Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Journey Home

India. That magical enigma, that dream with the harsh reality. All those colors and smells and dialects and faces. It is strange how quickly it all seems so far away, as I settle into the familiarity of my homeland, Sweden. I was surprised at how many different feelings I felt, as I travelled from Delhi to Dubai to Stockholm. I miss India already and I have this strange feeling of regret, like my visit didn't do India justice. At the same time I am more aware of my privilege than ever, so fortunate out of my countrymen to see such a distant  and different place as India, and so fortunate among the people I leave behind in India to travel to a drastically different place like Sweden. I am also so grateful and happy having seen India, and also to be back in Sweden.

Before I continue in my ramblings, I want to share with you one of my favorite Urdu ghazals (poem of rhyming couplets emerging out of Sufi tradition in South Asia) by the famous Urdu poet Mohammed Iqbal. I discovered it through one of my fellow CLS Urdu program participants, who shared it at the Cultural show and tell at the end of our program. And as always it is so hard to properly translate a poem, so I have included the Urdu in romanized script first, followed by two different translations in English. Hopefully you can glean the meaning from the poem and understand why it especially resonates with me right now as I return from India.

Sitaron se aage jahan aur bhi hain
Abhi ishq ke imtehan aur bhi hain
Tahi zindagi se nahin ye fizayen
Yahan siakdon karwaan aur bhi hain
Khana’at na kar aalam-e-rang-o-bu par
Chaman aur bhi aashiyaan aur bhi hain
Agar kho gaya ek nasheman to kya ghum
Maqmat-e-aah-o-fughaan aur bhi hain
Tu shaheen hai parvwaaz hai kaam tera
Tere saamne aasmaan aur bhi hain
Isi roz-o-shab main ulajh kar na rah ja
Ke tere zameen par makaan aur bhi hain
Gaye din ke tanha tha main anjuman mein
Yahaan ab mere raazdaan aur bhi hain

Other worlds exist beyond the stars
More tests of love are still to come.
This vast space does not lack life
Hundreds of other caravans are here.
Do not be content with the world of color and smell,
There are other gardens, other nests, too.
What is the worry if one nest is lost?
There are other places to sigh and cry for!
You are an eagle, flight is your vocation:
You have other skies stretching out before you.
Do not let mere day and night ensnare you,
Other times and places belong to you.
Gone are the days when I was alone in company
Many here are my confidants now.

Beyond the stars there are worlds more
Our quest yet has more tests to pass
This existence alone does not matter
There are boundless journeys more
Do not rest on what you have
There are paradises more to explore
Why worry if you have lost one abode
There are a million addresses to claim
You are the falcon, your passion is flight
And you have skies more to transcend
Lose not yourself in the cycle of days and nights
Within your reach are feats even more
Gone is the day when I was lonesome in the crowd
Today those who resonate my thoughts are more

You can see the differences in the two translations. It really shows how difficult it is to translate a poem! I am excited that I've built this foundation in Urdu now so I can get to the point where I can understand the poem in its original Urdu. 

Speaking of Urdu, on my flight from Delhi to Dubai I watched a pretty good Pakistani movie on my flight (mainly to practice my Urdu), Zinda Bhaag (2013), which was about the drivers of illegal immigration among a small lower middle-class community in Lahore. It was funny and heavy at the same time, dealing effectively with an important topic and showing a side of it that is not explored enough. Then on the flight from Dubai to Stockholm I sat next to an exchange student from Japan off to study at a university in Sweden for a term and a newlywed girl from Bangladesh who was moving to Stockholm to live with her husband in Sweden where he had worked for several years. Neither of them had ever been abroad and I was just reminded of how I almost take for granted my great fortune of having traveled to over 25 countries at the age of 21. This one trip must be so meaningful for them, and my homeland so exciting. By the time I arrived in Sweden, I felt so grateful that I could so easily and legitimately enter such a sought-after country and call it my home.

Pictures of my final days in Delhi will come soon! I've been relaxing in the archipelago for the weekend with my aunt and uncle and cousins, complete with morning swims in 17 C Baltic waters and berry-picking in the forest. Kramar från Sverige! (Hugs from Sweden!)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lucknow: Home of Hidden Gems and Exhausting Adventures

My hosts in Delhi don't have wifi so I am posting this after a few hunting expeditions for wifi and will post photos as soon as possible!

The CLS Urdu 2014 program is finished. Khatam ho gia. How did this happen so quickly? It felt like a blink of an eye. And at the same time it is a relief because I am pretty tired. India is such a beautiful exciting adventure, but it can in equal measure be frustrating and exhausting. Right now I am in Delhi trying to balance my need to relax with my urge to explore. It is my eternal inner battle here in India. I feel a bit better though after sleeping in today and treating myself to some retail therapy. Nevertheless, in this blog post I will give you the top 5 underrated places to visit in Lucknow, explain why I have decided to leave India a week earlier than planned, and write an inevitably sentimental good bye to Lucknow and CLS Urdu. So here it goes...

My top 5 hidden gems of Lucknow (to see the more well-known tourist sites check out my earlier blog post on Lucknow):

I did not know what to expect when my language partner suggested we visit the science center. Any expectations I would have had would have been exceeded though. After you pay for your ticket (less than 1 USD), you enter into a huge “scientific” playground. I did not hesitate to go on the slides or swing on the swings or go on the see-saw. Such bliss to pretend I was five years old again! On the playground there are also a couple of huge cages full of rabbits.

Once you have walked through the playground you can enter into a large two-storey museum. On the first floor is a little aquarium, very scientific representations of “coastal people” (the anthropologist in me cringed), and interactive exhibits focusing on marine biology around the world. Upstairs there are countless exhibits for physics, genetics, chemistry, and psychology, and each exhibit had 10-question quizzes in English with which my language partner and I enjoyed challenging each other. If I had this in my hometown I might have done better in science class! What was especially cool was that kids of all ages were hanging out there, from 10-year olds to girls and boys in their late teens.

Off the second floor you can take a ramp to the dinosaur garden, showing huge papier mache replicas of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. The garden is also quite beautiful in my view.

Then there is yet another group of buildings with even more wonderful interactive exhibits, teaching about physics, water issues (I got really excited about that one), and archaeology. In conclusion, it was a really fun way to fill up the three mandatory hours I had to spend with my language partner every week!

My language partner also wanted to show me her university. She studies Business Commerce at Lucknow University, which is a beautiful old campus dating from colonial rule, with crumbling yellow buildings that look more like imambaras to me than school buildings. Goats traverse the campus and inside the classrooms rows of wooden desks with names taped to them face a blackboard. They also have a pretty garden with sculptures.

3.     Lucknow Zoo

I was fearing the worst with Lucknow Zoo but the conditions ended up being not as bad as expected. Of course there are always ethical qualms with keeping wild animals in cages, but these animals didn’t look emaciated and they seemed to have quite large cages. There is also a little toy train riding around the zoo for the people too lazy to walk to see the animals, and as an added bonus you can ride on swan-shaped paddleboats for 40 INR. So much fun to be had!

Welcome to 1857, when the largest offensive in India against the British Empire took place. The British Residency in Lucknow is the site of the final showdown between the British and the local population, full of large crumbling buildings with bullet holes and bleached British grave stones. In the tall grasses growing over the ruins rustles can be heard from clandestine couples meeting for a scandalous rendezvous. Their awkward walk of shame, the woman often two or three steps behind the man, looks comical. The first time I went there I got so excited though by the feeling of history standing still, of the tragic beauty of abodes turned into ruins, the recycling of places for new uses, our cyclical motions in life – a new generation, conceived upon a dying memory. The second time I visited the Residency I was too preoccupied with the mob of 20 men following me and my friend around, constantly snapping pictures. I’ve decided being a celebrity would be awful.

5.     Aminabad

Aminabad is the old part of Lucknow. It is full of narrow lanes and crowded streets and crazy salesmen. It exhausts me and excites me (mainly for the shopping prospects) and even know I think of all the things I should have bought there because I haven’t found better deals since then. Garbar Jallah is THE place to go bangle shopping, and you can bargain hard. I got a full set of copper bangles down from 250 to 150, but apparently if you bargain really hard you could even get them for less. There are also great chikankali (Lucknowi embroidery) shops and much more, that will certainly suit the budget traveler in their search for perfect family gifts.

Ok, well that was Lucknow. Oh, Lucknow, I had a really great time, but in all honesty, you will not be my first destination when I return to India. It is underrated in beauty and sights to offer, but cannot compare with places like Mumbai, Delhi, or Varanasi or even cities I never saw such as Jaipur.

Perhaps I’m just saying this because I spent two months there and my last couple of weeks in the city were especially exhausting and frustrating. So let me fully explain why I shortened my trip in India by a week. I was hoping to go up north to the mountains after my program ended, to get out of the pollution that has given me a deep cough for the past few weeks, and then head down to Rajasthan to visit those desert palaces I have heard so much about. First of all, the few reliable travel companions had to cancel on me. Then after being groped in the Taj Mahal, and stalked by a mob of men at the Residency, and experienced countless of guys taking pictures of me, staring at me, etc. the last straw hit. I was on my way home from dinner with three female friends on the eve before Indian Independence Day when the rickshaw driver flashed me. At 8pm at night, while driving on a busy road, with three of my friends in the back of the rickshaw. I immediately shouted to get off and we were quickly dropped off on a solitary bridge, now terrified of the rickshaw drivers we have to rely on to get home. It was a startling wake up call that if I wasn’t completely safe in a group, I would be in even more danger as a solo traveler. I was shaken and decided that after an exhausting 2 months of learning a new language from scratch, I just wanted to go home rather than spend two weeks struggling to evade inevitable danger. Better safe than sorry. I changed my booking for a week earlier, which actually didn’t cost too much, and decided to just chill out with my hosts in Delhi until my new flight leaves. It was disappointing but at the same time a relief. And Delhi has not dissapointed me. I have been relishing the shopping, the cool cafes, the Mughal and sufi sites such as Qutub Minar, Nazamuddin Dargah, Lodhi Gardens and Purana Qila. 

It is sad that India has this problem. But I also want to say that for every man who has sexually harassed me or made me uncomfortable in India there is an Indian man who has looked out for me, treated me as family, given me his seat in the shared auto rickshaw or on the metro, and made sure I stay safe. The problem of rape stems not from some internal male lack of control, because there are so many admirable and noble men who control themselves every day and respect women. Rather it stems from a deeper social problem, a discourse, a point of view, that many people in India and around the world are trying to challenge. I thank those people in their efforts and wish them the best of luck, and I will do what I can to help solve this global problem, wherever I may be in the future.

Finally, I want to just say a huge thank you the CLS Urdu program. My teachers have been some of the best teachers I’ve had in my life – attentive, passionate, patient, caring, and fun. The students on the program were some of the best people I have ever befriended, their minds as open as their hearts. Without the great environment these people created I wouldn’t have advanced in Urdu as much as I did, or have had as much fun along the way. This summer has been unforgettable, and I am definitely continuing my journey in learning Urdu and understanding the Indian subcontinent. India, you have not seen the last of me!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mughal Memories: Exploring history in Delhi and Agra

Adaab saab log!

It is crazy to think how quickly my Urdu program is coming to an end. On Friday I have exactly seven days left in Lucknow. Where did the time go? And since time is short I do not have any more time to digress: now I will finally tell you about the beautiful Mughal monuments I saw in Delhi and Agra these past two weekends. 

Arriving to Delhi

I flew to Delhi with GoAir, reading poetry by Delhi’s most famous poet Ghalib, and articles by Khushwant Singh, one of India’s most beloved writers who recently passed away at his home in Delhi, on the way. I recommend “Not a nice man to know: The best of Khushwant Singh” and “TheLightning should have fallen on Ghalib” for a selection of works by these nationally cherished writers.  In Khushwant Singh’s article “The Romance of New Delhi” he mentioned the saying that Delhi is where dynasties go to die – as I went through all the fantastical monuments built by former rulers of the city, that idea echoed through my mind.

I got the prepaid cab at the airport – 300 rupees for a 45 minute ride in a private cab was totally worth the long wait in the queue! My hosts for the weekend were a fantastic Sikh couple who I had been put in touch with through mutual friends. I love how all the people I have stayed with in Mumbai, Varanasi, Lucknow, and Delhi have been so different, truly representing some of the remarkable diversity of India’s people. My hosts have a beautiful home in the Defence Colony, a large residential area situated centrally in New Delhi, and made me feel so at home.

Red Fort

The first place I went on my first day in Delhi, after a heavy sleep induced by Urdu lessons and Indian planes, was the magnificent RedFort. If you go, you will likely be dropped off at Lahore Gate (the main gate – I thought its reference to Lahore was interesting) and then buy tickets from a small building to the left before the main entrance. There is a separate line for foreigners and tickets will cost 250 rupees for foreigners. Upon entering you first walk through a market, one of the first closed markets in the area that was introduced by the Mughals. After that you cross through another gate-like structure where they have peeled off some of the layers of paint on the walls, so you can see the different stylistic preferences of various Mughal rulers. My favorite was that of a tiger, probably covered up by four or five other layers by the time it was uncovered.

The Red Fort is a huge complex but the buildings themselves are quite small. Gardens and fountains take up most of the space. Marble, floral patterns, and large assymetrical gardens seemed to be Mughal style preferences.

Sis Ganj Gurdwara

After the Red Fort my friend and I were hungry for lunch so we decided to check out a Sikh Gurdwara, which offers free food in their langar hall to anyone of any faith at any time. What a wonderful concept! However, since it was our first time in a Gurdwara we were kind of confused. We went to drop off our shoes at a very organized “shoe store” and then washed our hands, feet, and face before entering, as we observed others doing. Cleanliness, and thus water, appears to be key in all religions. Once inside there was music playing at the front by the tomb of the late Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh. My host had provided me with a magazine before my visit so I could learn more about this Guru. This Guru supposedly stood up against forced conversion to Islam by the Mughals to protect his Bhramin friends, and said that if they managed to convert him then all the Brahmins would convert – he was consequentially martyred. In the Gurdwara you can still see the tree trunk under which the Guru died. We were also given halwa and put flowers in a little hole by the tomb, behind where the group of men were singing and playing instruments. On the top level was a series of reading rooms and a library, with holy Sikh texts, where people also sat on the ground and looked down from balconies at the musical performance while eating their sweet halwa.

After that we realized the Langar Hall was outside the main devotional building so we went outside and came to the right place to have food. There we waited with a huge crowd for a gate to open to let in the next rush of people. Everyone sat in rows on the ground and held up their hands to receive metal trays, roti, daal, cholay, and kichri from volunteers constantly walking up and down the rows offering foods from huge metal containers. We got a little fan club of boys who followed us, although I think they were more enamored with our cameras than us.

Jama Masjid

After our first and very puzzling adventure into a gurdwara, my friend and I went to something more familiar to us both – a mosque. Jama masjid is no ordinary mosque though. It was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite daughter and provides a magnificent view of Old Delhi and the Red Fort. It is a huge space that can accommodate up to 25,000 worshippers during prayer time.

However, taking pictures comes at a price – it costs 300 rupees per camera. It was worth it though, because you can also buy tickets to climb up one of the minarets. From there you have an impressive 360 degree view of bustling and colorful Old Delhi with the tall buildings and large parks of New Delhi on the horizon. What a powerful feeling it must have been for the Mughal Muezzin to call to prayer from this location.

Old Dehli

Old Delhi, especially the area around Jama Masjid, is characterized by narrow winding streets teeming with people and produce and signs in Urdu, of which the latter I got really excited about of course! So we spent a little time getting lost in the sights and smells and adventure of this historical part of the city. I wonder how much has changed in these alleys since Mughal times.

Delhi Metro

After a hot day in Old Delhi it was a great relief to reach the wide empty lawns leading up to India Gate in New Delhi with a quick metro ride, from Chawri Bazaar to Central Secretariat. The concept of a clean and well-functioning metro in a “developing country” probably goes against the common stereotype of India – in my opinion, the Indian metro seems to function even better than the Washington DC metro, and on top of that, each train has a “women only” car. More cities need those so women don’t have to feel at risk in overcrowded metro cars.

India Gate

India Gate, Delhi’s Champs Elysees if you will, is a highly patriotic monument that I had seen in countless bollywood movies before arriving to India. However, from the Central Secretariat Metro stop it was still quite a walk, as we were closer to the Colosseum-like Parliament building. It was so peaceful and beautiful though, as the sizzling day cooled down to evening, so we didn’t mind the leisurely stroll through flowerbeds. We ate mango and raspberry popsicles on the nearly deserted road to the Gate and were thoroughly confused by the automated voices coming every few blocks, reminding people to pick up trash. Is this India? What a drastic change from the other part of Delhi we were just in!

India Gate is inscribed with thousands of names of Indians who died fighting in World War I on behalf of the British. Underneath the gate is an eternal flame for the victims of all of India’s wars since Independence. It is a beautiful tribute. We were also surprised to find a garden of sunflowers by the gate. I had never really though of sunflowers as a particularly Indian flower – then again I don’t really know what my concept of an Indian flower was before I came here.

Lodhi Gardens

The next day we explored the “green lung of Delhi”, Lodhi Gardens. These beautiful gardens used to be the site of two villages before a former British Vicereine commissioned it. It was so refreshing to walk around for an hour or so without being stared at or harassed for being a fair-skinned female tourist. We saw families (both Indian and Western) having picnics, students having classes on the grass, groups singing devotional music on the benches, and beautifully painted trash cans to encourage people to keep the park clean.

The lawns, gardens, canals, and trees hide Mughal treasures from the Lodhi Dynasty, with some of the most magnificently carved buildings I have seen in India so far. If you go you have to see Bara Gumbad.

Law enforcement in Lodhi Gardens appears to be quite relaxed. Read the sign below and then notice the policemen casually ignoring it.

Humayun’s Tomb

Our last destination before my flight back to Lucknow was Humayun’s tomb, which is merely a short rickshaw ride from Lodhi Gardens. The cost is 200 rupees for a foreigner, 210 if you include the ice cream you just have to buy right outside of the entrance to beat the heat. Be careful though – it melts quickly!

Before you reach Humayun’s Tomb, make sure to walk around the Garden Tomb on your right as you enter the complex. It is beautiful and a much more intimate structure than Humayun’s Tomb.

However, Humayun’s Tomb is certainly the highlight and it is clear to see why the tomb was inspiration for the Taj Mahal. It was a small preview of what was to come the next weekend, when I actually got to see the Taj Mahal!


The CLS Urdu Program arranged an overnight trip for us to Agra to see those monuments you cannot leave India without seeing: Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Unfortunately, the mode of transportation was night trains so we were thoroughly sleep-deprived throughout the trip. Nonetheless, we still had energy to pack in a lot!


When we arrived to our hotel in Agra after arriving by train at around 9am, three of my friends and I chose adventure over rest. The so called “baby taj” was 15 kilometres away and we were determined to make the most of our time in Agra. We caught an autorickshaw from our hotel, Karan Vilas, to “Baby Taj”, which we found out is actually called “Itmad ud-Daula”, for 100 rupees. The Baby Taj or Choti Taj is a small structure on the banks of the Yamuna river that runs through Agra. However the entire building has the most incredible mosaics and carving. Each room, although small, was stunning. There was also a beautiful place from which to watch the river swiftly flowing by. I read somewhere that the beloved monuments of Agra are intimately connected with this river – if the river dies, they will meet their demise as well. Since river issues are my research interest, this ran through my mind as I observed more beautiful frames through which to see the river at each monument.

Taj Mahal

After lunch it was finally time for the real deal. They have cleverly made it so that you have to walk down a road so peddlers have a chance to sell things to you. Camel-drawn carriages are also a selling point. My friend cleverly responded to one “Oh I already have a camel at home.” It has become a new game to come up with the best comebacks to incessant peddlers.

There is a building blocking the Taj Mahal from view before you enter, which makes the moment you see it all the more dramatic – like seeing your lover enter the room after a long absence, to use an appropriately cheesy analogy for this monument to love.

However, the pure and much-loved beauty of the building wasn’t completely reflected in the behavior of all of its visitors. As I walked up to the Taj Mahal I had to avoid hordes of Indian boys trying to take my picture, and once inside, by Shah Jahan’s beloved Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb, both me and my friend were groped, which really ruined the experience. After retreating from the building we went to sit down in a corner of the gardens leading up to the Taj Mahal. Even there hordes of boys kept coming up to us requesting our photo. I was thoroughly exhausted by the time I left the Taj Mahal and wrote this poem:

Do not build me a tomb of marble
Of guilded guilt and stony beauty
Rather build me a Taj Mahal
In your heart
And imprint my memory
With your most gentle deeds
Seeds for a new generation of lovers
Not crying over the love lost under stones
But rather the stories that run
Like water
Down that polluted yet pretty
River of our frisson
Past the boulders
Of past betrayals
To the resting place
Of our eternally bound souls

In the intimate history of humanity
Love is not a building, but a home

Agra Fort

Agra Fort is much bigger than you first expect and I actually preferred it to the Taj Mahal, probably because I like getting lost in relatively empty places to discover startlingly beautiful views of surrounding countryside from intricately embellished rooms. Here are some photos of the beauty that won me over at Agra Fort:

As evening fell we had chai and biscuits under the trees by the drawbridge to the fort, while waiting for the Sound and Light Show. I didn’t know what to expect from the Sound and Light Show and was pleasantly surprised. It gently and cleverly soft yellow lighting on the exterior of the buildings from within the Fort’s main courtyard, combined with beautiful music from Mughal times and voices telling compelling stories of the Mughals. I was worried that it would be too dramatized to suit the setting, but it was actually really cool, at least for a history buff like me. I recommend it, but if you do it, bring the bug spray!


The next day we went to Sikandra, a town just outside of Agra where you will find Emperor Akbar’s Tomb. The front gate of the complex has religious symbols for Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, reflecting Akbar’s famed religious tolerance. Inside the complex are sprawling lawns with meowing peacocks and gracefully grazing deer. As you walk past the fountain to the actual tomb, you will enter one of the most beautiful rooms I have seen so far in India. The detail and patterns were stunning! In contrast the room for the tomb itself is very simple, with light shining down from a single high window creating an auspicious space of shadows and whispers.

Gomti Express Train

After Sikandra we had lunch and then went off to catch the train back to Lucknow. But being India, the train was two hours late. We were shuffled into a VIP waiting area but the electricity was out so the AC didn’t work. While we waited on the train platform I saw fat rats crawl on the tracks and out from the café carts. I couldn’t wait to get on the train. The train wasn’t much better, crawling with bugs and so bumpy I couldn’t utilize the time to do my Urdu homework. Watching movies on a friend’s laptop was a welcome distraction! Once we arrived at Lucknow I had some more waiting time, spent appreciating the city's pink train station - a famous landmark of the city that I hadn't photographed yet!

The above photo is a tribute to my featured friend's favorite bollywood movie, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. See the scene here.

Now I'm off to bed so I can be fresh for another day of Urdu classes and a planned visit to the Lucknow zoo. Shab bekhair everyone!