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Ten Days in India

The winter is very mild here in Holland (scarcely ever below freezing), but the days sure are short and dark. At this near-Nordic latitude around the end of the year, daylight doesn't appear till nearly 9:00, and it's pretty well finished by 4 in the afternoon. We'll get lots of light in the long days of summer to make up for it, but just now we get by on a little sparkle from lingering Christmas illuminations and lighted shop windows on Thursday evenings (weekly late closing).

Those who can manage it try to head south for a week or two of sun, which was an added incentive for me to sign up for a couple of conferences in Delhi and Indore in mid-December. It was great fun to be back in India and see street cows (you can see lots of cows in the Netherlands, of course, but they're segregated out in the countryside) and eat paan and smell jasmine and roses and raat ki raani and other flowers that actually smell (which the Dutch tulips and roses and orchids, beautiful though they are to look at, seem to have had bred out of them).

My Hindi came back faster than I expected, although not terribly far, and at first heavily contaminated with Dutch. In the college settings of the conferences, though, the medium was mostly English. Indian metropolitan college students have a disconcerting cultural blend of contemporary Euro-American youth fashions and a sort of fifties-TV-show perky mannerliness, like a production of "Good News" in modern costume or something. It's rather odd to have hip-looking teenagers calling you "madam" or "sir" in every sentence! Youth-style Indian English has some similar effects: it seems to have adopted the "s"-word (hey, it still sounds like bad language to me, okay?) as a mild interjection somewhere between "Oh dear!" and "Yikes!" When an elderly professor tipped his chair too far and fell on the floor, it was distinctly incongruous to hear the half-dozen tidy deferential students who rushed to pick him up all exclaiming sympathetically "Oh s**t! S**t s**t s**t!" (Fortunately he seemed none the worse for either the fall or the cussing.)

I took a flying trip to Jaipur before the conferences started, and it was nice to see camels again, as well as to hang out at the Jantar Mantar and visit friends. The rains this past summer were apparently better than they have been for a few years, and there was a haze of green that I hadn't seen before on the semidesert hills. Delhi was also very pleasant, and is getting more modernized by the month, it seems. At present the traffic is more discombobulated than usual due to the construction of the Delhi Metro; if all goes as planned, in another five years or so Delhi will be seeming no more exotic or discouraging to Western travelers than Budapest or Sao Paulo. I hope they won't entirely get rid of the street cows, though.

Indore appears to be working hard on modernization too, though I didn't see much of the city because the conference was so time-intensive. However, we stayed at a lovely guesthouse in a sort of technology park on the outskirts of town, and got to wander round the lake and watch peacocks on the lawn and all that. The most suspenseful part of the trip was the railway journey from Indore back to Delhi: my colleague Annette and I had booked overnight berths several weeks in advance, but we couldn't get our reservations confirmed until literally fifteen minutes before the train's departure. Kind of nerve-wracking, but it worked out in the end, and we swung into our top bunks and watched the rest of the crowd cramming in.

What with tourist traffic, students and NRIs (non-resident Indians) visiting for winter holidays, and the wedding season, late December is *not* an easy time to travel to Delhi, and the train was packed. Our compartment was shared with what seemed like half of a cricket team returning to Delhi after playing some matches in Indore. They apparently took it in turns to switch between the more comfortable accomodations in our car and some other seats over in the 3-tier section, playing cards and shoving each other for room. They seemed like a cheerful bunch, though, and good-natured about the inconveniences of the journey (as most train-traveling Indians seem to be, in a sort of fellowship of the road, heavy on the unsolicited but useful advice). When we disembarked in Delhi, one of the team remarked to Annette, "You will never forget these horrible faces!" As we laughed and contradicted, "Not me," he added, "I'm the handsome one." Kids these days, huh?

—— Kim Plofker
2005-01-22 16:10:52

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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