After two short and insane days of running around the city to find enough cash to pay my translators and rent (literally went to fourteen banks and money exchanges, send help), Lukas (my friend/colleague from Eawag when I was here last summer) and I left at 4 am to fly to Udaipur, Rajasthan to attend our dear friend Geeta’s wedding. I got to know Geeta last summer when we were roommates at the EcoHouse and partners in crime for devouring Lukas’ Swiss cheese stashes. By the end of the weekend, I had my entire wedding planned and it will be exactly the same as hers. You all probably have about ten years still before you have to buy five saris to attend though.
The adventure started with a missed turn and sudden pre-dawn traffic jam that resulted in us bailing from the cab prematurely to walk on the side of the road to the airport. Neither of us had the means or the bandwidth to secure the five specific outfits we were commanded to bring to the wedding, so we’d planned to spend our layover franticly shopping in the Delhi airport for kurtas and saris. In a shocking turn of events, the only available stores had high-end designer Western clothing, not fitting for our dress code. When we landed in Udaipur, we were greeted by signs proclaiming its brand as the “City of Lakes” and the world’s “Romantic City.” Both proved true, as the city is spotted with relatively clean lakes and we passed countless weddings and processionals, one complete with real live camels and elephants. I actually screamed when we saw the elephant and couldn’t stop panicking with excitement. My other, perhaps more telling, piece of evidence that Udaipur is a romantic haven happened when we were wandering the tiny meandering street markets of the old city center. As usual, cows aimlessly wandered along the gutter, until all of a sudden a loud mooing rose above the ambience, a cow mounted, and a small stampede scrambled clear of the mating.
We got our first introduction to Geeta’s family and closest friends on Friday night at dinner. Geeta had donned her first of many gorgeous and elaborate saris and we sat down to share a typical Rajasthani meal. Supposedly, Rajasthani food has a reputation for being incredibly spicey, but I survived without shedding a single tear or bead of sweet. The next morning was our real opportunity to shop for wedding attire. Thankfully, our friends Rajesh and Susmita also were unprepared since their origins were also not Rajasthani, so we all headed to a mall. My dream dress was a full length bright pink and orange silk gown with the Rajastani pattern and cost 18,000 rupees ($270), so that was unfortunately out. I settled instead on a couple of shawls and kurtas in Rajasthani style.
The first whole morning and afternoon was spent with the bridal party. One of the beautiful parts of Geeta’s wedding was that while she adhered to tradition in many ways, every event and ceremony had a very distinct Geeta flavor. Most Indian weddings have over a thousand people (her brother in law hosted 2200), but Geeta wanted to be able to spend time with each and every one of her guests so she only invited 150. That meant that the bride’s side was only about 40 people, including her family.
Patient Geeta sat for three straight hours while henna designs were drawn all over her hands, arms, and feet. The bride gets the most henna, but all the women in the party also get hand designs. If you don’t know what henna is, it’s the cheapest and most effective technology on the market for sensing mammalian heat. Take one look at my hands, and you know exactly where they sweat the most. Alternatively, henna can be described as that brown home-made ink that lasts for two weeks and is crafted into gorgeous floral designs. The women were all given the mark of Geeta, which meant she had handmade beaded pendants that she clipped into our hair and hung in the middle of our foreheads. The men were given giant, bright yellow turbans. The groom’s side had different colored turbans, so that you could easily know who belonged to whom. The afternoon was spent dancing and eating, or at least trying to eat without eating the henna off of my hands. Since the wedding, the henna (called mehndi) has been a bit hit with security officers. At the airport, the woman mid-pat down literally kissed my palm, and at the metro the women got distracted while hunting through my backpack full of two phones, a battery pack, ten cameras, a surface, and a Kindle (thanks, research) by my mehndi.
For the first evening event, we were instructed to wear either “Indian formal”, meaning long embroidered gowns or fancy wedding saris, or “Western formal”. I chose to mix both, with my “Indian” captured by my Rajasthani scarf, leggings, and bangles, and my “Western” represented by my dress and Chacos (which may only qualify as “Western formal” in Boulder, but no one commented). The Sangeet & Cocktail party (sangeet means dancing) was hosted at a palace on top of a hill. No joke. A large buffet covered twenty tables in a corner, and waiters carried around fresh tikka chicken, paneer, fish, potatoes, a few unrecognizable but still delicious food items. Two MCs guided the evening, which consisted of choreographed dance performances from each and every family member and close friend (also happening in my wedding) and ended with tequila out of test tubes.
The following morning’s ceremonies began at 10. We made our way back to the palace for an event where the bride is considered to be a goddess and bestows blessings upon her guests. The morning attire was traditional Rajasthani. One of the famous material designs is called bandhni, where small knots are tied in fabric that is then dyed with vegetables, producing tiny squares of white amid brilliant pinks and oranges. More dancing happened, of course, and I think my heart beat has now been synced to the drum beats that followed us everywhere.
We were given an hour back at the hotel to get ready for the actual wedding ceremony, which required Indian formal clothing, meaning saris. Being the dumb American, I thought that wearing leggings underneath my sari would be fine, but that was unacceptable. Geeta’s sister saved me and lent me her petticoat, and Susmita wrapped me into my sari.
Before the wedding ceremony, the groom’s side has a giant parade that leads up to where the bride and her attendants wait. While the most opulent of weddings have live elephants, our groom rode in on a Harley, a tribute the motorcycle trips he and Geeta are known to love. Still, a marching band, decorated horse, and bright red and yellow turbans danced their way to our waiting place. Geeta was whisked away on the Harley, only to be left outside the wedding tent while the groom’s family prepared him with their own ceremonies for the marriage. Our small group of Europeans, Americans, and South Indians danced to entertain our queen. The ceremony itself lasted nearly two hours, after which they were finally married under a backdrop of fireworks safely lit close to the ground and over no lake. A reception followed with more eating, drinking, and dancing, including performances from hired Rajasthani dancers. Geeta came back with us to the hotel to get her belongings, and the celebrations continued almost straight until we had to leave for our early morning flight. The only part of the wedding I disliked was when one of the groom’s friends, Ravi, asked Lukas and I to join him for a “drink”, which meant the most horrible thing I have ever tasted. He poured vodka into pani poori—which is a hollow, spherical fried wafer like thing that usually has a bit of vegetables and potatoes and then is filled with sort of a soup and you eat in one bite—and it took all of my strength and focus to not openly vomit on his shoes. Basically, it tasted like bile and somehow I had two of them and it’s my biggest life regret.
We had a connecting flight through Mumbai and yet again India proved consistent in her ability to constantly shock me. As our plane landed in one of India’s largest, wealthiest, and most sprawling metropolises, I looked out the window and saw miles and miles of the infamous slum cities crowding against the skyscrapers and hugging the barbed wire fencing around the runways. These slum cities in Mumbai are something I’ve read about for years; they’re the biggest and arguably most famous slums in the world, with whole economies hidden within the precariously stacked brick, cardboard, tarp, and tin walls. The slums were endless, visible from hundreds of feet in the air, and filling every open space in the city. It’s the kind of poverty that is blinding; blinding because of the way that it scrapes at your soul and somehow renders you paralyzed with your whole being glued to its initial shock. The depth and the magnitude of that kind of poverty is astonishing: a constantly reinforcing cycle with seemingly no end. It’s amazing.
I’m completely spoiled by life in Bangalore. The neighborhood I live in is quiet (ish), with friendly people who have grown to be my friends. The inhabitants share a relatively uniform level of wealth and the shacks owned by the poorest are infrequent. It’s every time that I leave Bangalore that I realize how spoiled I am to have a home base with the luxury of calm and quiet. I got to reconnect with some old and new friends from CDD Society at a “Hump Night” potluck hosted by some of the CDD interns, and it was such a nice reminder of the special little community I was invited into over the summer. The only times where I don’t feel spoiled is when three legged dogs run after me on my way home, THANK GOD I got my rabies vaccine, and when I learned that the man most keen on finding me a “good Muslim boy” to marry moved his shop even closer to where I live and has asked about me every day since August.
I promise I also came to India for research and haven’t just spent the whole time with friends. Before the wedding, I spent a couple of days in meetings with my translators and one of the NGOs that helps with making the connections to each community so that I can visit. We worked together to plan the next few weeks of site visits and pour over the random collection of documents to piece together the stories of some of the sanitation systems.
One of the aspects of my time here in India that I am most excited about is I get to have an Indian intern join me for all of my fieldwork. Last summer when I was in Delhi, one of my meetings with a USAID India partner was cancelled last minute and the WASH director at USAID felt so badly that he arranged a sudden meeting at a university in Delhi. It turned into an excellent surprise, as they have this really interesting multi-disciplinary engineering and policy master’s program. One of the requirements for the master’s students is they must complete a semester-long project or internship. The professors I met with were really excited about my research and asked if I could create an “internship” to include in their program. Last semester I got to interview a few students and selected one, Sridhar, to work with me this semester. I met Sridhar in Bangalore at the beginning of this week and he’s easily the most professional and hardworking Indian I’ve met. Apparently, we had strangely met over the summer when we were both visiting the same sanitation system in Trichy. I had no recollection, as this happened on a day where I had worked for fourteen straight hours with no lunch so those brain cells didn’t survive.
Sridhar came extremely prepared; he’d read all thirty documents that I had sent him so that he could gain an understanding of my research and the data collection protocol. I had a full day of training planned, and it was cut short because he came with a list of questions and comments and was highly knowledgeable for my research project. The days we’ve spent doing interviews make me think Sridhar could do my whole PhD without my help. He and my translator have made a great team, catching each other’s mistranslations, asking clarifying questions, and remembering details that I don’t. He also asks for feedback on how he can improve his contributions to the project every evening, and types up pages of notes and reflections from the day. He is actually perfect.
The first community that we’re studying is in one of the slum settlements in northeast Bangalore. Most of the residents are migrants from nearby states who have seized the city’s rapid growth as an opportunity for work. This means that each house speaks a different language, so we’ve conducted interviews in four different languages so far. Even within the community, there is a large spread of “wealth” and while the government provides some subsidies for housing and cooking fuel and toilet construction, they do so by caste so many families are still waiting to receive assistance. This community will be one of my “failed” examples, as their sanitation system hasn’t worked in years. An NGO came to improve sanitation in the community and replaced the pit latrines (think camping outhouse ish) with sewer lines and a centralized treatment system. However, the system was underdesigned and poorly constructed so sewer lines frequently clogged and the system often overflowed. Ultimately, this made sanitation conditions worse in the community so the government eventually rerouted the sewers and they now outfall directly to a nearby lake without treatment, the same lake where many families bathe, wash clothes, and collect water. It’s kind of one of the classic stories of a foreign NGO coming in, quickly doing a project, leaving without creating a support system or management plan, publishing reports that still say the system is working, and the community bears the burden of failure.
The people in the community are extremely resilient. Hope shines through when one of my interviewees films two of her neighbors who aren’t able to meet with me to make sure I hear their stories. It’s there in the women who started a business to sell clean water to their neighbors when the NGO failed to also finish that project. It’s there in the kids who are going to school and the families who are finally able to build their first home. Stories of failure are so common in India, so common globally, and I hope that my work and the work of many others can slowly start to change that.
In other news, according to one of the transcripts from my interviews, I come from “America Colorado University.” For now, I’ll leave you with a lovely picture of me after a day in the Indian sun, and I promise I applied sunscreen four times (or was that bug spray?):