Sunday, November 13, 2011

The India Chronicles, part II, Delhi, and home.

Before I begin I wish to remind my readers that everything written here reflects the miniscule part of Delhi/India that I could take in and an acutely subjective point of view presented as a series of images in a stream of consciousness.

I read a quote that says “every statement you make about India, the exact opposite is also true”. With that in mind, I will begin.

The hotel:
Another five star contradiction in terms, The Lalit had a towering marble lobby and a whole battalion of faithful employees complete with Namaste and designer uniforms, a fancy roof pool, a bright red Ferrari and a shining silver Mazeratti parked out front and metal detectors everywhere. It could have been a complete twilight zone if only they’d manage to do something about the, well, ahem…surroundings. Everything can be scrubbed and swabbed, swept under the carpet and glazed with a smile, but the view from the window remains the same: a filthy shambles, covered in dust and grime, clogged with human traffic fused with any type of machine that will transport you from point A to point B and mired with some sort of foggy film that paints the sky grey well into late morning.

And as we’ve mentioned late morning, we can discuss….

The hours:

Nothing is opened until nearly 11 am. Why, I ask? No answer, as always. A country with a warm climate almost year round, where the sun sets early half the year and where no major signs of night life are visible (to me at least…but I am surely missing something) would, logic have it, function in the early hours, possibly break midday and resume in the afternoon when the blessed evening breeze comes in. But no, it doesn’t work that way…

The view from the car window:

“Delhi”, says the very erudite journalist from Times of India, one of the county’s major papers who had come to interview Mira and myself, “is probably India’s least chaotic city”.

From the car window I found it hard to come to terms with that statement. I saw nothing but chaos for five days.

The traffic? Indescribable. Constant horn honking, pushing and shoving of all and any type of vehicle, swarms of green and white three-wheeled buggies shooting in an out of the jam like drunken wasps, motorcycles coming within a hair of buses, coming within a split hair of taxis, stuck to private vehicles, all bullying each other endlessly albeit non violently (this is, after all, is the land that reared Gandhi), and all vying for space and motion, all striving for “progress”. All except the cows, whom, thank Krishna, had been herded out miraculously a few years back, I’d been told, by some “pied piper” method formerly unknown to man. Had they been part of the show I cannot think how the plot would unfold…!

It all would have been quasi-bearable had it not been for the beggars, especially the filthy, barefoot children or stick-figure mothers bearing infants in all states of heart wrenching disrepair and despair. These will come straight up to your window and push their noses against the glass, banging their small fists and demanding their share of your magnificent wealth. “You billionaire”, they say. Children as young as two or three years will weave their way into a four-lane major thoroughfare jammed with vehicles in a red light, in hope of gaining a few rupees. As the traffic begins to growl forward, you are left praying they make it alive to the side of the road, clutching the money they have hopefully succeeded in taking from you, that is, of course, if your conscience and heart have not yet developed that hardened crust that inevitably numbs your soul and enables you to turn them down. Gil and I gave most every time, despite the stories of the “beggar industry” ,horror tales of intentional maiming and other things I cannot even whisper to myself let alone say out loud. We gave despite the theories of caste and creed, of this being a ‘job’ for them, of how they were ‘born into it’ and so on and so forth. If we have aided any sinister powers I beg forgiveness from the god of compassion for our weakness and stupidity.

The side of the road, mostly, looks like a huge construction site or worse (a virtual post war situation. When the whole world does finally go to pieces, India will probably be thinking: what’s all the fuss? All in a days work).

There are piles of debris and waste everywhere, except near the embassies and government buildings, which have been spread out in Washington DC/Paris Champs Elysee style. Truth is, it looked pathetic to me. What in God’s name has that got to do with anything here (along with polo and cricket, in incongruent enigmas abound)? The lawns, far from well kept, were always strewn with bottles and plastic bags, or groups of people camped out, as they are everywhere, waiting for, who knows what?. The buildings all looked in need of drastic renovation, as did almost every single edifice I saw. Even at the height of an attempt at western glory, the shabbiness prevails. It makes you wonder. (That’s actually all I found myself doing here. Wondering)

The only buildings I saw which did NOT need repair were the extremely shiny, glittery squeaky clean fresh-out-of-the-box shopping malls on the outskirts of town. On our way to a meeting with a very prominent business man whose offices, adjoining such a mall, could very easily have graced Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, we encountered a steel and glass retail behemoth flaunting the whole western glamour-gale of consumer mania, from Mango to Zara to H&M and The Coffee Bean, and on it goes. How familiar that looked, how strangely out of place, how vulgar and comforting at the same time. I felt a little smile creeping up on me, imagining sari and kurta clad Indians drinking a ‘tall latte’ and trying on Penelope Cruz’s latest mini skirt.

And why not really? Better to leave them in the inhuman state of poverty that is so prevalent here for the sake of national geographic documentaries and gaping tourists? Shouldn’t we be happy that an emerging middle class is coming of its own?

At the very fringe of the mall complex I beheld the ugliest slum my eyes had seen so far. Mud and dirt, laundry hanging from barbed wire, piles of garbage, holes in the ground where people dwell as rats do. What cynical juxtaposition.

I love India’s unique nature, color, culture, it is fascinating and wonderful, I pray its beauty remain intact… but not at the expense of human dignity. A balance must, and I believe, will be found. In light of all this it is impossible not to ask big, unanswerable questions. How? Why? Until when? Where is it all going? How many years will it take if ever? What will the implications be on the rest of the world? Is there enough to go around? Basic terms like, fair, good, evil, wrong, right, human… constantly come to the front of your eyes, heart, mind and conscience, begging for some sort of unraveling. But like the edges of a fine pashmina scarf, the unraveling never comes. You are simply left wondering.

The Israeli embassy in Delhi and other Israelis we met:
The Israeli Embassy people, and their satellites, are some of some of the nicest, warmest people I have ever encountered. Chana, Achiya, Maayan, Yahel, the Ambassador and his wife, everybody’s children…all of us are deeply grateful to you for your open hearted hospitality and gentle generosity.

On the third night of our stay in Delhi we were asked by the ambassador to sing a song at the Rabin Memorial he had arranged in his home. We accepted, of course. Gil and I had been there at that fateful peace rally 16 years ago, singing, minutes before prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was murdered by a fellow Jew. And now, Thousands of miles away from home, in the most troubling times our country has known, with the paralyzing prospect of war in the air, a stalled peace process threatening to give way to more and more violence, dangerous ideas being spread by the highest government officials, and the mind boggling conclusion that the main, government-sponsored memorial event in Rabin Square that had taken place every year since his murder has become “irrelevant”…in the midst of all this, we find ourselves in a modest back yard in Delhi with a small group of Israelis, none willing to let go of this great man and his legacy. I sang with tears in my eyes.

Comic Relief:

Since the theaters had no dressing rooms to speak of, I was forced to come from the hotel all decked out, make up, hair, the whole shebang. I never ever do that, but here, what choice did I have? (India in that sense makes Italy AND Israel look like Switzerland :-).

SO, there I was in my high heels, waiting for the elevator holding my concert dress in its long black case, when a bell boy runs over to take it from me lest the madam hurt her pinky.

On our way down, with a shy smile he asks: “is maam going to a fashion show maam?”

“no” I reply with a smile, “I have a concert tonight”..

“oh, but maam must surely be a super model!”

Hah! I think, Come every day.

“no”, I say “maam is just a plain old singer”.

“oh, no, maam is a super model singer for sure maam. Good luck maam, you’ll surely be great maam!”

And so the Queen of Sheba walks out the elevator door followed by her number one fan in India, straight into the waiting taxi that smells of sweat and curry. Maam the singing super model waves goodbye, and carries a little smile in her heart the whole evening.

The Markets:

The markets are thoroughly delicious. I just couldn’t get enough of them. So many thrilling objects! Oh, the colors, the textures, the diversity, the bargaining, the treasures and disappointments, the beauty of it all! A riksha ride through the bazaar adjacent to the Shah Jeha Mosque ranks as one of the most incredible half hours of my life. I could hardly take it all in: the little stalls laden with all type of wares, to wear (if you dare) or eat (and beware), or use in this way or that, or not, who cares? You are a bug on the tree of life, aren’t you? The electric cables above the tiny, crowded alleys laid out like a drunkard’s attempt at knitting, all tangled, knotted and hanging perilously, skimpily shaded the passers-by. People, motorbikes and rikshas all passed eachother where hardly one could get through. Every few meters a tiny courtyard opens up to a place of worship (Hindu? Muslim? Seik? Christian? One of them..), tiny oases of peace, or suddenly a well lit portal to a savvy seamstress’ shop, or a cubby hole with a doctor snoring behind his old desk heaped with jars containing all sorts of potions and concoctions, or a steep stairway to some dark place, or a gorgeous black eyed three year old selling fried puffs on a huge black pan twice his size. The array of human and material variations had me in a semi hallucinatory state. “Buy me!” it all cried out, or at least try me!, or give me!, or if none of these… at least, remember me…

The concerts

The concerts were thrilling. The Indian audience is very close to being a dream come true for people like us. They are English speakers, many of them educated but not (yet) cynical, curious about cultural diversity, accustomed to rhythms and vocal inflections but fascinated with variations of such. Their hearts, eyes and mind are wide opened, effortlessly resonating with “roots and wings”. All the shows were great but for me, the solo concert at the Indian Habitat Center topped them all. It was so exciting, so moving! The place was packed; we got a standing ovation that was started by a turban-wearing Seik (!), and countless compliments from people who had been moved to tears. Yahel from the embassy brought his young boys to every single concert we had in Delhi. One of them came to me after that show and said, ‘you were so lovely this evening’. Coming from an 8 year old looking me straight in the eye, it made my knees weak. And after him, a student, a father, a musician, a photographer, more and more Indian people of all sorts, with stars in their eyes.

In Siri Fort, a major Delhi venue, Mira and I had a great show and a surprise at the end. The Indian Minister of Railways, a very important and clever man, had seen us in Goa. When he read in the paper we were to sing in Delhi, he delayed an official trip to Calcutta and came with his bodyguards and all to see us again. After the show he stayed to compliment us and chat, informally and warmly, and left us his number “in case we needed anything” . I find it hard to imagine such a scene in any other country.

Which brings me to….


Here is the best part of it all. India is just full of amazing, interesting people. We met so many, but I will tell you about one.

Sminu Jhindal is a 38 year old woman who has been in a wheel chair since she was 11. She is the mother of two young boys. She is also the CEO of a multi million dollar steel company and was voted India’s 33 most powerful woman by Fortune magazine. She married for love, breaking the mold of pre-arranged marriages common in families such as hers (5th wealthiest in India). At age 6 she declared to her father that she would go into business, starting her career from the very same chair he was sitting in, and she did just that. In her spare time, she promotes the cause of accessibility for handicapped people throughout India, giving them hope for a life of dignity. With all that, she is kind, modest and sweet. She came to our concert, invited by lovely Maayan (Israeli singer and photographer whose children go to school with Sminu’s), undeterred by the non-wheelchair friendly situation, and enjoyed every moment. Sminu, it was an honor meeting such an extraordinary woman.

In conclusion

I know I have only seen a fraction of India, that every state/city/village is different, I know I am far from being able to fathom the history and politics, the width and breadth and depth of it all, but the spirit of India has seeped into my heart and overwhelmed me. I have a lot to think about now.

I am writing sitting on the plane transporting me back to my children. What joy. Finally I can shed the skin of the Noa-avatar I’ve become the past twelve days (how else to deal with this longing for my family?), step out of the matrix back into my life. I can go back to my to-do list, to the sweet smelling rooms and the scent of the sea, the warm skin at the nape of my baby’s neck, to 5 hours sleep, the studio, songs, concerts, meetings, gory politics and my mother’s cooking. Home.

India’s havoc will slowly fade…but I will have gained, once again, perspective.

Will I return? What will I find if I do? Will any answers to those big questions ever present themselves, through the fog, like tiny crystals in the mud?

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…”

With this I leave you.

Thanks for reading.

Noa in the sky,

Nov 12th, 2011.

Friday, November 4, 2011

India Chronicles - Part 1

When I stepped out of the terminal building of Goa airport I was literally swept off my feet…by a scent. Yes, there were the drivers, porters, passengers, weeping family members, vendors, policemen, women-men-children, dismayed tourists following savvy tour guides in the stifling heat and humidity, all moving, pushing, talking at the same time with their whole bodies, their babble drowned out by the constant honking of horns and general hubbub. All of these could have easily taken me, but it was the scent that effectively reached its hands out and swept me away…

Scent is a pretty word. Smell is it’s pejorative cousin. I say scent because what I experienced was strangely un-repulsive to my senses. Even on the contrary. It was bitter and spicy, sour and salty, sweet and moldy and totally overwhelming. It reminded me of the old corridor of the moldy NY building of my childhood, where immigrants of all sorts lived and we amongst them...everyone’s cooking smells wafted from under their doors and fused into the old carpets and peeling wallpaper That smell was always there to meet me when I came home from school. It told stories…and this one did too.

When my manager Ofer told me just a few months ago that Mira Awad and I had been invited to perform in India, I thought he was joking. India? We’ve hardly recovered from China! India all of a sudden? Just like that?

After years of reading Indian literature (ardent Rushdie fan), admiring the rich culture, wondering about the enigmatic subcontinent and being mistaken for an Indian on endless occasions…the word “India” suddenly became a date on my calender. Two cities only, Goa (not a city I later learned but a region) and Delhi, for 5 days each.

I have now been in Goa for 4 days. I discovered a sub tropic climate, jungle vegetation and endless beaches, colors exploding in your face at every turn, from the plants, the painted houses, the people, the signs, the Hindi temples…color is everywhere. Color, and scent…

We landed in Goa just after sunset. Driving from the airport to the capital of Panjim, we saw houses and shacks, cars and rickshaws and old noisy scooters, groups of people walking along the main road in a way that made me gasp (with nothing resembling a sidewalk in view..that phenomenon would repeat itself over and over), then, in almost total darkness as there are no streetlamps to speak of, whole families in bright clothes crossing the highway with their small children in tote as if they had some kind of a death wish! The drivers just honk away at anything at all (except cows)…people, other cars, the moonlight..whatever.. and they pass each other on the highway in trio or quartet formation any air force could envy..two from each side…as if it were meant to be so, naturally.

Naturally, I would discover, is a key word here. people connect to nature in ways beyond my comprehension. I do not mean only to the trees and plants, as of course they do, but to “the nature of things” as they see them. They accept their fate with a sort of uncanny compliance, surrendering to destiny as part of the greater scheme…the master plan of nature. This is something unique to India I have never seen or felt before. Not that people here don’t strive to better their lives, of course they do...but not with visible anger, not with violent rampant ambition, rather, with a smile..with a flow that seems almost, well…natural.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to understand India. I have no such pretensions whatsoever. I am just sharing impressions…

The poverty here is mindboggling (as is the wealth I am told), yet people do not go around looking miserable. Is it the Hindu faith? Or something else they know that we don’t? the chaos is magnificent, the scent I described earlier is often transformed into an unbearable stench by garbage everywhere and a very free interpretation of the public toilet concept. The streets are filthy, a large part of the population lives with hardly any creature comforts whatsoever, yet there is something alive here in the most tragically symbiotic way.

They say China and India are on their way to becoming the new superpowers of the world. Visiting China, I could see how that was going to happen. Big brother had it all worked out. but here in India… the feeling is so far from that. No ‘super’ and no ‘power’. I do not feel mobilization from above, rather from within. There is a heightened state of awareness, and a great state of confusion, which smells like fertile ground after a monsoon. Like in China, this country makes you feel very small, an insignificant bug on the tree of life. But there is a feeling that wisdom, culture and the quest for deeper meaning transcend all else, replacing the common rat race with a quest for sustenance and subjective happiness. India feels to me like a billion individual streams trickling down the mountain side, where china felt like one huge ominous tidal wave. I may be wrong (I probably am), it may all change tomorrow, but…that’s the scent of it…

We arrived at the hotel quite late. We were met at the great iron gates by about six security inspectors who checked our vehicles top to bottom as if we were late for a meeting with President Obama. Entering the “white house”, our luggage and bodies were checked with metal detectors, our documents inspected, and finally we were allowed into the luxurious 5 star lobby, where we were met with cold drinks, sea-shell necklaces and a thousand polite and smiling ‘yesmams’ from some pretty gorgeous young men and woman, a small part of the enormous staff at the Vivanta Taj, ready to serve 24/7.

What are we doing here, I asked myself? How did we step out of one dimension and into another?

I woke in the morning not knowing where I was (any touring musician recognizes that sensation). No children were tugging at me (ah, but I wish they were ), nobody to be dressed, hair combed, breakfast made, kissed hugged and sent to school.. no errands to run meetings calls endless to do list so who and where am i??? ah yes, India!! Open your eyes girl..

I gently pulled the drapes slightly opened and was stunned by the nuclear intensity of the sunlight that burst into my room and blinded my eyes. After a few seconds of adjustment I started comprehending what was beyond the glass.

A jungle hillside across from my window was inhabited densely. Shambles. Old ruined buildings, filthy walls. Rags hung out to dry, garbage everywhere, children running up and down crumbling soot covered stairs, and the sound of traffic and omnipresent horn honking that even high quality triple plated glass could not keep out. I could not help thinking what the people on the other side of the hill thought every day when they gazed at the behemoth edifice with its gates and guards right in front of their face. I felt the urge for going.

We discovered, through Aimee, an American Israel journalist living in Goa, that an Israeli musician we’d met years ago name Ori Balak has been living here for almost 10 years…so he and Aimee, who made the connection, have been our guides. They are both very special people and we are deeply grateful to them.

Ori and Aimee took us to Anjuna, where we met Moshe, an Israeli who runs a very cool joint in the village. Bar, restaurant, coffee shop, library, yoga place, arts and crafts boutique, workshop, playground, furniture store all in one, under the trees and sky, very laid back like everything is here. We were supposed to stop for a few minutes which became two hours of smokes talk drinks and passing time (Moshe made us some mean burekas ). yes, yes.. India is a good exercise in patience and letting go. Whoever knows my Yemenite temperament and control freak nature will be smiling imagining this lady biting her lip not to ask “nooo?(Hebrew for: “well??), and gasping for breath in a sea of relaxaaaaation. 

From Moshe’s hang we drove to the beach. On the way we had to stop several times for the cows. Yes, you’ve all heard about it, I had too, but seeing it first hand is just incredible. Cows meander along the roads, free to do as their hearts desire, taking strolls and naps, holding meetings, chatting away with each other, and what better place than right in the middle of the road? And the Indians wait patiently, until the cows see fit to move on. The whole town can be jammed and nobody will touch the cow.  I wanted to jump out and say: “excuse me, your royal cowliness, do you think you could possibly just budge a few centimeters so a few hundred vehicles could pass through? Oh thank you so much your bovine holiness!”

Driving here is just so hair raising I can’t get used to it. Not only do they drive on the left, pass insanely, stop for cows, speed, and honk, the roads are narrow when they exist at all and there are no sidewalks or streetlamps, as I mentioned earlier, so you can’t see anything!! Ohmygod. BUT, as opposed to Israel, here, they don’t get upset. No yelling cursing or fist waving They simply flow. They do it…naturally.

After the beach we went to Ori’s place for shower before dinner. His house is old and beautiful, high ceilings, large rooms, jungle all around, three dogs, musical instruments and a lovely Russian girlfriends, Anoushka. I asked to use the toilet, and quickly discovered there was no toilet paper. I stepped out and asked Anoushka for some. She said they did not use any. Not that it had run out: it had never existed. Instead there was a bucket of water and a plastic cup. Ohmygod. I went back in and tried to use all my mental powers to figure out the engineering, execution and ventilation dilemma I had before me. Finally I gave up, apologized to the God of cultural idiosyncrasy, and asked for some table napkins. Sorry, India. I am still an ignoramus.

Dinner was surprising, a totally new-age yuppie restaurant outdoors with sparkling lights under big trees, chill out music, chef Chris Saleem wearing a desigual shirt and cooking fine ultra fusion fare, very far from Indian food but very nice. Unexpected.

Ah..there’s another keyword. Unexpected. Expect the unexpected. Everything is so strange here, the contrasts so huge.

For example:
The next morning, Gil and I decided to take a walk and see the local market. We were told Panjim was relatively prosperous. As soon as we walked out of the hotel, I was shocked (Gil wasn’t, as he’d been to India before and he keeps telling me this is really nice by Indian standards. Nice? ohmygod). In the 40 minutes that we survived outdoors, we almost died of heat and humidity (35 that feels that 45 degrees!), we almost suffocated in the market as it stank so badly and had no air circulation (though it was beautifully colorful), we saw a dead rat, a dead cat and a dead bird all swarming with flies right at the door of the academy of pharmacy(!!), we almost got run over six times (you guessed it, no sidewalks), and we were followed by a beggar girl that would not leave me alone (I had given money to another beggar woman earlier who was carrying a child that reminded me of my daughter…it choked me up… I gave the young woman 100 rupees, which is the smallest bill I had...but considered a fortune for those circumstances. From that moment I was bait. It was depressing). And all this, in what my Goan friends had described as an Indian Beverly Hills! Oh my God. I had never been so happy to see a hotel lobby in my entire life!

More contrasts:

The women.

The women here dress in the most beautiful clothes I have ever seen in my entire life, they are so stunning in their colorful Saris, they look like rare flowers drifting through the filthy streets. Even the poorest of the poor will have a flowing scarf around her, jangling bracelets, sweeping material in the brightest colors…how amazing!! In all the piles of garbage and stench, they shine like jewels these women. How I envy them! How drab and boring, even ugly, jeans and a t-shirt appear next to these exotic queens and their royal apparel. I see the ‘modern’ Indian girls trying to imitate the west and I just want to cry. But alas… Saris would look ridiculous in tel aviv, and even if they didn’t, who in god’s name understands how to tie the darn thing? 6 meters of fabric!! oy vey. I guess it’s back to jeans and t-shirts for me. 

And more about women here: they have balls. I won’t generalize, but I have met quite a few women here who are sharp, outspoken, super clever and efficient. Just after my own heart. You go girls.

More contrasts:

Paolo our sound engineer had been waiting for weeks to get technical information about the show. None ever came. We were worried as know, third world, what do we know?? Then, as we were all on a day off, he waited for the sound engineer to meet him at the hotel for a meeting. He waited ALL DAY, as the guy was a “tiny bit late”, “just arriving!”, “almost there!”…from 10 am to 8pm!!! (sweet Goan revenge for the Portuguese occupation ) But then, the next day, when the staff went to check out the stage…it was all perfect. Best equipment, all set exactly as we asked for, sounded great… perfect.

And the convention itself, the one we were invited to attend, The THINK festival (a title I communicate well with ). I cannot describe to you how impressed I am with the organization, the program, everything! Incredible guests from all over the world, intelligent publications and brochures, tip top program and production, sophisticated, controversial, deep… beautiful.

And the hotel where the convention is taking place…ohmygod. The Grand Hyatt Goa. A brand new resort, pools and lawns and sea and very high-end architecture, Super splendor and luxury, as high-techy as they come without losing the authentic flavor of the area and its history (as much as a humongous five star hotel in the middle of a jungle with slums right outside it gates can do).

The stage was set in front of the sea, overlooking the lawn with huge Indian Fichus trees that were lit beautifully. Our concert was very well received, though it was the opening night of the convention which is in its first year and there were a lot of glitches to be worked out.

The Indians, all English speakers, blessedly connect to the English lyrics…halleluya!! After years of performing mostly in Europe and Israel, where people rarely have a clue what my English songs are about (those being the bulk of my original repertoire), it is so relieving and satisfying to perform for an audience that actually listens to what you’re saying, and reacts accordingly. Both Mira and I, who put great emphasis on the lyrical content of our compositions, were overjoyed. For an artists there is no greater joy than feeling understood…and appreciated.

Today we had another short performance in the main plenary hall of the convention where all the talks were taking place, and we were once again very well received. tomorrow we are moving to that hotel and hopefully listen to some interesting people speak, amongst them Frank Ghery the famous architect. There is a British theater production taking place too, believe it or not, a comic satire about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! I’m curious about that one.. 

The only real difficulty I am experiencing so far is my irrepressible longing for the warmth of my children’s bodies, and my husband’s embrace. It’s alike a fist in my stomach that cannot come unclenched. We Skype every day (though the hotel charges criminally high rates for internet access..they are ruthless in that sense). But whoever has loved anyone across the sea in the 21st century knows Skype is a pathetic substitute for a hug and a soft, loving whisper.

With this I leave you, for now.


Noa, Goa, Nov 4 (almost 5) 2011