Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The Hindu gods are everywhere in India – streetcorner shrines, home shrines, temples on every block and images painted on walls. They really are a part of daily life, worshiped every day, and everyone has his favorite.

My favorite is Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who is the Remover of Obstacles. In Jaisalmar, when there is a marriage, Lord Ganesh is painted on the outside wall with the date of the wedding and the names of the bride and groom. It makes it easy to keep tabs on your neighbors.

When we were touring the Taj Mahal in Agra, our guide, Komar, was describing the attributes of the various gods (like super heroes, they all have their own special powers) and he told us that President-elect Obama always carries in his pocket an image of Ganesh, the Elephant god. We didn’t argue, because Komar seemed so confident he was right. (After all, Obama could have gotten to know the Hindu gods when he was a schoolboy in Indonesia.)

The people of India are ecstatic about Obama’s election and consider him one of their own. Last week someone forwarded a YouTube link to a catchy Hindi pop song with English subtitles—a tribute to Obana. (Check it out at ) “Obama, we love you” goes one repeated lyric. ”He is ruling everyone’s heart despite skin color”

About halfway through the song the lyrics say, ”“A follower of Hanuman [the Monkey god] he has Ghandian beliefs.”

Well, I don’t know which Hindu god is Obama’s favorite. Hanuman, the Monkey god is a symbol of strength and tenacity. In Varanasi we went to a Hanuman temple that was jam-packed with worshipers and live monkeys. I had been warned about monkey bites --India does not have the right rabies vaccine and I would have to be flown out of the country immediately. Although I was keeping my distance, two separate monkeys grabbed hold of the pashmina shawl I was wearing and I had to do a tug of war both times to get my shawl back.

On our last morning in Varanasi we had breakfast on the roof of the Shiva Ganges View guesthouse overlooking the town, and we watched a number of monkeys leaping from roof to roof. A mother monkey, with her baby clinging to her back, jumped down to the balcony of a English guest house where a door had been left open. She emerged from the room with toast, then went back and got an orange, flying to a higher roof to eat it. After the English tourist inside yelled at her and slammed the door , she came back in through the window and stole the girl’s book and raced away. I think Hanuman the monkey god should be a symbol of craftiness and maybe the god of thieves.

In Jaisalmar I bought a beautiful carved “traveling altar” allegedly made of camel bone, (it’s old) in the shape of two hands doing the “Namaste” salute that is used to welcome friends everywhere. (It means “I salute your inner being”.) When the hands are opened you can see my pal Ganesh riding on his vehicle (a mouse or rat) and Laksmi, the goddess of Prosperity, who is riding on her vehicle – an owl.

When daughter Eleni was beside the Ganges, a statue of Laksmi washed up at her feet and she took it home and is still waiting for prosperity to come in the window like a monkey. There are about 300 Hindu gods, but about nine are the important ones, from Shiva the Destroyer to Krishna the Supreme being to Kali, the dark mother of death and Parvati, the fair and lovely divine mother.

I think Obama should probably carry all of them in his pocket along with his Blackberry—he could use all the help he can get.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Everyone who has not yet seen the film “Slumdog Millionaire” should do so at once. It’s an unrealistic fairy tale with an unlikely feel-good ending, but it graphically illustrates the lives of the countless millions of India’s children who live on the street with only one concern: “How will I manage to find enough to eat today so that I’ll be alive tomorrow?”

Everywhere you go in India you will find beggars. This is particularly true in the large cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Mumbai is a city of 18 MILLION people and HALF of those people are homeless. That means that they live on the streets or in shacks made of tin or cardboard. A night-time drive from the airport in Delhi to Agra gave insights into these hovels and the families who consider home to be a piece of the median strip of the highway. It took an hour just to drive out of the city on a road that was jammed with rickshaws, camels, sacred cows and many, many beggars.

Frommer’s Guide to India in the “Mumbai” section deals with the problem of beggars: ”Families of beggars will twist and weave their way around the cars at traffic lights, hopping and even crawling to your window with displays of open wounds, diseased sores, crushed limbs, and starving babies, their hollow eyes imploring you for a few life-saving rupees…. In the worst of these tales of horror, children are maimed to up the ante by making them appear more pathetic. The choice is stark: Either lower the window and risk having a sea of unwelcome faces descend on you, or stare ahead and ignore them. To salve your conscience tip generously those who have made it onto the first rung of employment”

In India you quickly steel yourself to the crowds of children who are grabbing your arm, knocking on the window of your car, thrusting flowers into your pockets, repeating endlessly the only words of English they know: “Hello Madame, food, hungry, money, please, eat…”

If you give any of them money or even move toward your pocket or purse, their number suddenly increases tenfold and you cannot move for all the hands clutching at you.

In Mumbai, just outside our hotel, when we walked onto the shopping street of Colava Causeway, lined with stores on the right and street sellers’ booths on the left, all shouting their wares, there were two families of children who were particularly aggressive, following us for blocks, especially a girl of about 11 who kept thrusting flowers onto me anywhere they would stick, and her little brother who seemed to have no adult watching him as he skittered in front of us. I was so annoyed by them constantly clutching at me, but then one night, returning home about 11:30, I saw the family sound asleep on the sidewalk, the children curled into the prone body of their mother, and I felt guilt-stricken. The next day, before I left, I managed to give the girl a hundred rupees without anyone else noticing, and instead of unleashing a crowd on me, she grabbed it, grinned and ran. (It was worth only about $2.00 but that was probably a good day’s income to her.)

The beautiful and sad little girl from Jodhpur in the photo above, who was dressed and painted to look like a Hindu goddess, has a good gimmick, because the Hindu religion emphasizes giving money and food to holy persons as well as to sacred cows. On every street you can see poor Indians putting necklaces of flowers on the ubiquitous cows and feeding them. They also share their food with the bearded sadhus (holy men) dressed only in saffron loin cloths. These holy men live entirely on charity, renouncing all their worldly goods. Feeding them, like feeding the cows, is good karma for the Indians.

The little girls along the Ganges who sell small candles nestled in leaf-bowls are not strictly beggars – they’re actually young entrepreneurs, because everyone who comes to the Ganges wants to sail these candles into the river as an offering (as we did.) At night the boys in their rowboats row the pilgrims and tourists into large log-jams of boats gathered to watch the priests do their twilight fire worshipping on shore and the children selling floral chains, candles and pots of tea scramble agilely from one boat to another.

The children in India who manage to learn decent English are miles ahead of the ones who don’t—because they can move themselves and their families out of poverty and a life on the streets. All the tourists we saw – Japanese, Russian, Italian, Australian – use English as the lingua franca.

We hired Mark, a young man about 18—when we encountered him in Varanasi in a craft store that caters to tourists. His business card said he drove a rowboat and because his English was good, we booked him (at the usual rate of 150 rupees per person per hour) for a dawn trip down the Ganges the next morning.

As Mark paddled through the fog and darkness while the river woke up and the faithful began to bathe themselves and their cattle and their laundry, I asked him if the little girls who sold the candles went to school. He said all but one of them did – her parents couldn’t afford the 300 rupees ($6.00) per month that school cost. He also said that he personally was paying for one child to go to school. I learned that Mark was supporting his entire family of two parents and seven children with his three jobs (rowboat guide, craft store salesman and factory worker.) His father, formerly a carpenter, had TB. His mother had to stay home and care for his six younger siblings.

The biggest surprise was that Mark told us he, himself, despite his impressive business cards, could not read or write. “But how did you learn such good English?” we asked.

“From tourists in the store” he replied. If Mark had the leisure to go to school and become literate, he would probably become the Donald Trump of Varanasi.

I would like to find a philanthropy through which I could sponsor one or two children in India at six dollars a month to attend school rather than begging in the streets. (I already sponsor children through Plan but that goes to the community in Nepal not to the little girl herself.) I’ve been googling, trying to find such a philanthropy with access to Indian children, but without any luck so far, so if you have any suggestions, write me at

It’s really appalling that a country like India, which is now enjoying a huge boom in industry and technical know-how; a country that has a very wealthy class evident in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, cannot manage to provide free schooling for the millions of Indian children who live on the streets.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Every day during our travels around India—three weeks in half a dozen cities—we encountered sights that left us gaping in disbelief. Some things were beautiful beyond belief – the temples, the Taj Mahal, the silks and jewelry and tapestries and palaces. Others were just shocking: bodies being cremated on the side of the Ganges, the families of beggars sleeping on the sidewalks, the traffic snarl of trucks and camels and water buffalo and rickshaws all playing chicken while driving on the left side of the overcrowded highways.

Daughters Eleni and Marina and I had great adventures and epiphanies that I want to blog about, but at the moment I’m too sick. Having made it all the way through India without a stomach upset, I flew 14 hours back to JFK from Bombay and got off the plane with a killer cold which has left me too weak to produce eloquent prose just yet, so instead I’m posting photos of some of the colorful people we met—will tell you their stories later. We got to know maharajahs and beggars, thieving monkeys and hard-working camels, temperamental Hindu gods and goddesses and saintly Indian sadhus (holy men.)

Here are photos of two tribal girls (sisters I think) who live in the desert near Jaisalmar and enlivened our camel safari with their dancing. Also an elderly seller of peacock fans in Jaisalmar who was very proud that his photo was once featured on the cover of a German magazine.

In downtown Jodhpur we encountered a little girl beggar who had dressed and painted herself to look like a Hindu goddess, and on the banks of the Ganges, young girls who sell flowers and candles to toss into the Holy River asked us to take their photo. And everywhere we went, sacred cows (and water buffalo) calmly blocked traffic, especially in the narrow streets of Varanasi. That’s Marina on the right trying to maneuver around one. The folks of Varanasi, however, know how to make the best of the sacred cows and water buffalo and the cow pies that make walking such an obstacle path – they mold the cow poop into patties and dry them on the stairs leading down to the Ganges and use the dried patties for fuel.