Friday, February 10, 2006

al rancho

This isn't the first time I've lamented the absence of good Mexican food in Delhi (outside of Chez Overdorf, that is). Why can't anybody make salsa? Salsa is a simple matter. All the ingredients are available and cheap. OK, I'll give you guacamole--nobody wants to pay for avocados so they put in mayonaise or some rubbish--but salsa! No more marinara sauce! No more catsup!

This week I decided to give the (relatively) new Mexican joint in Defence Colony a try, mostly because I like to say the name. Al Rancho. Go ahead, try it. Al Rancho. Al Rancho. Al Rancho.

The good news? The quesadillas aren't too bad, even though you have to have to order them as though the word rhymes with sasparilla to get served. Even the salsa is a cut above the cooked catsup variety available elsewhere in town. I'm even willing to give the place another shot and try a couple other menu items.

The real reason, though, is that I want to call up friends and tell them to meet me at "Al Rancho."

that's not cricket

If there's anything that's "not sporting," it's whining about the officiating or making other excuses, as Inzamam ul Haq ably demonstrated following the first ODI in the latest India-Pakistan series. But his stupid remarks -- why it's "not sporting" to try to win by enforcing the rules, however obscure, I'll never understand -- have already paid off. In the second ODI, India flinched from appealing for an out when Pakistan got in the way of the fielder and kicked the ball away. It might have gone either way, but the umpire should have made the decision, not a bunch of guys afraid that enforcing the rules is "just not cricket."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

so you can't take a joke

I don't get the whole cartoon of the Prophet furor. Why should Muslims "be able to take a joke" and accept the non-Muslim world's definition of good taste? Would the same newspapers print a cartoon showing Jesus taking it up the ass or a woman being raped? No? Too offensive? Well, that's my point.

The very fact that so many newspapers printed these cartoons--knowing they were considered blasphemous--demonstrated a disrespect so basic and fundamental that it makes me wonder why we (the so-called free world) can't figure out why Muslims think they need to fight us. The very fact that so many newspapers printed these cartoons--knowing the violent reaction that would follow--was so irresponsible that it makes me question my choice of professions.

Here's another one for you: Why was Newsweek battered into an apology for its report that US soldiers desecrated the Koran (despite a strong whiff of truth to the story, it didn't meet the legal or even journalistic standards of proof) while all the newspapers who printed the cartoon are being defended as liberal muckrakers? The violent results were the same.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Slackers Need Not Apply

An intensive study-abroad program immerses Americans in South Indian culture

By Shailaja Neelakantan

(Chronicle of Higher Education cover-dated February 10, 2006)

Chennai, India

Kalaimamani Subramaniya Thambirar, a master of a traditional South Indian form of street theater called therukoothu, wears a pensive look as he inspects his unusual group of performers. Normally Mr. Thambirar leads a troupe of artists who perform at theater festivals around India and the world, but this afternoon he is producing a performance of an episode from the Mahabharata — one of India's most famous epics — with a group of American college students.

A graceful man with a kind face and expressive eyes, Mr. Thambirar examines his students for flaws in the elaborate, masklike makeup that is essential to therukoothu. Here and there he adds a touch of black kohl eyeliner, adjusts the flowers in a student's hair, and realigns another student's turban. When he reaches Nzinga Job, a music major and scene stealer from Colgate University, he grins broadly. "She is marvelous on stage and now looks just like one of us," he boasts. Indeed, Ms. Job, whose role as sutradhar — a kind of narrator — provides the link between the performers and the audience, is a natural. Later in the evening, her comic timing has the Chennai crowd in stitches, as she regales them with only slightly accented Tamil.

The name of the play is "Keechaka Vadham," or "The Slaying of Keechaka" (a demon), and it is the grand finale of a two-evening presentation by the 21 American students in Colgate's India Study Group, a program begun in 1969 and still run by William Skelton, a professor emeritus of Asian studies and music there. Normally in therukoothu, men play the male and female roles. But tonight's cast includes students of both sexes — a daring break from tradition that Mr. Skelton says did not raise any hackles. "The therukoothu teachers didn't mind at all that female performers were used," he says. "How many people can say they've seen Keechaka killed by a white college girl, or seen a Michigan girl swear in Tamil?"

To master the stylized expressions and gestures of therukoothu, Mr. Skelton's students visited Purisai, the village where the art form was born, about 75 miles southwest of Chennai (formerly Madras). There they spent seven days memorizing lines and songs in Tamil, and practicing the dances and gestures. On the night of the students' "final exam," as Mr. Skelton sometimes calls their last performance, about 2,000 townspeople gathered in the pouring rain to watch the players march and whirl to the beat of raucous music, played by village musicians.

Mr. Skelton brings students from America — mostly from Colgate and other small colleges — to India to study music, dance, languages, yoga, and philosophy. In all he has brought some 200 students for a semester-long immersion in South Indian culture. The program is based in Chennai, where there are many opportunities to study classical and folk South Indian art forms, but includes travel to other cities and to remote villages elsewhere in South India.
Because each program is different and takes a year of planning, groups come only every other year.

Now 82 years old, Mr. Skelton is a conductor of Western music who first visited the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 1963 at the urging of the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. While in Chennai he learned to play the nadaswaram, a wind instrument that is used in South Indian classical music. Passionate about India and Indian music, Mr. Skelton uses the program to build students' appreciation of a culture little known in the West and improve their understanding of the issues affecting people in the developing world.

"I believe in experiential education," says Mr. Skelton, an elfish man whose apparent frailty and absent-minded demeanor belie the energy and meticulous planning he devotes to producing the program. "There are so many things we talk about in the abstract without feeling them. You can write a thesis on percussion without ever feeling a drum dig into your stomach, and that to me is an incomplete experience."

Total Immersion

Mr. Skelton works hard to make sure that the group does not, like many study-abroad programs, become a little island of America or a semester-long vacation in the guise of cultural immersion. For that reason, the culture shock over the first few days can be tough.

"There were annoying and frustrating moments initially because everyone thought 'You are white, so you must be rich,''' says Erin Koen, an English major from Lafayette College. "I suppose compared to some of the locals we are, but it gets quite uncomfortable."

Yet by the end of the trip, Mr. Koen says, he has become much more understanding. "I've seen so much in India and have seen what people can achieve with not many facilities. There is so much room for companies and nonprofit agencies to improve peoples' lives, and I plan to apply for a job at these agencies."

If culture shock can be a challenge, so, too, can the workload. Each year the students take four courses, three of them of their own choosing — within the South Indian arts framework — and the fourth a project that is designed by Mr. Skelton's Indian associates. This year the students learned, among other things, bharatanatyam (classical South Indian dance), mridangam (South Indian drum), and the flute.

The project this year was on the folk art of South India, and students toured several villages, learning various forms. In Poikkal Kudirai Aattam, or the Dummy Horse Dance, for example, the dancer wears the dummy figure of a horse on his hips so that it looks as though he is riding it and dances in wooden shoes that reproduce the sound of hoofbeats. "Learning how to express an animal through dance broadened my idea of what art is and what we define as expressive," says Kia King, an African-studies major at Colgate.

The schedule was intense and sometimes punishing. "Bharatanatyam is a very difficult art form, even for people who have been learning since they were 5 years old," says Aruna Subbiah, the students' instructor. "We package really intensive training in four months." Classes began at 5:30 a.m. and went on until 7 p.m., with only a few breaks. For several students, who chose to take more than the required course, the 14-hour days were nonstop.

"Twenty-one kids who have a restrictive pattern laid out for them, in their lush country-club campuses, with classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and getting drunk every Friday night, come here and experience a very different world from the one defined for them on campus," says Mr. Skelton. "They don't turn into Indologists, but they certainly become India-lovers. They come away with feeling, 'OK, I won't become a pot dancer, but I actually learned it and did it!' and no experience can top that.''

Tsültrim Davis, a religious-studies and theater major at Wesleyan University, who plays the title role of Keechaka with infectious energy, believes the study group offers students a remarkable opportunity. "Learning these arts was difficult, sure, but it was amazing because I've never seen anything like them," he says. "Combining balance and agility while maintaining the right footwork for so many of the things we learned — pot dancing, horse dancing, peacock dancing, all of them — was tough."

Learning From Masters

One of the reasons the program is so successful is that students learn from the best teachers in the field. They attend recitals by top artists, a specially created lecture series, and, most importantly, take four field trips to study and learn to perform folk arts. For the most part, small groups of students — sometimes even a single student — work with a teacher, or guru. At first several students found this traditional guru-shishya style hard to adapt to. "It is a lot more personal that what we are used to," says Mr. Davis. "We are very close to the teachers and it can be a bit strange at first because of the age gap, but you realize you learn so much from this style of teaching."

"I am a music major and interested in non-Western music," says Ms. Job, a junior at Colgate. "After almost three years of university, Western music just wasn't resonating with me. I got introduced to West African music, which I loved, and then I heard Panjabi MC and thought, man, I would really like to sing like that. It was so different, the cadences, the tones," says Ms. Job, referring to vocals by Labh Janjua that the British-Asian producer Panjabi MC included in a track titled "Mundian To Bach Ke." (The song captured the imagination of music fans worldwide after it was released in 2003 as "Beware" with guest rapping by American hip-hop artist Jay-Z.)

After Ms. Job arrived in southern India she realized that Mr. Janjua and Panjabi MC were just the tip of the iceberg. "There are so many languages. So many different styles of music and dance, too," she says, adding that apart from the music, she especially loved bharatanatyam. "But I also loved yoga and therukoothu and all the other dances."

Choosing participants from all fields of academe is extremely important to Mr. Skelton, who rigorously screens all applicants. "The first to be thrown out are the trekkers," he says. "Everyone thinks they can go trekking and find things out for themselves. I think they can't." Mr. Skelton also eliminates students who say they want to come to India for a spiritual experience. "That is such a cliché, and we are not about walking down the street chanting," he says.

Paul Yannopoulos, a religious-studies major at Colgate who says studying Eastern religion here "demystified it," liked the rigor of the program. "I did not want to do a typical Europe trip — where more drinking is done than learning — that so many students do," he says. "I wanted to be tested, I wanted something more different and more challenging than I was used to and I got it."

The program also has an effect on the traditional performers who coach the students, acting as their gurus. Mr. Thambirar, the therukoothu master, thinks it is brilliant. "This is the second time I'm teaching the group, and I am thrilled that we teach Americans our ancient art form and they go back to America and tell people about it," he says after the night's performance, as his assistants struggle to get the students to sit still long enough to have their makeup removed.

He has made at least one convert. In one corner of the room, Ms. Job sits cross-legged on the floor, while one of the Indian artists cleans her face. "How do you sing this again?" she asks in a combination of Tamil and English. Two of Mr. Thambirar's delighted assistants sing the phrase for her, and she sings it back again, a piece of living culture that is now bound to cross the sea.

India Moves to Control Campus Politics

By Shailaja Neelakantan

(Chronicle of Higher Education cover-dated February 10, 2006)

Concerned about the increase in violence in student elections at Indian universities, the government formed a committee in January to bring order to the chaotic process.

James Michael Lyngdoh, a former chief election commissioner of India, will lead the committee, which was created in response to a Supreme Court order in December striking down a lower-court ruling that forbade universities in the State of Kerala to direct the way in which students are elected to college unions, as student governments are called in India.

"It needs no emphasis that while making the recommendations, the committee shall also focus on the need to ensure that undesirable elements do not enter into the unions," the order said.

Throughout India, student elections are seen as steppingstones to national politics, and therefore as a route to wealth and power. But over the past two decades, campus politics have been beset with violence, intimidation, and corruption. Clashes among student groups, and even murders, have become commonplace during election season.

The six-member committee will investigate concerns about criminal activities during the election process, student-campaign financing, and candidates' eligibility criteria. The committee will also set up a forum to resolve disputes about procedural fairness and violations of election rules.

While some universities have banned student elections or tried to do so, some academics say that goes too far. "We must not throw the baby out with the bath water," said Anand Kumar, a former student leader who is a professor of political sociology at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

He welcomed the creation of the committee. "Student elections are a good way to educate the youth on the art and science of elected representation," Mr. Kumar said. "But the process is getting more and more polluted with the engagement of money and muscle power."

The committee is to make its recommendations by May.

"There has to be a balance between the clear need for student representation and the discretion that university authorities should be allowed to exercise in the conduct of elections," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of India's Centre for Policy Research, a public-policy group, who is a committee member.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

even i was surprised...

According to the Indian Express and the Institute of Road Traffic Education’s Center for Analysis & Research in Road Safety, a stunning 110 million traffic violations occur in Delhi EVERY DAY. I know my driving has acquired some desi characteristics, maybe 1 or 2 violations a day worth, but 100 million! Another disturbing thought: Some 45% of those driving at night are under the influence.

At 110 million per day, that's about 10 violations per person and about 30 violations per vehicle every day. Now, assuming that SOME people actually follow the rules most of the time, that has to mean that there are others who are committing like a thousand infractions per day, right? What about the people who make a single trip to work and a single trip home? Does that mean over their five kilometer commute they're running five red lights, making five illegal u-turns and going the wrong way down five one way streets?

If this is true, why don't I see more pile-ups?

Friday, February 03, 2006


Keeping with the boozehound theme, travelers may want to check out, a relatively new site dedicated to boozing it up in India. Unfortunately, their bar reviews are a bit weak, if the cities I know best are any indicator. For my home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, the only bar listed is a lame-ass, fake-Irish joint called Connor O'Neills that is only rivaled by airport drinking holes for lameness.

Readers of delhibelly need to descend on this site and swamp it with intelligent reviews -- for the good of Indians (and PIO cardholders) everywhere!

india's new best beer

Germany's Kaltenberg - now available in fine Delhi booze shops at Rs. 40 per 650 ml bottle - has edged out Kingfisher 330 ml as the cheapest best beer on the market in Delhi. (See earlier post for discussion of mystery of why chhota Kingfisher tastes better than the big bottles).

If you can't find it in your liquor shop, the outfit in GKII M block stocks Kaltenberg. Why do I like it so much? No weird honey flavor like the preservative-laced Castle, Kingfisher and Foster's big bottles, without the inconvenience of having to open all those tiny 12 ouncers.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

class 5

I keep reviewing the Asian Age's "test yourself" section, designed to help schoolkids study for the Class 10-12 exams, and I have to say we need look no further to explain India's superiority to the US, UK & Europe in math and science. I was one of the (relatively) rare US students who pushed through trigonometry & calculus in high school and even foolishly took a semester of calc in college, and I have yet to find a problem in the Age that I can handle. OK, it HAS been 15 years since I did any more complex operation than figuring an average or percentage, but still....