Dee Da Dee Da Doo Wa Day……

I realize that my dumb phone and I are already obsolete  in this current age of the ringtone. But still, I live for the wistful little song my phone sings every time I get a text message. Starting on the seventh and ending on the third, it sings of hope and unrealized potential. The tonic is nowhere in sight. Anything is possible.  Does my friend have an extra ticket to Pink?  Is my lover is coming back to me?

Who are you, you who wrote this song? Did you make a living writing phone notifications? Did you go to music school and study composition? Were phone songs above or below commercial jingles in the sell-out-your-art hierarchy? Your phone song must have been one of the most famous (if not one of the shortest) tunes in the world. International performances! Instant recognition! If brevity is the soul of wit, well damn!!

What would be the pay breakdown if you were paid by the note? And were you considered an artist in residence? Or a member of the permanent staff? Were you ever accused of being derivative or post post-modern or too tonal? Did the reviewers compare you to other composers, dead or alive? And did your work lead to other commissions? What about royalties? Oh dear phone composer, why did you ever have to stop writing your little phone songs? I mourn the passing of an era.  My battered antique phone will only enchant me for a little while longer. And as for you, my composer friend — I sure hope you didn’t quit your day job.


A simple run to the Co-op for some feta cheese. The chunky brown girl at the cash register, sporting an indecipherable, straightened hair style which can only be described as anvil-shaped, has not finished with the customer in front of me. Even so, she picks up my feta cheese and proceeds to inspect it. Carefully she squints and reads all the print on all six sides of the package. She turns it over and over again, rereading from each new angle, as though she might have missed the good part the first time through. I get nervous, shuffle my feet, stare at her in helpless fascination. Finally I can’t stand the suspense. “What do you think of the cheese?” I ask innocently. “It’s sheeps’ milk.” She looks at me accusingly. “Well…yeah.” I’m wondering where this is going. “I’m not a fan” she says flatly.

Have I missed something? Is reviewing customers’ purchases an important feature of the employee manual? And must she fondle so? Because at this point I want to take my cheese to the back of the store for a fresh unhandled piece. Should I speak to the manager? Maybe I should lurk around a bit now, to hear her weigh in on the food choices of the unsuspecting schnook behind me.

No. Too weird. My violated cheese and I leave the store, our collective tails between our legs.

The missing posts

Mammallapuram #4 part II

I stop into a beachside place for a cup of tea. While waiting for it to arrive, the waiter stands there with his hands down the front of his pants – I mean REALLY down there, elbow deep. I stare openly, pointedly, and he sees me looking.
What is he doing in there?
Rearranging the furniture?
Checking his bank account?
I don’t know WHAT he is doing. But I don’t touch the chai he brings me and he just can’t figure it out. His puzzlement knows no bounds and is touchingly dramatic – “Chai??? Madame???” he asks me as I am leaving, and he gestures helplessly towards my untouched glass with tears in his eyes.
Perhaps if he applies his hand to scratch his head, brain function will kick in and make the connection. But this application does not occur to him, and I make a mental note to never step foot in the place again.

In India, as in America, you never really know what goes on in a restaurant behind the scenes (and I have worked in plenty of restaurants), but if what is visible to the public isn’t promising, trust me, you don’t want to know what is going on in the kitchen.

Mammallapuram #1,  Part II

took the overnight train to chennai last night, but have surprisingly landed myself in mammallapuram (long story)

my knees don’t really squat well anymore since cipro poisoning, but i decided to use the squat toilet in the train because it was ever so much cleaner than the western toilet, and it had a grab bar. what could go wrong? i thought.

WELL… if you don’t squat completely (if you’re a girl) it is difficult to AIM so i got some where it was supposed to go, and some down my right pant leg and right sandal. i washed up as well as i could with lots of water, but then i had an even bigger wet spot on my pants leg and i had to fluff-dry out in the open between train cars because i didn’t want to tumble off the train in chennai and have banyan meet their newest volunteer only to discover that her most salient feature upon arrival is that she peed on herself.

i think i handled it quite smoothly, don’t you?

anyway, my next project (besides the cataloging project) is to strip off all the clothes and PRACTICE this squatting skill until i can do it in the lurching train, yes i can do it in the car, yes i can do in the bar, yes i can do it anywhere,  sam i am!!

Hyderabad #3,  Part II

indian glossary.

i am just coming = i will be right back

rowdy = hoodlum

yes = 1. i don’t know; 2. i don’t speak english; 3. i speak english, but i don’t know WTF you are talking about; 4. sometimes it means yes

the meter is broken = i’m going to quote you a 400% markup on this rickshaw ride and see if you actually know enough to bargain it down to the real price

i’ll use the meter = even though your actual destination is only a few blocks away, i’ll ride your ass all the way to the little rann of kutch and back and i’ll run that meter until it smokes oh baby!

Chennai #2

i woke up this morning singing some song which my subconscious furnished to me
it was “the only living boy in new york”
by the 20th century’s greatest song writer
that means he beat out hugo wolf and a lot of other dead guys
it also means that i am starting my trip HOME today
and that i am happy
“tom get your plane right on time
i know your part’ll go fine…
hey – i got nothing to do all day but shine”
here are some germs of things which never fully developed into posts
ask me when you see me again
they have a curious resemblance to jeopardy categories:
Things I’ve Seen Fall out the Doors of Moving Buses
More Indian Definitions
Scenes from Indian Construction
Why I Really Went to India
Acts of Kindness
Indian Skills 101
Public Service Announcements
India: the Cure for Writer’s Block
Deedle Doo Dah, Deedle Doo Dah, Deedle Doo Dah Day
Cutting it Close
flying indian air to bombay this afternoon
then dinner with p and m
then waiting into the wee hours for flight to jfk
then a hop home

Chennai #1

no trip to the third world is really complete without a medical crisis


having run a slight fever off and on for three days
and not following any pattern of illness that i am familiar with
i retreated to chennai for a dose of doctoring and Olympics


medical care, indian style:

on the advice of a friend, i phoned up lister metropolis
like a genie, the technician magically appeared
at my hotel room just one hour later
it cost two dollars for the house (hotel) call
they take as many samples of as many body fluids as you care to part with
and you can order as many lab tests as you want
(well, up to 400 plus) in whatever flavor you want
this really eliminates the middleman (apologies to any middlemen who might be reading)
i was like a kid in a candy store
but limited myself to just two: malaria and typhoid
i paid the phlebotomist, who was efficient and competent,  
430 rupees (seven dollars for the samples, 2 dollars for the house call)
with the receipt in my hand i went to lister the next morning in a rickshaw
they printed out the report and handed it to me in a sealed envelope


in terms of cost, convenience, and instant gratification, this scheme can’t be beat!
plus the added entertainment of playing doctor
(y’all know how i love to practice my diagnostic skills on family and friends

as well as myself)


oh yeah, i tested negative



Auroville #3

Surreal experiences:
I fell, by accident, into a choir rehearsal for French Catholic mass in Pondy, ruled by one iron-fisted, ultra-competent Sister J., a Catholic nun from Kerala. The choir was made up of Indian women and girls all in traditional Indian dress (the tenors and basses were away on tour), the rehearsal was conducted entirely in French, all the people there spoke fluent French, and they spoke their “oui’s” with the traditional Indian head wobble. Okay! Welcome to Planet Pondicherry!
The sequel, Star Wars:
Imagine a spacious and very tall chamber of white marble, a soaring ceiling with a single ray of sunlight beaming a wide, vertical, laser-like swathe onto a thousand pound crystal. You can taste in your mouth the cool misty vapor which makes up the air of the room, and the murkiness makes it difficult to make out the opposite side of the chamber from where you sit. There are twelve cool marble columns reaching for the vaulted ceiling. Fifty people sit silently in lotus, on spotless white pillows and mats, facing the crystal. They are mostly dressed in white flowing garments. It only remains for Darth Vader, or an angelic twin, to make an appearance.
The overarching theme:
When I was a college student in the 70’s the Hare Krishnas meant all good things to me: Peace, Love, and Free Food. The homily which generally followed the dinner never troubled me one way or the other. But I always loved those robes. Even now I would like to wear one, and walk about barefoot. The trouble is, which organization to pick? Sister J. thought at first I was a Hindu, because I had just come from the temple with S., I had the red blessing on my forehead, and I spoke of having darshan. However, when she found out I was raised by a Jewish mother and a Catholic-turned-atheist father, she proceeded with plan A and Plan B (all the same plan) and wasted no time trying to convert me (S. told me that Sister J. had tried with her also, but finally given up).
In another world, Auroville, and its spiritual center the Matrimandir, was founded on the philosophy of no organized religions, and the elimination of religious rituals, so that contrived barriers between people could be taken down, and common humanity and truth be embraced. The term for coming to sit in the inner chamber is to “concentrate” rather than “meditate” which implies already a link to existing rituals.


Maybe my conversation with P. in Bombay sums it up the best.  P. and M. are Jains.  P. had asked me what religion I was and I said I still hadn’t decided. Then he asked me if I ever asked for help when I was in trouble– praying for help. I said yes, I pray for help whenever I am in trouble. When he asked me how often I prayed, I said, well, I need help EVERY DAY.

Auroville #2

Today’s topic is Indian newspapers.

I have been diligently reading the daily paper so that I will be able to maintain my end of scintillating conversation at local cocktail parties.

Here are some typical items, quoted for your enjoyment of quaint phrasing:

“A whopping 56,658 teachers will be filled in the State shortly…Of this, 14,000 are School Assistant posts…and 2,000 other category teachers such as pundits.”

On a bit about a search for a student who made an internet death threat:

“Ajith (19), a B.Sc. Computer Science student at a prominent private college in Chethala, is absconding.”

A temple opening:

“In addition to the usual poojas, such as Ganapati homam, usha pooja, utcha pooja, special poojas such as padi pooja and udayasthamana pooja and ‘neyyabhishekam’ will be performed…”

I read with great interest the account of a man who was riding in a car and had an accident with a vehicle carrying construction materials. The passenger was speared through the chest by a pole, narrowly missing his heart – he was conscious and talking as they loaded him on the stretcher. Imagine my surprise to find a full color spread of photos of not only his rescue, but also his surgery (which I perused thoroughly).

Finally these two:
-They have found a way to make an invisibility cloak for human beings.
-A man on a Canadian bus decapitated his seatmate (a stranger to him) and then proceeded to eat his body.

It must be a very slow news day for the Deccan Times. Or a reporter from The Star or the National Enquirer has infiltrated its ranks.

Auroville #1

today i heard something i have never heard before in india. total and complete silence. except maybe for a cricket.

welcome to Camp Auroville, a Summer Camp for Adults in India.

the only hitch is that none of the other campers have arrived yet, and all the counselors seem to have gone AWOL. the camp director met me in her housedress on sunday and said don’t bother me unless it is urgent.

i am on spacious rural grounds (i saw a mongoose hanging about) surrounded by gargantuan unfinished concrete buildings with stairways ending in midair, their sole residents, lizards.

Camp Life so far:

picnic lunch on bicycleback
picnic dinner on campus
after dinner i sang “the mongoose went over the culvert”
then i played charades (i won)
then i told scary stories around the candle
then i read with my flashlight under the covers after lights out

longer letter later

Mamallapuram #4

Some thoughts on culture

I’ve imagined for a while now that eventually they will microchip our brains and we will no longer have need for speech as we will communicate with eachother feed to feed (as imagined by M.T. Anderson in his book Feed). Our vocal cords will atrophy and shrivel up in a similar fashion to the appendix, whose original purpose is now anyone’s guess. India, whose ancient roots impart a subtle layer of sophistication to all she endeavors, has already perfected this form of communication, skipping the microchip step entirely.

To wit: I have a brief conversation with Rama one evening about two shirts of mine which should have arrived back from the laundry. but have gone missing. The next evening when I return from work, Parthi is standing in the courtyard.

We lock eyes.
I raise my eyebrows, tilt my head, and look hopeful.
He wobbles his head.
He goes into the closet and hands me my shirts.
I hand him twenty rupees.

End of conversation.
No microchip.
Just India.

Mamallapuram #3

Thoughts from a volunteer in india
Flexibility – i didn’t know that the flexible schedule i said i expected
meant that i was the only one who was going to have to be flexible
Hierarchy – never underestimate the importance of knowing who is in charge
On do they really want me here – hard to say
i twiddled my thumbs for the five days it took them to find me a computer
even though i gave them weeks of advance notice that i was coming
and what was needed
i’m so hot that i am dripping sweat all over this borrowed laptop
my first day here i found myself on the back of a motorcycle
no helmet, wearing sandals, clutching moorthi who is driving
over potholes, puddles, dodging cows, goats, buses,
and he is DIALING his cell phone yikes
Here’s our library – no paper no pencil no computer but hey sure, go ahead and catalog away
That printer doesn’t work. and it also doesn’t have any paper.
i am working in an inpatient/outpatient mental hospital
i can never tell if any interaction i have with any woman here
is strange only because she speaks tamil and i don’t
or because she is a patient
but so far i am fitting right in
lunch comes at around 2:30 every day
catered by some local occupational therapy kind of thing
yesterday i made the mistake of eating some food at around 2:45
food sitting in the common room, that looked like lunch to me
oh NO madame that was the BREAKFAST
(it had been sitting there since 9 AM)
she was thoroughly shaken up by this breach in protocol
actually, for being hours old, it was quite good – upma and some kind of spicy sauce
right after i ate that, lunch appeared – rice and sambar (spicy veggies)
and curry and some kind of soup that everyone else rejects
when i arrive in the morning, i approach our building
the guard is often chatting with his friends
when he sees me, he bustles over to get back behind his desk
and he jams his official cap back on his head
and then, and only then, does he speak to me in his official capacity
official, but always subservient
the significance of class, and everyone knowing
his/her place are really noticeable here
in any official situation, protocol is essential
this accounts for the excessive bureaucracy
when an american asks for an exception or leeway or some flexibility
the chain of command may be called up and down
and then the shaking of the heads begins
sorry madame, there is nothing i can do
and so often i point out
you could let me in
you could let me use the computer
no madame, that is a decision that is out of my hands
you will have to speak with so and so
(always someone who will be back tomorrow or the day after)
it is an exercise in “not now” and as americans, we learn to expect
“right now” pretty much all the time
the tea seller across the street gave me credit
because i only had a big bill and the tea was 3 rupees
i wonder what the tea seller is thinking about this ‘problem’
the restaurant on the beach also gave me credit one morning for my breakfast
because they couldn’t make change for a bill
indians hate to make change
i think because most of them deal in the 10-50 rupee range
and the tourists and wealthier people have 500 -1000 rupee bills
finished making a list of the books and assigning the most basic of dewey numbers
next week will put pockets, cards, and spine labels on all the books (about 500 books)
will hopefully have some help, as it is a big physical job to process all those books
so far the volunteer highlights are 
the free lunch, and the company dog, bailawan – he looks like some basset got mixed up with the typical indian dog – bailawan means “fat man”