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Monsoon Mayhem

I got food poisoning last Tuesday. This was bound to happen at some point – especially during monsoon.

Quick photo of the monsoon rains from my balcony (not to be mistaken for fog or smog). As I had said – it rains so hard that you can’t see in front of you:

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Back to Tuesday – what was surprising was that I got ill from the food at Cafe Zoe – a super hipster (I’m talking, the interior has been almost entirely furnished from the funky antique pieces found at Chor Bazaar) restaurant/cafe/bar that caters to foreigners. Not to worry – I’m better.

Our Cafe Zoe excursion wasn’t a complete bust. Since Kishore is roomies with one of the restaurant’s owners, we were able to procure a package of plastic cups (of red Solo cup quality) that the restaurant uses for takeaway cold beverages. I previously mentioned how difficult it is to find a drinking-game-quality plastic cup in India so we were VERY excited about this acquisition – especially because we had been unsuccessful at convincing Starbucks to sell us their grande cups and were fresh out of options. (We were told that using Sbux cups for purposes other than serving their beverages would introduce some branding issues. As an act of charity, Sbux did scratch their logo off of a few cups before giving them to us. The Sbux cups also have “Starbucks” written on them, but no matter. Apparently only the logo needed to be scratched off?)

The second house party, hosted by Mumbai’s favorite expats (Katie, Kevin and I) took place this past Thursday and Beirut, among other games (Mafia included), was in full effect. There was also a crew of folks stationed on the balcony playing antakshari / having general sing-along time (not a joke). We plan to have one more party before I leave Mumbai. You’re all invited.

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Where History is on Display

– BRUAH! –

You guessed it – I did just return from a weekend in Punjab. Amritsar to be exact.

The best way to travel in and out of Amritsar is to fly to either Chandigarh or Delhi and take a train – it gives you the most flexibility in terms of timing and also allows you to explore one or more additional destinations. Since we didn’t know this (and we’re divas), Kevin, Katie and I figured out a way to fly directly to Amritsar – unfortunately this required a 5am, Saturday morning, departure from Mumbai. Friday night wasn’t exactly tame. I had a Wharton/HBS/LBS mixer to attend (you can just imagine b-school kids, PRE-b-school) + we had scored invites to the Willingdon Club’s monthly “party” (an old and exclusive sports club/gymkhana) so getting approx 30 minutes of sleep that night added a special element to our journey.

There are exactly five things to see/do in Amritsar: Wagah border ceremony, Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, Eat, Shop. Upon landing, we lazed around and did the latter two – ate and shopped. Punjab is famous for insanely delicious stuffed kulchas and parathas with extra ghee, lassis with extra malai, and chole with extra spice. I thought it best to have all three of those things in my first meal. This was a bad choice. I was so stuffed I basically couldn’t eat anything the rest of the trip. I didn’t get sick exactly, but the combination of lack of sleep and 7,000 calories in one meal did me in – my stomach seemed to be churning/digesting what I had eaten for the rest of the day. The lassi was overrated in my mind, but the breaddss (THE BREADS!!) were to die for!

Next on the docket was the Wagah border ceremony. Wagah is a town about 45 minutes outside of Amritsar that sits on the border of India and Pakistan (this town was split in half when the boundary demarcation line was drawn between the two countries). During the day, flags of both countries fly high at the border. Since 1960, every day, at the approach of sunset, a flag-lowering ceremony is conducted. The program was expected to start around 7:30pm so we thought we’d get there early to snag a great seat. At 5pm it was us and thousands of other people…

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Getting these people seated proved to be nightmarish. On the India side, there were three seating types that I could identify; Regular (free seating for Indian nationals), VIP (this requires purchasing a ticket in advance and provides slightly closer seating), and Foreigners (for some inexplicable reason the free foreigner seating is better than the regular seating and situated right next to the VIP section – yes, this did feel wrong). We immediately began looking for signs to figure out where we should be waiting. Nothing of the sort existed. We tried asking people where to go and received some unconvincing pointing and waving. Finally we resorted to searching for white people. Success – kind of. It turned out that this exercise was useless as there was a common security checkpoint before we could all be seated in our respective sections – what a bottleneck this was. After about an hour of standing around, gates are opened, and the entire crowd pours into the event grounds. We were expected to self divide into male and female lines. Of course there were zero signs requesting this so Katie, Kevin and I ended up in the boys line (there are five-ish other women as well). Gender separation occurs everywhere in this country (security lines at the airport, security lines to enter a hotel, seating in temples, and so on) so we should have predicted that we would have to split up at some point. A woman from the Border Security Force (BSF) started to hysterically yell at us in Hindi saying we needed to stand on the women’s side for check-in. There were only two BSF women that were processing a very long female check-in line (I use “line” very loosely here – in actuality we’re talking about a herd of people). Once on the other side we finally figure out where to go and take our seats but the process could have been 90% less stressful with some signage. Just offering some constructive feedback…

A guy in a white BSF jumpsuit was waving Indian flags around as we were entering. As far as I can tell, white-jumpsuit-guy (WJG) is supposed to rile up the crowd similar to at a sporting event (I was on the lookout for some Indian flag tube socks). He then invited Indians from the regular and VIP sections to come down onto the road and arranged them in a single file line. The first few folks take the flags form WJG and run up to the border laughing and waving the Indian flag before passing it off to the next patriot. This is literally the only time that I have seen a line of people work as expected in India. After the flag-running segment came a dance party segment. Oh I should mention that patriotic songs were playing this entire time. WJG invites only women to come to the road to dance. There may have been a few other fun such activities that allowed for audience participation before the Jawans (soldiers) came out. At this point it becomes a little unclear what exactly is happening at the border but from what I understand, the Jawans on both the Indian and Pakistani side aggressively march, one by one, towards the border. When the border gates open, the Jawans shake hands and proceed to, with exact precision, slightly lower the flags until both India’s and Pakistan’s flags are taken down and taken back to their respective home turfs. All the while there is a lot of cheering and chanting from the crowds – Pakistan: “Jive Jive Pakistan” and other things I couldn’t quite make out – India: “Jai Hind” and “Vande Mataram.”

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I can’t quite describe how I feel about this ceremony, mostly because I haven’t decided how to feel. On the one hand, as someone who is Indian (and also because there was a giant portrait of Mahatma staring at me), you can’t help but feel a swell of emotion and patriotism. This is my history. On the other hand, with WJG especially, it felt very staged, almost as if it was meant to be a tourist attraction more than an act of duty or symbolism. That said, the Indian nationals seemed to be full of pride and excitement. Maybe it’s OK to be both?

Most everything else happening in Amritsar is centered around the iconic Golden Temple – the holiest of Sikh Gurdwaras. The water surrounding the Golden Temple is known as the immortal nectar and is how Amritsar got its name – Amrit meaning nectar. More than 100,000 people visit this temple everyday making it a more popular destination than the Taj Mahal (learn a little something everyday). Leading up to the Golden Temple there is such a cluster of street stalls, motor rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, vendors, etc. It’s almost shocking to go from the commotion outside to the peace inside the fort walls. The building itself is magnificent. The fort walls surrounding the temple are also very ornate. Everything is made of marble, gold and precious stones. Inside the fort area a four person band was playing religious music in one corner. A prasad station was open. People were bathing, or at least dipping their feet, in the holy water. Some folks were eating and chatting. Others were sleeping (apparently pilgrims are allowed to stay for free at the temple). So much activity and yet the divinity and spirituality within was palpable.

Golden Temple

Our final stop in Amritsar (in addition to more eating, shopping, and a second visit to the Golden Temple) was to see Jallianwala Bagh – a massacre site, turned memorial, near the Golden Temple. In 1919, at this site, there was a gathering of townspeople who were peacefully protesting the passing of the Rowlatt Act which would allow the government to arrest, without trial, anyone they wanted (the law was created because the British were afraid there were native conspirators planning a revolt against the government). General Dyer and his men (80+ people) surrounded the site and began to shoot at the people, brutally killing over 1,500.

I had only learned of this massacre after researching Amritsar. Standing at that memorial was another moment on this trip that made me appreciate the horrors and struggles borne by those who came before me and helped me further appreciate how privileged my life is.

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Food Fight

When I started here over a month ago, our office canteen (cafeteria / kitchen) was being serviced by three different vendors: Group A makes the most variety: sandwiches, maggi noodles, some rotating Indian snack, other packaged snacks, chai, chass, lassi, etc. Group B takes care of the veg + non-veg thali options. Group C is all Frankies all day (why isn’t there a Tibbs Frankies food truck in the states? That would kill it).

The building we work in, Indiabulls Finance Center also owns a separate canteen on the ground floor of the towers named Hungrybulls (Clever name huh? Ok, well it makes me chuckle). While Hungrybulls offers more variety by way of international cuisine, we’re usually too lazy to go downstairs to that one. Also it gets crowded and people don’t wait in lines – one time I was standing in a checkout line at Hungrybulls, waiting patiently to order, when two different people stuck their money out in front of me and paid for their food first. A third person attempted to do this, at which point I snapped and said, “DO YOU NOT SEE ME STANDING HERE?” – Oh, Mumbai. Everyone has been hypnotized into believing that they’re in some permanent, all-important, rush.

This is now fine because in the last two weeks, new competition has been introduced on the 29th floor which is making lunch time evermore exciting. We have a Group D now doing Parsi and Guj meals and snacks and a Group E making sandwiches, rolls, burgers and momos. Group A in response to all the new options has opened a dosa and uttapam section as well.

As you can imagine, there are a few new people working in the canteen that I haven’t yet met. SO my story (sorry for the superfluous intro). Today, I was ordering from Group E using my elementary level Hindi, and the new guy responds to me, “Madam, your accent is sounding funny. You’ve been talking to too many foreign clients.”

BOOM! It was the first time that someone hasn’t, VERY quickly, figured out that I’m American. This is mostly exciting because it makes me feel like maybe, MAYBE, my Hindi is getting better.

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Mumbai Socialites

About five of my coworkers, including my roommate Kevin, have started swimming in the mornings at a public pool in Dadar. I’ve purchased a swimming cap (bright pink) and a tasteful swimsuit (the pool scene is rather conservative here so I was told to get a swimsuit with a skirt – it looks like a tennis dress). Now I just need to work on actually waking up to swim (Ceci, I have no idea how you did this everyday for four years).

Kevin has been chummin’ it up in the locker room with some of the older Indian men, one of whom invited Kevin to coffee last week and proceeded to share some rather personal details about his life. Katie and I have been teasing Kevin about this as the encounter seemed a little odd and almost flirtatious but now he and Sanjay are homies. Well, yesterday they see each other again at the pool and Sanjay invites Kevin to a Russian party at the Trident on Nariman Point.

Kevin: “Sounds interesting. Can I bring my roommates?”
Sanjay: [Jokingly] “Only if they’re girls”
Kevin: “Actually they are…”
Sanjay: “Great. Wear a suit.

This is how we got roped into attending a “Russian party” last night. Leading up to the event we tried to use our collective Googling prowess to figure out what exactly this event was – but to no avail. All we knew was that this thing was happening in one of the swankiest hotels in Mumbai, so the food would be delightful (and we would be safe).

Upon arrival we were ushered to a private ballroom where Sanjay was waiting for us. He escorted us inside and to the bar with zero hassle. No check-in, no nothing. Hundreds of people were mingling, passed hors d’oeuvres were going around the room and dancers/singers in traditional Russian garb were performing.

Some signage and flyers helped us figure out what we were celebrating. Two things: 1. in 1613, the Romanov family came into power in Russia so this year marks the 400th anniversary of the ascension of the Romanov dynasty. 2. June 12 is Russia Day (sort of an independence day for Russia following the collapse of USSR – June 12th, 1990 is the day when a declaration was signed to move towards democratic reforms). The Russian Consulate was hosting a party to acknowledge these two occasions but also celebrate the successful relationship between Russia and India.

With a glass of wine in hand Katie and I begin mingling. Kevin had already been approached by a number of businessmen, all of whom shared their business cards (some of these people have packed so much information onto their business cards that they actually fold). It becomes clear that the women in the room, Katie and I included, are looked at as arm candy – fine by us. We’re enjoying the food and the people-watching.

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I have brought with me to India one nice-ish dress (yellow, structured, pleats, work-cum-cocktail dress) but it was definitely not nice enough for this party. We didn’t look out of place exactly but I felt under-dressed next to these women in floor length gowns and heavy anarkali suits.

About twenty minutes into the party the paneer tikka plate passes us, and a man, maybe in his forties, standing nearby motions toward me and says “Ladies first.” Aditya turned out to be a very jovial, life-of-the-party, type and after a few jokes about party etiquette he hands each of us his business card. The card tells us that he owns a cotton company. Neither of us had a business card to offer to him which prompted a new set of rules on party etiquette.

“Ladies, the first rule of parties is to never come to an event without 100 business cards. The second rule is you must hand out all of the business cards you’ve brought before you leave. And the most important rule is to take 100 business cards back with you.”

Approx 237 business cards of my initial 250 have been sitting in some box somewhere for the last six years. Should have brought them to Mumbai. I guess no one uses Bump here.

Aditya took us under his wing for the night, introducing us to business leaders and government officials. We chatted with the Australian Counsel General and a movie producer. We met with a chemical business tycoon and his wife who we were told we could expect to see on Page 3 the next day. Aditya seemed to know most everyone that walked by. I had asked if he attends a lot of similar events. The answer was “yes.” Apparently there were three events on his calendar for that night alone. He said he could have our calendars filled with parties for the rest of our time in Mumbai if we wanted – including invitations to the Star Channel Film Awards that are being held this Saturday. We begrudgingly had to decline that invitation since we’re traveling to North India this weekend. The American in me is pretty skeptical about that being a real thing we could have gone to though. It seemed a little too easy. BUT when Kevin asked Aditya if he has met any Bollywood celebrities, Aditya said – “What to meet? I’ve met so many times! Now there’s nothing to meet.” – He then showed us photos of him and the Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani stars at the GQ “Best Dressed” party last week. So I guess this guy is legit?

At some point a formal dinner buffet was set out that was absolutely delectable. The kothu paratha made with paneer and the chocolate mud cake were two notable items. Nom! We stayed for a few hours and continued to rub shoulders with the upper echelon of Bombay society. I’d say our spontaneous night out was quite a success.

Happy Russia Day!

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Technically Speaking

I’ve read at least five different articles in the last six months about how technology is making us lonely. The latest is a short op-ed that was adapted from a commencement address given at Middlebury College this year. While it offers zero new information on the topic the piece encourages you to be more aware, attentive and empathetic toward the people around you. It’s a very quick and quotable read – “We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich.”

The piece made me reflect on the communication styles that I’ve encountered in India – mostly email, text messages, WhatsApp and Facebook messages (Caveat: I’m living in a bit of a bubble in that the people that I hang out with all have some form of smart phone(s) and regular internet access which isn’t representative of the population at large.)

I very quickly noticed that the shorthand used by everyone here (males and females alike), in all of the above listed forms of written communication, looks as if it belongs to a teenage girl. An example text message sent to me from my thirty-five year old cousin.

“Hw r thgs wid u. M free on fri n sat. Let’s c v cn catch up. Do call to mk a plan.”

It took me at least a full minute to decode that. The abbreviations, misspellings and disregard for vowels are most likely a function of two things: 1. Because it was most economical, SMS was/is the primary way of communicating with one another (part of the reason India was one of Blackberry’s largest markets was due to BBM), 2. The initial phones that were used when SMS took off didn’t have QWERTY keyboards or autocorrect. And thus, however annoying it may be to read, a new texting language was born.

The NYT article poses the question of what to do when you see a person clearly in distress. Do you bury your face in your phone and walk away or do you stop and try to comfort and help? The answer to that question is much more nuanced in Mumbai given the areas of poverty embedded in every nice community. The point however is well taken and to that end I feel that people in this country with devices, who have the resources to be constantly connected, have done so in ways that keep them just as close if not closer families, friends and even acquaintances. I’ve written previously about the familial culture and giving nature in India. It’s those culture values that drive “how not to be alone.” Of what I’ve experienced in this country so far, Mumbai has struck that right balance between online and offline.

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Bollywood: Old and New

We have decided that monsoon in Mumbai is “boyfriend weather.” This just means it’s raining – like really bad, can’t see in front of you rain – enough so that it makes you want to cozy up to someone special with a cup of hot chocolate and movies in tow. Consequently we’ve decided to go to the local theaters twice in the last week.

[I should tell you that, again due to the weather, I streamed Student of the Year last night. This blog may shift to be more movie reviews than reviews of my follies.]

Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (YJHD) has been all the hype this season. Billboards everywhere, interviews, front page ads in the papers, etc. (The first page of the newspapers here are back and front full page ads so the third page is where the stories start.) We had just gotten back from Goa on the Sunday of YJHD’s opening weekend when the first rains came down in Mumbai. Movie time. If you’re the type to be interested in participating in Monday morning workplace chatter, YJHD is a must see. Every theater was sold out with the exception of the Regal in Colaba, which potentially would have been sold out had their online ticketing system not been down.

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This was quite fortuitous for us as I’ve been wanting to go to the Regal. It’s an art deco theater built in the 1930s and is one of / if not THE oldest theater in Mumbai still showing films. We raced down there (i.e. sat around in traffic for an hour) and scooped up four of the last tickets to the 11pm show. We had another twenty minutes to kill before they would let us take our seats. Because it was raining everyone was huddled together in the lobby and under the theater’s awning. When they finally opened the doors, the most ridiculous, and uncalled for, rush to get through security and into the theater ensued. Our group, initially holding hands, got pulled apart, turned around and pushed forward. We have ASSIGNED SEATS people!

The theater itself was clearly seasoned but had this old charm to accompany it. It had to have been a multipurpose space as it had a proper balcony and stage meant for live theater. Balcony seats are the most coveted at 250 INR a pop. The stall seats that we were assigned are the equivalent to orchestra seats but are much less desirable and thus only 100 INR each. There’s a sign on the lobby wall declaring the Regal Theater as an Indian Heritage Site and  apparently the Filmfare Awards were even hosted there one year. I really loved the idea of seeing this new Bollywood film in a theater with old Bollywood glory.

YDHJ starts. Our movie snacks included Thumbs Up, samosas, chakri, popcorn, far-far, and hippos (in our scramble to get to the movies we forgot to get dinner). At the first closeup of Deepika (which happens within one minute of the movie starting) the hooting, hollering, cat-calling and whistling ensue. Ohhhh so it’s gonna be THAT kind of movie. No idea what the first few sentences said in the movie were but you just had to laugh. The movie was what you’d expect of a bollywood rom-com: some interesting clothes, punchy songs, an item number with a beloved 90’s star, some terrible acting, a predictable story and happy ending. Naturally I loved it!

Monday morning papers had all sorts of criticism regarding Deepika’s performance – she only plays a modern girl, she repeats herself, etc. – but by contrast called Ranbir a sensation. This completely confuses me! While he is absolutely charming and I love most of his movies, he is playing the EXACT same character himself. Why does he get to be a sensation? Although it does appear that females in Bollywood rarely seem to be chosen or judged by their talent (I say this with conviction after seeing Student of the Year), Bollywood scripts only create roles for annoying girls so even if an actress was truly charming or talented you’d never know. The only person that got the story right, and by proxy a pseudo-review right, was The Vigil Idiot. Check out his comic of YJHD (and also Cocktail because it’s extra hilarious).

Let’s fast forward to this past weekend. Since DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) opened in 1995, the Maratha Mandir cinema hall has screened this film every day. The number of showings has been reduced to a single matinee showing a day, but it’s still the longest running film in Indian cinema. I had met Aditi’s friend Ryan last week at this really amazing charity event (raising funds for a girl who had grown up in India’s red-light district, had been emotionally and sexually abused, and has since overcome those unfortunate circumstances to gain a scholarship to Bard College – most surprising actually was that the vast majority of people at the event were foreigners including a large contingent from the US Consulate). I had mentioned to Ryan that DDLJ at the Maratha Mandir was top priority on my Mumbai list of things to do (largely given the indoors factor). Turned out it was on his to-do list as well. We went this past weekend with Katie and Kevin. Balcony tickets were only 20 INR. Basically the most economical movie going experience ever. The entire balcony was packed and surprisingly, with the exception of one group of girls, there were mostly groups of men in attendance.

I had forgotten how amazing this movie is. In many ways it’s similar to YJHD in that the heroine hates the hero yet through a series of song montages they fall in love on a trek BUT don’t tell one another. Given that basic story introduction however DDLJ is just magic on-screen. Maratha Mandir is very similar to Regal in that the crowd is very vocal throughout the movie. The main difference is we’ve all seen DDLJ before, so before the good parts actually start, the whistling begins. It’s kind of the best; it’s fun and interactive and adds to the entertainment value.

We were discussing that our love for DDLJ possibly has to do with the gradual character development (I mean it is a full three hours). By contrast in YJHD, Deepika takes off her glasses during a Holi festival and all of a sudden we’re meant to believe that everyone is good-looking and in love with each other.

Old or new, there’s a special place in my heart for Bollywood.

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The Best View in Worli

By now you must be curious about who throws the hottest parties in Mumbai. Look no further my friends. That’s correct. Katie (aka teetee), Kevin (aka Klam) and I had a “housewarming party” yesterday evening that went quite swimmingly. Sure it’s been over a month since I’ve gotten to India but, as it turns out, parties just aren’t as fun when you have zero friends to invite – thus we waited for our social wings to blossom and then bribed our contacts with the promise of food, drinks and the BVW (Best View in Worli):

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The view from our balcony, as pictured above, is basically the same view (different angle) as the famously overpriced Aer bar in the Four Seasons (I was hoping to run into Grover’s cousin there, but alas, Aer isn’t as happening during monsoon).

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This has been the week of rooftop views actually. Earlier this week we went to Kishore’s who has what we’ve unanimously agreed is the BBW (Best Balcony in Worli). His spot is right across the street from Aer and his balcony is about four times the size of ours. It’s sweet. I also ticked Dome at the Intercontinental on Marine Drive off of my list. Between Aer and Dome I basically can’t afford to go out for a week…

So, yes, house party = success. We invited a mix of friends from work, friends we had met at school networking events, friends of friends, etc. and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. I know I had a great time (I really love all of the peeps that I’ve met here thus far), and we received a few messages today from others that felt the same – as the new kids on the block that’s always encouraging!

Our largest issue actually was finding red Solo cups or something comparable. We ultimately found tiny fancy plastic cups. How tiny? Well, a ping pong ball couldn’t touch the bottom of the cup. With Beirut out of the question we stuck to Flip Cup and Kings Cup. Only the classics.

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Feel free to reach out to me for your Mumbai party planning needs (Hint: more beer, less wine, order khandvi and ‘Mad Over Donuts,’ dont order cocktail samosas – they aren’t the bite-size samosas you are expecting. Trust.)

The best thing about living in a serviced apartment is not having to clean up party messes. This country is spoiling me!