Love in the Time of Malaria
Speech on Judaism and Social Justice

February 11, 2012

Beth Jacob Congregation

Oakland, CA

How do we define ourselves? When we peel away the superficial layers of job, money, and achievement, that most use to define us, what is left over? At the end of the day what have we done.

A wise man recounted to me part of his theory of human development saying that there a few pivotal points in life when we struggle with the question, “who am I?” It is at these points that we try to distinguish ourselves, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

The first of these major milestones is at age two, or as some of you may know it as the terrible twos. Until this age, the baby has been at the mercy of the parents, going along with whatever they want, no choice between carrots and peas, huggies or pampers. Yet, after those two years of willful subservience, the baby finally realizes there is a way to have some input into the decision making process. And that is by saying no. No this, no that. I don’t like the way the cream cheese is spread on my mini bagel? Forget it, on the ground. Mom wants me to take off my diaper before getting in the shower, no way, I’m all in. And so on and so forth. What we see, even at such a young age, is the desire to create an identity.

The next, as you probably guessed, is during those tween years. Funny how similar the tactics are at this age and at age two, but this stage is characterized by doing the opposite of what the parents want. Maybe a piercing here, some dyed hair there. Just some concrete way of differentiation. Yet it’s still difficult while under the iron fist of your parents to truly establish an identity, which is why it is often the aesthetics, the one thing one can control, as the medium of expression. Nothing says I’m different than my lawyer-mom and my doctor-dad like torn pants and orange hair.

Then we come to the early twenties. College is just finishing up, parental control is waning, and what seems like a momentous decision is upon you. Now its time to start living your life. Instead of the sweet freedom of college, your responsibilities are catching up with your liberties. What job to choose? What people to befriend? Where to live? What to eat? Where to buy? With what money? This is a time of confusion and potentially, anxiety.

The next point is the midlife crisis. Looking back on your twenties, a glorious haze of youth, with your forties lying ahead resplendent in habits and routines. Again, who am i? Why did I choose this path? Am I happy? Can I make a change? Sometimes the outcome is a Porsche, sometimes it’s the secretary, hopefully it’s a renewed sense of satisfaction and motivation.

Then on to retirement. You have just spent the vast majority of your life dedicated to a job. Who am I? I’m a doctor? No, that was my job, I’m retired now. Who am I? A golfer? Really? What is my identity, where do I go from here? What impact have I made? Did I somehow foster some sort of change? Was it positive?

You may all be wondering where I am going with this. You are sitting there thinking that I was going to be talking about India, Judaism, and social justice. How does all this tie in?

First some background, then I’ll try to bring it all together. Some of you may know, possibly from my brief and unexpected 15 minutes of fame on the cover of the J, that I just lived for a year in Mumbai, India on a Fellowship through the American Jewish World Service. My desire to pursue a year of service in an international context lead me to apply for the Fellowship and, when I was accepted, take advantage of the opportunity.

With very little choice in the matter, and not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I hopped on a plane for India. For the first month, the eleven of us were cooped up in an ashram in the city if Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat. Fairly isolated from society, we went through a crash course on international development theory, sustainable development practices, AJWS’s mission, Indian culture and history, and most importantly, how to live respectfully as a foreigner. We were living in cement rooms with little squirrels running across the rafters, large ants crawling up the walls so that in order to avoid them falling on you, you had to pull your cot a foot away from the wall, we were inundated with mosquitoes, and for a “shower” or to go to the bathroom, you had to walk 50 yards to the outhouse to either squat over a hole or pour cold water over your head from a bucket.

This was a little trying at times, all of us getting sick at least once, and two of us landing in the hospital with dengue fever, but once we emerged from our month of boot-camp, we were culturally literate Jewish Americans, ready for anything India could throw at us, or so we thought. After that month we all went on to our placements, which ranged from training women in rural areas to be nurses, working in legal advocacy, supporting women’s financial independence through craft, setting up informal education facilities on construction sites, and more.

I went to work for Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust, an organization that works in harm reduction, outreach and rehabilitation of street-based drug-users. In other words, through programs like needle-syringe exchange, opioid substitution therapy, education, counseling, abscess management, rehabilitation, and detoxification, we worked to decrease the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and help homeless people use brown sugar (a crude form of heroine) in the safest way possible.

Most people don’t really understand why I would want to do this work, let alone move to India. Most visitors to India say one visit was more than enough. Most also think that I was crazy to work with homeless people, drug addicts, and HIV positive people. To be frank, it did not really matter to me what work I would be doing as long as I was working with an organization AJWS believed in as I truly believe in AJWS.

They are the only international development organization working to mobilize the Jewish community to take action against poverty and promote sustainable development around the world. They give grants to grassroots non-governmental organizations, or non-profits, that are tackling tough issues on the ground in the Global South, which includes South America, Asia, and Africa. They fund organizations started and run by local stakeholders for their own people.

Beyond grant-making, AJWS leads service trips for Jews of all ages to become actively involved in the development efforts. There is a lot of discussion weighing the pros and cons of such volunteerism, but at the end of the day, most people that participate in such trips are fundamentally and permanently changed. Putting a face to statistics and stories and interacting as equals with those that are less fortunate or have fewer opportunities, is strong motivation to contribute.

More profoundly, I think AJWS symbolizes a generational change in ideology. The younger generations are starting to see service less as charity and philanthropy and more as a way of life. No longer are they satisfied being on the sidelines of social change, they want to be actively involved.

Furthermore, the younger generations have witnessed the great successes of the post-war Jewish community truly come to fruition. Many Jews have been very generous within our community and will continue to be, but we also have to recognize the struggles and hardships of others living in this world. No longer can we really consider ourselves citizens of just one country or beholden to just one people. The interconnectedness of the global economy and the ease of communication and travel with places all over the world has truly turned us all into a global citizenry. 

Almost every Friday in Mumbai, I would leave work and make my way to Chabad. I would hang out with Rabbi Chanoch and his wife Leiky, help them set up for the meal, take a nap on the couch, enjoy the air-conditioning, sometimes go to shul for services, sometimes stay back and schmooze, and always enjoy a home-cooked Shabbat dinner. In the high season I met many great people from places like Australia, South Africa, Morocco, the UK, Israel, South America, and the US, most of whom were businessmen passing through, mostly dealing in diamonds, or Israeli backpackers. In the low season, it would be quiet and comfortable, like home, with the few of us that lived and worked in Mumbai. Most of us are still friends today.

In typical Chabad fashion, we would go around the table and tell our story. Me and another fellow who always came together to Chabad would tell our stories. Me of working in drug outreach and her of working on setting up schools on construction sites. People were always taken aback with the drastically different lifestyle we lead and the kind of work we were doing. Many would comment on how difficult it must be working with these people and how nice it was that we were taking time out of our lives for such charity work. They would then want to know when we would go on to “real” jobs.

I cringed every time I heard the people I worked with marginalized or the work I did described as charity. The people around the Shabbat table were good people, mostly, but they didn’t understand the idea of service work as a career or as anything more than a gap-year pursuit.

In the Torah we see that service and equality are very important. Genesis I: 27-28 tells us, “And G-d created human is G-d’s own image, Bzelem elohim, God created him; male and female G-d created them. And G-d blessed them; and G-d said to them ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that creeps on earth.”

Bzelem elohim teaches us that every human, regardless of race, religion, creed, color, or class is created in G-ds image and as such is truly holy and special. It emphasizes our responsibility to everyone in this world, and to the world itself, not just Am Yisrael.

We must also not forget about our own community. While I was in India, a group of us decided to take a trip for Passover. We ventured south to the state of Kerala, one of the most magnificent places I have ever been, while at the same time one of the most perplexing as a Jew. Over about a week we traveled on trains and rickety buses to soaring tea plantations in Munar, to lounging on a houseboat in the backwaters of Allepy, to the beautiful cliff sides and beaches of Varkala, to the magnificent spices and history of Kochin.

Let me read you some excerpts from my blog:

Arrangements had been made to stay in a guesthouse perched on a cliff overlooking the beach and to use the kitchen to cook ourselves a wonderful Passover seder. Due to logistical issues our seder didn’t actually fall on the first night of the holiday, but lets be real, it’s the thought that counts.

We explored the Euro-geared, stereotypically lazy beachside haunts of small restaurants showing off the catches of the day and the just-in-season mangoes, tourist shops selling all kinds of junk, and imported cigarettes to satisfy the European tourists. The very foreign feeling of vacation finally set in and, boy, did it feel good.

We three guys were tasked with getting all the provisions to prepare the Passover meal in anticipation of a group cooking session that evening. We picked up most of what we needed for our meal at a small store, but the mango selection was sub-par and we needed to find fresh fish somewhere too. All of the sudden I see a local we befriended at breakfast walk in the store. We schmoozed a bit, telling him about our mission, and he said he would be happy to drive us to the local fish market. I jumped on the opportunity to get the local experience of Varkala (and get what we needed for dinner) and before we knew it we were at the market surrounded by women sitting around on cement platforms displaying the catches the fisherman had just brought in – shark, snapper, and some other unidentifiables. All were eager to show you the fish’s eyes and the gills to prove theirs were the freshest. I did some requisite haggling and procured four lovely pomfrets, a delicate Indian white fish. Coincidentally, the fish market also doubled as a mango market, so I picked up about a dozen ripe mangoes for 80 rupees – or a little less than two bucks.

After getting back we sat in the girls’ room delegating responsibilities and watching as a torrential monsoon rain took over the outside world. It was so cozy, so comfortable, so peaceful. Of course, we lost power almost immediately. No matter; we went downstairs to man our stations, and asked the owner of the place for some candles to supplement the headlamps some of us sported. We set up some in the kitchen, and some in the room where the stove was, about 20 meters across the yard. We did all the prep in one room and danced across the yard in the pouring rain to fire everything that had to hit the stove.

We all worked together to cook a wonderful, though untraditional meal, and even a Sephardic/Ashkenazi charoset with some cheap port wine we bought for the Seder, walnuts, apples, and dates. We put together a makeshift seder plate with an egg, a ginger root, some cilantro, a potato, and an orange – a tribute to the feminist side of Judaism.

Dinner ready, we sat down with the hagadot (prayer book for Passover) provided by AJWS and got to telling the story, singing the songs, drinking the wine, and leaning in our chairs. It was a lovely Keralite seder, somewhat abridged, with an gourmet meal to boot. Moses would have been proud.

This was one of the most beautiful seders I have ever had. Maybe we didn’t follow all the rules, but we had more spirit and soul and holiness there then I have ever felt. We all worked together peacefully to make things work in the environment we were in.

Later on in our trip we encountered the Jewish community of Cochin, a communith that has struggled to cooperate and work together for centuries.

Some of you may know about the KEralite Jews, but, I think, few of you probably know about all the drama that led to its demise. Throughout my trip in Kerala I was reading The Last Jews of Kerala by Edna Fernandes, a detailed account of how the Jewish community in Kerala dwindled, over thousands of years, from a thriving population to a one of no more than thirty, ninety percent of which are over eighty years old. Fernandes, the author, spent a considerable amount of time researching the Keralite Jews and their history, immersing herself in the communities, and getting to know the different characters within them.

I’ll give you a basic overview of how the story goes. About 2000 years ago traders from the Israel left to explore the vast oceans in search of treasures to supply Solomon’s Temple and the holy city of Jerusalem. They happened on Cochin with its fragrant spices and wealth of goods and established themselves there creating a trade route. Those Jews that stayed behind to handle business laid the groundwork for a thriving Jewish community. Over the centuries these Jews retained their Jewish customs, while inevitably inheriting some of the local ones as well, a healthy symbiosis experienced by all Jewish communities in the Diaspora. They became know as the Malabar Jews, or the Black Jews, and exist to this day with their own synagogues and traditions.

A wrinkle was added to the fabric of Jewish society when a new wave of Jews migrated from Europe, fleeing the inquisition in the 15th century. These Jews made it down to Kerala and subsequently started their own community. As these Jews were European and relatively light in complexion compared to the locals, they became known as the White Jews, or Paradesi Jews. The coming of the White Jews ushered in almost 5 centuries of contention within the Jewish community and the eventual demise of the communities.

With the arrival of the Portuguese and their subsequent rule of the area through the 16th century, the Keralite Jewry encountered another brush with the Catholic Church’s Inquisition policies. One would think that such persecution from outsiders would encourage the Malabari and Paradesi Jews to unite, but throughout their history together, the White Jews regarded the Black Jews as inferior and second class. The Black Jews were not allowed in the synagogues of the Whites and intermarriage was unfathomable. After intense lobbying with the support of foreign Jewish leaders and select individuals within the White Jewish Community, the Black Jews were eventually granted access to the sole functioning Paradesi Synagogue, yet their access was relegated to the floor of the anteroom.

Both the Paradesi and Malabari populations slowly dwindled as marriage prospects decreased. The specter of extinction made a slow and subtle approach, and now, its rule is nearly sealed. Had the communities allowed themselves to interact and intermarry, the Jewish community in Kerala would likely be thriving today.

I wanted to explore and understand the Jewish community in Kochi. Walking down Synagogue Lane in Jew Town (yes, real names) I looked left and right and saw the homes of Jews described to me in my book. Waiting outside the synagogue the Chabad Rabbi I came with realized that we were just short of a minyan, so he ran out to rally some of the old Jewish men from the community, which I was told would be a very difficult feat – the Jews there had, over the years, receded into their cavernous homes, weary of venturing out. He came back with one man in his eighties, whom I recognized from my book as the most open-minded of the Paradesi Jews, son of a man who fought for the rights of the Malabari Jews. I was pretty excited to be putting a face to a character I had only read about. Speaking with him after kabbalat Shabbat I was surprised to hear him lament the fact that his father had the potential to reach the highest levels in government, but instead devoted himself to the plight of the Malabari Jews.

After the services, the Rabbi let me know that he was going to stop by the houses of the local Jews on the way back to Chabad for dinner. Of all the Malabari Jews that once existed there are now a total of about ten, all of whom live on Synagogue Lane. I tagged along with the Rabbi to meet a woman named Sarah. Fairly ill and weak, and in her upper eighties, life seemed to have left a bitter taste in her mouth. We quickly moved on to another home, across the street, up some stairs to the residence of the Hallegua family, once pillars of the community, of which only the matriarch remains. We were greeted by amazingly high ceilings and what used to be a very opulent home, now riddled with obvious signs of age and decay, much like the community itself. I found out that the predominantly Muslim and Kashmiri servants of the Jews were just waiting for their employers to die so they could assume control and ownership of their lavish homes. How could it come to this.

I found Ms. Hallegua with two other ladies of the community sitting around a table in the living room. She very graciously invited us in, giving us kosher for Passover snacks and wine. It was somewhat bizarre to be meeting these people I already knew so much about from the pages of my book. Nevertheless, it felt very important to be meeting the last Jews of Kerala. I tried to bring up the book with Ms. Hallegua, but one mention of the title send her on an angry rant, obviously discontented with her family’s and the Paradesi’s portrayal in the book. I left it alone and enjoyed hearing her fascinating stories.

Afterward, I could not help but relive the experience in my mind and think about how surreal it was to have just met all these Kochini Jews. All of them being so old, it wont be long until the community is extinct, their existence relegated to the extensive cannon of Jewish history. It was a special experience that I realize will never happen again.

We should all mourn the loss of another Jewish community, with their beautiful customs and traditions, but this should also serve as a lesson to all Jews, and all people, that nothing good can come of discrimination and exclusion. 

I recounted this story more extensively and with more frustration in my blog shortly after the experience. I found it just really sad that sometimes we can get so caught up in the politics that we lose sight of what’s really important. Nevertheless, lets continue with some Talmud.

The Talmud emphasizes the value of a single life. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:22, “For this reason, the first human being was created alone in the world to teach that all who destroy a single life are as though they destroyed an entire universe, and those who save a single life are as if they had saved an entire universe. Furthermore, [the first human was created alone] for the sake of peace among people, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours…’ [Yet another reason] was to proclaim the greatness of the supreme Sovereign of sovereigns, blessed be he, for when a human being strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the supreme Sovereign of sovereigns, the Holy one, fashioned every person in the stamp of the first human, and yet not one of them resembles another. For this reason, every human being is obligated to say, ‘For my sake, the world was created.’”

Unlike coins, every human is unique and our vast population is very diverse. We are intelligent, and able to discern one person from another, but at the same time must realize that we are cast from the same mold of potential yet raised with different access to opportunities. Many of us were lucky to have been provided opportunities to excel and achieve, but this means that we have the added responsibility of helping those who are less fortunate. We cannot assign more importance to one than the other and so we must have a broader and more global perspective. This excerpt shows how much importance and attention Judaism gives to caring for others.

In Rambam’s Mishna Torah, he organizes tzedakah into an 8-level hierarchy. It cant be just coincidence that his highest and most honorable form of tzedakah is consistent with the sustainable development theory practiced by non-profit organizations all around the world. He said, “The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.” Who knew that Rambam was the brains behind micro-lending? Our sages could have passed over issues like these, but they recognized the moral fiber flowing through Judaism, and therefore, the responsibility we have to our fellow man.

The Torah teaches, “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).  Rambam declared, “We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the obligation to pursue justice than any other obligation, because the pursuit of justice is the sign of a righteous person.”

This mandate for the pursuit of justice, as well as the idea of bzelem elohim puts much responsibility on the Jewish people. The injustices of the world may not be our fault, but the Torah and our ancient Talmudic scholars tell us that is indeed our responsibility to do something about it. The Jewish vision of tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” is paramount to this ideal. According to the Talmud Sanhedrin 37a, Tikkun olam envisages improving the world until all its inhabitants sustain three basic dignities: infinite value, equality, and uniqueness. As Jews, we must do what we can to elicit change in the world politically, economically, socially, and culturally until these qualities have been achieved by all.

 

It s not always easy and the path is often laden with stumbling blocks and frustrations. I encountered these almost every day at my work.

 

Working at Sankalp, every day presented its own unique challenge. Ill tell you a story about someone named Mahadev. Mahadev began coming to one of our drop-in centers for the nutrition program where, for a small sum of money, we provide meals to the homeless. We don’t charge to make money, but to make sure our clients are invested in their own recovery. Mahadev had contracted HIV from sharing needles, so we convinced him to participate in the needle and syringe exchange program as well so that he didn’t pass the virus on to others. Eventually, through daily group and individual counseling, he started on opioid substitution therapy; a daily medication which curbs the desire to use heroine. After many months he decided to quit using altogether and went through our detoxification and rehabilitation programs. Once he was fully off the drugs, he really came into his personality and showed lots of potential for success. He was chosen to participate in our sustainable livelihood program, which teaches rehabilitated clients how to do data entry so they have a marketable skill.

 

Over about 8 months me and Mahadev had become good friends as I saw him every day. He was also a role model to other drug users currently in the throws of addiction and withdrawal. Then, one day I came in to work and Mahadev wasn’t there. I though maybe he had gone for a home visit. Because it’s a residential training program the clients are encouraged to visit their families every once in a while, if they have families. I soon found out from our outreach workers, who go out into the community daily, that Mahadev had relapsed. After more than a year of sobriety and so much progress he had relapsed. But that wasn’t even the hardest part. A couple of days later Mahadev came back in to our center, lead by his mother. Totally emaciated, looking like a skeleton, eyes glazed over I approached him to see how he was. He stared at me blankly with absolutely no idea who I was. After just a few days of using he was back to square one. And this happens 95% of the time.

 

But then we have stories like Yatin. At 15 years old he was using brown sugar, scrounging for food from the trash, living on the streets, begging and stealing for money. Our outreach workers found him nearly dead, lying by a dumpster. After nursing him back to health, Yatin realized that this path was not what he was meant for. He had dreams that were a far cry from homelessness and drug addiction. Also progressing through Sankalp’s continuum of treatment, he ended up becoming one of the first graduates of the data entry program. He was so successful that he then enrolled in college and found the time to teach the data entry program to subsequent cohorts. But his real dream was to become a DJ. After graduating from college the Director of Sankalp helped him pay for a DJ course. Despite being on the brink of death, he made the decisions allowing him to follow his dreams. He was one of my best friends in India and we still speak to this day.

 

Tikkun olam is tough. Frustration abounds but there are always those experiences that keep us motivated. And it is those that keep you from losing faith and giving up. The Jewish concept of gemilut chassadim, is often translated as “acts of loving kindness.” But it really means more than that. To take from some teachings of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, gemilut chassadim really means to service or help another with your own life or time. The Talmud reinforces this point by stating that tzedakah is giving ones money but gemilut chassadim is ones life as well.

 

It inspires me when I look around me and I see young people truly internalizing both tzedakah and gemilut chassadim like David Taragin organizing fundraisers for underprivileged youth and the elderly or Yonah Tor volunteering for a summer with AJWS in Ghana. What drives these young people to do such things? Maybe it’s their parents. Maybe it’s the values Judaism teaches us. Probably both. 

 

Sometimes the inspiration comes later and unexpectedly. My administrative officer from my organization is India started his life out very differently. At a young age he went to work in the Emirates where he stayed, away from his family, for over 2 decades. Eventually, he retuned to Mumbai. One day, walking from his job to the train station he passed by one of Sankalp’s drop-in centers. With a passing glance his life changed forever. He saw his younger brother who he hadn’t seen for years, sitting on the ground, dirty and disheveled, with his legs covered in abscesses. He wondered why he was there, what had happened. He then found out that Sankalp was caring for his brother, and all these societal outcasts, and immediately quit his job and went to work for Sankalp, a decision he has never regretted.

 

We never know where life will take us, but let me quote something one of my best friends said to me over drinks the other night: “Regret is more likely to result from inaction than from action.” Said with little hesitation, I found her thought to be incredibly insightful and something I have ruminated on ever since. We must always try.

Allow me to conclude with an excerpt from the New York Times. Editorialist David Brooks asked readers over age 70 to send in little essays in which they were to evaluate their own lives. This one seemed especially pertinent. Submitted by a man who spent the majority of his life as a journalist only to change professions late and become embroiled in politics.

“All of this could have been avoided if I had simply settled into retirement at age 67 and do what most people my age do: play golf, travel, dote on grandchildren, watch daytime TV, catch early-bird specials, and wait for the Grim Reaper. But I am not cut out for retirement; my roots compel me to stay actively involved in the world around me until I am physically unable to do so. My only regret is that I didn’t do this earlier. If only I had run for office, if only I had gotten on the management track, if only I had pursued another career, when I was younger.

But I was not a risk-taker; I played it safe. Now, as I watch the calendar pages flip ever faster to my official life expectancy of 77.6, I wish I could roll back the clock 20 years. Thinking of the exciting challenges of the last four years, I can only wonder how my life would have turned out if I had taken these chances in my 50s. Not that I’m unhappy at how it turned out; it’s just wistful thinking about what might have been.

So I am certainly urging my grandchildren – or anyone who else who might ask an old guy like me – to take chances while they’re young. Go for the audacious goal. Seek out adventure. You can have a good life playing it safe, as I have. But if you want real challenge, real opportunity, create it for yourself.”

We have circled all the way back to where we started. Last year I was working with drug addicts, spending 4 dollars a day on food, sleeping on the ground, and bathing out of a bucket. Now, I am confused every night when I get into my large, comfortable bed. I am at a place where I am trying to figure out who I am and where I’m going. I will define myself by the decisions I make or those I choose not to.

Hopefully, by my midlife crisis I’ll be able to look back on the 25 year old version of myself and be happy with where I have gone, what I have done, and the identity I have fostered. More importantly, I will look at where the world has gone and what has transpired and, hopefully, see progress. We are all relatively close to one of these pivotal moments in life where we question our identities, and I encourage us all to internalize the lessons of Judaism and take a long, honest look at where the world is today and what role we want to play in where it’s going.

Shabbat Shalom.

All Good Things Must Come To An End

Looking out over the lush mountainsides as a smooth drizzle coats the city in fresh sustenance I cannot help but to compare it all to India. I guess that for a while comparison to the life I led this year will be an inevitability. Yet, as my glance slowly drifts downwards from the arboreal hills, there is a stark yet somehow seamless intrusion of the ultra-modern Guggenheim Museum and a red art-deco bridge. Adding to my total confusion, I find myself sitting on the terrace of a lovely hotel while enjoying an elaborate breakfast after sleeping in a comfortable bed and taking a hot shower. You could call the feeling overwhelming, but frankly, there is really no way to describe it.

Leaving India for the first time in a year, everything I’ve seen since taking off from Mumbai has been shocking. I was not really sure how it was going to affect me, usually my transitions from living abroad are fairly smooth, but it all hit me as I walked through the terminal at London Heathrow before my flight. First, it was over a morning coffee that cost me five times what I would have paid in India. I was carefully, with an attempt at subtlety, observing a large British-Indian family. All I wanted to do was relate my experience living in India, and find some commonality between us, but it became apparent that most of them had not even been there. I heard one of the youngsters say, “Ha, she wants to go to India,” in a mocking tone to what seemed to be her older sister. Although I was used to the color of their skin, it saddened me somewhat that I would not be able to bond with them about my life in their native place. But who was I to judge? As Americans, we are surrounded by people of all colors and ethnicities, many of whom have never been to their “native places.” And who was I? Some white boy from a mutt-ish background professing, in my own head thankfully, to know more about the heritage of these Indians in front of me than themselves. I have acquired a slight sense of superiority that I have to keep under wraps.

It really hit me, like really, as I walked through the huge terminal surrounded by all kinds of restaurants and beautiful and luxurious stores. Everything was orderly and clean. I listened to all the different languages, took in the diversity of people, and looked in awe at a box of sushi. In the hour or so of observation I might have blinked once, maybe twice; mouth perpetually agape. After grabbing a pint of Guiness (dark beer!), I headed to the gate.

Now here I am in Bilbao, ready to kick off a 3-week tour across the north of Spain and Western France with my parents. Besides a lovely time, this trip will be like a buffer zone between the amazing life I lead in India, and the comparatively calm and routine life I will begin in the United States of America. I’m not complaining; it was time to move on, but it was not easy leave.

Over the next few months I will be seeking closure to the most unique experience I have ever had. Trying to figure out what happened and digest it, weaving it into the patchwork quilt of my being. I will never forget this year, the relationships, the work, the sights, smells, and often-overcrowded vistas. It’s time now - well after some fun-filled transition time - to begin the next phase of life. Although I have just left behind one beautiful experience – something that will always remain ingrained in me – I cannot help but start thinking about what lies in my future. Luckily, the world out there is vast and complicated and I will not be able to stop until I’ve seen it all. Life only gives me hope for more of it, and I thank my parents for the way I was raised and the opportunities they gave me (and allowed me to take). It’s a big world out there and the more we see the more perspective we get, and I’m looking for it all – one step at a time.

Jews in India: A Passover case study.

April 16-23, 2011

Varkala/Alleppey/Kochi/Munnar; Kerala, India

Where in the world is there a region with a literacy rate in the mid-nineties, lush greenery, beautiful beaches, relaxing backwaters, mountains covered in tea plantations, an impressive prevalence of English proficiency, a ruling communist party, and a Jewish population dating back to the time of Solomon’s temple? Ummhmm, I’ll wait. The place is Kerala, a state located on the southeastern coast of India, where me and six of my AJWS Fellows convened to celebrate the Exodus of the Jews from from the tyrannical grip of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

In a time when much of the Middle East is undergoing a political and social renaissance and neo-“Pharaohs” are using the only means they know – violence and despotism - to withhold their people’s right to live freely and fairly, the story of past persecution of the Jews does not feel so distant. We relive the experience every year as Jews all around the world recline, drink wine, and tell the story of how we escaped the clutches of slavery. Not bad. Wine, relaxation, story telling, mazto ball soup; Ill take charoset and matzo instead of mortar and bricks any day. Indeed, the Jews have come a long way. Nevertheless, all over the world, and most overtly in places like Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya we see murder, marginalization, and repression. Not only do we have to remember our story, but as Jews, who still know discrimination to this day, it is our responsibility– our mandate – to keep in mind all the others who are still struggling for freedom and still waiting for their respective iteration of Passover where they can drink some wine and reflect on the horrific injustices that plagued their ancestors. B’tselem elohim: we are all made in God’s image and even when it seems irrational or unfair, we cannot overlook the plight of others.

Now that I, as usual, have succumbed to a tangential rant I can proceed with what transpired in Kerala. So, the seven of us each had our own personal Exodus either from the deserts of Gujarat or the über-humid, polluted, and crowded Maharashtra and ended up in the promised land, Kerala - a place I did not know could even exist in India. We arrived in Kochi and after a brief night stay in Kochi (formerly Cochin), we hopped an early-morning train to Varkala, a lazy beach town. Watching the sunrise beyond the tropical landscape through the windows of the train was a romantic beginning. We sat surrounded by men dressed in lunghis, a long cloth wrapped around the waist like a towel typical of India’s South, and totally failed to blend in – being the only foreigners. I called over a man hawking medhu wada, fried doughnut-shaped dumplings made of pulses and rice flour. Content I was, eating the savory fried dumplings with creamy fresh coconut chutney – my first taste of South Indian food, in South India.

Arrangements had been made to stay in a guesthouse perched on a cliff overlooking the beach and to use the kitchen to cook ourselves a wonderful Passover seder. Due to logistical issues our seder didn’t actually fall on the first night of the holiday, but lets be real, it’s the thought that counts.

We explored the Euro-geared, stereotypically lazy beachside haunts of small restaurants showing off the catches of the day and the just-in-season mangoes, tourist shops selling all kinds of junk, and imported cigarettes to satisfy the European tourists. The very foreign feeling of vacation finally set in and, boy, did it feel good.

We three guys were tasked with getting all the provisions to prepare the Passover meal in anticipation of a group cooking session that evening. At a local purveyor we picked up most of what we needed for our meal, but the mango selection was sub-par and we needed to find fresh fish somewhere too. All of the sudden I see a local guy walk in the store who we had befriended at breakfast time. We schmoozed a bit, telling him about our mission, and he said he would be happy to take us to the local fish market in his (air conditioned!) car. I jumped on the opportunity to get the local experience of Varkala (and get what we needed for dinner) and before we knew it we were at the local fish-market surrounded by women sitting around on cement platforms displaying the catches the fisherman had just brought in – shark, prawns, snapper, and other unidentifiables. All were eager to show you the fish’s eyes and the gills, each claiming theirs were the freshest. I did some requisite haggling and procured four lovely pomfrets, a delicate Indian white fish. Coincidentally, the fish market also doubled as a mango market, so I picked up about a dozen ripe mangoes for 80 rupees – or a little less than two bucks.

Our new Indian friend then drove us back to our guesthouse where we unloaded the spoils of our adventure and went down to the beach where the ladies were already enjoying the sand and the sea. There is nothing like the beach to take the edge off city life. After some good rest and relaxation, I realized that we forgot an essential ingredient to our feast – cooking oil. I decided I would take some alone time to go buy it, all set to reconvene later at the house to cook. On my way, sporting nothing but some basketball shorts that I use as a bathing suit, I ran into my friend from before who then offered to drive me to the store, I tried to refuse, but in traditional Indian fashion, he did not take ‘no’ for an answer. I obliged, picked up my oil from the store, and walked back. Carrying my oil, checking out the Communist government’s hammers and sickles painted on walls everywhere, a tropical afternoon rain began to fall. Walking between the beautiful greenery and communist propaganda with the rain cleansing my body, I knew this was going to be an amazing trip. I was at ease. It’s the little things that really make you feel good.

Getting back to our house we set a game plan for meal and seder preparations. Sitting in the girls’ room we delegated responsibilities and watched as a torrential monsoon rain took over the outside world. It was so cozy, so comfortable, so peaceful. Of course, we lost power almost immediately. No matter; we went downstairs to man our stations, and asked the owner of the place for some candles to supplement the headlamps some of us sported. We set up some in the kitchen, and some in the room where the stove was, about 20 meters across the yard. We did all the prep in one room and danced across the yard in the pouring rain to fire everything that had to hit the stove.

Pomfret was filleted and fried; mangoes were cut to make a luscious salsa with chilies, cilantro, and lime; quinoa (from a package received from the US) was cooked and tossed with caramelized onions, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and a lime vinaigrette; and a Sephardic/Ashkenazi charoset was made with some cheap port wine we procured for the Seder, walnuts (also from the US), apples, and dates. We put together a makeshift seder plate with an egg, a ginger root, some cilantro, a potato, and an orange – a tribute to the feminist side of Judaism.

Dinner ready, we sat down with the hagadot (prayer book for Passover) provided by AJWS and got to telling the story, singing the songs, drinking the wine, and leaning in our chairs. It was a lovely Keralite seder, somewhat abridged, with an gourmet meal to boot. Moses would have been proud.

In an effort to avoid retelling everything we did (which I think I have failed at so far) and avoid writing a novel of a blog-post, I will skip to another anecdote from the Kerala trip that keeps along with the theme of Judaism.

After Varkala, we lazed about on a houseboat coasting along the backwaters of Alleppey, magnificent. Now lets move on to Kochi, formerly known as Cochin. Some of you may know about the Indian Jewish community of Cochin, but, I think, few of you probably know about all the drama that led to its demise. Throughout my trip I was reading The Last Jews of Kerala by Edna Fernandes, a detailed account of how the Jewish community in Kerala dwindled, over thousands of years, from a thriving population to a one of no more than thirty, ninety percent of which are over eighty years old. Fernandes, the author, spent a considerable amount of time researching the Keralite Jews and their history, immersing herself in the communities, and getting to know the different characters within them.

I’ll give you a basic overview of how the story goes. About 2000 years ago traders from the land of Israel left to explore the vast oceans in search of treasures to supply Solomon’s Temple and the holy city of Jerusalem. They happened on Cochin with its fragrant spices and wealth of goods and established themselves there creating a trade route. Those Jews that stayed behind to handle business laid the groundwork for a thriving Jewish community. Over the centuries these Jews retained their Jewish customs, while inevitably inheriting some of the local ones as well, a healthy symbiosis experienced by all Jewish communities in the Diapora. They became know as the Malabar Jews, or the Black Jews, and exist to this day with their own synagogues and traditions across the water from Kochi (an island) in Ernakulam.

A wrinkle was added to the fabric of Jewish society in Cochin when a new wave of Jews migrated from Europe, fleeing the inquisition in the 15th century. These Jews made it down to Kerala and subsequently started their own community. Driven out of Cranganore, the first place they settled, by the Muslims of Calicut, they moved south to settle permanently in Cochin. As these Jews were European and relatively light in complexion compared to the locals, they became known as the White Jews, or Paradesi Jews. The coming of the White Jews ushered in almost 5 centuries of racism within the Jewish community and the eventual demise of the communities.

It is unfair to only paint a picture of discrimination and intolerance in the Jewish communities Kerala Cochin. The Jews became leaders of business and industry, creating very comfortable lives for themselves. Owning property, partaking in the extensive trade in spices, especially pepper, and forging important relationships with the Indian rulers allowed them to excel and achieve a very high status within society. It is said that in the 4th century, a Jewish leader named Joseph Rabban was appointed by the Hindu King as Prince of the Cochini Jews. This fruitful relationship moved the King to grant the Jews freedom of religion in perpetuity.

With the arrival of the Portuguese and their subsequent rule of the area through the 16th century, the Keralite Jewry encountered another brush with the Catholic Church’s Inquisition policies. One would think that such persecution from outsiders would encourage the Malabari and Paradesi Jews to unite, but throughout their history together, the White Jews regarded the Black Jews as inferior and second class. The Black Jews were not allowed in the synagogues of the Whites and intermarriage was unfathomable. After intense lobbying with the help of foreign Jewish leaders and select individuals within the White Jewish Community, the Black Jews were eventually granted access to the sole Paradesi Synagogue, yet their access was relegated to the floor of the anteroom.

Both the Paradesi and Malabari populations slowly dwindled as marriage prospects decreased. The specter of extinction made a slow and subtle approach, and now, its rule is nearly sealed. Had the communities been able to interact and intermarry, the Jewish community in Kerala would likely be thriving today. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 saw a large migration of Jews to the newly founded Jewish state, some settling there, others continuing on to America and Canada. Now, what we have in Kochi, is somewhat of a pathetic Jewish existence, supported by families living abroad and the local Chabad. It’s hard to place blame on anyone but themselves.

 

Reading this history of Keralite Jews, in much more detail than I was able to provide to you, was infuriating. I cannot count the times throughout Jewish history that we have been our own worst enemies and this is one that rises to the top. Nevertheless, I wanted to experience it first-hand. I wanted to explore the Jewish community in Kochi.

Our first attempt to visit the Paradesi Synagogue was a failure. After rushing my friends to get there before closing time, we arrived to find that it was closed for all of Passover. Utterly disappointed, I call up the local Chabad and let him know that me and the two other guys (the girls have all left by now) would probably be coming for Shabbat. Sounding very excited, he wanted to lock us in so that he could have a minyan (a quorum of ten men needed to recite certain payers during services) for Friday night prayers. After he told me that the services would be held at the Paradesi synagogue itself, we were in.

The Rabbi called me multiple times during the next couple of days to remind me and, as sundown of Friday approached, we arrived at the synagogue to meet the Chabad rabbi. Walking down Synagogue Lane in Jew Town (yes, real names) I looked left and right and saw the homes of Jews described to me in my book. I wondered if I would get to actually meet any of them. Waiting at the synagogue the Rabbi realized that we were just short of a minyan, so he ran out to rally some of the old Jewish men from the community, which I was told would be a very difficult feat – the Jews there had, over the years, receded into their cavernous homes, weary of venturing out. He came back with one man in his eighties, whom I recognized from my book as the kindest of the Paradesi Jews, son of a man who fought for the rights of the Malabari Jews. I was so excited to be putting a face to a personality I had only read about. When I later spoke with him, he lamented the fact that his father had the potential to reach the highest levels in government, but instead devoted himself to the plight of the Malabari Jews.

We prayed the Friday night service and the Rabbi let me know that he was going to stop by the houses of the local Jews on the way back to Chabad for dinner. Of all the Malabari Jews that once existed there are now a total of about ten, all of whom live on Synagogue Lane. I had already met 10% of all the Jews in Cochin. I tagged along with the Rabbi to meet a woman named Sarah, who was fairly ill and weak, in her upper eighties, and not able to talk much. We then went into another home, across the street, up some stairs to the residence of the famous Hallegua family, of which only the matriarch remains. We were greeted by amazingly high ceilings and what used to be a very opulent home, now riddled with obvious signs of age and decay, just like the community itself. I found out that the predominantly Muslim and Kashmiri servants of the Jews were just waiting for their employers to die so they could assume control and ownership of their lavish homes. It’s so sad.

I found Ms. Hallegua with two other ladies of the community (one of whom was the wife of the man from the synagogue) sitting around a table in the living room. She very graciously invited us in, giving us kosher for Passover snacks and wine. It was somewhat bizarre to be meeting these people I already knew so much about from the pages of my book. Nevertheless, it felt very important to be meeting the last Jews of Kerala. I tried to bring up the book with Ms. Hallegua, but one mention of the title send her on an angry rant, obviously discontented with her family’s and the Paradesi’s portrayal in the book. I left it alone and enjoyed hearing her fascinating stories.

After a lovely chat and some nice kosher wine, we all departed for the Chabad house for dinner. I could not help but relive the experience in my head and think about how weird it was to have just met all these Kochini Jews. All of them being so old, it wont be long until the community is extinct, their existence relegated to the extensive cannon of Jewish history. It was a special experience that I realize can never happen again.

We should all mourn the loss of another Jewish community, with their beautiful customs and traditions, but this should also serve as a lesson to all Jews, and all people, that nothing good can come of discrimination an exclusion, for in the short term it may seem fine, but wait around and you may find yourself bitter and alone. 

Our trip to Kerala was eye opening on many levels. After finishing off our trip with gorgeous hikes through the tea plantations in the mountains of Munnar, we went our separate ways back to our respective placements. We went to Kerala to celebrate Passover, a time when Jews escaped persecution and demise. What we found, besides lovely surroundings and experiences, was a stark reminder that the Jews of Kerala never really escaped that persecution and demise. Let this serve as a poignant and costly case study in favor of acceptance and human rights amongst Jews, and for all humankind. 

My Photos from Kerala

Living the Indian Life: An Article

16th June 2011

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

This is an article I found on one my predecessor’s blog. It pretty accurately portrays what life can be like living in India, especially in Mumbai (subtract Five-Star hotels and a luxury home in my case). When I read it, I got shivers from the author’s on point portrayal. I am posting it on my blog so that those of you who have not lived this life can try to understand. I fear that it will not be possible and it is unfair of me to think so. Locals don’t really get it. Even some foreigners who do live here may not understand, having the protection of the self-made bubble. Nevertheless, read on.

From: The Australian, October 09, 2010 12:00AM

Living in India is like having an intense but insane affair, writes expat Catherine Taylor

TONIGHT, as I waved my high heel in the face of a bewildered taxi driver, I thought suddenly: I am absolutely nuts in India. It’s a thought I have often. Someone or something is always going nuts, and quite often it’s me.

I was trying to get a taxi driver to take me home, a mere 500 metres away, but it was pouring with rain and my shoes were oh-so-high, and it was late. He, of course, was having none of it; no amount of shoe-waving and sad-facing from a wild-haired firangi was changing his mind, when suddenly I remembered the magic trick - pay more than you should. “Arre, bhai sahab, 50 rupees to Altamount Road? Please?” And off we went.

I have lived in Mumbai for almost three years. It was my choice to come - I wanted offshore experience in my media career and India was the only country looking to hire - and I wanted a change. I needed something new, exciting, thrilling, terrifying. And India gave that to me in spades. In fact, she turned it all the way up to 11. And then she turned it up a little more.

To outsiders, living in India has a particular kind of glamour attached to it, a special sparkle that sees people crowding around me at parties. “You live in India? My God, really? I could never do that. What’s it like?” The closest I have come to answering that question is that it’s like being in a very intense, extremely dysfunctional relationship. India and I fight, we scream, we argue, we don’t speak for days on end, but really, deep down, we love each other. She’s a strange beast, this India. She hugs me, so tightly sometimes that I can’t breathe, then she turns and punches me hard in the face, leaving me stunned. Then she hugs me again, and suddenly I know everything will be all right.

She wonders why I don’t just “know” how things are done, why I argue with her about everything, why I judge, why I rail at injustice and then do nothing about it. She wonders how old I am, how much I earn, why I’m not married. (The poor census man looked at me, stunned, then asked in a faltering voice, “But madam, if you’re not married then… who is the head of your household?”) I wonder how she can stand by when small children are begging on corners, how she can let people foul up the streets so much that they are impossible to walk along, how she can allow such corruption, such injustice, such A LOT OF HONKING.

But she has taught me things. She has taught me to be brave, bold, independent, sometimes even fierce and terrifying. She has taught me to walk in another man’s chappals, and ask questions a different way when at first the answer is no. She has taught me to accept the things I cannot change. She has taught me that there are always, always, two sides to every argument. And she was kind enough to let me come and stay.

She didn’t make it easy though (but then, why should she?). The Foreigner Regional Registration Office, banks, mobile phone companies and rental agencies are drowning under piles of carbon paper, photocopies of passports (I always carry a minimum of three) and the soggy tissues of foreigners who fall to pieces in the face of maddening bureaucracy. What costs you 50 rupees one day might be 500 rupees the next, and nobody will tell you why. What you didn’t need to bring yesterday, you suddenly need to bring today. Your signature doesn’t look like your signature. And no, we can’t help you. Come back tomorrow and see.

It’s not easy being here, although I am spoiled by a maid who cooks for me, and a delivery service from everywhere that ensures I rarely have to wave my shoes at taxi drivers. I buy cheap flowers, trawl for gorgeous antiques, buy incredibly cheap books; I have long, boozy brunches in five-star hotels for the price of a nice bottle of wine at home, I have a very nice roof over my head … on the face of it, it would seem I have little to complain about. But then, I am stared at constantly, I have been spat on, sexually harassed, had my (covered) breasts videotaped as I walked through a market, had my drink spiked, been followed countless times. I have wept more here than I have ever in my life, out of frustration, anger, loneliness, the sheer hugeness of being here. But the longer I stay, the more I seem to relax, let go, let it be.

But I do often wonder why I’m here, especially when I’m tired, teary and homesick, my phone has been disconnected for the 19th time despite promises it would never happen again, when it’s raining and no taxis will take me home. But then a willing ride always comes along, and we’ll turn a corner and be suddenly in the midst of some banging, crashing mad festival full of colour, where everyone is dancing behind a slow-moving truck, and I won’t have a clue what’s going on but a mum holding a child will dance up to my window and point and smile and laugh, and I breathe out and think, really, my God, this is fantastic. This is India! I live in India! She hugs me, she punches me, and she hugs me again.

Yet I know won’t ever belong here, not properly. I know this when I listen to girls discussing what colour blouses they should wear to their weddings - she’s Gujarati, he’s from the south, she’s wearing a Keralan sari. I know when my friends give me house-hunting advice: “Look at the names of the people who already live there, then you’ll know what kind of building it is.” (Trouble is, I don’t know my Kapoors from my Kapurs, my Sippys from my Sindhis, my Khans from my Jains). I know this when my lovely fruit man (who also delivers) begs me to taste a strawberry he is holding in his grubby hands and I have to say no, I can’t eat it, I’ll die… I know I will never belong because, as stupid as it sounds, being truly, properly Indian is in your DNA. I marvel at how incredibly well educated so many of them are, how they can all speak at least three languages and think it’s no big deal, how they fit 1000 people into a train carriage meant for 300 and all stand together quite peacefully, how they know the songs from every Hindi film ever made, how they welcome anyone and everyone (even wild-haired, complaining firangis) into their homes for food, and chai, and more food.

I’ve seen terrible things - someone fall under a train, children with sliced-off ears, old, old men sitting in the rain nursing half-limbs while they beg, children covered in flies sleeping on the pavement, beggars with no legs weaving themselves through traffic on trolleys, men in lunghis working with their hands in tiny corridors with no fans in sky-high temperatures. I’ve read heartbreaking things, of gang rapes, corruption, environmental abuse. I’ve smelled smells that have stripped the inside of my nostrils, stepped over open sewers in markets, watched a goat being bled to death.

I’ve done things of which I am ashamed, things I never thought I would do. I have slapped a starving child away, I have turned my head in annoyance when beggars have tapped repeatedly on my taxi window, I have yelled at grown men in the face. I have been pinched and pinched back, with force. I have slapped, I have hit, I have pushed. I have screamed in anger. I have, at times, not recognised myself.

I’ve yelled at a man for kicking a dog, and yelled at a woman who pushed into a line ahead of me when I wasn’t at all in a hurry. When a teenage beggar stood at the window of my taxi, saying “F… you madam” over and over, I told him to go f… himself and gave him the finger; once on the train I let a kid keep 100 rupees as change. I am kind and I am cold-hearted, I am fair and I am mean, I am delightful and I am downright rude. I am all of these at once and I distress myself wildly over it, but somehow, India accepts me. She has no time for navel-gazing foreigners; she just shoved everyone along a bit and made room for me. She has no time to dwell on my shortcomings, she just keeps moving along.

And then, and then. I’ve been to temples where I’ve sung along with old women who had no teeth, I’ve held countless smiling ink-marked babies for photos, I’ve had unknown aunties in saris smile and cup my face with their soft, wrinkled hands, I’ve made street vendors laugh when I’ve choked on their spicy food, I’ve danced through the streets at Ganpati, fervently sung the national anthem (phonetically) in cinemas, had designers make me dresses, I’ve met with CEOs and heads of companies just because I asked if I could. She hugs, she punches, she hugs again.

In short, I have been among the luckiest of the lucky. She keeps me on my toes, Ms India, and I have been blessed that she let me stay for a while. She wanted me to succeed here and she gave me grand opportunities and endless second chances. She willed me forward like a stern parent. She welcomed me. And when I leave, because I know I will one day, I will weep, because I will miss her terribly. And because I know she won’t even notice that I am gone.
 

Jai Ho India!

30th March & 2nd April 2011

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Outsiders who have not spent all that much time thinking about the Subcontinent can think of India as a somewhat homogenous place, especially in terms of religion. Well, maybe I should avoid generalizing especially because the 1947 Partition is pretty ubiquitous in world history classes, strained Hindu-Muslim relations have been broadcasted worldwide, and anyone familiar with religion can draw a connection between Siddhartha Gautama and India. Never mind all that, for argument’s sake, lets just assume most people are ignorant. (Tuning in to American politics from across the oceans, this doesn’t seem like such a terrible assumption.) For some reason, it does not really occur to some that, aside from the Hindu majority, there exist multiple other religions whose followers practice (mostly) freely and (often) piously: Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, even Jewish (more on this one in a blog or two). Furthermore, among all the religions, there exist multitudes of sects, divides, and varied gods to worship that it feels as if there are hundreds of religions here.

You must be wondering where I’m going with this point. There is one power in India strong enough to unify Indians of all religions, castes, colors, races, and nationalities (as long as they are from the Commonwealth), and that force is cricket. You may be asking yourself, “Who cares about cricket?” or, “What the hell is cricket, isn’t that just backwards baseball with sombreros and flat bats?” Such responses would thoroughly confound a member of the historical Commonwealth, especially countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, England, Australia, etc. People are so disturbed when I tell them that we don’t have cricket in the US (and that I really don’t care all that much about it). Yet, as of now, I have watched two matches from start two finish for a total of about 16 hours. Yes, cricket matches are bloody long.

Just like in soccer there is a Cricket World Cup, which, as an American, I really didn’t pay any attention to until the semifinals. Even then, the only reason I paid any attention at all was because India was set to play its mortal enemy and blood brother, Pakistan. Although India was somewhat favored in the match, everyone was freaking out because of the political implications of losing; I was just happy to watch everything unfold and unfold it did. Spoiler alert: India won.

I watched the match with my friend Ben and his coworker Mahesh at a Mahesh’s friend’s place. We’ll go into that more in a bit. As the end of the match neared it became clear to us that India was going to be victorious. I guess everyne else figured it out too because all of the sudden the sound of firecrackers, horns, and screams erupted from all over. Winning this match was as important, if not more so, than winning the whole thing altogether. Walking through the streets, it was as if Satchin Tendulker, the world’s best player, revered in India, maybe more than Gandhi himself, was prancing about, World Cup in hand, followed by the entirety of the Indian national team. (For weeks leading up to the World Cup, the front page of an Indian popular newspaper featured a caricature of Tendulker with quote singing his praises from random citizens. He is indeed a god among men.)

After handily beat Pakistan in the semis, setting the stage for a final match against Sri Lanka to be played in Mumbai. The game was on Saturday and since Wankhede Stadium is very near my work (and I work 6-day weeks) I decided to catch a ride with the Sankalp ambulance and cruise down to check out the hordes of people heavily peppered with police and military personnel. Although everything was pretty well organized and controlled, it seemed a hellish task to get in the stadium itself. The security was sky-high as they had, as usual, received terror threats. I took in the craziness and was on my way to again meet up with Ben and Mahesh.

 

I met up with the boys at the train station and we set off together to Mahesh’s friend Pravin’s place in a chawl in Dadar. From my experience, a chawl is huge tenement-style housing society with individual apartments and common bathrooms for each floor. My description seems to portray the chawl in a negative light, but the reality is quite the opposite: its clean, friendly, supportive, and fun.

(A small aside to illustrate the close ties with neighbors, common in traditional Indian housing. My coworker Vijay was left alone when his wife, children, and mother went to visit their village and he stayed back to work. Being from a traditional household Vijay was quite unaccustomed to cooking or cleaning. He was getting by, but his home was turning into a complete disaster with dishes piling up and things all over the place. The day came when he had no choice, but to start the extensive cleaning process. When he got home from work ready to chip away at the mess, to his astonishment the whole place was clean and organized, down to the last dish and article of clothing. His neighbors had come over during the day and cleaned everything up because they knew his wife and mother were out of town. Now, try to picture your neighbor coming over to your home while you are at work to clean your dishes and do your laundry. Hah, yeah right. Only in India.)

Back to the point. We get to Pravin’s place, located at the commercial hub of Mumbai, Dadar. His place, which is standard in his society, is a small room with attached kitchen that he shares with his family, wife, and child. His is directly across from a small temple dedicated to a few select gods. (Usually there is only one deity per temple but this one is multi-purpose probably because it is serving at least half of the chawl.) In front of the temple is a small group of old men sitting on chairs, smoking charras – or hashish – out of a chillum, a traditional religious practice.

His home is filled with a group of guys ranging in age from around 20 to upwards of 40 and 50. These family members and friends are fixated on the television at the end of the room some wearing shirts, some not, but all jovial and friendly, even to the foreigners crashing the scene. We are graciously ushered in where we plop down and get to watching the match, eating loads of delicious fried snacks, and drinking liters of LP Strong (London Pilsner Strong, the greatest value beer to be had). Whenever the snacks ran out, more were given, whenever a beer was two-thirds done, another was handed to you. It is somewhat reminiscent of sitting on the couch with your homies, watching the Superbowl, except totally different.

Even though I have so little experience with cricket, I begin to follow the match with such genuine interest that I surprise even myself.  Whenever someone hits a six (something like a homerun) we all burst out in excited hollering. At half time, it seems as though the game could go either way, but up to that point Sri Lanka has been showing promise and the Indian team seemingly aloof. It was not a situation that engendered great expectations of greatness. Nevertheless, after a walk around the block to loosen up our muscles and grab more beers and crispy-fried dal, we sit down to watch the Indian team bat.

Satchin Tendulker is up to bat. Everyone is expecting the superstar to get at least a century (100 runs), especially because he has never won a world cup in all his years in cricket and he has indicated that this will most likely be his last go at the World Cup before retiring. After a pithy 18 runs, the Sri Lankan team gets the wicket (basically struck him out). Silence…everywhere. A sense of dread and sadness blanket the city like bombs on Berlin during the War. In Pravin’s home we are deflated, totally dumbstruck.

Never doubt the Indian sprit of teamwork and support. Just like Vijay’s neighbors cleaned his home, so too did Satchin’s teammates, most notably Guatam Gambir and Team Captain M.S. Dhoni, step up to the metaphorical (and literal) plate and clean up the Sri Lankan’s. Down to almost the last over (don’t worry about what it means), there was no clear winner. Then Dhoni zones in on the bowl (pitch) and smashes one out of the park; a six (homer) to end the match and win the World Cup. Now try to imagine Mumbai after that one. Forget Berlin, think the scene in Independence Day when Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum destroy the alien mothership. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.

The city erupts in a fervor that makes New Years in Time Square look tame. We rode around town screaming Jai ho India to everyone, stopping every so often to dance around like crazy waving Indian flags. After coming back to the chawl from the neighborhood parties dove hand over face into plates of fantastic chicken biryani that Pravin’s mother made. After wishing our thanks and goodbyes, and taking pictures with all the neighbors, five of us hopped in a cab to go back home.

On the way back, me and Mahesh’s friend decide it’s a good idea to climb on top of the cab and ride there all the way home. And climb atop we did. We get to the main highway leading back to Khar and it is swamped with traffic. People on top of their cars, 6-8 people on one motorcycle, everyone so elated, screaming Jai ho India! As I watch this all from the roof of the cab, I can’t help but scream like everyone around me and truly connect with India’s win. As the traffic cleared up like Moses parting the Red Sea of brake-lights and we began to speed up, I thought to myself, with the wind blowing in my face and the possibility of death or severe injury so eminent, that this day was one of the best of my life. Once in a lifetime.

Reaching home, I looked at my own small neighborhood, sleepy and quiet, and felt a real sense of belonging. No matter how temporary, this is home for me – Mumbai – though I’m not sure my neighbors are coming over to do my dishes any time soon.

Lining up for the match.

Filing into the stadium.

Pravin’s chawl in Dadar.

Chillin’ in Pravin’s family’s home.

Ben, Me, Mahesh, London Pilsner, family man.

Pravin’s wife and baby girl, Pravin, Ben, Mahesh, Me all in front of the temple.

Damn fine chicken biryani.

The six to seal the win. Nailed it.

Party time in the streets.

Goin’ dumb on top of a taxi.

Mumbai 4 Life

All of the lights, all of the lights…

Holi Day 2: Masti aur Fiesta Yehudi

19th March 2011

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Mumbai is getting hot again. Besides the obvious temperature indicator, I can tell because, when I go to sleep, the part of my body touching my bed pad instantaneously starts sweating. I hate that. Anyways, whenever I say to a Mumbaiker that I’m feeling hot, they acknowledge that it is indeed warm, but what they are really saying is “Ha! I pity your ignorance. Your complaining is but a futile acquiescence of your servility to our great city of Mumbai. Jai ho India!” All right, Mumbaikers are not so brash, and are usually rather kind in their response. It’s more of a, “Yes, basically it is hotter than it was a couple weeks ago, but just wait until May, then you will rrreally know what hot is.” Either way it’s not that comforting, but I console myself with the thought that since it’s getting progressively hotter, the extreme heat and humidity of pre-Monsoon summer may not feel as bad as they say. Right, I’ll let you know. Regardless, I have been told that Holi is the turning point, the Indian Groundhog Day, where instead of seeing any sort of shadow, the little rodent gets a sunburn. This Holi I was the little rodent and the sun took it all out of me, and more.

After Holi Day 1, I was exhausted. So, I had a day of rest and leisure, which obviously had to include me taking a dent out of my accumulating laundry pile. That thing is like never ending; it somehow regenerates almost immediately like the mercurial bad-guy in Terminator.

I pulled myself out of bed Sunday morning at around 8am ready, yet reticently so, for the melee that is Holi. There was an ominous placidity in the air, a grim foreboding of coming attractions. It was almost like I was in the eye of the storm and the minute I stepped out my door I would get clobbered with paint. Melodrama aside, I was too tired to register any of this, so I ate a quick breakfast and took off to work. I must have made it out at the right time, maybe too early for the children of Khar Danda, because the streets were empty save for the massive crowd around my friend, the chicken man. He was quickly and efficiently slaying scores of chickens to satiate the Danda residents’ pots waiting to turn out piping hot chicken biryani, ripe with rice, cloves cardamom, cinnamon, chilies, onions, and garlic. Unfortunately, I would not be around to see how Holi unfolded in my neighborhood; I was off to work.

I made it to a short while later as I caught the fast train – equivalent to the express train in NYC. Normally, I can’t catch the fast train from my station, Khar Road, only from the next station, Bandra. But, when my slow train pulled into Bandra I saw that the fast train had pulled in at the same time across two sets of tracks. In a rare moment of immediate decisiveness, I jumped out of my train onto the tracks below, climbed the low fence between the tracks, dashed across the other set of tracks while making sure no trains were coming, and hopped onto the fast train on the other side. Unnecessarily dangerous? Definitely. Exhilarating and convenient? Undoubtedly.

After gathering the troops at work we headed over to Grant Road, where their Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held, and where the Holi festivities would be going down. On our 30-minute walk, we passed by a small bright orange building with a large and intimidating picture of a tiger’s head on the front. I immediately recognized it as some sort of building associated with the Shiv Sena, a Maharashtrian nationalist party. It is a highly controversial party because they are widely blamed for starting the Mumabai riots and for using scare tactics and violence; basically, for being a party of goondas (thugs). They tend to be against any non-Maharashtrian, and especially against Muslims. Nevertheless, they are very popular because they fight hard for their people. I am definitely not an authority on the subject, but I’m sure the interweb will clarify it for you. Anyways, I snapped a quick photo of this building and my clients immediately got nervous that some Shiv Sena guys might come out and give me a hard time for doing so. Luckily, my subversive photography went unnoticed.

We were some of the first to arrive at the quiet lane off Grand Road, passing the lone Church where the NA meetings are usually held, and congregating around a small foyer in a building where one of the NA guys had set up a stereo system and speakers. More people began arriving and whipping out their brightly colored powders, attacking each other aggressively, though with a strong sense of camaraderie. Two people would grab another guy and would force large amounts of paint-powder down his pants so that when he was released and walked away he would leave little piles of powder wherever he stepped. It was pretty hilarious and I made it clear that there was absolutely no way that any hand or powder would get in my pants. I armed myself with some powder of my own that I had picked up in my neighborhood and started on the others with the quasi-ceremonial gesture of spreading of a bit of powder starting between the eyes and up the forehead. Then it was free game. We painted each other, we danced to disco-remixed Bollywood tunes. It was a combination rave party, Jackson Pollock art school, and NA reunion. Some people were high, most people were not, but EVERYBODY was enjoying. Bahot masti (lots of enjoyment).

After a while, some guys thought it would be a good idea to head over to Chowpatti Beach, one of the most popular social scenes in Mumbai. So, a contingent of us splintered off and headed West towards the water. A little background on Chowpatti beach, or any beach in Mumbai. They are filthy, polluted, dirty, nasty, and ridden with god-knows-what. Nevertheless, when we got there, it was packed with people running around and going crazy in the water. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Holi is used as an excuse to drink excessively and to drink Bhaang, a milk drink mixed with a paste of marijuana leaves. I did neither of these things, of course. All the guys ran for the water whilst removing their clothes down to their undies. All reason told me to avoid the water like the plague, but what was I to do? Be a party pooper and stay on the beach? Hell no, Ill risk the staff infection. I stripped down to my boxers and, against all my better judgment, jumped in Chowpatti Beach, joining the multitudes of Indians. For the most part, I was able to suppress the idea of the toxic water invading my health and well-being and had a great time with the guys. It was crazy and amazing, disgusting and beautiful. Even the guy with no legs, one arm, and one stump was carried into the water from his modified bicycle.

(Side note. As of now, I am healthy. I did have terrible diarrhea the next day, but it only lasted that one day. A small price to pay.)

After frolicking, sand-sculpting women’s body parts on each other, and voguing for pictures, we threw our clothes back on and headed back to Grant Road to eat some delicious chicken biryani. Of course, I had to eat it with my hands – the same hands that were splashing around in Chowpatti Beach not long before – but chalega, whatever. That’s probably what gave me the diarrhea though. Everyone was satiated and pretty sated after eating so back to the office we went. No worries, my day was far from over, despite the fact that I was falling asleep where I stood.

I continued on to Colaba, a few train stops further south, to the Chabad House for a Purim party. I had to hear the megilla and party like a Jew, but I’ll tell you, the immediate transition from Holi to Purim was bizarre. Two worlds separated by what seems like an insurmountable barrier, somehow easily scaled by me and, my partner in crime, Ava. The theme of the party was Fiesta! and Chanoch and Leiky made a valiant attempt at Mexican food. When I got there, everything was in a bit of disarray, but came together in time for the megilla reading, lovely meal, and, you’ll never believe it, tequila shots. It turned into somewhat of a raucous affair, which I barely had the energy to handle, and the sudden addition of alcohol to my system was not helping my cause. Nevertheless, it was great to finish my wild weekend with a bunch of crazy Jews. After dragging ourselves to the train and back home, covered in paint and falling asleep, Ava and I parted ways –shaloch manot in hand – only to see each other a couple hours later for our morning commute.


Shiv Sena Center

Paint powders.

Nagin and lady whose name I forgot.

Happy Holi.

Body-movin’

HOLI!

Chowpatti

Playing in the sand.

Beachin’

Baywatch?

Senor Chanoch.

Chanoch and Leiky

Crazy Ava

Holi Day 1: ‘Seizing’ the Day

March 19, 2011

Mumbai Central DIC, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Holi, the festival of colors. I’m sure you have all seen a picture or two if some white or brown person covered from head to toe in colors. For every foreigner that’s been to India during Holi, there is a Facebook photo to show for it. It’s one of the few things that I could picture before coming to India. Today was day one of my Holi experience. I woke up this morning, put on some clothes that could deal with getting destroyed (unfortunately I didn’t have much to choose from as every item in my limited wardrobe is used), and headed on the train southbound to our Mumbai Central Drop-In center.

If I haven’t explained before, ill tell you what a Drop-in center is. My organization implements a harm reduction strategy to combat drug addiction in Mumbai. We basically work to reduce the harm to the drug-user and society. If the user wants to get off drugs we help them do so, if they don’t, we help them use in the safest way possible. We work to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS within society through needle exchange, abscess management, opioid substitution therapy. We address the healthcare needs of clients both mental and physical. Counseling – group and individual – is a core tenant of our strategy. I could go on forever about what we do, but in short, we do everything – all the way through rehab, detox, and vocational training. And we are one of them few honest NGOs in India’s civil society sector, sometimes to our detriment.

So our Drop-In centers are the first points of contact with the drug user. They are small centers set up near drug-using hot spots where users can come for healthcare, counseling, nutrition, needle/syringe exchange, condom distribution. It’s a safe space away from drugs, but only nine to five After five they go back to the streets, where most of them live.

So after I got off the train at Mumbai Central, I walked the ten minutes to our center and along the way – surprise – I saw two guys crouched down using brown sugar, actually chasing (freebasing off of tinfoil). Most people walking right by them would not even think twice, extinguishing their existence with a second thought. I, because I have been full-time in this field for six months, thought to myself, “well at least they’re not injecting.” They can’t transmit HIV or Hep C, they can’t inject incorrectly and puncture an artery, they can’t inject into a muscle allowing the drug to fester, become infected and filled with maggots, and turn into a dangerous abscess. Obviously, it would be better if they were not using drugs at all, but hey, one step at a time.

So after passing them I got to our center where a holy man was setting up a teepee of dry grasses, coconuts, flowers, and incense. Our clients had already started the festivities throwing paint-powder all willy-nilly like. As soon as I walked up, I was barraged with paints from all angles. Within a minute I was covered in pinks, greens, reds, oranges (I’m literally looking at my shirt right now and picking out the colors). In my hair, on my face, my butt, shirt, legs – everywhere. But don’t you worry, an eye for an eye, I exacted my revenge. It was awesome. All of the sudden the holy man started walking around the pile of flammables chanting some things and spraying water about. He then smashed a coconut and sprayed its water over all of us. The incense was lit and we all grabbed a handful of dry grass and lit the whole pile on fire and watched in a half trance and half chorus of shouts, the whole thing go up in flames.

This was followed with more and more throwing of colors, dancing to Bollywood jams, and then eating a special sweet dish called sheera. Its some sort of fine grain (like cornmeal but not) cooked into a sort of porridge with sugar, milk, cashews, coconut, and, I think, some dried fruit. It was like a really thick cream of wheat, but a thousand times better. Once everyone tired out from the extreme heat – oh yeah, its hot again, about 40 degrees Celsius and rising – it was time for administering the OST and then lunch time.

I sat in the office eating a plate of kichidi (rice and dal mixture – it’s the India bread and butter) with Priyanka (the coordinator) and Prasad (the peer – former user), while the clients filed in, in groups of about 7, and crouched down to receive their sublingual substitution therapy. After about two or three had received their meds, the next guy, all of the sudden, started convulsing and seizing. Everyone was calm – I stayed calm on the outside while concurrently freaking out on the inside – the guy to his left turned him on his side and held his legs so they didn’t flail about, and the guy to his right grabbed his hands, pried them open and allowed them to grab the legs of the adjacent table so his nails wouldn’t cut into his palms (I think). Spit and blood started flowing from his mouth and then, after another minute or two – the seizure subsided. Again, the guys who flanked him picked him up and carried him outside. Holy crap.

The first thing to do was to clean and disinfect where his spit and blood puddle as the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is too high to leave something like that just chillin there. Then I asked Priyanka what the F just happened. It turns out that if you are on opioid substitution therapy and you use brown (an opiate) as well there are side effects, one of them being seizures. Whoops. The therapy is supposed to curb the desire to use, but heroine addiction is stronger than anything I have ever seen, and therefore, people use anyways. His seizing face and that little pool of mucus and blood are seared into my memory. I definitely lost my appetite, and I still haven’t recovered it two hours later.

I left the DIC shortly after, still a bit shaken, but in overall high spirits. Obviously, everyone on the way to the train station and on the train and on the way to the coffee shop to write this blog was staring at the foreigner covered in paint, but hey what’s new? If it’s not paint, it’s my white skin.

Well, that was Holi Day 1. Bring on the colors.

The Holi “teepee.”

Makin’ sheera. Yummmmmm.

Everyone grab some grass, we’re gonna  burn this baby down.

We be burnin’

Prasad and Abdul. Ballers.

Why so serious?

Better…

There we go.

All colored up.

The Drop-In Center at Mumbai Central.


Mobsters and Goat Meat

February 2, 2011

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

I come back to you after a brief hiatus, with more tales from the ordinary life of David. I was traveling with my parents for a couple weeks in the North of India, which I will be sure to write about soon though it may be unnecessary if my presumption holds true that the only people who actually read this are the ones that were on the trip with me. Nevertheless, now I will recount a totally bizarre experience I had subsequent to returning back to MY city.

One of my friends here in Mumbai is a Fulbright fellow from the States. Although she grew up in the Bay Area, she, like many of us in California, has foreign roots - Nigerian roots to be specific. She was set to depart to meet her parents in Nigeria for a mission trip (her Dad is a pastor and her mom is Nigerian), so it was decided that the night before we would all go out for a farewell dinner. Of course, someone had read somewhere about some phantom Nigerian restaurant in Mumbai (I don’t know where, I tend to shirk any planning if possible) located in some hole-in-the-wall near VT Station (Victoria Terminus). Side note: It’s actually called Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus now. It, just like Bombay, enjoyed a post-colonial name change, yet people still call it VT anyways. But really, try to pronounce the new name.

Anyways, after work I met up with Ava (my fellow Fellow), Meg (a Fulbrighter), and Chris (her visiting boyfriend) and we decided to get a pre-dinner drink at Leopold’s. Now, if you’ve never been an expat or tourist in Bombay, haven’t read Shantaram, or don’t know where the 26/11 attacks started, then you don’t know about Leopold’s. So ill tell you because I can answer affirmatively to all three. Ha. Basically, its this old-school restaurant on Colaba Causeway (downtown) that has so much character, you feel special just sitting there. Its been the meeting place for artists, littérateurs, mobsters, gangsters, politicians, businessmen, tourists, and people like me who want to feel like a combination of them all. There are bullet holes in the wall from the 26/11 attacks and to top it off, if you’ve read Shantaram (which you should, its amazing but like 1000 pages), you feel like you’re living the story, kind of.

So, after grabbing a beer (which was dispensed out of this embarrassingly large tower placed on our table) we began our journey to meet up with the other half of the dinner party. Of course, we walked in the wrong direction for about 30 minutes, then trying to figure out what to do next we stand around chatting for another half hour. Eventually, we take a taxi to VT where it takes us another 30 minutes to find the other half of the group.  Finally, we meet them inside VT and I convince us all to walk to the restaurant, against some appeals for a taxi. We start walking in search of Mohammad Ali Road, which we realize later is not so much an unsafe area, but more an area where unsafe people frequent. Our landmark was Suleiman Sweet Shop, so in search of it we went.

Plowing our way through rush hour traffic, weaving our way through the crowd, oscillating our shoulders to avoid being floored by the unrelenting crowd, we finally find the shop and make a right down an ally. We take the next left down this other street where you feel the piercing eyes of metal workers, Muslims, Africans, and the rest of the Mumbai milieu targeted on you like a snipers scope. We find the building (by dumb luck), which is to be the next landmark. Supposedly, if you’re in front of this “hotel” then you will see a small door leading to a cramped staircase which you must take to the third floor. I swear I was looking right where the staircase was supposed to be and it was not there. Then one of our crowd pointed and I saw it, encased in the shadows was a staircase for elves, about a foot and a half wide.

Cautiously and with a sense increasing apprehension, we climbed the stairs. Rounding the first floor we saw a room full of Indian men smoking a hooka while splayed out on the floor. When we reached the third floor, there it was: a bunch of Africans eating, minding their own business, expecting, and probably wanting, anything but a bunch of Americans to walk in. Nevertheless, after acquiescing and reshuffling we sat down and doubled the occupancy of the restaurant.

It was sparsely decorated with some plastic tables, a fridge with some African beers and malt drinks, and a TV playing the American movie Bad Company with Chris Rock. There were probably six other people sitting at tables eating. I turned to one lady inquisitively, asking how it was with my eyes and my body language, she replied, “Se bon” in her French of West African origin, I assume. Another guy was using a plate of pasty white mashed yams to eat whatever was in his other bowl. It looked awesome; he agreed.

We were all subsequently brought a bowl of rice and a bowl or red stuff. The red stuff turned out to be a spicy tomato sauce pieces of, I’m guessing, dried goat meat and tripe. The food was fantastic and I happily ate mine and the vegetarian’s sitting across from me (Meg). For some reason, I found myself chatting up the Africans instead of my dinner companions, allowing me to discover all kinds of interesting tidbits. I found out the Togoan guy next to me sells “baby clothing” and often goes to China to refill inventory. Sure, he might have been selling baby clothes, but, then again, he might not have. All I DO know is that he pointed to a clean cut young man at the other table and said, “He’s my master.” I wasn’t really sure what to make of it, but my brain had already been sensing a mafia presence potentially due to just finishing Shantaram. So, I just nodded and mumbled an awkward, “Nice” and let the conversation proceed. Towards the end of the meal the “Master” came over to the Togoan guy and aggressively, and with air of great superiority, hacked off a chunk of the Togoan’s fish and shoved the whole thing in his mouth. You could tell he had no desire for fish, but wanted to assert himself over the poor guy next to me. I felt pretty weird about it, but did my best to pretend nothing happened.

During the meal, since no one besides me knew that the guy at the other table was indeed the Master, one person from our table called over to him, assuming him to be a server, asking for a Sprite. I winced, and did my best to curtail his inquiry, guiding his request more appropriate person. Preferably one that might not hack off his hand and eat it. Thankfully, I was successful.

As we were finishing, everyone but the Master and his cronies, and the Togoan, had left. The Master began pulling leg after leg off the tables and swinging them around like a batter does before he approaches the plate – all nonchalant and such.  I quietly inquired what was going on and the Togoan said, “Looks like he’s getting ready to have a meeting.” Of course. We all took it as good a sign as any to be on our way making our way to the door quickly and deliberately, but not too hastily as to seem uncomfortable.

As we convened outside on the bustling, foreign street, we felt as if we had emerged from some sort of twilight zone. We all gave each other such puzzling glances, trying to understand where we had just spent the last hour, that the stares of onlookers went totally unnoticed. Whatever happened, it was bizarre, but damn was that saucy goat tasty.