st Edition, September 2005
Hello!!!!! I must first confess that writing the words that follow has been a surprisingly easy task. The
challenge is to not write everything else. Four weeks after arriving in Hyderabad, every moment without a camera or notebook still seems a missed opportunity. Gradually, routine sets in, and with it the perspective that gives meaning to experience. In crossing to another culture, some moments bring unavoidable clarity; others fog up the lenses I didn’t know I was wearing. Thank you for enduring my first attempt to develop Kodak moments into meaningful reflections. I hope through this process to share pieces of my experience and to be vulnerable to your response. Here goes . . .
Henry Martyn Institute (HMI) is located in the southern part of Hyderabad, capital city of Andhra Pradesh, on a campus 150 meters off the highway. Upon exiting the highway, pass through a gate (most properties here - small and large - have gates), drive down a short lane with rice paddy on both sides, try to avoid the water buffalo, and enter another gate to HMI’s campus. When the road ends, the Hostel is on your left and the Programme Building on your Clockwise from left: rice paddy, hostel, prayer hall (dome in right. Straight ahead is the outdoor prayer hall. distance), programme building Welcome to HMI! (behind trees), rice paddy.
If you come between 9:30am and 5pm, you’ll find most of us in the Programme Building. Look in those cubicles made of brick (be sure to call them “cabins”) and you might find one of the 25 staff who work on the ground level. Want to check your e-mail? Just ask Kumar for the common computer. In case you’re wondering, yes, all the computers are this old. If the lights go out and the screen stays lit, you can thank the trusty power box next to your monitor. There’s one at every computer; so don’t expect any sighs of frustration when the power current goes out for the second time in ten minutes. Thirsty yet? Tea time is never far away: 11am or 3pm in the office, 5pm at the hostel. Be prepared for very sweet.
If it’s not raining, take the spiral staircase (in the center open-air courtyard) upstairs to the “first” floor. Unless you want to interrupt a class or workshop, keep going to the second floor and spend a while in the library. See the most recent issue of Economist or another of 200 periodicals, browse through a not-so-current reference section, or practice your telugu (language of Andhra Pradesh) with Mary while she computerizes a card catalogue of some 20,000 volumes.
Even if it wasn’t raining when you entered, it probably is now, so come down the enclosed stairwell Be sure to exit before the doors are locked at 6pm. Step outside and follow the sound of t-t (table tennis), through the hostel door, and up the stairs. Those 2 people playing might be Molu and Regin, or Naqi, Poonam, Rashad, Varghese, anyone really. We all play. “Peace-building through ping-pong” may be HMI’s next breakthrough. The hostel’s 20+ residents include students and a few staff who live on-site. The room on your left is the common kitchen and tv spot. Drop in if you want to hear the latest Bollywood movie music hit or see an Indian gameshow. Most shows are in Hindi, but a retreat to American English is always available on HBO, Nickelodeon, or the History Channel.
Stop by my room before dinner. If the light switch doesn’t work, we probably forgot to flip the power current switch outside the door. Mosquitoes haven’t been bad lately, but if they are now, plug-in that thing looking like a Glade air freshener. It’s probably a good idea to use the bathroom here. What, you might ask, is that kitchen sink sprayer doing on the toilet? Let’s just say toilet paper is not a universal accompaniment to indoor plumbing. I’ll let you put 2 and 2 together. If you get wet, you’ve guessed correctly. It’s okay to play the westerner card on this one and use the TP (provided-on-request by the hostel). That knob on the wall isn’t the sink, which is just outside the toilet room; it’s the shower. Feel free to enjoy a cold one before dinner. It won’t be any warmer in the morning. However, between 6 and 9am you can fill that red bucket with solar-heated water from the pantry. Need to wash some clothes? Same red bucket, or you can send it with the laundry man who comes once-a-week. Speaking of which, I forgot to take down my t-shirts hang-drying on the roof.
Ahh . . . it’s 7:15 now . . . dinner just began. You’ve got until 9 to eat up, but really, who can wait for more rice and daal? Walk back down stairs towards the entrance. See those glass sliding doors on the right? That’s the kitchen. Wash your hands in the sink and grab a plate. If you ate here at lunch, you’d know to always expect sliced cucumbers and carrots, some kind of fruit, and curd (plain yogurt). And, of course, rice, daal soup and chappatis (tortilla like flatbread). But now it’s the exciting part . . . what will be the non-meat spicy dishes tonight? Pinto beans, fried cauliflower, drumstick, potatoes, yams (not sweet potatoes), squash, another root vegetable? What vegetable would be complete if not cooked at length with oil, garlic, and spices? Those plain boiled potatoes and cabbage are a coping mechanism for westerners =). There might be a meat dish tonight. If it was last Tuesday, you could have tried another attempt to appease weak western tastebuds . . . Shepards’ Pie . . . baked in a cookie sheet. (I say this all to smile, not to complain. I quite enjoy the food, despite everyone here being concerned I’ll go hungry.)
Beware, there are no napkins and even though most people around me are eating with their fingers, I will surely make the bigger mess. Hang around the dining room long enough and you’ll find interesting conversation with another Hostel resident . . . perhaps Rashad from South Africa who is here for 3 months to study Urdu; Florina, HMI’s Associate Director for the Praxis Programme; Jan, a Swedish priest here for a month of personal study and retreat; or Naqi from Kashmir, a student studying for the Post Graduate Diploma in Conflict Resolution. After dinner, if you hear guitar and singing, it’s probably coming from Lemwang’s room. There’s always an open invitation to sing a few worship songs before bed. Most folks will be in their rooms by 10:30 or 11:00. It’s a good time to read, gaze at the photos from home, and fall asleep. Breakfast starts at 8 followed by Interfaith Devotions at 9:30. Another day at HMI.
Thanks for asking. As of September 18, I work primarily with the Publications team of Sri Bala (staff) and Robert (ELCA-sponsored professor who co-edits HMI publications.) “Interaction” (an organizational newsletter) and “The Journal of the Henry Martyn Institute” are published twice annually. I spent my first work week editing articles and establishing a database of subscribers. Within publications, I see my role to be supporting staff to improve the effectiveness of Publications as a tool for the mission of HMI. This means establishing mechanisms to simplify and increase distribution, restructuring the website, editing, and being an extra hand to help HMI get back on schedule with its publications.
Additionally, I was asked to tutor students in English. As most students speak English as a 2, 3, or 4language, HMI would like to offer support from a native English speaker. This might mean teaching “class” twice a week, or tutoring one-on-one. I can’t promise to be effective, but I’ll certainly give it a try . . . and keep you posted.
I also plan to study a bit o’ Urdu (very similar to Hindi – India’s national language) and Telugu. As for other hours in the day, I pray I’ll respond appropriately when opportunities arise. I am especially seeking opportunity to connect with Anita, a 10-year old girl who lives on HMI’s campus. She does not attend school because all day she cares for her younger sister – Aarthie - while their parents work as laborers for HMI’s construction contractor. The HMI building project is almost complete, so I expect the family will move soon. A language barrier is, of course, frustrating (I do not speak Telugu). Anita knows several HMI staff and students. She is eager to play and learn, to be a kid. I am eager to connect, to give her what to me defines “childhood.” That, of course, is not for me to define or give. I do not know for what to pray, except that I will faithfully meet her where she is.
(Photo: Anita and Aarthie)
From September 5-17 I participated in HMI’s Semi-Annual Workshop on Conflict Resolution. With 23 participants from across India, one German, and 10 facilitators, we explored the meaning of conflict, how art and theatre can be tools for peace-building, conflict in our home regions, analysis, and much more. Of greatest value to me was connecting with other participants (photo), all from diverse conflicts and cultures. I felt naïve; I felt ignorant; I felt American; and helpless to be anything but. ‘Twas a great introduction to India.
I met Alo my first evening here. He is a post-graduate student in Interfaith Relations. “Where are you from?” I asked, certain he would respond “China.” “India,” he replied, “Northeast, Nagaland.”
At the time, I hardly understood through his accent, but soon learned that “Northeast” designates the Indian states bordering China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar. Indians like Alo come from cultures far more like East Asia and in many ways as different from Hyderabad as is Indiana. Meeting Alo was my first lesson in the diversity of India’s regions. I’d pictured India’s diversity to mean that on any given street corner I could be surrounded by people of multiple religions, fashions, and languages. That image is accurate, but incomplete. Not until meeting Alo and participants of Semi-Annual workshop did I realize the cultural, linguistic, physical and historical diversities of India’s regions (28 states, 7 union territories) and how significant are the forces that bring unity across these distinctions. I will explore India’s places more in future newsletters. (If you’re reading this on-line, please consider printing a copy of the map at http://www.mapsofindia.com/maps/india/indiastateandunion.htm.)
Keep going . . . there’s more.
If this newsletter were interactive, I’d take bets on the circumstances behind this photo . Too much curry for dinner? Guess again . . . This is me after a Ganesh pooja (pooja = festival). The Ganesh pooja is a 10-day festival to honor the Hindu god Ganesh:
1) The Goddess Ganesh: body of human, head of elephant, Hindu god celebrated for removing obstacles. 2) Drummers: Throughout the 10-day festival, cadences from drum bands like this echo throughout the city 24-7, a soundtrack for daily life. Standing with the quartet is Akunge, an HMI student from Arunachal state in northeast India. 3) Pink powder . . . you haven’t lived until you’ve seen grown men chasing each other through mud to attack with pink powder. The practice is part of several Hindu festivals. During Ganesh, this mark-of-the-pooja appears on clothes and skin throughout the city. 4) One “contestant” tries to grab the ceremonially wrapped coconuts hanging from this makeshift arch. Somewhat piñata-esque, the ceremony begins with the smashing of coconuts under this arch. 5) Dancing is everywhere during Ganesh. Women observed but didn’t participate. It was explained to me that no custom forbids their participation, but here they chose to observe. 6) In a tent along the highway outside HMI, artisans craft murtis (icons), some 15 feet high, of Hindu gods.
Akunge and I happened upon this pooja one Saturday afternoon while exploring a housing development adjacent to HMI. Most celebrants were laborers working on-site, many of whom live with their families in tent-like huts along the property. (A few migrant laborers live similarly at HMI, working for the contractor who is constructing a guest house and director’s house on campus.) Construction supervisors and other locals also attended the pooja. This photo shows a new house under construction (on right) next to the temporary homes of laborers. Behind the trees in the upper right hand corner is the top of HMI’s hostel building.
The focal point of a Ganesh pooja is the immersion ceremony. Though typically held on the 10 day, some communities, like this one, celebrate it early. The immersion ceremony can include festivities like those pictured above and ends with celebrants taking the Ganesh murti (icon) to a body of water to immerse it completely. Most murtis are made of a plaster substance that dissolves in water, leaving only a metal frame which can be retrieved later. In Hyderabad, the end of Ganesh Pooja means a day long procession of 15,000 Ganesh murtis in Hussain Sagar Lake in the center of the city. For more than 24 hours on September 17, trucks full of festive men (mostly) and large Ganesh murtis lined the streets of Hyderabad, SLOWLY processing to the lake where large cranes lifted each Ganesh into the water. You can imagine how many cranes, people, and hours it takes to immerse 15,000 murtis.
At the urging of Professor Robert Schick, I joined Andreas, Terini, and Robert on a late-night trip to see the action. During daylight hours, I’ve been told, the procession has an almost carnivale atmosphere. By 10:30pm, I noticed only huge crowds, NOISE from drums and cheering, and street filth that is inevitable after 24 hours of intense parade. (With Andreas being a German above 6 feet tall, he and I were quite the spectacle and center of attention – physical and visual -where e’er we walked.) Trucks lined up for kilometers. The newspaper on Sept. 25 commended the city for successfully organizing the logistics for immersion day, citing a record number of participants (10 lakh or 1,000,000). Hyderabad hosts the second largest immersion procession in India. (Please note that Ganesh pooja is celebrated in a variety of ways, in private homes and neighborhoods, with drums and without. Many faithful Hindus in Hyderabad do not participate in the huge immersion procession and would dislike it as much as I. Of course, my limited experience does not define what it means to be Hindu or festive in India. I wouldn’t enjoy a 24parade in America. More objective and flattering Ganesh coverage can be found through an on-line Google Search of “Ganesh Immersion 2005, Hyderabad.”)
For me, the neighborhood pooja and even the city procession confirmed a lesson I’m learning over and over again in India: While sympathy for pain or sadness comes fairly naturally, it is far more difficult to empathize with happiness. Nothing about these festivals inspired me to celebrate. Rather, I just felt questions like: You call this festive? Even if you do believe that Ganesh is an expression of God, how does this celebration bring honor to God? What is sacred about filling the streets with diesel exhaust and polluting the lake with tons of dissolved plaster? So much noise, mud, yelling. How does this make you happy? (The question of polluting the lake is a political issue in Hyderabad. Groups and individuals are pushing for government action to change the tradition of dumping all murtis in the city lake.) Though my initial reactions are judgmental, I record them here not to criticize. My questions about Ganesh pooja are equally valid questions to ask of my own traditions. What harmful activities do I claim as “sacred”? Would the men enjoying Ganesh pooja find anything festive in my celebrations? Ganesh is just one of many instances when I’ve wondered of other people, “How can you possibly be happy in the midst of this?” I can see that my time in India or any foreign culture will be defined in large part by how I cope with this question.
Discussing Ganesh pooja is also a way to consider religious tensions in Hyderabad, a Hindu-majority city, but also home to a Muslim population that is exceptionally large for southern India. Big festivals or holy days for Hindus or Muslims have proven to be opportunities for clashes between these groups. . For instance, it is just part of culture here to be concerned when a Hindu festival falls on a Friday – the weekly holy day for Muslims. In Hyderabad’s Old City, where the religious majority switches to 55% Muslim, 45% Hindu, these tensions are always high. Here, many streets are known as Hindu or Muslim territory. Of course, where there is conflict, there are also efforts toward peace. On September 17 (Ganesh pooja), a powerful Muslim political party set up a stage in the heart of Old City and served refreshments to Hindu celebrants in an effort to promote peace among the community. It’s a new experience for me, to be in a place where the majority religious group celebrating its holiday is a call for massive security efforts. The day after Ganesh immersion, headlines celebrated the success of such efforts, including 25,000 police dispatched to maintain peace in the city.
The Hostel community is my greatest source of fellowship. Eating meals, playing table tennis (“tt”), browsing the newspaper, or walking to the shopping plaza are regular opportunities to exchange stories, learn what makes people tick, and be asked questions that force me to articulate who I am. The newspaper last weekend prompted a discussion about diversity that ended with me trying to describe U.S. policy toward Native Americans. (India frequently reminds me of what I do not know about the place I call home.)
The religious make-up of Hostel residents is primarily Christian, with 2 Muslims and one Hindu. Until the 1980s, the staff of HMI was almost entirely Christian. Now, there are a significant number of Hindu and Muslim persons working throughout the organization. Each workday begins with interfaith devotions in the outdoor prayer hall, led by whoever has signed up to lead that day. Last week we heard a parable about heaven and hell, reflection on the poem “Footprints”, an invitation to think about rain coming down
through the open courtyard, and 17 century musical settings of 2 psalms. This morning Ramlu, the gardener, who converted from Hinduism to Christianity, sang a worship song in telugu. I led devotions with Thelma (hostel manager) a few weeks ago. It was the first time I’ve used “hokey pokey” to illustrate the importance of putting “both hands in” to work for God. Turns out the song is popular here, too, but called by another name.
And there are moments when I find in unexpected places the opportunity to articulate my faith and religion. Last weekend, I joined Ruth (a student from United Kingdom) and Poonam (student/intern from West Bengal, India) to visit Sri Bala and her two young boys at their home. She and her family are Hindu. While looking at photos from her wedding and other family celebrations, Sri asked about baptism. Ruth, whose mother and father are both Anglican pastors, explained from her tradition. I was able to describe my own experience and the diversity of Christian opinions about baptism
I welcome your prayers for more opportunities like this, in and out of the HMI community; moments when I encounter my own belief by describing it to others; moments when I accept and extend invitations to consider faith and religion in light of God’s truth.
This is a section I like to call: Whoa . . um . . signal . . BUS!&^$&!#%*! Hyderabad is known for its chaotic traffic. A “Hyderabad Traffic” weblog (http://hydtraffic.blogspot.com/) reports 239 traffic-related deaths in Hyderabad since January 1 2005. After being here four weeks, I am surprised the statistic is not higher. I never appreciated the order of American traffic until my first auto-rickshaw (“auto”) ride in Hyderabad. The usual players on the road are
•cars: a minority on the road With the exception of some cars, most everything runs on diesel. (I’ve never tried so hard to breathe without inhaling.) The general theory seems to be “if there’s space (broadly defined), go for it.” Take for example, exhibit A
These vehicles are in a space no larger than 2 lanes. Now, trace the arrows to see what happens in the 2 seconds following this photo. >>>>>>>
Beautiful, isn’t it? Thankfully, each driver will honk 5 times to alert the others of his plan to move into the EXACT SAME SPOT at the EXACT SAME TIME.
Want to cross the street? Intersections? . . . “If there’s space, go for it.” Generally, people drive on the left side of the road. But, of course, if there’s space . . ..
It remains a mystery to me. Somehow it all works. During my first ride downtown, I pulled out my notebook and wrote the word “trust.” This must be the essence of traffic in Hyderabad. Trust that if there is space, me and 4 other people will go for it . . . . trust that one of us will fit . . . . and last but certainly not least, trust that brakes will work. By the way, if this volunteering thing doesn’t work out ☺, I’m buying stock in brake pads. When those 4 drivers go for the same spot and only one fits, the other three must . . . b-r-a-k-e. And that, my friends, you can brake to the bank.
A recent find in the HMI library says it best . . . from A Collection of Hyderabadi Limericks
On Hyderabad’s roads there’s a battle
Where lorries and buses that rattle, Dodge autos and cars And two-wheelers have wars,
But the winners by far are the cattle.
Two English-language papers arrive at HMI each day - the Deccan Chronicle (Hyderabad) and The Hindu (national paper out of Delhi). Here is a brief list of stories covered repeatedly during September:
Updates coming soon! Thanks for you patience. I’m trying to decide how to more efficiently use the website. http://emmacrossen.tripod.com.
Want to visit?
Or send mail ☺ . . . Here’s the info:
Emma Crossen c/o HMI PO Box 153, Chirag Ali Lane
Hyderabad – 500 001 India
E-mail is the most efficient method of communication: