Category Archives: India

bhajans and boys: a three (3) part series

Part 1: Prashaad and Giving Up the P (Story Below)

Part 2: God’s Corner (Come back Wednesday, October 15, for Part 2)

Part 3: Souls Sung Clean (Come back Friday, October 17, for Part 3)

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Dear Readers,

Bhajan’s and Boys Intro: Somewhere between the 80’s and the late 90’s, Mira Mesa, my hometown, grew a Little India. Desi’s took over a strip mall section off Black Mountain Road, just before the Miramar Airforce Base. Now Mira Mesa, and the City of San Diego in general, has a Hindu temple, desi dinner spots, desi snack spots, a desi grocery store (we do love our food), and clothing boutiques (and we sho know how to dress).

But when I was growing up in San Diego, my family would drive two hours to Los Angeles to buy spices on Artesia Blvd. The closest thing to Little India in the whole damn city was the Hare Krishna temple in Pacific Beach. We’d go there sometimes. Me pressed back against my mother’s legs as the pale, sari and dhoti clad people danced alarmingly. They’d circle up tight, and then speed up wide, until it was almost as though they were chasing each other in a huge, raucous game of Duck Duck Goose. And then they fed anyone who walked through their doors. Their generosity was appreciated. But their quasi-desi khana was to my moms home cooking what sugar substitutes are to sugar.

Thank god for the Trekannand’s. Every Thursday night Prem Uncle, Sheila Anti, and Deepak, their son, would open up their Mira Mesa home to any and all (but mainly desi folks) for bhajan. The pooja ceremony would start at 7pm. Final aarthi plus prashaad had us leaving around 10pm. In between we sang and sang.

The Trekannand’s were like the Jackson 5 of San Diego Hindus. Prem Uncle sang and played harmonium. Sheila Anti sang a steely backup and played light precussion, mainly tambourine and manjira. Their son Deepak played and played the tabla from when he was young and learning till he was grown and fluent. Together, they led the high and low notes of our prayers.

After opening their home to San Diego for decades, the Trekannand’s moved back to Pune. San Diego is not the same without them, those cultural pioneers.

This story, “Bhajans and Boys,” is going to be told in three (3) parts. Part one (1) is called: Prashaad and Giving Up the P. It is a true coming of age story, of me, an Indian in America. Come back for Part 2 on Wednesday.

Enjoy.

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bhajans and boys: a three (3) part series

part 1: prashaad and giving up the p

by roopa singh

“prasada: in its material sense, prasada is created by a process of giving and receiving between a human devotee and the divine god.”

here’s a clue. if someone hands you a plate of prashaad, you Have To Eat It. you have to Dive in to it while they are watching. why? because it shows that you are not above honoring custom. and it proves that you love the gods and the gods love you back. or something.

clue number two. if you absolutely cannot finish your plate of prashaad, either pawn that sucker off to your dad (if he’s there) cuz lord knows he’ll eat it, or ask your mom (if she’s not busy) to hold your plate for you for ever, or, worse comes to worst, leave the offending plate on an end table by one of the Nana Ji’s when he’s not looking. whatever happens, do not get seen throwing away a plate of prashaad. total cultural suicide. an absolute no-no.  especially for an American born, hip hop dancing, lamba chora Desi girl like me.

Prem Uncle and Sheila Anti had one son, Deepak. i just knew we were gonna get married. the three of them, the Trekannand family, hosted bhajan at their suburban track home every Thursday night.

every Thursday for years, the quiet block would jam to high heaven for hours, and their doorstep would be littered with shoes.

thick strapped beige chapaals with toe loops for the Nani Ji’s. thick strapped black chapaals with no toe loops for the Nana Ji’s. black and brown loafers for the Uncles. maroon slip-on’s and glittering heeled chapaals for the Anti’s. sneakers with internal weight activated lights for the little ones. nikes, reeboks, jelly sandals, and miniature versions of Uncle and Anti shoes for the big kids.

showing up to bhajan late meant wading through the swamp of these shoes.

“big brown hiking boots?”

must be that tall white man came again. sitting in the back, nodding and singing loud, even not knowing the words.

you add your shoes to the swamp. push wide the unlocked door to enter the tall ceiling room.

inside it looked just like zoya’s house. which looked just like sahil’s house.

suburbia.

zoya was my persian best friend. her dad was a taxi driver and back then they had this same two story house. back before his gambling lost them the house and all his medallions. back then we would watch MTV and BET for days in the same back room that the Trekannand’s had converted into a temple. back then zoya was always always in hip hop chat rooms on this new thing called aol, tearing up heads all over the country with her lyrical skillz. and I’d be writing on the sly, in my journal, or half practicing new step moves to show the team. when we weren’t watching tv.

back then, zoya was always on the brink of rage, punching holes in walls, screaming her guts out. they had fled what had been a good life in Iran. and sometimes her whole shell shocked family would duck every time the door bell rang.

i’d look around at them, bone still behind the sofa, and be like, “um, I think it’s the mail man…do you want Me to get the door?”

yo mtv raps, duran duran, blind melon, bone thugs, b-e-t’s the quiet storm. tv keeping us calm for hours. sometimes i’d get lucky and zoya’s mom would practice doing nails on me while we watched, layering my fingers thick with acrylic for hours until they were done and I had ghetto fabulousness all across my wing span.

inevitably the nails would fall off the next day, too thick. eventually, zoya’s pearly and lacy and tight mouthed mother would give up the salon track and work fast food, jack in the box and later, mcdonalds, bringing home american treats for her family before the daughters, zoya and soraya, fled the tense nest.

there were 5 models of homes in our southern cali neighborhood. a military town, so nothing too extravagant, but the Trekannand’s house had one key difference. the Trekannands had added on a room in the back, just to hold all the people who flocked to them for Thursday night bhajans.

we drove there dutifully, part of the flock. my mom and i. me reluctant at first. reverential at last.

we always passed jeanette’s house on the drive to bhajan. jeanette was my best black friend. she lived right around the corner from the trekannands.

jeanette had finally done it with larry, her man. she told me so in my backyard, arms stretched up, hanging onto the sliding glass door frame like otherwise she might blow away with the force of it.

“you did?” I couldn’t believe it. before me?

I quickly found me a man too. montrel. we met over the phone through friends of friends, phones and pagers. then, days later, we met at a gas station on the corners, aka the four corners, aka the four corners of death. that was back when southeast san diego was gangland and the intersection of imperial blvd and federal blvd was known for being lethal, an asphalt and concrete burial ground. bodies and dilapidated taco shops.

we met at the pay phones by where cars pulled up for air that cost a quarter. he looked good but vacant. just like i’d thought.  lips like soft like sun rays. eyes half closed to life. i just wanted to get this virginity thing over with. he would do just fine.

zoya and her sister had drove me up to southeast. on our way to the gas station we passed 47th street. i talked and talked of the 3 men i had in the palm of my hand on that one street, 47th street was my Shit.  i crowed, hadn’t given up the P to nary a one of ’em, and still had them risking to be with me.

there was michael, who i met at burger king, which he called “burger bing” cuz he was a hardcore blood like that (not) and thus would not pronounce the “see” or “kay” sound for nothing. michael was the first dude i let eat me out. he had “whoomp there it is,” by tag team on repeat the whole time. i preferred 95 south’s “whoot there it is,” it was way better to step to. but we managed to hit that third base, sweet and sticky contortionists in his white girl’s red sports car. the cop who eventually knocked on the steamy window wasn’t an asshole, but i was pretty mortified nonetheless.

then there was tony. a grave and gentle young man, who i had met in the living room of my homegirl nzingha’s house. nzingha’s mom was always home but never outside her bedroom, so it was like nzingha’s own place. her little brother pooty could spin some mean cartwheels on the front lawn. tony, who stayed on the phone with me all night long when that’s all i needed in the world. a lifeline. tony, who watched me seriously and kindly while he pushed two fingers inside of me and slowly, pumped.

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Stay tuned for more on Bhajans and Boys from ya fav political poet, roopa singh.

Part 2: God’s Corner, coming at you this Wednesday. See you then!

Peace,

roopa singh/N

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on tax, my desi family, and class

Dear Readers,

I don’t watch much tv now, but I used to be on it 8 hours a day, from 3pm, when I got home from school, to 12am, SNL, Jay Leno, David Lettermen time, with Ricki, Maury, Donahue, Jerry, and Oprah keeping me company while the day turned to grey. After I left home for college, I stopped the tv habit. Life had more in store.

But I still have some ways and means leftover from back then. 4 the past few days, I’ve been opening up the New York Times like, “there’s nothing good on.” Iraq, economy, no one taking responsibility, presidential primaries, a distant people tryna get free, sports leagues, elite gadgetry, institutions and people guilty and not guilty. I’m not feelin it. None of it. Fuck the whole thing.

Damn, that sounds so American.

But Indian-American is what I be. Educated and in my body. Questioning underneath the answers fed to me. Searching for something uncomfortable in the addictive comforts tv/i.v. fed to me.

https://i0.wp.com/news.bbc.co.uk/media/images/42640000/jpg/_42640957_holi_paint2_afp.jpg

Top Question Area Today: IRS Rebate Checks aka Economic Stimulus Payment aka Blood Money?

I can’t even lie. I will be using my lil rebate real pretty. Have you heard about it? At least $300 back to you clean, so long as you file your 1040/ez and you as an individual made above $3,000 and under $75, 000. Now I know you know about it.

But, what I wonder is, have you wondered about it?

Class Truths and Lies: All in the (Desi) Family

I grew up in a pukka Desi family. Class was at once a rigid and fluid thing. My mom is Brahmin, father Rajput. Their marriage was like an interracial marriage in America circa 1955. The rigidity of class seeped out of their renegade wedding pictures, no family in the room around the fire, thick frames on beehived faces, only fellow students from their graduate program their to bear witness to that seven times around the earth, wind, and fire, supreme ceremonial rites of passage.

The fluidity of class flew in a spray of salty wave as my parents went from stand clear, head first and only ones in their generation to immigrate, to graduate student housing and government cheese, to their first home and garden in their early 30’s, to three cars, to dissolve scene, atrophy dream, coping mechanisms broke and overused like fossil fuel.

It’s like they used all their life energy just to get here, and the momentum lasted them from 30 to 50, but now that their 60 its like their 80, and I wonder if they’ll be here when I have my first baby. Physically here, I mean. Mentally they are already heaven meet hell, free.

As the only girl child, I was brought up to think that we were struggling for money. But somehow, my older brother always had the impression that we were rich. At least that’s what it seemed like as he asked for and received a mahogany baby grand, a BMW motorcycle, expensive music schools and lessons, a truck. I took that truck though. Drove the shit out of it too.

Many people, and I, at the very least, have experienced class as a multi-layered affair. Changing in the aging of our families. Hierarchical internally, resulting in various economic class positions within the home itself. Education added in as a floating variable, we go working class to rich in small talk rooms when they ask you where you went to school. Class is always an intersection.

This Tax Rebate Feels Kinda Half-Baked

The Tax Rebate aka Economic Stimulus Payment reminds me of that feeling I used to feel in my dope house on 8324 Teresa Drive, back in the day when I was young I’m not a kid anymore, but sometimes, I sit and wish I was a kid again, feeling like we were always broke, but yet and still, watching money steady coming from some source to fund the war to keep my brother happy, despite and because of it all.

No money, the country is broke, but as the sun sets one of our most blatant dynasties, there is a prize, a lottery win without the red tape debt addiction ties, at least 300 bones, a night at the bar if you buy drinks for your friends. A pair of shoes. Three months of subway rides. 45 days in a beautiful hotel in McLeod Ganj, set against the Himalayas, a type writer tapping in the distance, mist over monkeys you watch because they watch you, it is too, blood money.

And I know we deserve it, I’m not hating, thought you knew.

I’m just telling, giving free what’s true.

Back in the day people from India to America used to protest by not paying taxes unfairly laid on them by oppressive governments. Which makes sense, cause it’s not always we have and hold something they want.

Was it all a dream? See, cuz the last story I read about American’s withholding taxes in protest of the war said something about 50 cents a month folks wasn’t payin off their phone bills. To be fair, the amount probably adds up, eventually.

What is there to protest? How about the awkward reality that we pay taxes in an every man for himself system. Forget a flat tax, or a proportional tax, here, now, poor generally pay proportionally more than rich. Just because rich can hire an advocate, a genie in a bottle, a fourth wish. It’s just like the criminal justice system. In the modern day, American form of capitalism, these basic state functions become unnecessarily abrasive to the working class.

Why should these basic state functions lubricate the stability of the wealthy and drag fingers on chalkboard down the spines of the poor and working people?

Why is justice tied to money?

Why are tax burdens less burdensome for the wealthy?

When did capitalism equal democracy?

When life could be so sweet, spring buds on trees?

White swan looks my way through the breeze?

West Indian food steeped in Flatbush Avenue grease?

Water necklace on a Oshun throat of honey?

Why is justice tied to money?

What aint the news teaching me?

*

Stay tuned for more and more, from your favorite political poet with All the News That’s Fit to Flip, NaXaL.

Peace,

rs/N

Tips for NRI’s Traveling Back to the Motherland: A Series (Part One: Until Now)

Dear Readers,

The next few posts are aimed at Non-Resident Indian’s looking to go back to the motherland.  But really, it’s for everyone who knows what it means to be a bridge.  In this era of American-supremacy, I know I for one am still learning how to come correct in other countries.  We must travel, see more than our isolated island existence permits.  Traveling pierces through facades of comfort.  And surely, we can each become travelers every day, in our daily lives, through doing something new and uncomfortable and daring every day.  It is a time of recall, our mother countries have issued a draft.  Can you hear it?  Warriors, we are needed for the war has escalated, the battlefield has entered our bones, armed borders etched across the faces we see in the mirror.  It is time to go back to roots, and clear the day for our ways to shine.

Read on, for the political poet’s take on traveling back to roots.

Tips for NRI’s Traveling Back to the Motherland: A Series

Part One: Until Now

Tip #1: Leave the family circuit and travel India–if the tourists can do it, you can too. 

Tip #2: Balance your bargaining instinct with generosity.  Don’t be afraid to contribute to the local economy, you are not a failure if you lose out on a few rupees. 

 

If I left it up to my relatives generally, and Mom and Dad specifically, I would never be face to face with my mother country.  Instead, India would always be handed to me on a plastic, flower stamped tray, hot chai steaming, biscuits gleaming, a role all carved out for me in the ivory of my cousin’s weddings, loving new nieces and nephews, hand made sweets in my mouth, and kum se kum four meals a day without ever having lifted a finger. 

 

Until now.

 

In this past month, I learned a few lessons on traveling adventurously and comfortably as a solo woman trekking through India.  “Tips for NRI’s Traveling Back to the Motherland: A Series,” is meant to be informative and funny.  The list reflects my own political leanings, class standing, and goals.  With that, I’m gonna pass these tips along to you, my Indian-American sisters and brothers who are proud to be, not sure how to be, are so beautifully, Desi. 

 

Tip #1: Leave the family circuit and travel India–if the tourists can do it, you can too.

 

Until now, I’d never traveled alone in India for more than one night and two days.  and I’ve been to India eleven times.   But this January I traveled solo through India for a month.  I’m an unmarried, 30 year old, desi woman, who speaks well-accented but tutti-futti Hindi.  And I am a survivor of sexual violence, so taking chances is not something I do lightly.  Alone, I navigated blue toned trains, government buses color coded by state, chrome delhi metro, black and yellow auto rickshaws, sea green with purple trim cycle rickshaws, cavernous white maruti vans, silver four-door sedans, and proud golden camels to get to Old Delhi’s Juma Mosque, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj’s Monastaries, Banasthali’s Hanuman Mandir, and Jaisalmer’s Jain Temple and sand dunes.  Just me, myself, and God.   

 

Traveling solo in India is one of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself.  But the pull of family, wanting to see them, them wanting to protect you, can make it hard to venture off.  The one night and two day trip I mentioned earlier?  It was my first solo trek, a simple overnight jaunt down the well-worn travel route from Delhi to Rishikesh. 

 

As I clawed my way out of the web of family obligation and guilt towards the bus station, no less than five uncles and cousin brothers accompanied me On To the bus, whereupon they shouted messages between me and the over worked bus driver regarding my safety and how I was from America, and that I was going to Rishikesh but had never been there before thereby endangering me far more than I had ever anticipated.  The bus was actually moving, en route, before my gorgeous male relatives hopped off, and one by one began to wave at me through window bars, heaving out a few last mortifying messages my way as the bus careened through traffic towards the mountains. 

 

The trip to Rishikesh was magical.  I arrived at night, when it seemed a cloud had descended over the inlet.  A monkey and I walked across the narrow bridge to Rishikesh, where, because it was late, I quickly decided on a place to stay.  The next morning, after treating myself to warm dollops of scented oil after a cold shower, I chose not to visit the string of temples, and hiked up around the curve of a misty green mountain, with a fresh river ganga on my left.  When I got tired, I hitched a motorcycle ride to Neel Kanth, a Shiv Ji pilgrimage site. 

 

Ten years ago I traveled the world on a ship, making solo treks across countries I’d never been to before.  Train rides in South Africa through White wine country to Colored townships, crammed buses rumbling through eastern Kenya, hiking over bat caves in Malaysia, witnessing the aftershocks of war in Vietnam-it was an adventurous and confidence building experience. 

 

And yet, exactly one year ago, post-Rishikesh trek, I was back to wondering how the hell to get my Cha-Cha Ji’s permission to walk five steps down the lane to do something death defying like buy my own Bisleri or make a phone call at the STD stand, alone!

 

Until now, my trips back to India have been a revolving door of relatives homes, train tickets shoved in my hand, cousin brothers valiantly waiting for at the bus stand, I was rarely alone.  India for me has largely been spent in-doors.  Under the fluorescent light of my temporary bedrooms I’d peer in the mirror at my face, and affirm to myself, “I live on my own in the States, and I know how to travel.”

   

To be fair, every situation has its good and bad.  The upside of being inside the home, is that I get to bond with family, women members in particular.  The down side is, staying inside just isn’t me, especially not if I’m traveling.  Result being, I rarely feel like myself in India, and moreover, the country I spend so much time thinking about, framing myself around while in the States, ends up feeling like it’s a world away, even when I’m right there. 

 

This year I was at a place in my personal, spiritual, and political development to put the halts on the in-the-home pattern.  Yes Mausi Ji, you can still put “homely” as a description in my Bio-Data, but your ‘lil niece is outro.  How did I do it?  First off, I didn’t talk much about my plans to anyone, especially my parents.  Second, I made liberal use of the relatively new E-ticket option on the Indian Railways website (http://www.irctc.co.in/), which made getting around a breeze.  Third, I was willing to rough it, spend occasional days on crowded buses, pressed up against brothers and sisters who were both friendly and shady.  Just like here. 

 

Fourth, I gave myself permission to rest, indulge, go wide and go deep.  Wide, as in I went far.  From Delhi, to Chandigarh, to Amristar, to Dharamshala in the span of four days.  Deep, as in I stayed in Dharamshala for a week.  I established patterns, formed a temporary community.  Stopping by to visit the young folks running Moon Peak Café with its museum lighting and Radiohead soundtrack for breakfast, talking to them for a while about Bjork, trading mixes, then, after a walk watching gold and silver monkey’s dance with Tibetan prayer flags in the street, I’m speaking to the same young mama from yesterday begging not for money but for milk, I give her money with from the small arsenal of 10 rupee notes I have in hand for people who ask, contemplate such things as guilt and compassion, and in this head space, hit up the Namgyal Café tucked into the Dalai Lama’s monastery, with its ghetto superstar owner and his long black hair, he walked me to the bookstore, held my hands, looked in my eyes and said my hands were cold, we stared across chance, he owns that café, they got this steamy thugkpa soup with mushrooms and tofu and eggs to die for. 

 

Deep.  As in I saw certain people over and over and, in that way, learned more about them, and let them see something of me.  Expanding through width, and then resting through depth, made trekking more sustainable.  Just like here.  



Tip #2: Balance your bargaining instinct with generosity.  Don’t be afraid to contribute to the local economy, you are not a failure if you lose out on a few rupees. 

 

I know, bargaining is in your blood.  Your mom still tries to bargain with the Macy’s department store clerk like they’re the sabzi walla announcing wares in the pink river colony dawn.  But please, don’t go back to the motherland and be all stingy.  It’s more of a headache than its worth.  Why plague every money interaction by fear and suspicion that someone is cheating you?  Lighten up, live a little, give a little, you can afford to be generous here.  A bit of generosity goes a long way these days, as tourism sweeps through drought with promises of candy rain, you can easily, and cheaply, distinguish yourself from tourists coming in to get high, get laid, and make a killing in the market.    

 

But remember, while you are not a failure if you pay a bit more for your rickshaw, hotel, scarves or bangles than your relatives whose pay scale is different than yours–you Are a failure if you consistently pay the Ungraij/Engraj (translated as “English person,” though generally used for all white-ish foreigners) rate.  Folks did try to sucker me, and the persistent sale of all things drained some magic out of the grand pilgrimage sites I visited.  I was praying in Jaisalmer’s Jain Temple when a priest began to ring a bell before me.  Paisa, he pointed to a slot in a steel box, here.  Oh, I responded, yai bath hai (so that’s the main point).  Tourism puts everything on the auction block.  I talked to the priest later on.  He leaned against one intricately framed door, peered at me from the milky light eyes of age, and broke down the differences and similarities between Jain and Buddhist deities.  Dude was cool. 

 

Do bargain, do stand up for your right to be treated as a human being and not just a dollar sign.  Don’t take it bargaining too seriously, too much of the time.  In the towns I visited, particularly McLeod Ganj and Jaisalmer, towns with a burgeoning population of tourists, Israeli travelers had a bad rep for being ruthless bargainers, and this was not conducive to warm interactions with hotel, food and transportation providers. 

 

Bargaining is a glorious and necessary economic Indian language, another splash of vibrancy in our culture.  Even when I was tired and my Hindi wasn’t all that, I rarely accepted the first offered rate.  Ladies, if it was at night, I not only accepted higher rates, I also paid extremely keen attention to my gut instinct before placing my body in anyone’s hotel, restraint, or rickshaw.   

 

The longer I was there, the more sense I had of what things actually cost.  To get a feel of what rates generally are, pay attention to how much basics like groceries are, and don’t be afraid to ask.  Or be afraid, but ask anyway. 

 

Stay tuned for more of Tips for NRI’s Traveling Back to the Motherland: A Series.  Part Two is called, “Kryptonite,” I’ll touch on NRI guilt, and anti-guilt responses that work.