siblings, followed by a very American game of Mafia, all the more fun while using our new Hindi vocabulary.
While such a complex of Hindu temples sprinkled next to a slow-moving river might strike the average American as a backdrop typical of historic India, Mandu seemed much more characteristic of Iran or Central Asia (I’m referring to you, ‘-stan’ countries). Located in the middle of a range of small mountains, the place posed an immediate contrast from Indore’s much accustomed flat, tree-dotted plains. Inhabited since the sixth century A.D, the region was conquered by Muslim invaders in 1305 and ultimately added to the powerful Mughal Empire a few centuries later. This continuous rule by Muslims explains the different, Islamic architectural influence I referenced above, with domes, Persian inscriptions, reflecting pools and arches quite abundant. In addition, the day was particularly rainy and foggy, and, because of the added elevation, we found ourselves in the middle of a cloud—this made it even more stunning every time when the pointed spires popped right out of the mist. We saw so many sights to keep count, but highlights surely include the Jahaz Mahal (ship palace, thus named because of its placement between two artificial pools and subsequent boat-like appearance), Hoshang Shah’s tomb (the first marble building in the area and inspiration for the Taj Mahal), and the Jami Masjid (Friday mosque, a large courtyard featuring hundreds of columns and small domes). Similar to Maheshwar, after the morning’s visits, we enjoyed a delicious lunch followed by more games. The fact that everyone was sleeping on the bus-ride back surely illustrates how much of a jam-packed day it was.
A related side-riff on language and culture (bear with me for a few paragraphs please!)—my visit to Mandu definitely confirmed the Islamic influences on Indian culture I had particularly been detecting through the language, and sparked an interest in exploring these further. I first started to truly notice this pattern when, as my Hindi ability started to take off, I noticed many Persian and Arabic words serving as synonyms with indigenous Hindi words. These words can be distinguished by heavy kh and z sounds (ख़ and ज़, respectively) not traditionally found in the Hindi sound inventory and the extra dots, known as nuqtas, Devanagari uses to denote these sounds. For example, kitab (Arabic) vs. pustak (Hindi) for “book,” and kharab (Persian) vs. bura for “bad.” In addition, many of these words have even become the norm for Hindi speakers, such as aakhbar (newspaper), darvaza (door), mushkil (difficult), hãsmukh (jolly, cheerful) and khaali (empty)—I recognized this last one from hours of studying maps of the Arabian Peninsula, a prominent feature of which is the Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter) desert. Originally, I thought that these words were pick-ups from Urdu, the neighboring language of Pakistan—it seemed logical to me that Urdu contained these words given Pakistan’s Islamic culture. However, I was soon informed that these were not “Urdu words,” as some had previously informed me, but rather “Persian or Arabic words.”
After doing some more research, I can explain this answer quite well. It turns out that Hindi and Urdu are, according to most linguists, two registers of the same Hindustani language, just like the European and Latin American variants of Spanish. The grammar and core vocabulary of both are nearly identical, and speakers of the two can easily understand each other in day-to-day conversations. However, there are key differences which set the two apart. Most obviously, Hindi uses the left-to-right Devanagari abugida while Urdu uses a modified version of the right-to-left Persian, Arabic-based abjad. The main difference in spoken language, though, is the vocabulary. Basically, Hindi tries to draw from Sanskrit while Urdu likes to take words from Persian and Arabic. This reflects the religious inclinations of India and Pakistan, respectively—Sanskrit serves as the liturgical language for Hinduism, a role similar to Latin’s in the Catholic Church, while Persian and Arabic (especially the latter) are languages extremely important to Islam. However, the Hindi-Urdu differences present Hindustani speakers not with two rigid, separate dialects but rather with what is known as a continuum, in which standard written Hindi and Urdu stand at opposite ends of a spectrum of mixture between the two sources of vocabulary. Basically, the more formal one wishes to speak Hindi, the more Sanskrit-based words he will use; colloquial and casual Hindi will use more Persian and Arabic words. The opposite holds for Urdu speakers—high Urdu and its famous poetry feature troves of lofty Islamic language, while Indic vocabulary trumps in day-to-day speech. Because I have primarily been studying spoken and informal Hindi, I have therefore been exposed to many words from both sources, inspiring me to formulate such an explanation. Such a diglossia reminds me somewhat of English—where highly formal language is filled with Greco-Roman derivatives and base, informal chat abounds with Germanic root words. The situation indeed fascinates me, and, after my Hindi has become more proficient, I eagerly await learning the alternate vocabulary and syntax needed to speak Urdu.
Another reason why I am captivated by the Hindi-Urdu continuum is that it is in essence the linguistic aspect of one of the world’s greatest transnational rivalries—that between India and Pakistan. I’ll begin with a little historic background. At the arrival of the British in the Indian subcontinent, Hindus and Muslims had lived in harmony for centuries, benefitting from the exchange of culture, religion, and philosophy in many different ways. However, it was the policy of the British to enforce more separation between the two groups and to favor whichever suited their fancy at any given time—a practice which started to encourage increasing mutual animosity. This hostility boiled to its peak as the British announced their intent to “quit India” in 1947, the same year as Gandhi, the last preacher of a truly united, pan-Indian federation including Hindus and Muslims, was assassinated by a conservative Hindu. After such attack, all hope of unity sank and the two groups sought to grab as much land for themselves as possible. Many were slain during the subsequent inter-religious warfare, and millions more lost their homes and endured long treks to new communities. Emerging from that storm were India, the Hindu-majority state, and Pakistan, comprised mostly of Muslims. Ever since, the countries have gone to war four times and continue to maintain large armies at the border and supplies of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir continues to harm bilateral relations, as well as Pakistan’s recent strategic cooperation with China, whom Indians seem to view as their number-two international rival given both countries’ rising political and economic power.
I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this political conflict with other Indian students over the past few days, and it seems as if, while still quite tense, affairs may be cooling down among the youth with the rise of social media. At a get-together with my host-brother and some of his friends, one girl mentioned that she would like to visit Pakistan one day. Someone else explained that it’s really only the governments that abhor each other, while the people harbor at least some openness to reconciliation. Still, the tensions can be seen everywhere—from Bollywood movies to cricket tournaments—and understandably so, especially among the older generation who actually experienced such turbulence; hopefully a path to improvement can be found soon.
Now I will continue the international-relations train of thought and return to my own experiences in India by talking about the recent Model United Nations conference I attended last weekend. My host-brother, Ishaan, is one of the more active and higher-ranking MUNers at our school, and therefore I was awarded the opportunity to sit through three days of debate spread over eight committees. Topics ranged from the NATO vs. Russia escalation in the Baltics to cyberwarfare, from women’s rights to historical preservation in combat zones. Even more fun was my participation in the various crises thrown into the discussions to spice up debate by acting the part of Vladimir Putin in a video update from the Kremlin and announcing a news report in one of the discussion rooms about a fake, yet realistic, terrorist attack. I was amazed with the effort each and every delegate, reporter, photographer, logistics volunteer, and administrator dedicated to their job and with the efficiency and precision the convention was organized; its success confirmed my overall impression of Indian students as hard-working, intelligent, and quite studious. Well done to everyone who participated—it really blew me away!
The most satisfying part of it all, though, was the opportunity it presented to spend such quality time with the local students. For much of the time, the only two Americans present were me and my friend Graham, who is, coincidentally, the only other boy en programme. Therefore, we were forced to reach out a little bit more than usual to reap our day’s share of interaction. This was indeed facilitated by the fact that the MUN, although strenuous, was not nearly as strict and serious as the regular school atmosphere and encouraged social behavior. Through one friend in the cyberwarfare committee we were introduced to everyone else in that room. These initial connections started a wave of introductions at dinner and, sooner or later, Graham and I found ourselves swamped with new friends interested as much as we were in conversing about international relations, India, America, television, sports, or really anything, for that matter. In fact, we managed to form relations with some of our peers so closely that we were invited by the administrators to a little after-party pizza get-together for some of the MUN participants from Shishukunj. Ever since, Graham and I have spent much more time at school during the lunches and breaks interacting with the Indian students and pursuing the NSLI-Y goal of making transcultural connections. We’ve made our way to some birthday parties and fast-food runs in the last week, and I’m enjoying integrating into the host brothers’ friend group. I feel blessed to have met and befriended so many wonderful people and look forward to strengthening these relationships during the rest of my stay.
Putting diplomacy aside, there have been other fun outings. Last Sunday, for example, I participated in a fashion show—with a large runway, fancy lighting, and trained M.C., this was a much bigger deal than expected. Don’t even ask how I ended up as part of this, as even I don’t know. In my new kurta pajama, which I also wore to the MUN’s traditional dress day, I was prompted to stroll down the runway, strike a pose, and walk back as part of an intricate, choreographed routine with nine other teenagers. What was not rehearsed, however, was when the M.C. called me back on stage right after our dance number. Again I headed down the walkway, albeit with much less conviction. It turns out that they wanted me to provide a self-introduction and short speech in Hindi to the hundreds of spectators—luckily, this was something I had done over and over again in class so I was prepared and executed my words without any error. Once more I exited the stage to applause, and, in turn, many of the audience members came to me afterwards to introduce themselves. Although it was somewhat nerve-wracking and amusing to be both the only American and traditionally-dressed person at the reception, I truly enjoyed the night’s experience.
Last week we went to play badminton at the club, where I proceeded to win a few points only to see my lead blown away as I was dominated by the more experienced Indian players who treat the game as a real sport and not the lazy yard-pastime it is in America. We’ve seen two more movies at the theater: the new Ice Age (dubbed, of course, in Hindi) and Dishoom, a light-hearted Bollywood flick about an Indian cop who teams up with an Arab counterpart to track down a lost cricket player in one of the Gulf cities, presumably based off of Dubai. During both I was amazed with how much of the Hindi I understood after only one month of learning—I even laughed along to some of the jokes. Yesterday, I went Pokémon-hunting with my host father, Ishaan, Kunsh, and Suryansh, all of whom wanted to experience the hit-craze that is Pokémon-GO. Carrying around my smartphone, a battery pack, and a mifi-router, we drove around town in search to “catch them all;” after three hours, however, we ran out of Pokéballs and stops at which to refresh our supply. We’ll be trying again very soon, however, so I’m not worried. Very interesting as well was the trip to one of Indore’s malls to sample the Indian versions of various fast-food chains: McDonald’s tastes quite different, with a markedly Indian flair (which even permeates into the naming scheme of the food items: the McAlooTikki and the Maharaja Mac, for example), while KFC was exactly the same as in America. My favorite recent dining experience, though, was last night’s Punjabi fare—although I can’t say I miss meat too much, it was certainly a welcome treat to sample some heavy, spicy, yogurt-and-onion-laced chicken curry dishes with the rarely-seen yet personal favorite naan bread.
One month into my trip and, clearly, I am enjoying it more than I ever imagined. It’s been quite the eye-opening experience as I try to grasp and soak in this wonderful country. It’s been such an honor to spend the last month with such a dedicated group of American students as well as to meet so many friendly Indians. Quite the shame that only two weeks remain, yet I look forward to making the most out of them!
A photo update will be arriving shortly, and I hope to make two more full posts before I leave India. Until next time!