Monday, May 31, 2010

Pictures of our trip to Amritsar available on line

We posted the pictures of our week-end in Amritsar at: http://picasaweb.google.com/mmmarchisio.

Have a look, and vote your favourite one!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Indo-Pakistan flag-lowering and border-closing ceremony

Cheering public at the Indo-Pakistan border

We conclude the brief reportage of our week-end in Amritsar by describing the event that entertained us the most: the flag-lowering and border-closing ceremony at the Indo-Pakistan border.

About 30 Km from Amritsar, at the border between India and Pakistan, every late afternoon soldiers of the Indian and Pakistan armies liven up a military ceremony to close the border between the two countries, something that - with all due differences - can remind the change of the guard at Buckingham Palace (I repeat: with all due differences).

The event fulfils so much the patriotism of both countries that thousands of people, on each side of the border, flock every day to be present at it.

And the ceremony has become a real happening, something in between a concert and a sport event. Already a few hours before the event, the stands that have been constructed to accommodate this crowd are packed with people that, in a crescendo of enthusiasm, sing patriotic songs1 , wave Indian flags, and rhythmically cheer “Hindustan, Zindabad” (Long live Hindustan)2 - to which the Pakistani crowd on the other side of the border respond by singing “Pakistan, Pakistan!”.

It’s a competition between who makes more noise - until when a squad of soldiers, preceded by a long bellow from a soldier appointed for this task only, steps in and, in a mix of pompous colonial and funny goose-step styles, parades up and down in front of the cheering public3.

Then, one by one, each soldier marches aggressively (or comically, it depends on the point of view) towards the border, likely with the intention of intimidating the Pakistani soldiers that - from the other side of the border - are doing exactly the same, i.e. aggressively marching towards the Indian border one by one to scare the Indian soldiers4. Once the two soldiers meet face to face on the border, they spend a few instants threateningly looking at each other: chest out, fists clenched, and eyebrows knit - but without ever crossing the invisible line that divides India from Pakistan.

The ceremony concludes with the lowering of the Indian and Pakistani flags. The flags are simultaneously lowered and the process takes forever, as the soldiers responsible for this task have to be extremely careful that either of the two flags is at any point in time lower than the other5.

Once the flags are lowered, the most intense moment of the whole ceremony: the commanding officers of the two countries shake their hands before the gates are shut (but this happens so quickly that it’s easier to miss it than to notice it6).

Then the gates are shut, and the border is closed for the night.

1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQDsSDwwHiQ

2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKGVzaHUJZY

3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No2gw9hrsJk and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBBdpThjfCs

4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de02slkhouY

5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p36lBMGjxnY

6 And in fact I missed it, but luckily I found this extract from a BBC documentary which shows the hand-shaking pretty well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ0ue-XGl9c&feature=related (to be watched!)

Cheering public at the Indo-Pakistan border (detail)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The funny story of the Crystal restaurants in Amritsar

From Cain and Abel to Romulus and Remus, from Claudius and his brother, the king of Denmark, to Noel and Liam Gallangher, history has plenty of stories of disputes among brothers. And, small as it is, Amritsar has its own story as well.

Dilpreet and Gurinder Singh owned the Crystal restaurant, considered one of the best restaurants in Amritsar. Apparently, owing to a quarrel, they decided to split the restaurant: Dilpreet got the ground floor while Gurinder got the first and second floors.

Well, guess how they called their respective restaurant? ...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Mata Temple

Apologizes in advance if we may appear blasphemous in this post (the Hindus don’t hold it against us), but the Mata Temple in Amritsar is certainly the funniest temple we have ever visited!

Colourful, kitsch, full of people that enter, go out, sit, prey, chat… far from the serious and solemn atmosphere of our cathedrals, the first impression we had as we entered this temple was to be in a ‘neighbourhood club’ rather than in a worship place. But perhaps that’s the concept of ‘temple’ for the followers of Vaishno Devi.

But the most bizarre part of the temple had yet to come.

A few meters after the entrance, on the left, we noticed a staircase with a sign saying ‘Vaishno Devi cave’. Intrigued, we started mounting the stairs. We ended up in what could easily be the ‘fright circuit’ in an amusement park: a labyrinth of steep staircases, narrow passages, and low tunnels leading to the shrine of the main deity. To reach the shrine, we had to go through a series of ‘tasks’, including going through a tunnel where the ceiling was so low that we needed to crawl on all four to pass, or through a cave with ankle-deep water.

When we finally reached the shrine of the Vaishno Devi, Mathilde and I had the same feeling: we never enjoyed so much visiting a temple!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple

You say Amritsar and you cannot not think about the Golden Temple, literally ‘golden’ as entirely covered with (750 kilos of) golden layers.

Breathtaking, particularly when you suddenly and unexpectedly see it for the first time entering in the gurdwara* complex from one of the narrow doors of the surrounding buildings. And at night, it appears as a ‘One thousand and one nights’ vision…

What we enjoyed the most visiting this complex though was the sense of peace and spirituality that we could breathe within the walls of this gurdwara. An oasis of peace within the rowdy Amritsar, where thousands of devotees piously repeat their rituals, like plunging into the holy waters of the ‘Sarovar’ (Pool of Nectar) that surrounds the temple.

No worries: we didn’t convert to Sikhism, but we were definitively impressed by the seemingly pure devotion of these believers…

(*) http://www.matteoandmathilde.org/2010/03/visit-to-gurdwara-sis-ganj-sahib.html

Monday, May 17, 2010

Back from Amritsar

Les M&M’s are back from Amritsar.

We’ll post our stories and our pictures in the next few days.

Good night and... sogni d'oro! ('golden' dreams J)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Resuming India's exploration

Mathilde is back and les M&M’s begin exploring India again.

This evening we leave to Amritsar, the city of the Golden Temple, the Mecca of the Sikh.

We will be back on Sunday, hopefully with a few good stories to tell and pictures to show.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mississippi Masala

With ‘Mississippi Masala’ we concluded the quadriology of the controversial (for the Indians) and pluri-awarded director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Salam Bombay, Kama Sutra, and, precisely, Mississippi Masala).

And out of the four movies, Mississippi Masala was the one that I liked the most - perhaps because it touched on various themes (and places) to which I feel particularly attached: Africa, India and the United States; the ideal and the difficulties in pursuing a multi-ethnic society; the love for the different; the feeling of being a stranger in the country where you live; the romantic homesick for your own country...

Recommended to all those that, a bit like me, choose to be (or end up being) strangers in foreign lands...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

È arrivato Andreone!

Benvenuto!

Sarà anche ‘one’, ma a me sembra proprio piccino piccino*…

(C’è qualcosa di commuovente nell'osservare la sorpresa e lo stupore di questi occhioni che vedono per la prima volta il mondo)

(*) foto credit: Chiara

Monday, May 10, 2010

Italiani, popolo di poeti, artisti, eroi, pensatori, scienziati, navigatori...

Ps: a me la parola ‘curtura’ me ‘na certa mpressione…

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Do not pay bribes! (continues...)

(Continues from previous post*)

In one of our past posts, one of our good readers told us that he learnt more about India in the past three months reading our blog than in his entire life.

While certainly flattered, I have to say I feel quite the opposite, i.e. I have the feeling that three lives would not be enough for me to really understand India.

Vishnu and Shiva, Islam and Sikhism, the British and the Mughals, Ghandi and Kashmir, the ‘biggest democracy of the world’ and the cast system, 9% GDP growth and 50% of the population below poverty line, the world’s first woman prime minister and the widow’s ashrams, thousands and thousands of students sent to study in top universities worldwide and arranged marriages... as soon as you have the feeling to have finally understood something, there is suddenly something else that contradict your belief, and you end up as confused as before**...

Bribing. Bribing is another of those things that it is impossible to understand if you are not Indian. Officially punishable by law, socially accepted: it is very difficult to understand when it is a social norm, necessary to 'speed up' things (a ‘shadow cost’, as an economist would define it), and when on the contrary it is a real abuse of power.

An example. We were about to purchase a train ticket from Jasailmer to Delhi, where we spent a week end with our friends Riccardo and Patricia. Unfortunately there were not four seats close to each other anymore, and the only available option was to purchase two tickets in second class and two tickets in third class. No problem, we thought: once we are on the train, we’ll ask Riccardo and Patricia's neighbours in third class if they mind to exchange their seats with our two seats in second class. Who would refuse a free upgrade?

And that’s what we did: we asked the two neighbours in third class if they wanted to exchange their seats with ours in second class, and of course they were very happy to do so.

However, after some time, they came back to their original seats telling us that the ticket inspector didn’t allow them to sit on our seats. No problem, we thought: we’ll go altogether to explain the ticket inspector that we deliberately exchange seats to sit close to our friends.

With our great surprise, the inspector didn’t want to hear us, keeping on repeating that it was not possible to exchange seats in two different classes. Despite our insistence, he was inflexible. With great disappointment we thus returned to our second class seats.

The interesting thing is that Mathilde and I gave two opposite interpretations on the inspector’ stubbornness. In my opinion the ticket inspector was playing hard expecting a little bribe to allow the exchange - bribe that of course we didn’t give. For Mathilde on the contrary the inspector was afraid of being unjustly suspected and accused of having received a bribe to have allowed two passengers moving from the third to the second class - bribe for which he could be liable to prosecution.

Of course we’ll never know what the truth was, but this episode gives you a good example of how difficult is to understand the unwritten rules of this country, to penetrate into the social norms of this society, to behave correctly according to the situation in this mishmash...

And you, just for curiosity, how would you have interpreted the inspector’ stubbornness?

(*) http://www.matteoandmathilde.org/2010/02/do-not-pay-bribes.html

(**) I take this opportunity to signal an article that was recommended to me by Emanuele some time ago, and which well describes this strange feeling of ‘everything and its contrary’ that I am experiencing here in India... (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/opinion/15iht-edsebastian.html?scp=1&sq=tim%20sebastian%20&st=cse)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Welcome to Martin

... welcome among our ‘official’ followers!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Pros and cons of being a bachelor

With Mathilde travelling like a spinning top lately*, I have spent quite some time by myself in the past weeks. And considering the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of being a bachelor again...

(1) I can cook pasta every evening (but don’t get my weekly amount of veggies and vitamins)

(2) I can sleep diagonally in the bed (but don’t get my ‘good-morning kiss’ when I wake up)

(3) I am not forced to speak with anyone before 9 am (but need to wait until 6.30 pm if I want to speak with Mathilde)

(4) I can wander half-naked round our home without running the risk of being caught by the webcam while Mathilde is having a Skype-conference with her boss - or, worst, with her parents! (but in the end a bit of sound exhibitionism is not the end of the world!)

(5) I can switch the A/C off when I sleep (but need to turn it on and wait ten minutes sweating before the house cools down when I go back from work and nobody is home)

(6) I can go directly to the pool without spending two hours shopping before during the week-end (but being at the pool by myself is not that fun)

(7) I don’t run the risk of not finding ‘my’ apples in the fridge because 'someone else' ate them (but cannot blame anyone if I forget to buy them)

(8) I can let my goaty grow (but have nobody who purchases the ‘hair fall therapy shampoo’ for me)

(*) http://www.matteoandmathilde.org/2010/03/times-in-washington-with-me-travelling.html

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Nomadic Orchestra of the World in Delhi – and other thoughts

A few years ago a friend of mine asked me “if you could choose, would you be a farmer or a herder?”.

Good question. On the one hand I strongly feel I need roots, a house, a land, the security of the cyclic succession of the seasons. And I highly value the value of waiting: waiting winter to pass before spring comes again, waiting years before a plant grows and gives its fruits...

But on the other hand every time I observe the nomadic life of the herders, the harshness and yet the beauty of their lands, the neverending horizons and the sense of freedom of their rangelands, and the sense of uncertainty and yet the opportunities that the constant search of new grazing areas offer them, I cannot not be fascinated by their lifestyle. Perhaps because, in a way, I feel a bit nomadic myself. A modern nomad...

Last week-end we went to a concert of the Nomadic Orchestra of the World, a group of nomadic musicians from Rajasthan that plays a fusion of traditional and folk Rajasthan music. The group has been created through an initiative to promote music as an alternative livelihood opportunity among nomadic communities.

The Orchestra played with contagious enthusiasm. I post here a couple of short videos that I took during the concert (sorry, the quality is not up to much and my memory card filled up during the concert - but still, they give a good idea of the rhythms and the kind of music they played):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJkKfL2XDKs and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqmsQc_J4_o

Within this context, we met Andrea, the leader of ‘Le Nuove Tribù Zulu’, a bohemian street-group from Rome that plays a fusion of gipsy, folk, rock, punk, ska, polka and tarantella music. One of the projects of this group aims at bringing together various nomadic groups from all around the world and blending their rhythms and music. Andrea was here in Delhi to formalize the collaboration with the Nomadic Orchestra, with whom Le Nuove Tribù Zulu already played a couple of years ago.

Below a few videos of the group:

- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLu-LGEaCJs&feature=related (‘Zingara’ with Chejá Celen)

- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__D8wp-dwTE&feature=related (Concert with the NOW in Villa Ada in 2008)

- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SN7Fcb2iTCs&feature=related (videoclip of ‘Da domani cambio vita’)

As time passes and as my musical tastes evolve, I realize how much I am intrigued by these gypsy rhythms. Perhaps because, as I said above, in the end, deeply inside, I am a bit nomadic as well…

And by the way, you, if you could choose, would you be a farmer or a herder (or a fisherman)?