Report from the center of India

Hello all,

Anjali and I have been spending our last couple days in the dead center of India: Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.  This is where Anjali’s maternal grandmother and uncles live, and a place that doesn’t receive many foreign visitors, unless they are on their way to the Kanha National Park wilderness preserve to see the tigers. We arrived on a sunny Christmas Eve, and before long were sharing a meal with her grandmother and her uncle Ajit at the historic family home.  Later in the evening we met up with Anjali’s uncle Suresh and his wife, daughter, and her boyfriend for some late evening socializing.  June Aunty served us amazing homemade non-alcholic ginger wine while we sat and chatted.  Exquisite.  Liquid ginger goodness.

Christmas day in Jabalpur was an absolutely unique experience.  Anjali’s Indian family converted to Christianity several generations back, so we went with her uncle to Christmas service and an early morning christening of one of distant infant relative at the Church of North India Diocese of Jabalpur.  In order to make the christening we were up with the dawn, which took some effort, since we hadn’t recovered from the poor quality sleep we got on the overnight train ride to Jabalpur the night before.  The father of the baptised infant is currently working in Dubai, and he came back with his family to christen the baby in his family home of Jabalpur.  He insisted we come to the christening reception that evening at the high-end Narmada Jacksons Hotel.  Well, if you insist.  He was a very sweet man.

We then met the priest, who proceeded swiftly to insist that Anjali’s mother needed to be sending money to the church every year in order to stay on the church rolls, and then he quickly excused himself.  Having been raised Christian, but having only attended three services in the last 18 years (all Christmas or Christmas Eve services, naturally), my brief meeting with the priest quickly reminded me of the standard priority of Christian churches, no matter what continent in which they operate.

The services were conducted in English, broadcast over a series of popping loudspeakers in a large and well-kept, high-ceilinged nave facing a wall of stained glass windows beyond the altar.  I appeared to be the only whitey in attendance, although there were some light-skinned Anglo-Indians at the service.  I recognized about half of the Christmas hymns, and the church organ provided a sense of childhood familiarity.  Having not attended a Christian service in a long time, I realized that it involves a lot of standing up and sitting down, and standing up and sitting down.  This happened hesitantly and in pockets, taking the whole congregation a while to figure out what they should be doing at any one moment.  The sermon involved a lot of references to terrorism and the Mumbai attacks, but I couldn’t make out a lot of what was said over the crackling, distorted loudspeakers.  There was a plaque in the church dedicated to Anjali’s grandfather Shamrao Hivale, and I took several pictures of her underneath it.  We ate freshly-fried bhajiyas and jaleebis that were being whipped up in vats of oil behind a food tent next to the church, while we were introduced to a sucession of Anjali’s distant relations.  Best after-church snacks ever, and good chai too.  We then picked up Anjali’s grandmother and visited Anjali’s grandfather’s grave, where she and her uncle placed flowers and lit candles.

We then went over to Suresh’s home for a Christmas meal of desi khanna, including Cherida’s “Himachal-style” fried bhindi and a bunch of homemade Christmas snacks including “grape wine,” “guava cheesse,” Christmas cake, and Christmas fudge. Later we went with Ajit and Ai (Anjali’s grandmother) to the Narmada Jacksons Hotel for the christening reception.  What a trip.  It was held in a two-roomed upper ballroom, where there were two Indian DJs playing awful ’80s American ballads, that were all hideous songs you don’t even remember until you hear them, to a room of well-dressed Indians and their many small children. There was a table of veg and non-veg snacks, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.  Many of Anjali’s relations trying to force alcohol on me, one after another.  I am not much of a drinker, but Anjali desperately wanted some whisky, so I got the drinks which she then surreptitiously drank.  At all the functions we have been at where alcohol is served, the men insist over and over that I drink, while no women are drinking, or even offered a drink, and Anjali felt that she was on the receiving end of scandalous glares when she would attempt to sneak sips from our tumbler.

Before dinner was served, and after I had eaten far too many paneer tikka kabobs, the DJs started blasting pounding Bollywood-house music over large speaker stacks facing a lit-up raised dance floor with changing colored lights.  I didn’t think anyone would dance, and after the music was turned louder and louder, adults joined the children already on the dance floor, and even Anjali and I went out to cut a rug.  A throng of young girls were the enthusiastic front line (“Pappu Can’t Dance” (Remix) was a favorite), but the best dancer was a stylish man with Down’s syndrome in a leather jacket who was graceful, enthusiastic, and loaded with moves.  A Gond (local tribal people) queen really threw herelf into the dance as well.  The DJs were awful, brutally crashing from one song to the next, usually only playing a few minutes, and transitioning awkwardly, heedless of tempo or song structure, often pulling a song in the middle of a chorus.  It was a familiar set of recent Bollywood hits, and one old pop bhangra nugget.  Many were songs I regularly play, so it was unique for me to be experiencing these songs on the dance floor, and not in the DJ booth.  The lit-up dance floor was cool, and fun to dance on.  Eventually people cleared the dance floor, except for a few of the young girls, and despite the fact that people were clearly done dancing and ready for dinner, the DJs just kept playing louder and louder pounding house music until Anjali complained on behalf of her grandmother, at which point the DJs returned to playing awful American ballads, many for the second time.

Dinner was finally served and the veg options were competent, if predictable, Punjabi standards such as mutter paneer, channa, and dal fry.  The deserts were the best: a very tasty gajar halwa (and I am not even much of a fan) and a desert called shahi tukra, which was sugar syrup-soaked sponge cakes with custard and silver leaf on top.  After many hours, we finally went home, close to midnight.  On boxing day we went with Anjali’s grandmother and uncle Ajit to the local tourist attractions.  Bheraghat, or Marble Rocks, is a gorge on the Narmada river of dramatic marble cliffs.  We went to the Dhuandhar, or Smoke Falls, so called because of the spray of mist that rises up from the crashing falls.  The place was mobbed with tourists, all Indian, except for myself.  The Narmada river is the third most sacred in India, according to Anjali’s uncle, and despite the fact that there were stands selling items for pooja (offering) and there were people bathing in the sacred waters, the place was covered in garbage everywhere I looked.  The place has become highly commercialized, and there is now a cable car going over the chasm, in addition to recently added paved walkways, to accompany the long-standing strip of vendors selling carved soapstone items, religious, secular, or blank, to be monogrammed with your name, or the name of someone you love.  The amount of garbage covering every inch of the place really detracted from the experience for me.  There was no viewpoint where you couldn’t see garbage in every nook and cranny, casually tossed over the side.

We then drove to and climbed the steps to the top of the high hill where the 10th century temple, Chausath Yogini Mandir sits.  The temple is lined by a circle of carvings of 64 Indian goddesses, all at least partly destroyed many centuries ago by conquering Muslims.  Here we saw our first white spiritual tourists.  They earnestly carried red velvet triangular pillows which they used to sit around the temple and meditate in the Lotus position.  The temple is currently active and worshipped at (I was offered prasad while I was there.), and there were signs of fresh offerings on the Shivalingams, but these spiritual tourists had a unique way of worshipping, which certainly didn’t resemble any spiritual practices of the locals.

Anjali and I then caught a rowboat stuffed with Indian families for a tour of the gorge.  Apparently the boats are designed for ten, but there were closer to thirty on our boat.  The sun set shortly before we got into the boat and as we were surrounded by mosquitos out on the water we realized we had not sprayed or prepared ourselves in any way for their onslaught.  Despite the fact that there were clouds of them hovering around our heads we somehow avoided getting bitten.  The tour of the gorge was narrated in a loud oratory in Hindi performed by one of the rowers. Among other things it consisted of a recounting of what rock had been used in which Bollywood film by which actors.  The crowd was highly amused, and their was frequent laughter, and much additional commentary from the Indian tourists,  but I only caught bits and pieces with my practically non-existent Hindi.

While we saw the occasional cow in Delhi, Jabalpur is overrun with them, although according to Anjali’s uncle they are not allowed in the city.  One night returning to our hotel we even saw three water buffalo resting on the side of the road.  We really stand out in Jabalpur, but since it is not a tourist town, we are harldy ever accosted by beggars.  We are here for another day, and then off to the hill station of Pachmari.  We thought we were picking a quiet out-of-the-way place for a mellow New Year’s Eve, only to discover that it is a highly popular spot for Indian tourists during the Christmas to New Year’s Eve period.  Accommodation costs go through the roof, and it gets very hard to find a room.  We opted not to change our plans, and had to advance a fabulous sum to a “resort” in the center of Pachmari town.  The rate includes all meals, so I hope fervently that they have a good cook.

Take care everyone!


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