Charminar

This weekend I went out with Jann, Chad, David, Natasha, and a collegue of Jann’s husband named Debbie. We drove down to the “old city” to visit Charminar, which is a major landmark in Hyderabad.
The CharminarCharminar translates to mean “four minarets.” It is located in a very Muslim part of town. Hyderabad is about half Muslim and half Hindu, and Christianity is gaining hold. Unlike many parts of India, the Hindus and the Muslims co-habitate really harmoniously here. The monument was built in the late 16th century supposedly to thank Allah for answering a prayer of the king. On Fridays the area is flooded with devotees who come to the area to worship. Charminar is a square structure, with towers on four corners, and arches on each side. It’s beautiful.
Surrounding Charminar is a huge market which extends about a kilometer in all four cardinal directions. The street on the south side is jam-packed with shops selling fabrics, and glittering bangles. And when I say glittering, I mean glittering. Jann and I went into one of the small shops to purchase a pair of bangles. David followed to try and get a picture, and we all almost had a seizure. The bangles are brightly colored and set with rhinestones and glitter that has been enameled over. The shopkeepers really play this up, installing bright lights that beam down into the counters. The intense light refracts in the rows and rows of bangles and sends sparkles everywhere. My bangles are blue, green and gold. I liked them because they reminded me of the peacocks in india.

The east side of Charminar was full of vendors selling everything from pocket watches to handmade perfumes. We stopped to watch a man grinding ginger and gardenia flowers down, making a sweet smelling extract. We also saw many beggars, most of which were terribly disfigured. I really struggle with the homeless and destitute out on the street here. Mostly because I don’t understand how to effectively help them, or how to emotionally process the magnitude of poverty and suffering. I looked to see if any of them were notably afflicted with leprosy, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

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The Pom! so good.

The north side of Charminar is a huge fruit market. I loved all the noise and the color. Vendors pushed carts piled high with guavas, oranges, mangos, grapes and pomegranates! (I looove pomegranates). The fruits, like oranges, were often stacked in pyramids or piled high in baskets. On the top of the display there were fruits that were cut open, exposing their sweet interior, in order to tempt hungry shoppers. I found myself inevitably drawn to the shiny red pomegranate seeds (but ultimately opted to wait and eat the poms waiting in my refrigerator for me at home.) Some men carried long stalks that still had bunches of bananas attached to them. These men would unsheathe a large knife and slash off a bunch, bargaining with a customer for the best price. For the record, the fruit in india is amazing. It will be hard to adjust to the produce back home, especially the pomegranates (can you tell I’m fixated? I’m going to need a 12 step program to get off the pom).

The west side of Charminar I found to be pretty strange. Its “dental row.” We walked up and down just to see it, because trust me, none of us was about to get a root canal in the old city. Dental row is hard to articulate, but imagine an open air market hybridized with a dentists office. But not a clean, sterile, professional dentist’s office. They were kind of dark and creepy dentists office, like you might see in a haunted house, or Little Shop of Horrors. Oftentimes the “offices” would be about the size of a garage, open in the front so you could see inside. Inside I’d see an old dentists chair, and some faded posters advertising braces or cavity filling.  Behind the dentists chair would be a table containing dental tools.  In one of the corners of the room, waiting patients could sit on a wooden bench. Most of the offices were empty, but I caught the eye of a few people sitting on those benches. The anxious look of waiting for the dentist seems to be pretty universal. That whole strip was pretty bizarre.

With the exception of the west side, the whole market was packed with people.  Kukatpally, where I live, is a traditionally Hindu area and is starting to undergo some growth and renovation due to the nearby “high tech city” which is spilling over into the suburb.  The result of that is boutiquey shops (like where I bought my dresses), new businesses, a growing local economy, and a more cosmopolitan perspective.  Prior to my visit to Charminar, I haven’t had a ton of exposure to the Muslim culture in Hyderabad. And certainly not the like that of the “old city.”

Most strikingly, a large majority of the women I saw were wearing full Burqas. Black. So in addition to the long cloak that reaches down to their shoes, the women’s heads and faces are covered by thick, dark cloth.  Tiny slits allow for visibility.  When I looked at these women’s eyes, they usually showed surprise.

I would imagine they were looking me in surprise because while  they were fully burqa-ed, I was wearing long capris and a t-shirt (which might as well have been a bathing suit by the looks I was getting.)   I’d also like to point out that the temperature was over 90 degrees today. How these women don’t pass out from heat stroke is beyond me.

I’d rather not get into the whole discussion of culturally oppressed women right now, because I recognize that the burqa is (in theory) for the protection of the woman’s dignity. Rubina and I talk about it alot. She is very devotely Muslim, but refuses to wear one. She claims that in many cases, strict Muslim marriages are a form of slavery. Consequently she also refuses to wed anyone.  I think its fair to say that for the most part, the women out here don’t wear burqas based on their own free choice, but rather at the dictation of their male family members. (Have I mentioned, by the way, that I think Rubina is a really amazing woman? She’s inspiring.)

I was glad to be flanked by Chad and David on each side, who gave glaring looks back at the men who stared at my arms and ankles. At one point we (half) jokingly talked about buying me a burqa, which were available for purchase all around Charminar. The good news was that whenever we needed to cross the street, the traffic all but came to a halt.

At the end of the long afternoon in the Old City, we all piled in the car and went out for dinner. We ate at a beautiful italian (italian!!) restuarant, and I ate my dinner with a fork. It may seem inconsequential to you, dear reader, but this is the first fork I have used in over a month. I was really excited!

So to sum it all up: another day, another adventure in India!

lots of love,

g

Charminar
Charminar

Material girl

I’ve decided that I need to take further measures to assimilate into Indian culture. Moreover, I’ve been jealous of the pretty saris I see the women around me wearing. So this afternoon after church, I went shopping in downtown Kukatpally with Theresa. Our mission, to find me a dress!

As I mentioned, Theresa is very frugal. She insists that we walk everywhere, and will not allow me to hail an auto-rickshaw. The “autos” as they are called, are the Hyderabad equivalent to a taxi, except they aren’t actually cars. The are much more like golf carts or maybe even tin cans on wheels. Each auto comes fully equipped with three wheels, a bicycle horn (think Honkers from Sesame Street), and a souped up engine that resembles my dad’s lawnmower. They don’t move very quickly, but nothing does since traffic is so congested. The fare is about 10 rupees for a couple kilometes, but I’m finding when you’re American that price goes up to about 20 rupees (which is still only 40 cents). The little yellow autos whiz around like bumblebees, beeping their horns and scooping up passengers. They have so much character, they certainly don’t seem very safe, but I absolutely love them!

I tried to use all of my most convincing persuasion skills (read: whining) to get Theresa to let me grab us an auto, but alas, we walked. The exercise is good for me and all, but have I mentioned that I love the autos?

While we were walking, a small crowd of street children started to follow us. Its hard to tell if the children are following because they are begging, or because they are curious (most have never seen a white person before). Its probably a combination. They did hold out their hands asking for money, but kept calling “auntie auntie” and pointing to my shoes, my skirt and my skin. Its also very hard because they are children. I mean, we have homeless people in Cleveland, and social workers advise citizens not to give money to the homeless, but to rather donate money or time at a shelter or homeless facility. But these children don’t exactly have those kinds of options. Additionally, many street urchins in India are pimped as beggars, and they don’t keep their earnings. So supporting begging is really reinforcing this kind of abuse. I asked Theresa if we could stop at a fruit stand and buy them some food. I saw a quizzical look in her face that softened. She refused me, and explained that we would be swarmed by many more children who could potentially become unruly or even dangerous, and that they would all follow us home. That may be true: but. they. are. children. Small 5 and 6 year-olds with big brown eyes and hungry tummies. I kept walking and felt tears stinging the back of my eyes.

Theresa snapped at the children sharply, and waved them away. Eventually they disbanded, but I think about them often.

We made it to the department store, called “Taruni,” which was very exciting. This was my first shopping trip in India that involved going inside a building. When I walked into the store, I approached the desk and showed the clerk my credit card asking very slowly “Visa? Accepted?” His eyes lit up, thinking I’m sure, Woo Rich American carrying plastic! Big Sale! He said, “Yes Madam” and called over 6 (I am not exaggerating, there were 6) store attendants to help me find a dress for work.

We took the elevator upstairs to the ladies dresses and I was in awe. Indian fashion is extremely colorful and decorative. The whole room was lined with tall shelves containing piles and piles of neatly folded dresses and sari materials. The head clerk, a tall English-speaking man who was impeccably dressed with a Rico Suave hairstyle and subtly lazy eye, asked me what color I was interested in, and I answered, “something bright.”

The attending clerks pulled out a chair for me, and rapidly began unfolding dresses before me carefully gauging my reactions. I made them get a chair for Theresa, and told them I was most interested in her judgment. She was amused when they directed the fuss towards her, since I get the impression that slick people like these clerks generally treat her like a peasant. The clerk would say, “madam, this embroidery is exceptional” and I’d say, “hey Theresa, what do you think of this exceptional embroidery?” She kept laughing saying, “Regina! I don’t know, they are all nice!” I tried to get Theresa to try some dresses on with me, but if I learned anything on this trip, it would be that Theresa is a rock against my persuasion efforts.

Because it is such a hip and fashionable store,”Taruni” only sells Indian dresses called Punjabis (for the younger, more emancipated woman who likes to take steps wider than 6 inches) as opposed to tightly bound saris. I ended up purchasing one full Punjabi outfit, which included a long tunic (the dress part) which was bright blue with tiny gold pinstripes and gold beaded embroidery. Additionally, it came with little pantaloons (gotta keep those ankles covered!) that had matching blue and gold beading, and a blue chiffon shawl which also matched. The whole set cost a little over 900 rupees (or a rough $20, Theresa almost died). I also bought two additional, less ornate Punjabis (each 600 rupees) that were not part of a set: one that is a rusty red color, and the other is greenish blue.

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New Punjabi!

We went to the next department store to purchase a sari. This store provided us with four clerks, none of whom spoke English, so Theresa ran the show. In essence, a sari is just a really big piece of pretty cloth. From this piece of cloth, a chunk is cut off the back and a blouse is tailored for the individual. The blouse is kind of like a sports bra with sleeves. Indian women generally sew their own blouses, but I have to see a professional tailor to make mine  because  1.) I don’t know how to make this blouse and 2.) even if I could, I don’t sew.  (Sunita offered to do it, but she won’t allow me to pay her, and she has enough work). The clerks pulled sari after sari from the shelves and unfolded them between two people like they were airing out a sheet. These colorful billowing fabrics were displayed for me to inspect the intricate beading patterns, which kind of reminded me of butterflies. If I didn’t seem immediately pleased, the clerks would unceremoniously drop the yards of fabric and try and capture my interest in a new pattern. It was really fun. Each sari was more beautiful than the one before it, and I had no idea how I would chose one!

Eventually Theresa and I narrowed the selection down to a green sari with blue and silver embroidery, and a red sari with gold beading. The clerks whisked me out of my chair and swirled yards of fabric around me, then he directed me towards the mirror. It was really remarkable, how quickly they transformed me from a dumbfounded observer into an Indian lady. I deliberated between the two, making a “pros” and “cons” list. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a clerk folding up a royal blue sari on the other side of the room. I pointed and said, “oh! that’s the one I want.” The clerk holding the red sari barely suppressed rolling his eyes but I could feel the exasperation.

I ended up getting the royal blue sari with silver embroidery and also a purple one with gold edging that I just sort of picked up (any of my close girlfriends will tell you that I’m something of a compulsory dress buyer). The first was about 1100 rupees, and the second was 600. I’m hoping to wear the blue one for Easter.

They are beautiful. Theresa and I dropped them off at the tailor on our walk home.