Cheat, Pray, Shove: Why I Think I Hate Bombay Temples

I’ve been culturally raised as a Hindu, and I think that aside from the aspect of weird right-wing patriarchs politicizing the religion, it’s a pretty cool one.  I guess I say this because my performing of Hinduism basically consists of 1) singing bhajans while wearing pretty clothes; 2) eating delicious fried puris and potatoes and varan bhaat at my parents’ annual satyanarayan puja; 3) learning (largely via comic strips and amazing televised depictions) about all the epic beheading-heavy, gender-bending adventures of the Gods and Goddesses; 4) attending festivities that contain lots of food and things like dancing with sticks and throwing colored powders on each other; 5) visiting the temple after someone in the family gets married or buys a new car; and 6) trying not to be a total asshole.

So anyway, on my last trip to India, I visited a few temples.  The temples in Goa and Kerala were beautiful and serene, and not too crowded.  Then, back in Bombay, my parents and I decided to go to Siddhivinayak Mandir, after my dad and I did a quick stop-off at some Italian joint for beer and garlic bread.  And oh my Ganesh, the temple had a VIP line!  Aside from the usual temple vendors selling things like beads, garlands, and transparent dhotis, there were all these eager merchants lined up outside with VIP Pooja Thalis that you could buy for 250 rupees to fast-track your journey through this aggressive, life-threatening idol worship.  I came out of that temple so beaten and irate. I mean what the hell kind of twisted Hunger Games Hinduism was this?!

The experience wasn’t exclusive to this temple.  I went to a couple of other popular temples in Bombay and was similarly violated by ardent devotees.  And outside of one of them, I was told that we were lucky to have gained access to the temple at all, because it had been closed off for weeks so that Bollywood actor and ex-con Sanjay Dutt could have private praying time!

I think I hate big Bombay temples as much as I hate San Francisco’s 18-and-over nightclubs, but I am willing to give them another try just to make sure.

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Regaining Meat Cred

The last time I was in India, in 2006, I was a flexi-pescetarian: I was fine with dairy, eggs, and seafood; and I would imbibe other animals in the form of broth, curry, or gravy, but not eat them in solid form.  I ate well, and I ate a lot — but my gluttony on this upcoming trip will take a whole new course now that I don’t confine myself to being any type of -tarian.

I first became full-vegetarian in my senior year of high school, largely influenced by my older sister who effectively conveyed the many planetary benefits of this conduct.  These considerations ring truer than ever today, especially with the way things go down in the United States, but I’m a jerk.

There is a widespread notion that vegetarianism is intrinsically linked with a general fervor for health and fitness.  Please. I have never been fatter or more unhealthy than in my freshman year of college, when throughout most of the year, I maintained a strict diet of cheesy sticks, double chocolate chip cookies, cheese enchiladas, malt liquor, and the occasional herb for good measure.  Then one day at the end of the school year, I went out for dim sum with several dorm floormates.  My family always used to go to this place and gorge on shrimp dumplings, fried crab claws, and other seafoody goodness — and now that I couldn’t have that, and there was no cheese or bread, I would have to eat… vegetables?!  Obviously I had no choice but to introduce seafood back into my diet for good.  Aside from the liquid flexi aspect I mentioned earlier, I maintained my pescetarianism for a good twelve years.

And then one day in my responsible grown-up life, while poring over a heap of H-1B files, I experienced the world’s most intense yearning for Chicken McNuggets.  I did not succumb to it then and there; I instead called my mom and asked if she could make me chicken curry.  But, eventually I did indulge in the original craving.  The Chicken McNugget is the gateway meat.  I mean seriously, how could you think you’re too good to have a locally sourced, organic lamb shank once you’ve gone there?

So, India. At last, we will meat again.

Pity-Booking: An Examination of Spinelessness

I am a sucker, and this is likely to cause some devastation along my travels.  It’s a given that many a widely grinning street vendor will call out, “Hello, Madam, special hand-made souvenir, made only here by us only!” and I will pay three times as much for the same item that is located in every souvenir shop around the corner. But, whatever, that sort of thing lasts two minutes and only impacts me financially.  What I’m more wary of is being made to feel emotionally obligated — a feeling that chips away at my soul and makes me question the fortitude my feminism. In the US, I have been swayed to purchase something or pay more than I normally would have because of persistent and/or good customer service — but I feel like Indians take it to the next level by stuffing you with food and chai and asking you about your family and making you feel like you’re part of theirs!!

It has already started; and the pathetic part is that I haven’t even been fed food or chai or asked about my family. What happened is this: a couple of months ago, I had thought about how perhaps I could do an organized South India tour, so I Googled “South India tours” and innocently filled out an inquiry form through one of the websites, mentioning some destinations and accommodations of interest. Within minutes, I received an enthusiastic response from a man named Ashok.  “Dear Miss Leena, Namaskar! and Greetings!!!!” he began, following with a detailed itinerary appropriately customized with the destinations and nature of accommodations I had requested.  Among the perks would be a “Man Friday” who would “walk with [me] along villages in the countryside as well as walk along bazaars of the city and point out fine eating places and shopping areas in different towns – a true friend.”  I had been talking with some cousins about traveling together and I wanted to figure things out with them before locking anything down, but I replied to Ashok to thank him and let him know that I would get back to him when I was more clear on my plans.

What followed was a near-daily email from Ashok with multiple exclamation marks, reminding me that he was eager to book my tour and could customize it in any way.  My cousin then arranged our travels to Chennai and Pondicherry, so the only remaining things I needed were one bus ticket, one hotel booking, and one plane ticket (I decided I could be my own “Man Friday”): all things that I easily could have booked on my own, online, instantly.  But I felt so indebted to Ashok that I contacted him to book these things for me, wanting him to make a decent commission for his time.

Ashok provided a reasonable quote for the items I requested, and asked me  to send a copy of my passport and visa, and make a partial credit card payment.  I thought it was kind of weird that he needed my passport and visa, and I had a mild inkling that he might be trying to steal my identity or overcharge my credit card — but I decided to run with it anyway, and did as requested.  Ashok replied back confirming receipt and said he would send my bookings by the next day.  After days and weeks of follow-up to which I just received “Namaskar Leena!!!! Yes, yes, we have booked it” types of replies with no actual evidence, I finally just today received a PDF of the bus ticket.  I called the hotel, which confirmed a booking under my name, and Ashok in a separate email also copied and pasted my flight details.  But why, oh, why was this process so torturous and long-winded when everything could have easily been attached to me the next day?  Part of me wished I had in fact been scammed, and that Ashok would be unreachable after I sent him my passport, visa, and credit card.  At least then, I would know that my life was possibly in danger, and I could just book everything again from scratch!

The fact of the matter is that things are not always going to be smooth or easy, and I will just have to be patient and accepting with the way things operate in different places. But at least I can do my part and resolve that pity-booking is a thing of my past!

the state of u, i, and us

At the dawn of my thirty-second birthday, I am about to ditch my bachelorette pad and my job as a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area for a month of travel to the UK and India.  This premise could have only been more romantic if I were recently divorced, white, and ascetically inclined (at least within the ambit of the mystical east) — but one thing I do share in common with the author of Eat, Pray, Love is the ability to decode what the modern-day English names of my destinations are obviously aiming to signify.  Whereas Ms. Gilbert traveled to three countries that began with the letter “I,” informing her that hers was a consummate inward journey, I am traveling to the UK, then India, then back to the US.  In other words, I am exploring the state of U, I, and US.

The UK has special theoretical significance to me as it is the land of my colonial forefathers, who spread their seed over both the United States, my country of birth, and India, my country of ancestry, leaving behind a lasting legacy of railways and repression.  I’m quite stoked to visit my cousin and her family in Wales, meet up with another cousin and her hubs in London, and also meet up with two friends who are coming from other locations.  It will be my first time there, and therefore it really will be like getting acquainted with U, a new person.

India is the place from which both of my parents hail, and where most of my relatives live.  I am brown, I love spicy food, and I was a multi-year spelling bee champion, so there is no doubt that India is the land of I.  However, with my limited first-hand exploration of the land, especially as a solo traveler, India in my mind has long been stagnated into a tableau that my parents have painted based on the 1970s India that they left behind.  This will be a time to challenge and expand that notion of I, to have that quintessential “American-Born Confused Desi (ABCD) exploring her roots” experience, where I will discover that India is a land of startling contrasts.  I am excited to reconnect with family members, some of whom I haven’t seen in years, if not decades.  Several wonderful cousin-bonding opportunities and excursions are in the works.  And I’ll finally get to experience a real Indian Diwali!

Oh yeah, while in India, I also plan to stalk the shit out of Bollywood.  During my first week in Mumbai, I have booked a stay at a hotel in Bandra, for obvious reasons.  To spell it out, some ABCD chick not too long ago started working out at Gold’s Gym in Bandra; today, she is John Abraham’s wife.  Apparently, he was attracted to the fact that unlike many women he encountered, she was unfamiliar with his star status.  I plan to work out at Gold’s Gym as well.  While I don’t have the lack of starstruckness to offer as an area of novelty, I do have a body type that will be mindblowingly unique compared to the usual Bollywood offerings.  I plan to leave India betrothed to Prateik Babbar and/or Siddharth Malhotra.

And finally, I will return to the US and try to situate and strengthen myself some more in the space of interconnectedness.  This is where my individual history all began: family, home, friends, school, career, community, and countless blessings.  But try and count them, I always do.