Tag Archives: delhi

An Imperfect Street: The Delhi Airport Race

When I step off the plane which I have been on for the past sixteen hours, I am immediately hit with the biting cold that is Delhi winter. The smell of pollution and smog drifts into my nose. For most people, freezing and polluted air is the opposite of a comforting experience, but the air is refreshing and the smell is what I associate with my favorite place in the world. I drag my carry-on off the sky bridge, and my shoes are met with the familiarity of the faded orange carpet decorated with geometric patterns. After sleeping for the majority of the flight, my sister and I are energetically skipping with excitement to see our loved ones, oblivious to the fact that it is three in the morning, local time. We speed walk through the quiet airport, chatting about what we are looking forward to; I think about the way my grandma’s chicken curry tastes or the afternoons I spend chatting hours away with my other grandma. 

As I exit the sky bridge, I am reminded of what it feels like to be home. The feeling of warmth and comfort that consumes me is something that I only feel when I am in Delhi. Exiting the plane in San Francisco gives me a sense of relief of being literally home after a long vacation, but often feelings of sadness emerge knowing that my vacation is over. Walking into Indira Gandhi International Airport only brings excitement, comfort, and genuine happiness to my soul. 

Though the airport is quiet, as we approach immigration you can feel the bustling excitement of children anxious to see their cousins and grandparents, and college students itching to eat home-cooked meals again. I stand at the top of the escalator at immigration, staring at the four hands above the cubicles; the giant rose gold hands are representative of different poses that are done during the traditional Bharatanatyam dance. These hands feel like a warm hug. Those hands mean that I am just one door away from hugging some of my favorite people in the world. We make it through immigration, continuing to speed walk through the maze that is Duty-Free, a new series of strong scents from perfume and alcohol hitting us. Once we reach baggage claim, we anxiously await our numerous large suitcases which are filled with our clothes for our month-long trip as well as gifts for our family. With smiles on our faces, winter jackets on, and a full trolley of suitcases in hand, we head outside to the meeting area. 

Ayanna’s grandparents at the airport in Delhi.

My sister exits the doors first, and though I can’t see her face, I see those of my grandparents, uncle, and cousins, lighting up. My grandpa walks towards us, and my sister and I abandon our bags in the middle of the walkway so that he can wrap us both in a bear hug. My grandpa is always the first to hug us, but certainly not the last. We make our rounds, embracing whoever has braved the cold, early morning to welcome us, getting smiles from strangers who are also about to see their loved ones. 

After a quick tussle with my grandfather, who insists on dragging the heaviest suitcases, we make our way to the car. There is a broken sidewalk which we must overcome before we can get the luggage into the car. Every time a trolley full of bags goes over it, we hold our breath to see if a suitcase is going to fall and lie in the middle of the road until my dad can come to pick it up. Though it is the most stressful experience trying to get eight heavy suitcases across a busy street with a broken sidewalk, it makes us all laugh and despite the chaos, I would not trade that moment for the world. My sister and I pile into the car with our grandma and she pulls out our favorite biscuits which she knows we crave and miss. The whole way home to my paternal grandparents’ house, we crack jokes, catch up, and eat our snacks as the sun rises. Our annual trip to my favorite place in the world has commenced. 

I didn’t grow up in India, nor was I born there, but this annual pilgrimage has not only made it feel like my second home but my happy place as well. However, it has not always felt this way. This same airport routine takes place every year and the sensory experiences I can describe in my sleep have always existed, however, a few years ago I was too focused on the negative aspects of this experience to value the comforting ones. All my life, I have spoken and understood Hindi fluently and well.

However, as an American, a local can pick my accent out of a crowd. My cousins, parents, grandparents, and babysitters would lightheartedly tease me about certain pronunciations, and I used to take that so seriously that I wouldn’t even try to speak the language. Even the immigration officer would see my Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card and American passport and ask me if it was my first time in India. People would think of me as spoiled or privileged and ungrateful because I am from America and still calling myself Indian. It was wrong on their part, but that is just how nuances in identity work. While these were small events, as an impressionable young child, I would start to question my belonging and negate the extreme happiness I felt in India with the small jokes about my dual identity. 

Ayanna with her younger sister at the Delhi airport.

I still have difficulties with my identity, but the difference is that now I have learned how to embrace both parts of my identity. Being Indian and spending so much time in Delhi has taught me that identity is not uniform and legal documents don’t define me.

Now, when people ask me about America and how “my country’s government is so crazy,” instead of getting annoyed or feeling mocked, I embrace it. I recognize that I have the privilege of living in an extremely different country and people are genuinely interested, so I happily answer them. In fact, sometimes I like to make it known that I’m from America; I will deliberately talk in English or wear a Bay Area sports jersey because I have learned to have pride. In fact, it has even made me friends even in India. I have struck up conversations with multiple tourists who have heard my accent or seen my jersey and we have connected on one part of my identity. 

Adding on, due to COVID-19, I have not been able to visit India in almost two years. The absence of these feelings of comfort and happiness has made me better appreciate and understand how much those experiences and that place mean to me. It’s unfortunate that the absence of a feeling, and not the presence of it made me grateful for Delhi, but nevertheless, I no longer take that sense of true happiness for granted. 

India is “my place” and not only because of the comfort it gives me but also because of the challenges it has thrown at me. Challenges that have taught me to be resilient, and have also helped me find myself and better understand my identity. I hold India near and dear to my heart because of the people and experiences it holds. No one can take that feeling away from me. A passport determines citizenship, but emotional attachment and love are what dictate identity. It is also what keeps pulling me back to my favorite place in the world – Delhi.


Ayanna Gandhi is an 11th grader at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds. 


 

A Foreigner Unpacking Social Stigma Toward Pune’s Queer Community

(Featured Image: Image taken by Dan Soucy at the Pride March in Delhi)

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct research on the pervasiveness of heteronormative expectations toward gender in Pune, India. I sought to understand how these expectations influence the Queer community’s daily lives and experiences. As a second-tier city near Mumbai with a remarkably young population, I expected Pune to be far more inclusive than some more traditional locations. It has a vibrant night-life scene, many exceptional universities and generally a feeling of youth and progression.

Despite these expectations, conducting my research was jarring. I confronted deeply held beliefs about the importance of heteronormative family structures. While I tried to maintain a neutral approach to my research, merely discussing LGBTQ identity rarely came with ease due to the discomfort and taboos surrounding sex and in particular homosexuality.

Of course, it is also important to note that I am white and in conducting this research, I was also a foreigner. These identities certainly shaped both my own expectations for the importance of LGBTQ rights and inclusivity as well as my respondents’ sense of trust and confidence in my work. Elderly individuals, in particular, challenged my research, saying that it was not right to indoctrinate youth with such “abnormal and dangerous” ideas. In many ways, I was viewed as the epitome of a negative, Western and foreign influence on the city’s sense of tradition, spirituality and stability.

Furthermore, I conducted this research before the Indian supreme court made the decision to decriminalize homosexuality by deeming section 377 of the Indian penal code unconstitutional, thus further exasperating the social stigma surrounding queer identity. With that said, I tried to approach this research in recognition of my privilege as a foreigner and the familial and social implications that LGBTQ rights have on both queer and heterosexual, cisgender individuals in Indian society.

Author, Dan Soucy at a Pride March in Delhi

In spite of the discomfort that came with my research, I was still able to engage in what I saw as valuable conversations regarding sexual taboos in Indian society. I was particularly surprised to learn that such a large number of young people in Pune viewed gay relationships as immoral.

More specifically, 62 percent of the people I interviewed agreed that marriage should only be between one man and one woman while 19 percent were unsure or remained apathetic. Similarly, 45 percent of respondents believed that homosexuality was actually a mental illness that required medical treatment to resolve. These numbers increased to 70 percent and 47 percent respectively when I only considered the respondents 31 years of age or older. 

I was encouraged by the fact that young people seemed to have slightly more progressive views regarding the queer community, I was still disappointed to learn just how stigmatized LGBTQ identity remained. 

Equally as important to me was learning where these social attitudes and lack of acceptance came from. As I asked respondents about their opinions regarding the “cause” of LGBTQ relationships, many individuals pointed to the idea that queer identity results from a subpar or confused upbringing as a child. More specifically, of the respondents who conformed to the notion that a man’s responsibility is to be the ‘bread winner’ of the family while the woman should care for the children, 75 percent also viewed homosexuality as a mental illness while 44 percent believed it reflected the fact that the queer individual’s parents did not raise them “correctly.”

Based on this information, the stigmatization of India’s queer population seems to result from a place of concern. Concern over traditional family values. Concern over what should be ‘normal’ in Indian society. In other words, the LGBTQ community symbolizes a disruption to the norms and expectations inherent in a heteronormative family, neighborhood, city, and society. Broadly speaking, these respondents experienced a sense of discomfort when it comes to talking about sexuality and in a particular a sense of moral discomfort when ideas about LGBTQ identity were raised. 

The pervasiveness of this discomfort became even more clear as I interviewed members of Pune’s queer community. In fact, all of the individuals I interviewed expressed fear about coming out not because they were concerned about their own safety but because they were afraid of the way their families would be perceived and stigmatized as a result of their identities.

In this light, homosexuality was viewed not just as a burden and a point of contention between the queer individual and their community but as stigmatizing to the queer individual’s entire family. Aside from demonstrating just how isolating it is to be queer in Indian society, this also elucidates the deeper reasons for queer exclusion. Namely, people fear and become upset by the broader destruction of heteronormative familial and community values.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Rather, the LGBTQ community has made strides toward acceptance and inclusion. I had the privilege of attending Delhi’s pride parade and conference in 2018 and was overjoyed by the enthusiasm and excitement that came with Delhi’s first pride parade in the wake of the end of Section 377. People were overjoyed by their ability to be out and proud, surrounded by love and marching for freedom from oppression. It was a stunning and remarkable scene to be a part of. One of the main rallying cries of this event was a call for continued conversation. Although there was a recognition that advocacy should not be the exclusive responsibility of queer individuals, ultimately, only through exposure, honesty, and open conversation, is change possible. People will continue to cling to their deeply held beliefs in the sanctity of the heteronormative family and society unless queer individuals step forward to express their dissatisfaction with this norm. This research and the Pride celebration taught me that a better, brighter society is only possible through continued discussion that exposes society to the beauty and normalcy of an openly queer India and its diasporas that exist outside of India.


Dan Soucy currently supports refugee resettlement and advocacy efforts throughout New England as a case manager and employment specialist with the International Institute of New England. He graduated from Saint Joseph’s University where he conducted oral history interviews with South Asian migrants to the United States. Dan has also studied, lived, and worked in various parts of India for 2 years. 

“I Don’t Remember a Time When I Was Not Dancing”: Aditi Mangaldas

She is a leading dancer and choreographer in the classical Indian dance form of Kathak. Regarded as one of the leading dancers in both the traditional and contemporary idiom, Aditi Mangaldas has performed traditional and contemporary Kathak across the world. She is also the artistic director and principal dancer of the Delhi-based dance company, The Drishtikon Dance Foundation. Neha Kirpal spoke to Aditi Mangaldas about how dance became such a big part of her life, the contemporary vocabulary/movement language she has devised as well as her upcoming activities, performances and tours.  

Unlike most classical dancers, you do not belong to a family of dancers. How did you decide on a career in Kathak?

This is a story that my parents remind me of—I honestly don’t have any memory of it. My family has been industrialists on one side, and academicians on the other. My paternal grandmother used to live with us in Ahmedabad. It’s a very large family, so every evening the entire Mangaldas family would come to our home to meet my grandmother. I have been told that there was this little table on which I would promptly jump up and somehow try to attract their attention and tell little stories and do other things, mostly using movement. 

WITHIN : Contemporary dance performance by Aditi Mangaldas & troup at Jamshedji Bhabha Theatre,NCPA on 23/03/2014.Photos By : NARENDRA DANGIYA

 

My parents were both very liberal. They encouraged both my brother and Ito explore our maximum. Within their possibilities, they tried to expose us to different cultures, music, dance, art and sculpture. Further, there was a community science centre that I went to as a young child where I became really interested in mathematics, and went on to graduate in the subject later. Gradually, all the classes fell off, and dance seemed to be my calling. 

I don’t remember any particular moment when I decided to become a professional. I don’t remember a time when I was not dancing. My earliest memories are of me in class with my gurus. They did put me in a Bharatnatyam class to start with because Mrinalini Sarabhai was a family friend, but my best friend was in a Kathak class. When I went there, I fell in love and it was magic to see the class of my guru Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia. So, I implored my parents to move me and they did. Thereon, started my lifelong immersion, passion and dedication with Kathak. That’s how the first steps were taken in Kathak. 

Also, I went to a very liberal school called Shreyas that encouraged music and dance along with mathematics, languages and the rest. Being in such an environment, with my parents and my guru, where art can prosper, helped. Later on, I left Ahmedabad and came to Delhi and joined my second guru, Pandit Birju Maharaj. I was with him for many years, and then decided that I need to find my own language. For me, life has been the greatest guru, because you find that strength within you to relearn everything and forge your own path. So, dance just became a part of my existence.  

Tell us a little about your extensive training under the leading gurus of Kathak, Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia and Pandit Birju Maharaj.

I was really lucky to have these two stalwarts as my gurus. If I see it in a broader sense as to what my learning and education has been from them: from Kumudini ji, I learnt the relationship of this tiny body in terms of the vast space around us—a horizontal understanding, a connection with not only the space, but with lights, music and text. Similarly, with Pandit Birju Maharaj, I learnt to see this body itself as the centre of the universe. What is the central part of the body that reaches out to the edges? I also learnt how this body is self-sufficient on its own and the intricacies of movement within the body. 

Kumudini ji also always told us never to wear blinkers; to observe and be open to whatever is happening around us. That really helped me to constantly question. My family also always encouraged questioning, discussions, debates and arguments—not to take anything written in stone. So what if something is written 2,000 or 5,000 years ago? You are free to question it and find your own relevance with it. Maharaj ji, on the other hand, expected us to go deeper and deeper into the style. So, you shed all the externals and constantly did sadhana or dedicated practice—got immersed in the dance. Eventually, I always consider my family and life my two ultimate gurus. The experience of learning from life is something quite different. 

Tell us about the contemporary vocabulary/movement language that you have devised. 

There are two streams under which my work can be categorized—classical Kathak and contemporary dance based on Kathak. There is one stream of thought according to which what we call khula naach is one in which one comes and recites the bols and communicates with the audience, and it’s not a structured performance. I prefer to structure my performances in a way that a certain concept is woven through it, and the pieces that I dance to, are like little gems that are strung on the piece. I do a lot of solos and also choreograph many group works. All of this is about 80 percent of my work. 

Dance Umbrella 2016, Inter_rupted, Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Barbican

 

 

At the same time, I found that there are many things that I want to communicate. As Kathakars, we are storytellers, and sometimes the stories we want to communicate, cannot be best communicated through the medium of classical Kathak. For example, when I wanted to communicate claustrophobia, I found it impossible to do so within the broader parameters of classical Kathak. So, I had to find a movement vocabulary that allows me to communicate it. As an artist, I have a desire to communicate things, and I should not stop myself from doing so. So, I asked myself how to go about it. How do I develop a vocabulary that is informed by our history and geography, but not bogged down by it? How does this new exploration start? I don’t believe in fusion—it’s like cutting a branch of an apple tree and grafting it on a mango tree. 

My attempt, however, is to sow the seed of Kathak and water it with contemporary sensibilities, movement, thought, music and inspirations from life. So, the fruits are firmly entrenched in Kathak, and yet the tree that grows out is very different from my Kathak tree. This contemporary dance based on Kathak tree is totally rooted in Kathak. No one can do it who is not a Kathak dancer. Classical Kathak has a kind of external boundary, though one that is constantly expanding. Whereas in this case, it’s like absorption—not fusion, or deconstructing the form. 

You will turn 60 next year. What are some of your upcoming performances, tours, and other activities of the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company – The Drishtikon Dance Foundation that you head.

There are many exciting things coming up in the future. We have a whole set of performances happening in India, many of which are my solos. We just performed as a group at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai for their 50th anniversary and I’m also dancing a classical solo for them. I’m also performing in Chennai for a festival. We are performing all over India this year. We are also going to Russia and Turkey. We have also just returned from an extensive tour of Germany with 11 performances of our work which is within classical and contemporary dance based on Kathak. We are also scheduled to be going to the Middle East. In April 2020, I will be performing Immersed at the “Dancing the Gods Festival” in New York. 

Since last year, under Dance Drishtikon, we have also started sponsoring young dancers and giving them an opportunity to completely make their own work—from the concept to the choreography, etc. That happened in May this year, and now we are going to present another young dancer and four young choreographers. Among all these, the most exciting is the work I’ve started on three new productions, one of which is a contemporary solo. All our collaborators are from England. It’s about why society is scared of female fantasy. Some of the top names in light design, dramaturgy, costume design and set design are my collaborators. We will premiere it in November 2020. The other group work—both classical and contemporary—is also going to be premiered sometime in 2020 or early 2021. I’m also talking to Shubha Mudgal for the music composition, and working on another fully classical solo. 

Another series we have started is the baithak, to give young dancers and musicians an opportunity to perform in an intimate atmosphere. Since last year, we have had eight baithaks—five in our own home studio and three at other  venues, like the Oddbird Theatre or the Serendipity Foundation. My only involvement is that I curate the piece. Another series that I have started are the workshops in which I teach myself. We are also planning to start a series called Saturdays with Aditi, which will be a very intensive training in the classical form of Kathak for three hours over many Saturdays. 

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com

 

A Guided Tour of Jama Masjid’s Ramzaan Gastronomy

There was a danger that Kallan sweets would run out of the keema samosa and paneer jalebis even before the iftar festivities began. The sweet shop that lies on Urdu Bazar Road, in front of Gate Number 1 of the Jama Masjid, Delhi’s premier mosque, provides many of the delicacies the faithful use to break their Ramzaan roza or fast. We were rushing down the lanes of old Delhi to join the Ramzaan food walking tour.

After the evening prayers, the lanes around Jama Masjid come alive, offering a unique gastronomic experience. The tour starts at the mosque, where my brother and I entered to join in the iftar meal. During Ramzaan, the month of fasting, the faithful eat only two meals a day; one before sunrise, sehri, and one after sunset, iftar.

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On the floor of the mosque’s open courtyard are seated men, women and children who have not let a drop of water pass their parched lips since the pre-dawn sehri meal before the Fajr prayer (the first of the five daily prayers). They are waiting for the signal that the sun has set and the fast is over.

Steam arose from the hot stones as we sat down. Our guide wet the red sandstone floor beneath the blue geometric mat in order to cool it. We sat in a circle. He licked his dry lips as he opened bags of food and instructed us to take some. We set up our plate, placing one item each from the open bags: a crispy samosa, a crunchy onion fritter, a soft chilly fritter, a date, and half a jalebi (funnel cake). He poured us a cold glass of sweet sandalwood sherbet from the thermos flask. We set the plastic cup gingerly on the mat next to the food-laden tinfoil plate. We were ready to take a sip and chew on a date when the designated time arrived.

Around us, ladies were busy slicing bananas, watermelons, cantaloupes, mangoes and other fruit. An excited air of anticipation hung in the air. Little beggar children went from group to group, collecting fruit and eatables from the hungry, empathetic faithful. Boys lay languorously on the floor, scanning their phones, awaiting their first date of the evening.

A sudden boom blasted the air. It startled the birds and made streams of sherbet gush down grateful throats. The dusky sky was suddenly illuminated by an outline of tiny lights framing the mosque. Forks pierced the fruit and the crunch of the samosas reached the ears of the halwai chef at Kallan sweet store. The cottage cheese laden jalebis crumbled in delight. The silence of the satiated would soon turn to grateful prayers.

We stepped out of the mosque to embark on a gastronomical walk of the neighborhood.

Our Tour

Earlier in the evening, at about 5:30 p.m., we had alighted at the Chawri Bazaar metro station and stepped into a rickshaw to reach Jama Masjid’s gate number 1. Now we emerged from the gate and walked straight down Matia Mahal road. On either side of the road were mouth-watering delicacies.

We walked past the 75-year-old sweets shop Kallan Sweets on the left, past Al Jawahar and Karims, both known for their wonderful kormas, mutton burra, chicken stew, and chicken Jehangiri, and onwards to Aslam, who serves tandoori chicken tikka in a pool of melting butter. Butter chicken here means exactly what it says-butter and chicken.

We headed to Chicken Changezi in Gali Choodiwali in search of the famous mutton nihari. Walking briskly, weaving my way through the crowds so as to not lose sight of my guide, I wondered if I could eat any more. The first bite of the bread, smothered in the smooth, glazed, cooked-all-night-long, melt-on-the-bone mutton gravy dispelled all doubts. Chicken Changezi does not make nihari with buffalo meat as is traditional, but uses mutton or goat meat.

We then rolled back down the road towards the Masjid. Shops laden with mounds of vermicelli, breads, cakes, and dates were on either side of the lane. We stopped at Golden Bakery to take a bite of the hot-out-of-the-oven sheermal, a buttered and jam-laden soft bun bread, and pineapple-flavored cakes.

Huge cauldrons of oil bubbled and boiled outside Haji Mohammed Hussain Fried Chicken, the house of JFC or Jama Masjid Fried Chicken. It beats KFC any day, our guide informed us. Out of the festive bubbles, he scooped out crispy gram-flour-encrusted fish and chicken, dusted it in a masala powder, and poured a dollop of his signature yellow mustardy sauce. We stood around licking our fingers.

Steps away, the billboard above the street vendor Qureshi proclaimed: “Pyaar Mohabbat Mazaa” (affection, love, fun). Watermelon chunks bobbed up and down a pink, milky drink. We reached for the unique milk drink laced with rose syrup to wash down the spice. This drink is served only during Ramzaan, our guide wanted us to know.

Cool Point’s shahi tukda (bread deep fried in pure ghee and then dipped in thick cream and sugar syrup) and a scoop of mango and vanilla ice cream topped the meal.

As my full stomach fell out of my pants, I was jealous of the people around me who would fast the calories away the next day. Eating seven hours a day and fasting for 17 hours has become very popular with the millennials as a general rule. With religion as a guide to good health, the faithful who fasted were one up. I was sure that after forty days of the Ramzaan fast, the body would indeed demand only what it needed and water would taste sweeter than lemonade.

I looked for an electric rickshaw to take us back to the metro station. Sweet watermelon thoughts bobbed up and down in my happy but sleepy brain. I too would like to fast if such a feast waited for me at the end of the day.

Ritu Marwah is the Features Editor and an avid gourmand of unique experiences.